It’s Time to Start Making Sense

Earlier this month AlterNet kicked off a national book tour for the recently published Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics. Already in its second printing, SMS brings together some of the best-known progressive thinkers and doers to map out a realistic plan for building a new movement for change in this country.

The following is a partial transcript from a sold-out book panel that took place in San Francisco on May 4. The panel included Van Jones (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights), George Lakoff (linguist and best-selling author), Wes Boyd (co-founder of, Adam Werbach (Common Assets), Lakshmi Chaudhry (AlterNet) and moderator Holly Minch (SPIN Project).

For a complete audio recording of the panel, and information on how to get a copy of Start Making Sense visit the Start Making Sense page.

Holly Minch: What is your top recommendation for the progressive community right now? How do we build from where we are to get to where we want to be?

Van Jones: One of the most important things that can happen is what is happening here tonight. As we begin to try to come out of our various movements, and issues, and causes, and campaigns into a more coherent pro-democracy movement--which is really what this authoritarian regime is crying out for--getting together face to face and talking "grown-folks talk" is critical. And so, part of the value is just the conversation itself. Part of the recommendation is: let's keep talking.

More than one person has suggested what we should be doing on the action side--more think-tanks, more this, more that. I want to speak to a deeper issue. And that deeper issue is--whatever we do--who are we going to be while we're doing it? One of the challenges that we have on the left is that we've gotten so good at critique, and so good at deconstruction, and so good at opposition, that we tend to carry that spirit even into interactions with each other. And nothing is going to change, nothing is going to shift, no breakthrough is possible until we decide to treat each other humanely. We need to bring forward the best in each other in our own conversations.

By way of example, take something like "The Death of Environmentalism," which is a major attempt to create a course correction in a significant movement. It's smart, but it's not wise--the tone is unfriendly. The manner by which it was introduced shamed the people who were the object of the critique. I love the authors, I love the analysis; it breaks my heart the way that it was brought forward.

And it brings to mind Gandhi. When it was time to engage in struggle, they spent two years preparing themselves--they would pray, they would fast, not ten people, thousands of people across the country. Then they would approach the government and they would ask for what they wanted, in private consultation. And when they were rebuked--and they were always rebuked--they went and launched their campaign.

But if one rock was thrown, if one window was broken, Gandhi would call off the entire national strike and say, "you know what--we're going to come back in two years when we're ready." Because you know what--it wasn't just the point to engage in the national struggle, it wasn't just the point to raise the critique. The question was who are we going to be while doing it. Let's be good people while carrying it out.

Dr. King would never launch a public crusade or a public attack on any segregation official without first talking to them--engaging in dialogue, preparing himself--and when that conversation broke down, you enter into a public contestation. My concern is, as we go forward, to make the necessary course corrections--whatever they may be--we hold ourselves to that standard. We hold ourselves to the standard of absolutely impeccable--loving, kind, open-hearted, humble, confessional communication with each other.

We've all made mistakes. All of us are guilty of letting down the country in some important ways. We need each other, we need a movement that's based on building bridges and not walls, and that's what I think we need right now.

George Lakoff: I think we need to come together as we were just right up to the election. Up to the election there was an extraordinarily beautiful unity among us and we need to keep that unity. Over at the Rockridge Institute, we've been asking the question: what do the progressives share? What do we have in common and--more importantly--what do we have in common that we don't even know?

The first answer to that has to do with values. I've written about nurturing values and I think we all share those. I think we share policy directions. There are certain things that just about every Democrat or Green Party member would like to see--universal healthcare, livable wage, sustainable environment, etc.

But when you get down to particular programs, people are necessarily going to disagree. And it's very important to respect these disagreements and keep the agreements over the moral and general goals that we all share in mind.

Rockridge Institute is launching an online discussion about spiritual progressives: what it means to be a spiritual progressive, what it means to have a liberal orientation on religion. This is part of trying to organize a movement of people who have deep moral and spiritual values, whether part of any particular religion or not.

We also want to figure out what I call the fundamental frames behind progressive thought. When you look at conservatives, they use certain argument forms over and over again, no matter what they're talking about. There's the bloated big government, the wonders of the unregulated free market; everybody can pull themselves up by their boot straps, it's individual initiative that made us great, you can manage your money better than the government can, etc, etc. ... And it doesn't matter whether they're arguing against Social Security, or against environmental regulations, or whatever it is. They can use a set of general frames.

