Christopher Hayes

Are Oil Companies 21st Century Slaveowners?

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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5 Ways the Government Used Our Money to Save Big Banks and Screw Us

As we mark the end of the first year of the financial bailout, the public seems to regard the government's actions with a toxic combination of rage and confusion. People are pissed off but too bewildered to know what to do with that anger. The confusion isn't an accident. The government hasn't exactly been forthcoming about how it's made buckets of money available to the banking sector. When it does disclose some information--such as in July's SIGTARP report from the Treasury or the Federal Reserve's weekly balance sheet--it's in the form of intimidating descriptions, accounting mumbo jumbo and technical reports that do little to illuminate just what the hell is going on.

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Stunning Government Billion-Dollar Giveaway to Paper Companies in the Works

Two years in Washington have started to make me feel jaded. I've come to expect that even nobly conceived laws will be manipulated and distorted for private ends. But once in a while I hear a story that gives me the queasy feeling that I'm nowhere near cynical enough. Such is the case with the tale of the paper industry and the alternative-fuel tax credit.

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MoveOn Is Not What You Think It Is

Five years to the day after American forces began their campaign of "shock and awe" in Iraq, opponents of the war gathered in Washington. While some came with bullhorns and drums and flag-draped coffins, danced down K Street and confronted legislators on Capitol Hill, others formed a quiet vigil in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Here there were no bullhorns or drums. Instead, there were a few news cameras, a banner that read Invest in America, Not Endless War in Iraq and a clutch of several dozen members of MoveOn. Bill Hamm, a retired Air Force pilot from Texas who had come to Washington for the Take Back America conference, told me that during his military career, fellow pilots often gave him push back because of his liberal politics. But, he said, "I think that's changing now." Hamm told me that back in Austin, where he and his wife serve as regional coordinators for MoveOn's local councils, his wife was organizing a 150-person vigil outside the governor's mansion. Because of "war on terror" restrictions they were told they couldn't bring candles. "So they're going to use flashlights."

This year, MoveOn turns ten. News of the organization's advanced age tends to elicit the same startled response as word of a childhood star's divorce. But more important, the anniversary serves to highlight just how far the organization has come. What started as a simple one-sentence petition hastily posted to the web has evolved into the most readily identifiable group in the vanguard of a revived progressivism, with a membership that exceeds 3 million. Capable of dominating a news cycle with a single ad and raising millions of dollars with a lone e-mail, MoveOn pioneered an entire approach to conducting politics through the Internet that has been replicated and spun off across the country and around the globe, an approach that, as the Obama campaign has dramatically demonstrated, has permanently transformed the landscape of American politics. And yet the roots of its success remain largely misunderstood.

This is in large part because MoveOn has been viewed through the distorting lens of a four-decade culture-war narrative, one whose labels have long outlasted the movements and dynamics that gave rise to them. In 1968, as the country approached what seemed to many at the time something like a civil war, Richard Nixon addressed the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. He described "cities enveloped in flamesirens in the nightAmericans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home." Amid this tumult and chaos, Nixon presented himself as a tribune for those who weren't in the streets, who weren't seeking out confrontation and attention, "the forgotten Americans," he called them, "the non-shouters."

Forty years later, despite tectonic shifts in demographics and politics, our political map still bears the same key: a decent silent majority on one side besieged by a zealous, angry, out-of-touch left on the other. For movement conservatives and establishment centrists alike, MoveOn is just a new name for an old foe. Bill O'Reilly has called it "vicious," "radical," full of "fanatical left-wingers" who are blackmailing the Democratic Party. John McCain, not to be outdone, responded to the "General Betray Us" ad by telling a Republican audience this past fall that MoveOn "ought to be thrown out of this country." Ostensibly mainstream voices like CNN's Campbell Brown have referred to MoveOn as "American insurgents," while Peter Beinart, in a 2004 cover essay in The New Republic, suggested that MoveOn be purged from the center left just as communists once were. Democrats have gotten in on the act as well: Hillary Clinton told donors at a private fundraiser that MoveOn had "intimidated" her supporters in the caucus states, and Barack Obama took a veiled swipe at the group in his recent speech on patriotism.

But understanding MoveOn as the direct descendant of the '60s protesters gets the organization exactly wrong. MoveOn's success (and, indeed, its limitations) is powered by its appeal to today's non-shouters. Though its politics are in many ways the opposite of the Nixon silent majority's, they share a disposition. They are people not inclined to protest but whose rising unease with the direction of the country has led to a new political consciousness. For citizens angered, upset and disappointed with their government but unsure how to channel those sentiments, MoveOn provides simple, discrete actions: sign this petition, donate money to run this ad, show up at this vigil. "Before I joined MoveOn," says staffer Anna Galland, "I was organizing in Rhode Island doing faith-based antiwar activism. In March 2003, MoveOn had put out an action alert for a vigil against the Iraq War. There were 500 people on the steps of the Capitol, and I remember thinking, 'I know all the activists in the state; where did all these people come from?' I think many people have a MoveOn moment where they look around and realize that this organization has managed to tap into a much broader range of people than they might have seen at past activist events."

Take, for example, Sandy Tracy. For twenty-eight years Tracy taught high school in a small town seventy miles west of St. Paul. She always voted Democratic, but she was never particularly politically engaged. "I'm 60," she says, "and during the Vietnam protests I was too afraid to participate in any of those kinds of activities." But then came the Iraq War and Kerry's defeat, and it began to feel like the country, even the world, was spinning out of control. "I was really, really, seriously upset about the results of the election of 2004 and the track that the war was going. That was part of why I retired when I did: I just couldn't concentrate on my job."

Living in a conservative area, Tracy felt she was alone in her disaffection. But then in 2007 an e-mail arrived from MoveOn telling her that someone was organizing an antiwar rally near her. "I went, Oh my gosh, there's somebody fifteen miles from me!" Within a couple of weeks she was on a bus to Washington to join a massive protest on the Mall. "I'd never done anything like that before. Along the way I found other people in MoveOn groups, peace groups, related kinds of progressive activist groups, and they weren't telling me I should just mind my own business and not talk. And spiritually that was very uplifting to me. I just went, Aha, we're onto something here."

As Tracy's experience shows, the MoveOn model of simplified and accessible activism has proved enormously successful. But as the organization enters its second decade, there's evidence that it's reached a point of diminishing returns. In the run-up to the Iraq War, MoveOn's membership exploded, from 600,000 to 1.6 million, but its rate of growth has slowed considerably since then. What's more, the organization faces a challenge in navigating the emerging political landscape. Born in opposition, first to the Republican impeachment effort, later to the Iraq War and the Bush agenda, MoveOn may soon be forced to define its relationship to a government controlled by its supposed allies in the Democratic Party -- at a time when the party's progressive base is increasingly frustrated about its failure to deliver the change it has promised.

MoveOn founders Joan Blades and Wes Boyd are non-shouters to the core. Blades used to make her living as a divorce mediator, helping couples move from heated stand-offs to win/win, and met the mild-mannered Boyd in a soccer league. The two married and threw themselves into their new software company, which scored a massive hit in the 1990s with a package of whimsical screen savers that featured, improbably, flying toasters. "As for politics," says Blades, "I voted, and so did Wes," but that was about it. "We were very busy with our software company."

Then, in the late '90s, as they watched the impeachment spectacle from their comfortable home in Berkeley, California, the couple began to feel as if the country's leaders and the members of the media had collectively lost their minds. "We were business people," says Blades, "so we thought about the opportunity costs of our government being obsessed with the scandal when in theory they had real work to do." The technically savvy Boyd got the idea to put up a website with a petition form: people could fill in their name and contact information as a means of expressing their discontent with the entire impeachment circus. The petition read simply: "Congress must immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country."

They sent an e-mail to 100 friends with a link to moveon.org. A September 24, 1998, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Net's Role in Scandals May Alter News Media, mentioned the effort in its final paragraph, noting that the site had attracted 500 signatures in its first day of operation.

By the end of the week, that number was 100,000.

"Essentially we stepped into a vacuum of leadership, and we said something sensible," recalls Blades. "We're the quintessential accidental activists." They figured the petition would be a one-time endeavor, but when they saw the reaction they knew they were onto something. "I still remember one of our early e-mails: a woman wrote in and said, You know, I've never done anything political. I'm a single mom. I get home and feed my son. This" -- meaning signing a petition, forwarding an e-mail -- "is something I can do." This ease of use remains one of MoveOn's hallmarks, one with particular appeal at a time when Americans work more than their counterparts in almost every other industrialized nation.

It's worth pausing for a moment to note the complete lack of ideological zealotry in MoveOn's founding. "It was really more about common sense versus insanity than it was about progressives versus conservatives," says Ben Brandzel, who worked for MoveOn and now consults with other groups around the world using the same model. "Impeachment, the details of that, really has nothing to do with any political scientist's idea about progressive or conservative," he says.

It wasn't until the shock of 9/11 and the run-up to Iraq that MoveOn's "basic common sense populism [was] grafted onto a partisan divide," according to Brandzel. The vessel for this shift was an unassuming 6-foot-3 20-year-old named Eli Pariser. As MoveOn PAC's executive director, Pariser, now 27, is the organization's de facto leader, and his reserved bearing is rather stunning if you've spent any time listening to Bill O'Reilly. In a wedding announcement in the New York Times this summer his new wife described him as "clear-eyed and hopeful." In person, he's so preternaturally calm one almost feels he might be some kind of reincarnated lama.

The day after 9/11, Pariser, then living in Boston, wanted to do something to help. When the local blood bank told him it was beyond capacity, he channeled his anguish and hope into an online petition he e-mailed to thirty friends. Earnest, plaintive and humane, it made the case for international leaders to use "moderation and restraint" in responding to the attacks, and called for employing "international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction."

"By Monday there were thousands of e-mails in my Inbox," he told me recently. "The server was crashing. It was this moment where the e-mail had hit a chord and was being repeated out through the address books." Within the first two weeks, 515,000 people signed the petition, and before long he'd connected with Blades and Boyd, merged his list with MoveOn's and joined the organization as a full-time staff member.

Starting in summer 2002, much of the antiwar movement flowed through Pariser, and as the drumbeat for war with Iraq grew louder MoveOn's ranks swelled. "There was kind of a strength-in-numbers thing," Pariser recalls. "That's when the surge of people who had been quiet through the first year and a half of the Bush Administration started to realize, This is serious; I need to be involved."

At its apex the stop-the-war-before-it-starts movement was the largest popular uprising on the left in decades. The coalition that organized the protests around the country drew millions into the streets, including everyone from anarchists, Maoists and pacifists to nuns, soccer moms and disaffected Republicans. MoveOn tended to anchor the latter part of the spectrum, as part of the moderate Win Without War coalition. Whereas other groups called out "No blood for oil!" MoveOn's most successful petition was titled "Let the Inspections Work."

Even as the Bush Administration has radicalized so many, and pushed MoveOn toward a more aggressively partisan stance, that original pragmatic sensibility remains woven into the organization's DNA. "Wes and Joan didn't come out of the left," notes Zack Exley, who worked as a union organizer before joining MoveOn in 2002 (and later worked for the Kerry campaign). "Eli hadn't had time to be on the left." For Exley, the freshness of their approach was a revelation. "It was the most exciting kind of atmosphere because they weren't negative or defeated or cynicalthey didn't have their ideas set. They kind of had this boundless faith in what their members were capable of doing."

MoveOn staffers echo Exley's characterization, stressing that whatever MoveOn's ideological sensibility ("pragmatically progressive," one offered), it's a product not of its staff's outlook but of the views of its members. "Some groups have a really strong ideological substrate," says organizing director Justin Ruben. "We tend to not be that way. We believe strongly in the wisdom of crowds, giving people the ability to make choices together. They'll make good choices."

In theory that's all well and good; in practice, it's no small task to figure out just what kind of choices 3.2 million people are interested in making. In his new book Here Comes Everybody, Internet theorist Clay Shirky illustrates how dramatically the Internet has lowered the cost of collective action and coordination across barriers of time and space. MoveOn's approach to activism -- mass e-mails, instant internal polling, distributed fundraising -- takes advantage of this development. Before MoveOn pioneered the online petition, just the simple act of gathering 100,000 signatures would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor. Now MoveOn sends out e-mail petitions several times a month. Or consider this: to manage its lobbying efforts and programs for its more than 4 million members, the NRA has a staff exceeding 500 and a $15 million, 390,000-square-foot office building in Virginia. MoveOn has a staff of twenty-three. And no headquarters. Twice a week, a dozen of MoveOn's staffers call in from around the country for a strategy session. The organization is so committed to the ethos of the virtual office, it has an internal policy that even when staffers are living in the same city they're prohibited from sharing office space.

"What makes it possible," says Ruben, "is that every action taken ends up in our database. It's all in one place and the data set is enormous, which if you're a geek is awesome." When MoveOn sends out mass e-mails, staffers often first test multiple separate subject lines within small sample groups, choosing the subject that's most effective at getting people to act on the e-mail's "ask." Each week they run a tracking poll, surveying a random subsample of members to identify which issues they're following and where their passions lie.

The speed and efficiency of Internet communication allows the organization tremendous flexibility in responding to breaking developments. "Because we are member driven, we 'Chase the Energy,'" Brandzel writes in a manifesto called "The 8 Fold Path," which lays out the MoveOn approach. "Energy flows with news cycles, and the opportunity to make a difference." In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, MoveOn was able to use its member database to set up a website where evacuees could be matched with members who had extra rooms in their houses to share. The site was up just seventy-two hours after the hurricane made landfall in New Orleans, and ended up providing housing to more than 30,000 evacuees, a response far quicker than FEMA's.

MoveOn-ers are quick to point out that technology is just the means, not the end. "The Internet's just a tool," says Brandzel. "I mean, would you call a church a paper-based organization because the Bible is printed on paper?" Just as the Reformation required both discontent with the Catholic Church's corruption and Gutenberg's printing press, MoveOn's rise required both the swelling backlash against post-Gingrich radicalism and the explosive growth of the Internet, particularly among the ranks of the professional classes with Internet access.

Somewhat frustratingly, MoveOn does not keep demographic information about its members, which makes it difficult to know for sure whether the sample of members I spoke with, mostly white and middle class, is representative. But it is clear that they aren't radicals. After the 2004 election, MoveOn attempted to use Internet forums, e-mails and polls to build a platform of sorts, called the Positive Agenda. The results were squarely within the mainstream of the Democratic Party: universal healthcare, clean renewable energy and the restoration of the Constitution and civil liberties. "The idea that MoveOn is like some foaming-at-the-mouth, swinging-from-the-trees liberal interest group is kind of a joke," says influential blogger Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com.

"People ask us all the time, you know, Make your members do this or think this," says Pariser. "We just have to politely say, We can't. Even if we wanted to, people click the link or they do the thing that we ask them to if they think it's a useful thing to do. There's no chain of command.

"It's essentially a service organization that helps people who are busy advocate in politics. We're providing something that's valuable to people and using technology to amplify the quality of the service you can get. It's not unlike Netflix or Flickr."

It's a revealing analogy. In many ways MoveOn's relationship to its members looks a lot like a business's relationship to its customers. If a product isn't selling, they take it off the shelves. For activists rooted in an earlier generation of social movements, which tended to prize long, disputatious meetings and the unwieldy process of forming bottom-up consensus, this approach is at best alien, at worst insidious. Customers, after all, aren't part of the creation of the product: they're not running the meetings where new packaging is designed; their input is limited to the final result and expressed through the transaction of purchase. And the role of customer imposes no obligations. You are free to buy or not buy, or in MoveOn's case, sign the petition or not sign the petition. Oscar Wilde once complained that the trouble with socialism was that it took "too many evenings." MoveOn holds out the promise of progressive change without the evenings.

Marshall Ganz -- who organized with the farm workers, recently ran training workshops for Obama's field staff and now studies and teaches organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School -- says much of what MoveOn does is marketing, not organizing. "The genius of the Internet is more the way it can create a marketplace than create organization," he says. "It's important to distinguish between sharing information and forming relationships. Forming a relationship, we make a commitment to work together. Participation in democratic organizations is not just an individual act. It's an act of affiliation with others." If you were to map the arrows of relationship between MoveOn's staff and its members, Ganz points out, nearly all the arrows would run between the members and the staff: you receive an e-mail, you respond, you give money, etc. -- but relatively few go from member to member.

"They're gonna send letters to Congress and the President," says Ganz. "And man, we generate a lot of fucking letters. That's great. So what sort of capacity have we created in the process? Have we developed a new leadership? Probably not. Have members learned more about relating to each other? Not so much."

Ganz's criticism is mild compared with that of John Stauber, who founded the Center for Media and Democracy and has written scathingly of MoveOn. According to Stauber, MoveOn has become "primarily a money-raising and marketing arm of the Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. They clearly haven't shown any interest in building an organization that would empower the millions of people whose e-mail addresses they have. The so-called MoveOn membership is really just a group of people who are used for fundraising purposes."

Stauber is among a small handful of people on the left willing to express such harsh criticisms on the record. Privately, more progressive activists will make familiar complaints about grievances and frictions that have developed from working together. "In the early days they were great partners and had an interest in building up other progressive organizations," one prominent progressive who's worked with MoveOn told me. "That seems to have changed."

Perhaps the most damning criticism leveled at MoveOn is that by creating a clear and easy outlet for people's frustration and angst, the organization delivers people a false sense of accomplishment. In other words, MoveOn can be tremendously successful without being effective. Consider the vaunted petition, MoveOn's bread and butter. In 1998 a petition with 100,000 signatures would make any politician sit up and take notice, but over time the value has been degraded as more organizations have learned how to leverage the Internet. Clay Shirky calls this the "cost/value paradox" and says it can spell big trouble for MoveOn. As the transaction cost for a specific piece of activism declines, so does its value, since politicians know it doesn't require much effort. One former Democratic Senate staffer told me that when her boss was presented the weekly mail summary, the staff made sure that if an issue had landed on the top of the list as a result of a MoveOn mass e-mailing, it was marked with an asterisk. "They've been selling: Millions of E-mails Sold, the old McDonald's line," says Shirky. "They're now realizing that in a way they're empty calories."

Talk to MoveOn staff members and they'll say that any method of organizing has its limitations. The organizing model that requires long meetings and vigorous debate can lead to organizations being driven by, in MoveOn spokeswoman Ilyse Hogue's words, "the loudest person in the room," something that cuts against MoveOn's non-shouter ethos. They'll also point out that their approach has led to concrete victories: they spearheaded an effort that blocked the FCC's attempts to allow media cross-ownership in local markets; they were an instrumental part of the campaign to beat back Social Security privatization; and the "caught red-handed" ads they ran in targeted Congressional races in '06 had a real effect in softening support for a number of Republican incumbents. What's more, the model works well enough that people around the world are eager to adopt it. In Australia, a MoveOn-type group called GetUp!, which was advised by Brandzel, played a key role in the recent electoral victory of the country's center-left Labor Party. Last year James Rucker, a former MoveOn staffer, started ColorofChange.org, a MoveOn-style organization focused on African-American political mobilization that now boasts 100,000 members; Avaaz.org, a global justice MoveOn spinoff, has a worldwide membership of more than 3 million members.

All that said, there's also a stalking awareness in the organization that the model that has served it so well these past ten years may be approaching its limit. The organization still can raise money from its members to run ads on TV (like the "Not Alex" anti-McCain ad it recently unveiled), but because of the constant erosion of any e-mail list, MoveOn has to add something like 200,000 members a year just to tread water. This need to constantly refresh the membership base explains, at least in part, MoveOn's heavy focus on media exposure and its knack for courting publicity, even controversy. "There's such a huge media component to everything MoveOn does," says a progressive activist who's worked on campaigns with MoveOn. "They have a philosophy that says, Get media; that will get you members."

Meanwhile, technology moves fast and MoveOn's primary medium, e-mail, threatens to become outmoded as young people migrate to text messages, social networking sites and IM. In response, MoveOn has branched out to conduct Facebook activism, successfully running a campaign within Facebook to force the site to alter a feature that broadcast private purchasing decisions.

Most significant, MoveOn has massively expanded its focus on developing an offline presence, one grounded in the face-to-face interactions that Ganz invoked. "We had a project for a while called Click Back America, but I think you can't actually click back America," says Justin Ruben. "The things that people do in the real world, away from their computer, also matter. Our power comes almost entirely from collective action. You can only do so much through the computer."

MoveOn began developing the capacity of offline action in 2004, attempting to build from scratch in a little more than ten weeks a member-based field program in support of John Kerry in swing states. The idea was that MoveOn members would act as precinct captains and canvass their neighbors. Though rushed and somewhat ad hoc, this first foray into concerted offline activity gave birth to Operation Democracy -- since renamed MoveOn Councils -- the locus of MoveOn's local, physical presence and the conduit for everything from phone banking to house parties to war vigils. Anna Galland, who heads up the councils for MoveOn (and who is, full disclosure, a college friend), says they're ambitiously scaling up. "We're up to 250 local councils, with councils in every state." Members meet in their local councils, and council leaders report to volunteer regional coordinators. "People come from all sorts of backgrounds," says Galland, and get trained in everything from how to run a meeting to leadership development. "We're not just looking for volunteers; we're trying to build a culture of organizing," she says.

For those who came to MoveOn through the simple activism of signing a petition, forwarding an e-mail or donating money, the council provides an opportunity to take the more involved step of actually congregating with other progressives. Crossing this gulf, for millions of people, is no small step. Sandy Tracy, the retired Minnesota high school teacher, now serves as a regional coordinator. She recalls the anxiety she felt before hosting her first house party. "I had fifteen people who signed up to come to that first event," she says. "I felt a little awkward, and I'm going, Oh my gosh! I've got all these people at my house; what are we going to talk about?"