When we try to look at that on the progressive side, there are hardly any. And the reason is not that we don't have the ideas, but the ideas are not quite made conscious and they're not articulated. We try to articulate them, and let me give you some sense of a system that I think we all have, but aren't speaking in terms of.

It's the idea of using the commonwealth for the common good--so that you can pursue your own personal goals. If you go out and drive on the freeway, that freeway got there because of taxpayers' money--we all invested in it. The internet got there because of taxpayer money. If you want to start a business, you get a loan from a bank--that banking system is protected by the federal government. If you want to issue stock in a business, you need the SEC. If you want legal protection you need a court system--all things paid for by the taxpayers. The commonwealth for the common good allows you to pursue your own personal goals.

And the concept of freedom enters in there in a way that is not obvious. All of the freedom movements in our history have been the expansion of participation in the benefits and responsibilities of the common good. And secondly, you need the common good in order to be free, to pursue your own personal goals. That is what sets us apart from the other side in one dimension. That is, those guys say, "The common good is only the sum of all individual goals--everybody is for themselves, period, and that's what is best for society." It isn't.

Adam Werbach: There is a word "sisu,"[that refers to] a sense of indefatigable belief that despite all of the odds, we will win. ... We will persevere in spite of the facts arrayed before us. And to my mind, that is why I'm here with you. It is that belief that the two of us, or 12, or 200 of us in this room right now are enough to ... [win].

So here's where I struggle. I woke up on November 3rd--like probably the rest of you--with the headache of my life. The belief that I had failed, that everything that I cared about, everything that I worked for, everything that I bleed for, every check I wrote, every letter I wrote, every e-mail I responded to, was in vain, and I was crushed. I mean, just not wanting to do this work anymore. I was done; I was done in believing in putting my heart out. I'd lost ... I didn't know what to say.

As being someone who loves to speak, I just all of a sudden lost the words, the ideas. ... It was out of this sense of total inadequacy, this sense that all the tactics I thought I knew, all the things I thought would work, were no longer working.

And [I had] this understanding, that as progressives, for far too long we've been opportunistic about our values and rigid about our tactics. We must call this thing environmental because I'm an environmental activist. We must call this a women's issue because it is a women's issue and that's how I can raise money around it, and that's what people understand. We must call this a civil rights issue. We must call this a union issue. All these things are separate -- we will come together in meetings, we will trade off; I will help you on your issue, you will help me on mine. That's as far as we'll go, but the categories are inviolate. That cannot be.

We are at a moment where we need to break down those categories (audience applause). And here's the scary part - I have no idea what comes next! George is like, 'well, I know ... ' (audience applause). It scares the hell out of me.

The November elections were basically an attempt to say, "I'm scared; I think a lot of people are scared, we don't know the answers." The only people I'm absolutely sure don't know the answers right now are the leaders of the Democratic Party (audience applause), which has now changed, fortunately.

Wes Boyd: I woke up on November 3rd incredibly charged up. It was a strange feeling and I called a few folks in our group. We all had the same feeling, and the realization on November 3rd that it's going to take more than that to make the changes we need to make. So, that's a very exciting possibility, because you realize the tremendous vacuum and you realize that it's up to all of us.

It really and truly is up to all of us. Nobody is going to do it for us. So it was an odd moment, and actually I think there was some depression that hit later. But we are fully engaged within that opportunity to see a progressive movement emerge now, when really [then] we were just, in a sense, working to get a Democrat into the White House, which isn't a progressive movement.

There's a widespread realization, really, that there's a need for a progressive movement and now there's an opportunity for a progressive movement. So, MoveOn's work is actually beginning to change for the first time since we started some six years ago. Joan and I started because we were frustrated, like a lot of people -- "God, things seem to be going south." We were all going about our business, and that was the time of the impeachment and we just put together this petition and all of a sudden hundreds of thousands of people signed on. We then knew we could do something together.

From that moment on, our whole mission has been about connection -- the belief that there are a lot of smart people out there, a lot of tremendously resourceful people. There are people whose values have been deeply offended by some things going on right now, people who are willing to do the work, people who are willing to step forward. We don't have to tell people what to think, we just need to help pull it together a bit and provide the service of how to work together to be effective. That was the mission until now.