The councils were born of a desire to help elect Kerry, and now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, nearly all of MoveOn's focus has shifted to getting him elected. In many ways, the Obama campaign is built on much the same aspirations, ethos and constituency as MoveOn, which is why it wasn't particularly shocking that when the group polled its members in February, 70 percent voted to endorse Obama over Clinton.

Some, though, were surprised. "I was slack-jawed," says one netroots activist, noting that Obama had failed to vote on the Senate resolution that chastised the group for its General Betray Us ad. "They were at the mercy of their membership, who really were enthusiastic about Obama. But this was the guy who threw them under the bus, and they basically said, Beat me! Treat me like shit!"

The subtext here is the larger issue of MoveOn's relationship to a Democratic Party that many feel has co-opted it. "They built up a huge membership because of the war," says CodePink founder Medea Benjamin, "and the press looked at them as the voice of the antiwar movement, and then they betrayed the movement. They were more concerned with being on the same page with the Democratic leadership than with the rest of the antiwar leadership."

Particularly egregious to Benjamin and others was the failure of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. Co-founded in January 2007 by MoveOn and run by its then-Washington director, Tom Matzzie, the coalition spent $12 million attempting to force Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Its efforts helped push Congressional Democrats to pass a supplemental bill that tied funding to a withdrawal timeline. But after the President vetoed the bill, AAEI focused on running ads against Republicans who'd backed the White House rather than trying to force the Democratic Congressional leadership to cut off funds.

"MoveOn went all out to get a Democratic Congress elected," says Benjamin. "We now have more troops in Iraq, more funding than the Bush Administration even asked for and a guarantee that the war will continue into the next administration."

If CodePink thinks MoveOn is too cozy with the Democrats, Democratic staffers on the Hill have a hard time telling MoveOn and CodePink apart. Several staffers I talked with felt animus toward MoveOn for organizing actions against their bosses. But when they described these actions -- sit-ins in their Hill offices, for instance -- it became clear they were confusing MoveOn with CodePink and other more confrontational antiwar groups. The resentment is also a result of MoveOn's clumsy Betray Us ad, which became such a high-profile distraction that it allowed conservatives to deflect attention from the war debate. And MoveOn's presence on the Hill, where the battle over escalation was fought, is not particularly strong; in Democratic Congressional offices, it's viewed more as an annoyance than a force. "I've never been in a room where someone says, Let's all check with MoveOn," said the former staffer.

"Of course, I wish the result had been different," says Nita Chaudhary, MoveOn's chief antiwar organizer, of their efforts to prevent the escalation. "But we tried very hard." Chaudhary points out that MoveOn has spent time and effort going after Democrats. Local groups routinely meet with their Representatives to lobby them on the war, and "we ran ads against Democrats -- we did this whole backbone campaign with Democrats, trying to get them to stand up against a blank check on the war." But she concedes that the organization made a tactical decision that the best way to bring the war to heel would be through elections, first electing a Democratic majority and now trying to elect Obama along with an "anti-Iraq War majority" in Congress.

To MoveOn's critics in the antiwar movement, the tactical choice to focus most of its energy on defeating Republicans confirmed a nagging sense that, for all its talk about being led by its members, the organization is really run by its staff. Dave Swanson of Democrats.com recalls that in March 2007, "a lot of the real peace organizations were pushing the Barbara Lee amendment" (which would have provided funding only for a withdrawal of forces) "to the point where MoveOn was feeling the pressure. So do they send out a survey, Do you favor the Barbara Lee or the [Democratic] leadership's bill?" (which would have attached timelines but continued funding). "No. Instead, they offered a choice of the leadership's bill or the President's agenda. It was essentially a Stalinist poll. They know damn well what their membership would have said if offered an honest survey."

In response to criticism of that poll, Pariser argued that MoveOn's members were sophisticated enough to understand that the Pelosi bill was the best possible option. But the episode highlighted the difficulty of the situation MoveOn increasingly finds itself in. Over ten years the organization has developed a reliably confrontational posture toward the Republicans in power. It's a necessary feature of an organization that needs to raise money constantly, a rational reaction to the GOP's debased leadership and the expression of a deep and genuine sentiment among its silent majority members, who have simply had enough. But the frustrations of the past two years with a Democratic Congress struggling to deliver any of the things MoveOn members want have served as a teachable moment. In interviews with nearly two dozen of MoveOn's regional coordinators, when I asked what they saw as MoveOn's role in a future Democrat-dominated Washington, they gave without exception the same answer: hold the politicians accountable. "One of their mottoes that really resonates with me is that democracy is not a spectator sport," says Sandy Tracy, the retired schoolteacher. "Average people have elected their officials and sent them off and let them be. We're now paying the price for that."

Should the Democrats retake the White House and add to their Congressional majorities this fall, they would do well to take note of Tracy and the millions like her. Come next spring, if they haven't started withdrawing troops, you just might see Sandy Tracy in the streets with a bullhorn.

Progressive Dems Unveil Plan to End Iraq Occupation

On the late afternoon of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a grim, surreal procession made its way up DC's Capitol Hill. Down Independence Avenue alongside the House office buildings marched a single file of protesters, each clad in a black T-shirt, wearing a haunting white mask and holding a sign with the name of a civilian killed in Iraq. As they trudged up the Hill, a drummer rapped out a spare and mournful beat. Aside from several police escorts on bicycles, few were there to bear witness. Congress was in recess, the usual passel of commuters away or shuttered indoors, the streets empty under a misting gray sky. Like the real-life funerals for the Iraqi dead they represented, this re-creation, too, would pass with hardly a notice.

Last month in Washington, as protesters marched and danced and chanted, as progressives assembled for the Take Back America conference and as thousands of soldiers' families mourned their dead, Vice President Cheney gave an interview to ABC's Martha Raddatz. When she pointed out that two-thirds of Americans thought the war was not worth fighting, he answered: "So?"

"So?" Raddatz replied. "You don't care what the American people think?"

"No," said Cheney.

There you have it. To the millions who marched before the war began, to the hundreds of thousands who have protested since, to the tens of millions who voted for candidates in 2006 who pledged to end it, the Bush Administration says, more or less, Go fuck yourself.

We are now faced with two problems. One is a war that grinds on, subject only to its internal logic, each day further embedding an imperial occupation. The other is arguably even more profound, a terrifying breakdown in the basic mechanisms of democracy whereby the will of the majority is transferred into policy. We have two ostensible democracies (the United States and Iraq), each with a polity that wants an end to the war (the most recent polling from Iraq shows that 70 percent of Iraqis favor U.S. withdrawal), yet the war does not end.

In the face of this official indifference to public opinion, it is tempting to succumb to despair. The antiwar strategy, after all, has not been static. In the run-up to the war, organizers managed to pull together the largest simultaneous worldwide demonstrations in history. That didn't work. Then the antiwar movement channeled much of its energy into electoral politics, helping to elect Democratic majorities in both houses. That hasn't worked either. So we find ourselves in the situation of Beckett's protagonist in Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Although the electoral strategy has not yet borne fruit, it is still the most viable option, barring a draft or a radical turn in public opinion that would once again bring people en masse into the streets. (There are, of course, parallel strategies to be pursued. Passing a ban on mercenaries in Iraq would make the occupation untenable.) The question, then, becomes how to create the electoral conditions that maximize the power and representation of the majority who want the war ended. The antiwar caucus doesn't have enough votes to override a delusional President or enough members willing to bear the political risk of cutting off funding for the war. The solution to this impasse is, in the words of Congressional candidate Darcy Burner, to elect "more and better Democrats" -- Democrats who have publicly committed to pursuing a legislative strategy to end the war.

So at Take Back America, Burner -- a former Microsoft manager from the Seattle suburbs who narrowly missed unseating a GOP incumbent in 2006 -- with nine other Democratic Congressional challengers released A Responsible Plan to End the War. Developed in collaboration with retired military officers and national security professionals, the plan attracted the support of fifteen additional Democratic Senate and House challengers in the first week after it was unveiled.

Unlike the withdrawal plans offered by both Democratic presidential candidates, the Responsible Plan opposes any residual forces as well as permanent military bases. It flatly states, "We must stop counter-productive military operations by U.S. occupation forces, and end our military presence in Iraq." It looks toward restoring "Constitutional checks and balances and fix[ing] the ways in which our governmental, military, and civil institutions have failed us." It also addresses the need to take responsibility for a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces are in danger and millions are displaced across the region.

As an organizer working on the Responsible Plan stressed to me, it is an explicitly legislative road map, to be pursued by Congress with or without a President committed to withdrawal. Among other actions the plan calls for war funding to be brought into the normal budgetary process, as opposed to the ersatz emergency supplementals, which detach the cost of the war from the rest of the nation's discretionary spending. The plan also highlights more than a dozen bills that have already been introduced, like HR 2247, the Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act of 2007, which the signatories would support if elected.

Meanwhile, in Iraq on March 23, the 4,000th U.S. service member was killed (twenty-five died in just two weeks), at least fifty-eight Iraqi civilians died in attacks, the Green Zone was shelled, violence flared in Basra and Muqtada al-Sadr seemed to be toying with the idea of revoking his militia's cease-fire. American generals presented a plan to maintain post-surge troop levels through 2008, and George W. Bush continued to pursue an agreement with the Iraqi government that would keep U.S. troops there well into the future.

At the plan's unveiling, Burner -- articulate, impressive and infectiously energetic -- refused to be pessimistic. Despite the White House's indifference, despite the war's diminished presence on the front page, the people want the war to end.

"We can do this," she said.

Ever tried. Try again.

The Return of the SwiftBoaters

More than three years after John Kerry's bitter defeat, at the dawn of what looks like a far more promising campaign cycle for the Democrats, the party is still haunted by the specter of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Once upon a time, "Swift boat" denoted an obscure military vessel, but thanks to the activities of this group it has come to represent movement conservatism's penchant for ruthlessly (and effectively) smearing any and all political opponents, from a sitting senator and war hero to an 11-year-old boy with a cranial fracture.

Research by The Nation into Federal Election Commission records of the group's top twenty donors reveals that they've been remarkably active in this cycle, contributing and bundling nearly $200,000 to presidential candidates. This does not bode well. During the last presidential campaign, the wealthy backers of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth--now rebranded as Swift Vets and POWs for Truth--didn't do their real dirty work until the general election, where as a tax-exempt 527 group they operated outside the restraints of direct campaign contributions. We may wish we were done with the Swift Boaters, but they aren't done with us.

In 2004 the top twenty donors all gave (with one exception) at least $50,000 to the group. The top three--Houston home builder Bob Perry, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and billionaire drugstore impresario and investor Harold Simmons--gave a combined $9.5 million ($4.45 million, $3 million and $2 million, respectively). Calculating the influence of these and the slightly less wealthy Swift Boat donors during this cycle is a touch more complicated than simply adding up their contributions. Each one exerts far more influence as a bundler, given the federal restrictions on individual giving, which limit donors to a maximum of $4,600 per cycle. So The Nation looked not only at the contributions of the donors themselves but also at those of their family members and employees. It's an imperfect method, since some employees are clearly contributing of their own volition (such as one employee of a Simmons company who gave money to Hillary Clinton), but it gives a rough estimate of who's backing whom and to what extent.

The most notable recipient of Swift Boat largesse is John McCain, erstwhile front-runner and Stand Up Guy. When the Swift Boat ads were first unleashed, McCain was alone among his Republican colleagues to condemn them. A fellow Vietnam veteran, a good friend of Kerry's and a former target of smears about his own service, McCain called the ads "dishonest and dishonorable," a "cheap stunt," and he urged Bush to condemn them. But in pursuit of the GOP nomination, McCain ditched the mantle of maverick for that of hack, and his once-floundering, possibly rejuvenated campaign has been aided along the way by $61,650 from Swift Boat donors and their associates. "There is such a thing as dirty money," said Senator Kerry in a statement, after The Nation informed him of McCain's FEC records. "I'm surprised that the John McCain I knew who was smeared in 2000 and thought so-called Swift Boating was wrong in 2004 would feel comfortable taking their money after seeing the way it was used to hurt the veterans I know he loves." (McCain's office did not return calls for comment.)

McCain's Swift Boat bounty is exceeded only by that of Mitt Romney, who has raked in $70,550. Romney's success with Swift Boat donors is significant because he has surpassed even McCain in his demonstrated willingness to do or say anything in pursuit of the presidency and because he has emerged as the GOP establishment's favored candidate. Last year, when McCain held that position, the Arizona senator received significant backing from Swift Boat donors. But many have subsequently switched their allegiance. Pickens, who donated to McCain in June 2006, is now an enthusiastic Giuliani donor and fundraiser (Giuliani ranks third in Swift Boat funding, with $47,950). Perry, who also recorded several donations to McCain's PAC in 2005 and 2006, is now a major donor and fundraiser for Romney. If the list of top Swift Boat donors is expanded to fifty, Romney's fundraising edge is even more pronounced. (Neither Romney nor Giuliani's campaign returned calls for comment.)

Also noticeable among the recipients of Swift Boat largesse is one who received only a single donation: Mike Huckabee. Despite meager fundraising and little national name recognition, the former Arkansas governor has experienced a bubble-like expansion of support and media attention, taking the lead in Iowa and approaching a steady lead in national polls. But the lack of Swift Boat contributions lends credence to the claim that Huckabee is viewed warily by the money men who call the shots in the modern GOP. Despite proposing a radically regressive tax change and taking Grover Norquist's antitax pledge, he's been attacked savagely by the Club for Growth and eviscerated by columnist George Will for "comprehensive apostasy against core Republican beliefs," among them "free trade, low taxes, the essential legitimacy of America's corporate entities and the market system allocating wealth and opportunity."

This all supports the notion that the people behind the Swift Boat operation are chiefly concerned with the continued upward redistribution of wealth that is, more or less, the contemporary GOP's raison d'être. In 2006 Perry ponied up $5 million to start the Economic Freedom Fund, a 527 group devoted to attacking Democratic incumbents, and landed a large donation from prominent Swift Boat donor Carl Lindner. All of which is to say that the Swift Boaters aren't some kind of side show, a coterie of vicious mudslingers operating at the edges of respectability. They are the show. They are modern conservatism's core funders and beneficiaries. With conservatives staring straight into the abyss, their activities in this election cycle could very well make the Swift Boat smears look tame by comparison.

This report was produced with support of The Nation Institute Investigative Fund. Additional research was provided by Nicholas Jahr.




Executive Excess on Capitol Hill

If there were a futures market for the fate of the so-called "carried interest loophole" (and who knows, these days, maybe there is), its value would be in a state of near constant fluctuation. Herewith, a quick recap of its ups and downs.

Last summer, the Democrats proposed closing the multibillion-dollar tax loophole for managers of hedge funds and private equity firms. Under the current tax code, they now pay a mere 15 percent capital gains rate on the fees and bonuses (i.e., "carried interest" income) they get paid to manage investment funds they do not own, rather than the 35 percent rate they'd pay under normal income tax schedules. Estimates are this loophole--actually, it's more the size of a levy breach--will sap the Treasury of $26 billion over the next ten years.

But in October, Senate majority leader Harry Reid seemed to backtrack, saying that the Senate schedule was a little too tight to fit in a vote on the measure. Then, on Friday, the House revived hope for the provision when it passed Charlie Rangel's tax reform bill (HR 3996), which would, among other things, close the loophole. But the revival may be short-lived, since the bill now has to make it through the Senate Finance Committee, where one key Democrat, Charles Schumer, has indicated outright opposition and another key member, John Kerry, shied away from endorsing it back in May, suggesting the hedge funds be given a ten-year grace period before the loophole is closed.

All this back and forth would be more understandable if the bill itself were controversial, but on the merits and on the politics, it's a no-brainer. On Wednesday the Washington Post did an excellent job of unraveling why such a red-meat issue for Democrats has lost steam in the Senate, focusing especially on Schumer, the Senate Democrats' chief fundraiser, who, the Post reported, switched his position not long after James Simons, a hedge fund manager who earned $1.7 billion last year (you read that right), donated $28,500 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which Schumer chairs.

And of course the New York senator also represents Wall Street, which these days is chock-full of fiscal conservatives and cultural liberals who are leaning more Democratic than Republican. Hedge funds and investment firms, the Post reports, more than doubled their giving from 2006 to 2007, handing nearly $12 million so far to campaigns, parties and PACs--a stunning 83 percent of which has gone to Democrats. And the majority of staff working for the new industry trade association--the Private Equity Council--are former Democratic Hill staffers. "If you're a Democrat and you have to choose between the alternative minimum tax and the hedge fund industry, that's one tough ideological choice," Viva Hammer, a former Treasury Department staffer, told the Post. "It's a choice between your votes and your wallet."

But what about John Kerry, whom the Post doesn't touch? Kerry supports a proposal to close the loophole that allows hedge fund managers to shelter their pretax income offshore (part of the bill that the House passed Friday) but hasn't endorsed the proposal to close the larger loophole giving the same Wall Street barons preferential tax treatment.

On Friday, The Nation contacted Kerry's office to ask where he stood and received a statement in which, for the first time, Kerry went on the record in support of closing the loophole: "We should be dealing with deferred compensation, tax havens, and capital gains, and, yes, we should be fixing the carried interest issue," he said in a statement. He then proceeded to leave himself considerable wiggle room: "But we should do it in a way that avoids unintended consequences and is thoughtful about the fact that carried interests are common features not just in private equity and hedge funds but in real estate, venture capital, and start-up companies, and fields including healthcare and biotech."

This is progress, but it's pretty easy to see why Kerry would want to preserve an exit strategy (and not just in the interest of maintaining the narrative suspense in the tale of our poor benighted tax fix). According to one lobbyist (who doesn't work for the firms), two prominent Boston-based firms that are members of the Private Equity Council--Bain Capital Private Equity and Thomas H. Lee Partners--have been lobbying Kerry hard on the issue. Moreover, FEC data indicate that not long after closing the loophole was first proposed back in April, a number of Bain private equity partners started to make big contributions to Kerry. Partners Josh Bekenstein, Diane Exter and Jonathan Lavine have all given in excess of $4,000 each to the Kerry Senate campaign fund. Bain's mananging director, Mark Nunnelly, and two staffers have also all maxed out to Kerry this cycle with $4,600 each to his Senate campaign.

Some of these Bain partners have also given tens of thousands of dollars to key Democratic party campaign committees in recent years. But even that is chump change compared with what is at stake. According to Executive Excess, a report by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, while US corporate CEOs made an average of $10.8 million last year, the top twenty private equity/hedge fund managers pocketed an average $657.5 million, or 22,255 times the pay of an average US worker.

So Kerry (like many of his colleagues) is in an all-too-familiar position, caught between the interests of his voters and his donors. Given what the partners at Bain and elsewhere have to lose, smart money in DC is on the loophole surviving this legislative session intact. But as Kerry's recent statement shows, the first step to ending the suspense over its fate is simply to ask Democratic elected officials just which side they're on.

The Man Who Might Make Obama President

Given his rhetorical skills, Harvard Law pedigree, up-by-the-bootstraps bio and, well, his race, it is hard not to compare recently elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to his friend Barack Obama. Both men entered crowded primaries in which they were definitively not favored. They both inspired a kind of personal pride among supporters that is rare in politics. On the evening of Obama's convincing primary victory, the crowd and the candidate joined in chanting, "Yes We Can!" and if you listen closely to video of Patrick rallies, you'll hear the crowd chanting the very same thing. When Patrick looked into the camera in one ad and said the state's problem wasn't a "deficit of dollars but a deficit of leadership," it was hard not to hear echoes of Obama's oft-used line that the country's biggest problem isn't a budget deficit but an "empathy deficit." And in Patrick's most effective ad, he stands on a stage delivering an impassioned speech to a crescendo of applause as Obama sits on a stool just behind him, nodding approvingly, his head perfectly framed in the shot.

Which brings us to something else the two men share: David Axelrod, the 51-year-old reporter turned media consultant who was the key media strategist for both men's campaigns. He's the one who wrote those ads, framed that shot and came up with the "Yes We Can" tag line. "I don't bring these messages to candidates," Axelrod says when I point out the similarities. "I look for candidates who exemplify and reflect those messages." In the cases of Obama and Patrick, he says, the work is a collaboration. "They take and improve on what you bring them; they deliver it well because they believe in it. It's like riffing with great musicians."

Even though he lives 1,000 miles from the notoriously clubby world of political consulting, Axelrod has become one of its most successful and respected practitioners. Mark McKinnon, who produced George W. Bush's ads in the last cycle and now works for John McCain, calls Axelrod "the best media guy out there who doesn't have a ring." With his quick wit and knack for soundbites ("The Icon gets hoisted," Axelrod said of the media's treatment of star candidates, "and then it becomes a piñata"), the onetime ChicagoTribune political writer is a favorite of reporters seeking quotes. Charming as he can be with journalists, those who have worked with him say, he can be "aggressive" and "extremely difficult" in the trenches of a campaign. Colleagues point out that he's uncommonly idealistic for someone in his line of work, though a veteran Chicago reporter noted that this has its limits: "He's a principled guy, but he's not a philanthropist. The candidates he's worked for have been well funded, and he's made very good money doing what he does."

Axelrod is known for becoming close to his candidates, and indeed, he has become Obama's closest political adviser, talking strategy daily and producing the two videos recently posted to Obama's website. Reclining in a chair in his Chicago office the week before Obama announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, Axelrod was subdued, seemingly exhausted, but intense and hyperarticulate. Like Obama he speaks with what can seem a refreshing frankness, though just a few hours later, going over my notes, it was clear that he had remained scrupulously on message.