We really do need to move to a next phase, which is where it's not just about connection--that's a great way to build an opposition. If you remember just a couple of years ago after Sept. 11th, there was a real sense for a while of the end of politics--how are we going to operate within this fear? Is there going to be an opposition or are we just going to see authoritarianism? The opposition was built, it was built very strongly--this is a great way for connection, this is a great way to build opposition, but it's not a great way to build a movement.

You have to have an addition to connection--you have to have creed. You have to have a set of beliefs that you share, and we can go around the room and we'd hear a lot of the same themes and the same sets of beliefs.

We really believe that the important thing is to engage, as we've done in the past. In connection to get to the creed, we have to work together--as Van and others have said--to pull those stories out of America and to then move those stories forward. We're going to start doing that work in about a month.

I look forward to working with all of you on some interesting processes, of pulling out the progressive story of America. And we know there's a vacuum right now. And part of the vacuum--I want to get into the fight a little bit--part of the vacuum is because the institutions have left the vacuum.

The institutions have failed us; whether it's the Democratic Party, or whether it's advocacy organizations--they've gotten ossified, they've gotten stuck, set in their ways. There're people just putting in time in some of those organizations. Those organizations, I believe, need to be challenged, and you won't have reform unless you have process of challenge. That can be done in a positive way, but actually it will look like hurt, it will look like being aggressive, and I think that's okay.

I think you wouldn't see Howard Dean as the chair of the DNC unless you saw people demanding something new from the Democratic Party. I was literally shocked by what happened with Howard Dean, because you heard from the institutional Democrats that this would never happen. It was hollow; it was a house of cards. It fell because of the vacuum that they're living in. I think it's really important to identify that vacuum, identify the leaders who are not leading, identity the opportunities to lead and that's what we're going to do.

Lakshmi Chaudhry: Since I think I'm the token foreigner--I won't be eligible for citizenship until November and I'm also in charge of international coverage for AlterNet. So, I'm going to play that role here and I think it's not going to contradict any of the other things that have been said. It's just putting it in a global context.

The National Intelligence Council within the CIA released a report in February and they had four scenarios about what the world is going to look like in 2020. And in only one of them, which they called Pax Americana, was America anywhere near the top. And even then, so frailly so, being the policemen of the world with very little benefits.

I think it's easy for us to be wrapped up with what's happening within our country. The truth of the matter is that the world is changing so rapidly outside. The global economy is changing, power relationships are changing, but no one is thinking about where America is going to be in 2020.

The Bush administration--well, they're thinking that they're going to have a chain of empire, a chain of bases around the world, and build this great empire. Well, we know how that worked out.

Or, they don't care, which is the other alternative, especially for U.S. corporations. They don't care because they're only thinking about the next quarter, what the earnings are in the next quarter, and they're not even thinking a year from now. So who's thinking about it?

Not the Democrats, who are really into the next election, whether they're going to gain power. For America to be prosperous--in the richest sense of the word, in the broadest sense of the world--it doesn't have to be an economical imperial power. Let's not forget--as Josh Holland reminded us in a recent AlterNet article--seven of the 10 most competitive economies in the world are Scandinavian social democracies. So we can be wealthy and prosperous in this new world -- it's not frightening; it's not something that we can't do. But we have to do it now and we have to think about it now, because the rest of the world is--China is, India is, the EU is, Iran is, but we're not.

And it has to be us--we can't any longer, and this is where I echo what Wes said, we can't be the thorn in the establishment any more. We have to be the establishment. And to echo what Van said, we can't only be thinking about what's good for our people because, in the end, when things get really bad, when all the R&D centers move abroad, when not just the blue collar/white collar, but the high-skill jobs move abroad, it's going to be bad for everybody--whether you're red, blue, black, white, woman, man, it doesn't really matter.

We have to show a great love for all Americans and for our nation, and approach it from that position. And I also agree with Adam that it is very scary because in many ways it will require us rethinking a lot of ideas, and perspectives, and policies that have served us so well in the past. When it was easy to be the One--when America was on top, and was this huge political and economic power, and it could pretty much do what it wanted. It was really an argument about how we had so much money and where we were going to spend it. It's going to take a different way of looking at things and doing things.

For a complete audio recording of this panel, visit the Start Making Sense page.


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