Axelrod's firm, AKP Media, which he runs with his partners John Kupper and David Plouffe, has handled a series of high-profile national and state campaigns, from John Edwards's 2004 presidential run to Tom Vilsack's and Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial races; but for much of its two decades the firm's bread and butter has been mayoral races, with a particularly strong track record in electing black candidates. Indeed, ever since working on the re-election campaign of Chicago's Harold Washington in 1987, Axelrod has developed something of a novel niche for a political consultant: helping black politicians convince white voters to support them. With Obama's bid for the presidency, Axelrod's skill in this area will face the ultimate test.

Born on New York's Lower East Side, Axelrod grew up in a middle-class Jewish household and showed a passion for politics early: At age 10 he was shuffling around his housing complex with a cardboard box filled with John Lindsay-for-mayor literature. He enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1972, lured by Chicago's storied politics, and resolved to become a "newspaperman." Upon graduating he was hired by the Tribune, and having just lost his father to suicide, he turned to the paper as a surrogate family. "I was a young kid," he says, "just making my way in the world, and the Tribune adopted me."

Axelrod was something of a journalistic prodigy, rising to become city hall bureau chief and political columnist at the ripe old age of 27. Then in 1984, he left it behind to join the campaign of Paul Simon, the bow-tied intellectual mounting an improbable run for US Senate. Though he joined the campaign as communications director, within weeks Axelrod was promoted to co-campaign manager. "We were too dumb to quit," says David Wilhelm, who co-piloted the campaign and would go on to become DNC head in Clinton's first year in office. "It helped that we were so idealistic. One of the things about David Axelrod -- I have certainly talked to clients about this -- one of the reasons he's so successful is that he is a believer. At the end of the day, he's an idealist. He actually cares about his candidates and their positions on issues. While he can be caustic, he is not a cynic."

When the campaign was done, Axelrod and Forest Claypool, one of his deputies from the campaign, opened their own consulting shop, handling mostly long-shot candidates until 1987, when Chicago Mayor Harold Washington hired the firm to help with his re-election. Four years earlier, Washington had won a historic victory, defeating the machine-backed incumbent, Jane Byrne, to become the city's first black mayor. As the Tribune's city hall bureau chief, Axelrod had ringside seats. "Nineteen eighty-three, that was a phenomenal election. Harold Washington -- extraordinary guy. I mean, he was the most kinetic campaigner and politician that I've ever met. It was inspiring the way the African-American community came alive around the prospect of electing Harold. There were those who mistook that for a negative [campaign], but it was one of the most positive campaigns I've ever seen, because people felt empowered."

But if the campaign was positive, the reaction from white Chicago was not. In 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago to campaign for housing desegregation, he was met with jeers of "Martin Luther Coon" and bricks thrown at his head. It prompted King to observe that people from Mississippi should move to Chicago to "learn how to hate." Seventeen years later, during the Washington campaign, that same ugly side of the city was on full display. Washington was heckled and threatened. Opponents passed out buttons with pictures of watermelons, and Bernard Epton, Washington's white Republican opponent, adopted the slogan "Before It's Too Late." After Washington won, it arguably got worse. The white machine alderman who opposed the Mayor formed a bloc in the City Council that did everything it could to undercut and humiliate him. The "council wars," as the ongoing battle became known, came to embody city politics at its worst: racial civil war fought by parliamentary means. "The city was paralyzed," Axelrod says. "The media called it 'Beirut on the lake.'"

But Mayor Washington was extremely popular among the city's African-American population, and the pettiness of the council wars cemented his support among white liberals, paving the way for his re-election in 1987. "I remember sitting with Harold on the morning after he won the primary," Axelrod recalls with a wistful smile. "He turned to us and asked, 'What percentage of the white vote did I get?' We told him it was 20 percent, and we were happy, because four years earlier he'd gotten only 8 percent." But Washington pointed out that he'd spent 70 to 80 percent of his time during the campaign in white neighborhoods. "He kind of smiled wanly," says Axelrod, "and said, 'Ain't it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave,' and then he went out to give one of the most joyous and rollicking and brilliant press conferences I'd ever seen."

While Axelrod would work on Paul Simon's presidential campaign a year later and branch out from Chicago to state and federal races across the country, he developed a specialty in black mayoral races, working for candidates like Dennis Archer in Detroit, Michael White in Cleveland, Anthony Williams in DC, Lee Brown in Houston and John Street in Philadelphia. Now, as Axelrod prepares to try to persuade nonblack Americans to elect a black man President, it's clear the experience of Harold Washington was a defining moment in the formation of his political consciousness. When he talks about the brutally negative race run by Deval Patrick's opponent, he says offhandedly, "We haven't seen anything like it since Bernie Epton."

Axelrod sees Obama, who was working in Chicago as a community organizer during the Washington years, as a marker of progress, writing the second act of a story that Washington started. "In 1983, after Harold won the primary, he went to the northwest side of Chicago with Walter Mondale. They went to a place called St. Pascal's Catholic Church. And what ensued there was so ugly -- the protests -- that it became a national story. Twenty-one years later, when Barack ran for the US Senate in the primary against six very strong candidates, he carried every ward on the northwest side except one, and carried the ward that St. Pascal's is in, and I think even the precinct. That's what he was thinking about on primary night. I was thinking, and I told Barack, that Harold Washington is smiling down on us."

What Obama and Washington shared, Axelrod points out -- a trait common to many of the successful black candidates he has worked for -- is the direct, lived experience of the effects of injustice with a simultaneous faith that the injustice wasn't permanent, that it could be overcome. "In many cases their personal stories are symbolic of the kinds of values that we as a society hold dear even if we haven't always honored them historically," Axelrod says. "The notion that you can overcome great obstacles -- [they're] very hopeful figures, and I think that made them very potent politically. They've seen the obstacles and the barriers and they've also overcome them: It shows the work we have to do and the possibility that that work can get done, that you can work for a better future." In other words: They make people feel good about how far we've come.

If the Obama message can be distilled to a single word, it is "hope." It's in the title of his new book (The Audacity of Hope) and the name of his PAC (Hopefund). If you page back through Axelrod's work, it's a word that shows up a lot. All politics traffics in clichés, and hope certainly isn't a new one (Bill Clinton: The Man From Hope), but there's a specific resonance to the concept in post-9/11, mid-Iraq War America. The experience of 9/11 gave Americans a feeling of national solidarity that the country probably hadn't experienced since World War II. Those melancholy days served as a kind of time warp, or glimpse, perhaps, of a future public life without the culture wars: one without wedge issues and the quasi-tribal red-blue divisions. Of course, that unity was all too quickly leveraged to pursue a radically militaristic course of action, but that brief taste has left many Americans wanting more. This is what the Axelrod-Obama brain trust has intuited, and what the Obama campaign holds out as its promise: "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," Obama said during his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. "But I've got news for them, too: We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Obama, having grown up stretched across the trenches of the culture wars -- black and white, secular and religious, poor neighborhoods and the Ivy League, heartland and the coasts -- seems to feel at a gut level the discomfort many Americans have with the culture wars' rituals. In The Audacity of Hope he writes about how the political battles of today can seem rooted in "old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." And Axelrod, veteran of Chicago's ugly racialized battles, also seems to have a profound understanding of people's yearning for a politics that is somehow less petty and rancorous. Together they have crafted a potent message that speaks to this.

The question is whether a politics free of acrimony can deliver the promise of progress. When I asked Axelrod how he went from working for Washington to working for his erstwhile foe, Mayor Daley, just two years later, he defended it this way: "He reduced the acrimony and became a unifying force, and that was really significant." Of course, in that case the "acrimony" came from the fierce resistance to change, and a return to a more placid politics only came with the monarchical restoration of the king's eldest son.

The hope for a politics of consensus is hardly new. It is the hope embodied in the plaintive, exasperated question asked by Rodney King during America's last spasm of racialized violence: "Can't we all get along?" Axelrod and Obama call it "a new kind of politics," and in their imagining it is a rerun of the Washington race, but this time the empowerment can be shared across the racial divide. This time, there won't be epithets or spit hurled at the candidate. Politics without division; progress without anyone's interests being threatened.

But consensus is a tricky business. Recently the website obamatruth.org mysteriously appeared, featuring a slick three-minute video hit-piece intended to make Obama out to be a money-grubbing, uppity sellout. "In his lust for personal wealth," the site asks, "has Barack Obama sold his moral compass?" Though the site doesn't offer any clues as to its provenance, it is registered to one Joe Novak, a Republican opposition researcher and dirty trickster who during the last election cycle produced a series of notorious negative ads aired on black commercial radio. Axelrod knows Novak well. Back in the 1980s, Novak got his start as a hatchet man for none other than Ed Vrdolyak, the white alderman who was Harold Washington's chief nemesis. Vrdolyak affectionately referred to him as "Low Blow Joe." As Washington learned, as interested as you might be in unity, your enemies get a vote, too.

Is 9/11 Paranoia Bad for the Country?

According to a July poll conducted by Scripps News Service, one-third of Americans think the government either carried out the 9/11 attacks or intentionally allowed them to happen in order to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. This is at once alarming and unsurprising. Alarming, because if tens of millions of Americans really believe their government was complicit in the murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens, they seem remarkably sanguine about this fact. By and large, life continues as before, even though tens of millions of people apparently believe they are being governed by mass murderers. Unsurprising, because the government these Americans suspect of complicity in 9/11 has acquired a justified reputation for deception: weapons of mass destruction, secret prisons, illegal wiretapping. What else are they hiding?

This pattern of deception has not only fed diffuse public cynicism but has provided an opening for alternate theories of 9/11 to flourish. As these theories -- propounded by the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement -- seep toward the edges of the mainstream, they have raised the specter of the return (if it ever left) of what Richard Hofstadter famously described as "the paranoid style in American politics." But the real danger posed by the Truth Movement isn't paranoia. Rather, the danger is that it will discredit and deform the salutary skepticism Americans increasingly show toward their leaders.

The Truth Movement's recent growth can be largely attributed to the Internet-distributed documentary Loose Change. A low-budget film produced by two 20-somethings that purports to debunk the official story of 9/11, it's been viewed over the Internet millions of times. Complementing Loose Change are the more highbrow offerings of a handful of writers and scholars, many of whom are associated with Scholars for 9/11 Truth. Two of these academics, retired theologian David Ray Griffin and retired Brigham Young University physics professor Steven Jones, have written books and articles that serve as the movement's canon. Videos of their lectures circulate among the burgeoning portions of the Internet devoted to the cause of the "truthers." A variety of groups have chapters across the country and organize conferences that draw hundreds. In the last election cycle, the website 911truth.org even produced a questionnaire with pointed inquiries for candidates, just like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Sierra Club. The Truth Movement's relationship to the truth may be tenuous, but that it is a movement is no longer in doubt.

Truth activists often maintain they are simply "raising questions," and as such tend to focus with dogged persistence on physical minutiae: the lampposts near the Pentagon that should have been knocked down by Flight 77, the altitude in Pennsylvania at which cellphones on Flight 93 should have stopped working, the temperature at which jet fuel burns and at which steel melts. They then use these perceived inconsistencies to argue that the central events of 9/11 -- the plane hitting the Pentagon, the towers collapsing -- were not what they appeared to be. So: The eyewitness accounts of those who heard explosions in the World Trade Center, combined with the facts that jet fuel burns at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and steel melts at 2,500, shows that the towers were brought down by controlled explosions from inside the buildings, not by the planes crashing into them.

If the official story is wrong, then what did happen? As you might expect, there's quite a bit of dissension on this point. Like any movement, the Truth Movement is beset by internecine fights between different factions: those who subscribe to what are termed LIHOP theories (that the government "let it happen on purpose") and the more radical MIHOP ("made it happen on purpose") contingent. Even within these groups, there are divisions: Some believe the WTC was detonated with explosives after the planes hit and some don't even think there were any planes.

To the extent that there is a unified theory of the nature of the conspiracy, it is based, in part, on the precedent of the Reichstag fire in Germany in the 1930s. The idea is that just as the Nazis staged a fire in the Reichstag in order to frighten the populace and consolidate power, the Bush Administration, military contractors, oil barons and the CIA staged 9/11 so as to provide cause and latitude to pursue its imperial ambitions unfettered by dissent and criticism. But the example of the Reichstag fire itself is instructive. While during and after the war many observers, including officials of the US government, suspected the fire was a Nazi plot, the consensus among historians is that it was, in fact, the product of a lone zealous anarchist. That fact changes little about the Nazi regime, or its use of the fire for its own ends. It's true the Nazis were the chief beneficiaries of the fire, but that doesn't mean they started it, and the same goes for the Bush Administration and 9/11.

The Reichstag example also holds a lesson for those who would dismiss the very notion of a conspiracy as necessarily absurd. It was perfectly reasonable to suspect the Nazis of setting the fire, so long as the evidence suggested that might have been the case. The problem isn't with conspiracy theories as such; the problem is continuing to assert the existence of a conspiracy even after the evidence shows it to be virtually impossible.

In March 2005 Popular Mechanics assembled a team of engineers, physicists, flight experts and the like to critically examine some of the Truth Movement's most common claims. They found them almost entirely without merit. To pick just one example, steel might not melt at 1,500 degrees, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, but it does begin to lose a lot of its strength, enough to cause the support beams to fail.

And yet no amount of debunking seems to work. The Internet empowers people with esoteric interests to spend all kinds of time pursuing their hobbies, and if the Truth Movement was the political equivalent of Lord of the Rings fan fiction or furries, there wouldn't be much reason to pay attention. But the public opinion trend lines are moving in the truthers' direction, even after the official 9/11 Commission report was supposed to settle the matter once and for all.

Of course, the commission report was something of a whitewash -- Bush would only be interviewed in the presence of Dick Cheney, the commission was denied access to other key witnesses and just this year we learned of a meeting convened by George Tenet the summer before the attacks to warn Condoleezza Rice about Al Qaeda's plotting, a meeting that was nowhere mentioned in the report.

So it's hard to blame people for thinking we're not getting the whole story. For six years, the government has prevaricated and the press has largely failed to point out this simple truth. Critics like The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann might lament the resurgence of the "paranoid style," but the seeds of paranoia have taken root partly because of the complete lack of appropriate skepticism by the establishment press, a complementary impulse to the paranoid style that might be called the credulous style. In the credulous style all political actors are acting with good intentions and in good faith. Mistakes are made, but never because of ulterior motives or undue influence from the various locii of corporate power. When people in power advocate strenuously for a position it is because they believe in it. When their advocacy leads to policies that create misery, it is due not to any evil intentions or greed or corruption, but rather simple human error. Ahmad Chalabi summed up this worldview perfectly. Faced with the utter absence of the WMD he and his cohorts had long touted in Iraq, he replied, "We are heroes in error."

For a long time the credulous style has dominated the establishment, but its hold intensified after 9/11. When the government speaks, particularly about the Enemy, it must be presumed to be telling the truth. From the reporting about Iraq's alleged WMD to the current spate of stories about how "dangerous" Iran is, time and again the press has reacted to official pronouncements about threats with a near total absence of skepticism. Each time the government announces the indictment of domestic terrorists allegedly plotting our demise, the press devotes itself to the story with obsessive relish, only to later note, on page A22 or in a casual aside, that the whole thing was bunk. In August 2003, to cite just one example, the New York dailies breathlessly reported what one US official called an "incredible triumph in the war against terrorism," the arrest of Hemant Lakhani, a supposed terrorist mastermind caught red-handed attempting to acquire a surface-to-air missile. Only later did the government admit that the "plot" consisted of an FBI informant begging Lakhani to find him a missile, while a Russian intelligence officer called up Lakhani and offered to sell him one.

Yet after nearly a dozen such instances, the establishment media continue to earnestly report each new alleged threat or indictment, secure in the belief that their proximity to policy-makers gets it closer to the truth. But proximity can obscure more than clarify. It's hard to imagine that the guy sitting next to you at the White House correspondents' dinner is plotting to, say, send the country into a disastrous and illegal war, or is spying on Americans in blatant defiance of federal statutes. Bob Woodward, the journalist with the most access to the Bush Administration, was just about the last one to realize that the White House is disingenuous and cynical, that it has manipulated the machinery of state for its narrow political ends.

Meanwhile, those who realized this was the White House's MO from the beginning have been labeled conspiracy theorists. During the 2004 campaign Howard Dean made the charge that the White House was manipulating the terror threat level and recycling old intelligence. The Bush campaign responded by dismissing Dean as a "bizarre conspiracy theorist." A year later, after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge retired, he admitted that Dean's charge was, indeed, the truth. The same accusation of conspiracy-mongering was routinely leveled at anyone who suggested that the war in Iraq was and is motivated by a desire for the United States to control the world's second-largest oil reserves.

For the Administration, "conspiracy" is a tremendously useful term, and can be applied even in the most seemingly bizarre conditions to declare an inquiry or criticism out of bounds. Responding to a question from NBC's Brian Williams as to whether he ever discusses official business with his father, Bush said such a suggestion was a "kind of conspiracy theory at its most rampant." The credulous style can brook no acknowledgment of unarticulated motives to our political actors, or consultations to which the public is not privy.

The public has been presented with two worldviews, one credulous, one paranoid, and both unsatisfactory. The more the former breaks apart, the greater the appeal of the latter. Conspiracy theories that claim to explain 9/11 are wrongheaded and a terrible waste of time, but the skeptical instinct is, on balance, salutary. It is right to suspect that the operations of government, the power elite and the military-industrial complex are often not what they seem; and proper to raise questions when the answers provided have been unconvincing. Given the untruths to which American citizens have been subjected these past six years, is it any surprise that a majority of them think the government's lying about what happened before and on 9/11?

Still, the persistent appeal of paranoid theories reflects a cynicism that the credulous media have failed to address, because they posit a world of good intentions and face-value pronouncements, one in which the suggestion that a government would mislead or abuse its citizens for its own gains or the gains of its benefactors is on its face absurd. The danger is that the more this government's cynicism and deception are laid bare, the more people -- on the left in particular and among the public in general -- will be drawn down the rabbit hole of delusion of the 9/11 Truth Movement.

To avoid such a fate, the public must come to trust that the gatekeepers of public discourse share their skepticism about the agenda its government is pursuing. The antidote, ultimately, to the Truth Movement is a press that refuses to allow the government to continue to lie.

Round Population Numbers Fuel the Immigration Scare

If there's one thing the media loves, it's a nice round number. Unless you had chosen this week to play Henry Thoreau, you probably noticed that the United States population passed the 300 million mark at some point in the last few days. Local newspapers rushed to declare one of their own the 300 millionth soul and nearly every media outlet from NPR to CNN to The News Hour devoted air time to explain to the their viewers What It All Means.

All the attention brought into high relief just how absent demography is from our routine political discussions. Well, with some notable exceptions. On October 18, I got an e-mail from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) with the subject "300 Million and Counting!" -- complete with the obligatory black-and-white photo of a crowded city street at rush hour: Hell is other people. "Can the U.S. sustain this continued increase in its population or will this growth suffocate a once thriving nation?," the e-mail asked. It wasn't really a question.

It's a strange quirk of the anti-immigration movement, that while the base is animated largely by xenophobia, the leadership, like FAIR, Numbers USA and others are driven by the far more esoteric concern of population growth. Much of this is the legacy of John Tanton, the eccentric, brilliant opthamologist from Petoskey, Michigan who founded FAIR and pretty much single-handedly started the modern anti-immigration movement. Tanton's worldview was formed at a time when demography was a major concern, thanks to Paul Ehrlich's landmark book The Population Bomb, which predicted the world was about to breed itself out of existence. As the United States' native-born birthrate leveled off in the 1960s, Tanton turned his attention to the source of the nation's continued growth, which was propelled by immigrants and their offspring. The rest is history.

So that explains why Dan Stein, head of FAIR, was everywhere last week, from MSNBC to the op-ed pages of USA Today making the case that 300 million was an ominous milestone and the culprit was our porous borders. For FAIR, the rare spotlight on population growth was a golden opportunity to make their case. "Overcrowded schools, congested highways, environmental stresses: We are a nation paving over its wildernesses while depending on our enemies for vital resources," Stein wrote in an editorial in USA Today. "Why? Because Americans have been blindsided by a government-mandated mass immigration program that's fueling this nation's runaway population growth. This growth was neither planned nor expected, but we feel the consequences every day."

Stein's partly right. There is little official policy that sets out an ideal U.S. population, but images of crowded streets and traffic jams aside, the fact remains that the US is still a very big place, and relatively sparsely populated. With thirty-two people per square kilometer, the U.S. ranks 172nd in the world in density. Amsterdam and South Korea, just to name two, are each more than ten times as dense.

But of the world's richest nations, the United States is also the only one with a robustly growing population. Most of Europe has been caught in a much-discussed population drought, a birthrate so far below replacement rates that countries like Italy and Spain could lose half their population in the next fifty years. But thanks largely to higher birth rates of America's immigrants, the U.S. faces no such problems.

Is that a good thing? There are arguments on both sides, but ultimately it's the wrong question. Some in the anti-immigration movement point out the environmental effects of the increased resource consumption come from increased population, but if that's your concern, there's no reason to wall off the United States and let, say, Mexico slide into environmental ruin. And while it's true that once people come to the US they burn a lot more carbon, that logic would also imply that it's a good idea to keep the rest of the world poor, which doesn't quite seem fair. The fact is that population growth isn't really a problem for the US. As one environmentalist told me, "It's not that we have too many people -- we have too many cars."

Of course, you can't very well win elections or raise much money demonizing cars. Groups like FAIR figured that out long ago.

Postmark Guantanamo

After the U.S. Senate voted last year to strip Guantanamo detainees of the right to habeas corpus, you'd think it would have dashed the hopes of the desperate prisoners that the world's greatest deliberative body would prove their salvation. But Saifullah Paracha is apparently an eternal optimist. In March, after 18 months in Guantanamo, Paracha, 58, decided to write a letter to 98 U.S. senators describing his plight. The senators haven't responded, though it's hard to blame them. They don't know the letters exist. The Department of Defense won't release them for delivery.

"He lived in the United States," says Paracha's lawyer G. T. Hunt. "He's a pro-American person. He believes in American justice. He believes that if he can get a hearing he'll get out."

In 1986, after studying and working in New York for 16 years, Paracha moved back to Pakistan, to Karachi where he and his wife raised four children and he managed several business ventures. In July 2003, Paracha traveled to Bangkok for what he thought was a meeting about a business opportunity. He never made it out of the airport. Masked men abducted him, taking him to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan where he was interrogated and, according to Hunt, imprisoned in a cell with no toilet. His family spent a month with no idea of his whereabouts, until the International Committee of the Red Cross notified them he was in U.S. custody. After a year in Bagram, he was sent to Guantanamo in September 2004.

The United States believes that both Paracha and his son Uzair aided several Pakistani men alleged to be al Qaeda operatives. In November, Uzair was convicted in federal court of providing the operatives with "material support" and now faces up to 75 years in jail. Uzair maintains his innocence. He says he was an unwitting accomplice, merely helping his father's business associates with their U.S. immigration papers. Saifullah says he does have a relationship with the alleged terrorists, but only knew the men as investors, not al Qaeda operatives. Unlike his son, he hasn't been afforded an opportunity to make his case in court.

The rules guiding attorney/client correspondence at Guantanamo are frustratingly vague, lawyers for the detainees say, and the processing delays are maddening. Mail routinely arrives six months after it's been sent, if it arrives at all. "For months I sent him letters and he sent me letters and they were all just impounded," Hunt says. "Now, I think my letters get through but they take their sweet time about it."

The ostensible reason for the backlog is security. "The attorney/client communications go to a secure facility, which happens to be here in Washington," Hunt says. "And they can't leave there until the government clears it and says it's not sensitive and not classified."

In order to read Paracha's correspondence, Hunt must go to the secure location--"a grim featureless office, with blinds drawn 24 hours a day"--where he's allowed to read Paracha's letters to him before placing them back in a safe. Last month he saw the 98 letters, painstakingly copied in longhand, which Paracha had sent to him to review and distribute. But Hunt was told he couldn't remove them from the safe. He can't disclose what's in the letters--"it's a state secret," he quips--but says "the person with the right authority could sit down, take a glance at them and then say, 'OK they can go out.' "

A Pentagon spokesperson wouldn't comment directly on Paracha's letters but said that over a six-month span in 2005, there were 10,000 pieces of mail sent to or from detainees. The detainees are "in close contact with family and friends if they choose to be," the spokesperson said.

After Hunt sent an email to his fellow Guantanamo lawyers about the detained letters, several of them contacted their senators to inform them they had mail the Pentagon wasn't letting them read.

This prompted an indignant letter from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who wrote to Rumsfeld on June 5, asking if the Department of Defense has a "written or unwritten policy prohibiting all persons detained at Guantanamo Bay from writing to, or communicating in any manner with, Members of Congress?"

If so, "please explain what legal authority supports such a policy."

On the bottom of the letter, Leahy scrawled in pen: "Is this really happening!"

Paracha must be asking himself the same question.

Can We Win the Ground War at Home?

"We progressives, we just keep going back for more and more punishment," Rachel Barber says to me between sips of coffee. "We never learn."

It's just after 9 am on a wickedly gray, damp October Saturday in Westerville, Ohio, just outside Columbus. Barber, a music teacher with a sunny demeanor, is sitting in a union hall with 150 other volunteers and grassroots activists. If you had fallen asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, a year ago and awoken inside this meeting room, draped with the familiar banners of Democracy for America and America Votes and overflowing with earnest volunteers munching on bagels, you'd think it was still 2004 and the quest to defeat Bush was at its height.

But it's 2005, and Bush hardly gets a mention. The volunteers are here to help pass a November ballot initiative called Reform Ohio Now (RON), a package of reforms aimed at the increasingly wide-reaching scandals of the state's governing Republican machine.

Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor emeritus who helped initiate RON, warns the room that they face a formidable opponent: "Most of the Republican grassroots organization is intact because the people involved were from right here in Ohio. And a lot of the people who supported our side were from out of state. So the fact is, we're bragging about our grassroots organization, but let me tell you: We have to work hard just to match them."

Asher proves prescient. Despite polls late in the campaign that indicated several of the RON initiatives would pass, all four were defeated by large margins. Last year's presidential election inspired an unprecedented mobilization on both the left and the right, but while the pro-Bush mobilization happened primarily within the channels of the Republican Party, things were far different on the left.

Because the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law banned the unrestricted donations called "soft money," which had previously formed the financial backbone of the Democratic Party, a broad coalition of independent organizations arose to accept the checks the party could no longer take. These "527" organizations, most notable among them America Coming Together and the America Votes coalition, executed their very own campaign on Kerry's behalf, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, training thousands of new organizers and contacting millions of voters.

(Conservatives made use of 527s as well, most no-toriously the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) Given the Bush victory, Democrats could hardly call the enterprise a success. But last year's mobilization pointed the way -- albeit in a sometimes dysfunctional fashion -- toward a future progressive movement radically different from the loose conglomeration of Washington-based issue-advocacy organizations that have dominated the liberal-left since the 1970s.

"Last year was the League of Nations phase of the left's reorganization," says Dan Berwick, who managed several swing-state field programs for the League of Conservation Voters. "The basic idea -- the basic need -- was identified and addressed but with at best marginal success."

There were three key features of last year's effort. First, the 527s and their issue-advocacy partners in the institutional left rediscovered old-fashioned, face-to-face voter contact. While the bulk of this work was carried out by paid canvassers, a significant portion was done by volunteers -- hundreds of thousands of them, often in unfamiliar terrain and at great personal sacrifice, renting vans, driving to swing states and sleeping on floors.

Second, without a Democratic Party or candidate's campaign to coordinate efforts, the disparate groups within the broad America Votes coalition, from the NAACP National Voter Fund to MoveOn.org to the Sierra Club, had to figure out a way to work together. In many places coordination was flawed, but the presence of any coordination at all was a serious breakthrough.

Finally, there was the money: The 2004 election was the most expensive exercise of democracy in history, and for the first time in recent memory the center-left was able to keep pace with the corporate loaves-and-fishes bank account that is the Republican Party. "Infrastructure" is a word so resolutely unsexy it makes "think tank" sound erotic.

These days, though, you can't get five minutes into a conversation with a strategist, activist or donor without the word cropping up. Since the infrastructure last year was built, like a refugee camp, for a short-term purpose, you might think that a year later the camp has been struck, with the equipment rolled up and stored away for the next election. That's partly true -- America Coming Together announced this past summer that it could raise only enough money to continue as a skeletal research organization, and dozens of the grassroots groups founded last year have folded as well.

But it's striking just how much has carried over. Democracy for America meetings in cities from Austin to Cincinnati draw hundreds, and there are small, informal progressive groups meeting at this moment in some of the most conservative counties in the country. None of this existed just three years ago. Dozens if not hundreds of activists who worked on last year's election are now running for local office, and the big institutional players like the labor and environmental movements continue to build power through grassroots organizing.

"It wasn't a blip," says Robert Kraig, political director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Wisconsin. "It was part of something that's seriously going on, on the left."

Steve Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO of America Coming Together, sits on an early September morning in the organization's Washington headquarters, in a small office strewn with reports and campaign detritus. He's a short, sturdy man with a blunt but appealing manner. When I casually refer to him as an organizer he interrupts to say, "Thank you, that's the highest praise you could offer," and blushes a little.

Last year ACT was the 800-pound gorilla of the 527s. It had a budget of $142 million and offices in seventeen states, hired more than 3,000 canvassers and knocked on 16 million doors. It was also one of the strangest organizations in American political history: a campaign with a candidate it could not mention, a movement with a focus-group-tested platform and an old-fashioned door-to-door field operation funded largely by billionaire financier George Soros. Because of its size and novelty, it attracted a lot of finger-pointing in the wake of last year's defeat.

Rosenthal still chafes at the charge that ACT failed to capitalize on the millions it raised. "We're seeing everywhere we look that this kind of stuff made a huge difference," he says a touch defensively. For years Rosenthal had been a prophet of the power of face-to-face voter contact, convinced of its effectiveness by his experience as political director of the AFL-CIO, where he used this method to increase union household turnout by 4.8 million votes at a time when nonunion-household turnout had declined by 15 million.

"Field," as door-to-door politicking is known, is the neglected grandparent of campaigning. Labor-intensive and time-consuming, it was considered inefficient by political professionals in an age when a single TV ad could reach millions of viewers. "There are many of us who spent a lifetime advocating grassroots voter-to-voter contact as an alternative to TV," says Rosenthal.

"We fought this out with the party and the candidates for years." In the 2004 election cycle a confluence of factors brought much of the political establishment around to Rosenthal's view. With the growth of cable, the decline of the networks and the rise of TiVo, there's no longer a single venue where an ad is guaranteed a wide swath of the electorate.

Besides, voters are so bombarded with advertising these days that they screen much of it out. And with the GOP getting better and better at get-out-the-vote operations, or GOTV, the final outcome could be determined by just how well the left got out its own base. ACT's plan was to layer phone calls, direct mail and, most important, door-to-door conversations to boost turnout among Democrats and persuade undecideds.

Rosenthal is adamant that it worked. In most of the contested swing states Kerry's vote totals were greater than Gore's in 2000. But Rosenthal hands me a postmortem study ACT conducted showing that in urban counties such as Philadelphia and Cuyahoga, in which ACT was involved, Kerry's percentage increase over Gore was anywhere between ten and thirty points more than his increase in the demographically similar county of Wayne, Michigan, where ACT had no presence. Rosenthal is joined by others, including independent political analyst Charlie Cook and even RNC chair Ken Mehlman, who credited ACT's "turnout prowess" for keeping Kerry within "striking range."

Even if ACT did significantly boost Kerry's vote totals in key states, it was, according to many who worked for it, hamstrung because it was erected on a massive scale in just a year and was disconnected from any pre-existing local infrastructure. Its approach was more like door-to-door sales -- a stranger at the door with a pitch -- than the old-fashioned precinct captain who knows the name and birthday of everyone in the household.

High-level staff was brought in from out of state, as were canvassers, many of whom were union members on loan from SEIU working on foreign terrain. This sort of trans-geographical politicking reached its logically absurd conclusion when a British newspaper urged its readers to call Ohio citizens and convince them to vote for Kerry.

Needless to say, it often backfired. As an alternative, consider Arnie Graf, who's been an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for thirty years. Graf and about ten fellow community organizers from Maryland and DC took the last two weeks of the 2004 election off and headed to East Cleveland, a city of about 30,000 mostly poor and working-class African-Americans. They had been invited by a community-based organization that set them up in a local church to work on boosting voter turnout in the city.

"We learned as much as we could about East Cleveland and got to know the issues," says Graf. "We wound up covering every door, about 30,000 people, and we decided instead of canvassing and talking about Iraq or how many jobs had been lost in Ohio we would talk to people about what was happening in East Cleveland."

Through the network of the East Cleveland Concerned Pastors for Progress, they recruited 140 volunteers who went door to door among their neighbors, and when election day was over Kerry's vote total in East Cleveland exceeded Gore's by 97 percent. Rosenthal acknowledges that for the long term, it's crucial to organize from the bottom up. In a business plan circulated after the election, ACT painted a picture of a kind of ACT 2.0, with deeper local roots, a focus on local issues and races and a mission of training a permanent, stable cohort of professional organizers.

"The greatest experience for me," says Rosenthal, "was going out to places and seeing young organizers who knew how to cut walk lists and put material together and run a GOTV. That was one of the stated missions from the beginning: We were going to train a whole new generation of organizers, and we were going to figure out a way to keep them working year-round."

But ACT's chief benefactors, most notably George Soros, balked. ACT's founders, says one source close to Soros, "had for a long time thought it would be a good idea to have something like ACT as a going concern. But that's not what George funded. He doesn't feel that he wasted his money. ACT did what it said it would do…. But the notion that it was ever an idea that he would give $20 million to ACT for 2005 was not on the books."

This strange marriage of grassroots organizing and wealthy funding ended, at least for the time being, in an abrupt if amicable divorce. While ACT may have met its demise, the vision of permanent, grassroots, locally based organizing is exactly what other groups across the country are now attempting to put in place.

It's hard to overstate just how much of a sea change this is. Beginning in the 1970s, as the 1960s social movements became institutionalized and moved to Washington to work on legislative advocacy, there were fewer and fewer organizers in the field, with the notable exception of groups like ACORN and the PIRGs. Community organizers like Graf continued to organize in the inner city, but they've traditionally eschewed electoral work. Unions retained the largest local presence, but the labor movement had been in decline for decades.

At the same time, the Democratic Party's organization had atrophied so thoroughly that by the late 1990s the party had become, in the words of one organizer, little more than a "brand name and a bank account." If liberals substituted financial capital for social capital, as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam puts it, ACT attempted to convert financial capital into social capital, to turn money from donors into a web of relationships with voters.

It was an inefficient process, and if there's a single difference between the state of progressive politics before last year and after, it's the organic regeneration of this kind of social capital.

Consider Paul Hackett's near-upset victory in an August special election for a Congressional seat in Ohio's conservative Second District. Before the race became the focus of national attention and blogger fundraising, Hackett campaign manager David Woodruff had a shoestring budget and a staff of three. So he turned to members of the Hamilton County Democratic Forum, a group of local activists who'd banded together after the presidential campaign in an attempt to maintain the momentum they'd built up. They continued to meet regularly and reached out to Woodruff, who came to rely on them.

"I could call this organization and say, Could you guys get me every veterans' bill that's come before Congress in the last year and a half?" says Woodruff. "They'd meet that Tuesday and Thursday night and pull it together."

"Last year, if you had an Internet connection and a computer and two friends, you had an organization," says America Votes Ohio director Scott Nunnery. "I talked to a woman on the phone the other day, and she was offended I didn't know who she was. 'I'm the chairperson of GAG,' she said. I'm like, 'What's GAG?' She's like, 'Grandmothers Against George!'"

In Ohio alone, dozens of the groups started during or immediately after the 2004 campaign, like the Perry County Democratic Forum and Upper Arlington Progressive Action, are still going strong. With so many different organizations, effective coordination has become essential.

To stave off chaos, last year the small, sparsely staffed group America Votes was given the job of playing "traffic cop of the progressive community," in the words of its president, Cecile Richards. "By the end of the election," she says, "people really did give up their own institutional program and their own identity to throw in together."

That's probably a bit of an overstatement, but America Votes did have one unambiguous triumph: All (well, nearly all) of the members of the coalition used the same voter file, known as the ACT VAN, entering information procured by canvassers and phone bankers about which way voters were leaning and important issues for the undecided.

This meant that when election day came around and it was time to divvy up GOTV tasks, everyone was working from the same information. The ACT VAN might be last year's most concrete achievement, and it could serve as a cornerstone for a kind of permanent shared voter file for progressive organizers.

"Data and voter files are to politics for the next ten years what media have been for the last twenty," says Rosenthal. But other than the ACT VAN, the coordination was weak. Except for volunteer contacts and membership lists -- which the coalition partners were loath to share -- the overwhelming majority of America Votes members had little local capacity to contribute to a field or GOTV effort. Many of the America Votes partners didn't even start talking to one another until a week before the election.

But the failures of coordination as much as the successes convinced many strategists of the need for a permanent platform for collaboration at the state level. "It's a totally different way of approaching the work," says Richards. "Campaigns are by necessity short-term-focused and completely tactical. They're like the circus -- you set them up, you do the show and then you tear them down."

So even though in the last election America Votes was dwarfed by the size and scope of ACT, it has managed, improbably, to outlive it. There are now America Votes directors in three states whose sole purpose is to coordinate the legislative, electoral and organizing strategies, and the organization is looking to expand to ten states in 2006.

There are signs that these small steps toward an integrated approach are bearing fruit. At the state level, groups are collectively writing blueprints for building progressive majorities and implementing progressive policy changes. Because these blueprints require some groups to backseat their particular issue while devoting resources toward an initiative more likely to build political power, it's "where the rubber meets the road," says the SEIU's Kraig. "Right now, the level of coordinated planning among all the various elements of the left is entirely unprecedented. It's gone well beyond what happened in 2004."

There's a school of thought that believes the entire nonparty, noncandidate mobilization last year was a disaster, a useless duplication of effort perhaps made necessary by McCain-Feingold, but one that should be left in the dustbin of campaign history. To critics in this school, everything carried out by the America Votes coalition and its allies should be done by the Democratic Party itself, and outsourcing it can only create confusion and inefficiencies. (Indeed, in a strange twist, DNC chair Howard Dean, never known as a strong advocate of grassroots organizing before his presidential campaign, has become its most visible advocate. He has pledged to hire organizers and staff for the Democratic Party in every state. That may not sound novel, but for the DNC to make any investment in organizing in a nonpresidential year is unprecedented.)

To the extent that progressive organizations function, as ACT did, as mere surrogates for the Democratic Party, this criticism is probably on target. The real potential of the developing infrastructure -- that word again! -- isn't that it can more effectively elect Democrats; it's that it can serve as the foundation for a progressive movement.

Unlike a political party, which exists for the sole purpose of winning elections, a movement consists of an infrastructure and a worldview, a vision of political and social order more just, more humane and more democratic. There wasn't a whole lot of time spent fleshing out the progressive worldview last year, because the overriding goal, from both a strategic and an ideological perspective, was defeating Bush. But the challenges now for the progressive movement, if it is to live up to that grandiose title, are as much ideological as they are organizational.

What common vision do wealthy Manhattanite liberals, union members in depressed industrial areas, urban service employees, immigrant small-business owners, racial and ethnic minorities and university-town academics share? These days the answer, too often, seems to be simply: beating the Republicans.

Last year's hard-fought battle has produced among some progressives a vision of politics as a color war in which "our team" tries to beat "their team." In a recent In These Times essay, my colleague David Sirota identified this tendency as "Partisan War Syndrome," which "leads the supposedly 'ideological' grassroots left to increasingly subvert its overarching ideology on issues in favor of pure partisan concerns."

Building political power requires compromise and strategic tradeoffs. But with no vision of what you want the country to look like once you've won, it's impossible to distinguish smart compromises from self-defeating ones.

"If a Democratic candidate gets elected on tax cuts," says Kraig, "the campaign professionals celebrate at the bar and go home. But from a movement perspective you've just made it even harder to fund public services and public schools, so it harms the movement. You want to win in a way that builds public infrastructure long-term for the purposes of changing society. So your tactics start to be affected by broader considerations."

Chris Glaros, a Columbus attorney who founded a network of progressive grassroots groups in Ohio called Blue 88, told me he'd spent a lot of time "trying to figure out what it is that unites all these folks I talk to, all of whom have different pet issues they're concerned about. And the one thing I can come up with is that for all these folks there's a real and immediate sense that the very fabric of our democracy is imperiled."

If last year's presidential election revealed anything to the thousands of new grassroots activists, it was just how undemocratic our Republic has become. Voters in only a handful of states determined who would be President; barely more than half the voting-age population turned out despite the millions spent to get them to the polls; and no more than a dozen or so Congressional seats were competitive.

It was the great achievement of the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to radically democratize a country that had slipped into oligarchy: Progressives rewrote state constitutions to increase access to elected representatives and institute state referendums, they dismantled unaccountable political machines and they amended the Constitution to provide for direct election of senators and suffrage for women.

These Progressives recognized that to achieve a more just state and society, power had to be redistributed in a structural fashion. The same is true today. Our dysfunctional policies are largely the result of a dysfunctional democracy. Here is where ideology and strategy meet: If progressives are to democratize the country, they must first democratize their politics.

Who is Sherrod Brown?

There are two small but revealing items affixed to Ohio's 13th District congressman Sherrod Brown. On his lapel, he wears not an American flag, but a pin of a yellow bird in a cage. On a Thursday morning in October, as we leave his office to walk to the Capitol for a committee meeting, Brown hands me a bookmark-sized slip of paper that explains: "The canary represents the struggle for economic and social justice." It recounts how miners once took canaries into the mines so that when the birds died, they knew the air was too toxic to breathe. "Miners were forced to provide for their own protection. No mine safety laws. No trade unions able to help. No real support from their government. … It has been a 100-year battle between the privileged and the rest of us."

Clipped to Brown's belt is a small blue pedometer, one of a pair worn by him and his wife Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He walks, or perhaps more accurately, stalks all over Capitol Hill, leading with his chest pitched forward just slightly in a gait that is halfway between a bounce and a prowl. "He never takes the elevator," his spokesperson Joanna Kuebler tells me as we wait for Brown to emerge from a meeting with a group of scientists advocating for nuclear disarmament. When it's time for a vote on the Hill, he eschews the underground subway that whisks members from their office buildings to the Capitol.

Handsome, with a slightly weathered face, curly hair and a deep, warm voice, Brown is universally described as "down to earth." In person he's as unposed as any politician I've ever met. "Those are the columns my wife wrote that won the Pulitzer," he says, dumping a pile of papers into the lap of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, who's waiting for the underground shuttle as we trot past. "He's a Republican," Brown whispers as we walk away, "but I like him. How could I not? He represents Cooperstown."

Brown, a huge baseball fan and an avid athlete, will to need to marshal every last bit of his considerable energy in the next year as he seeks to be become the first Democratic senator from the state of Ohio since John Glenn retired in 1998. He faces a primary challenge from Iraq war veteran and Internet darling Paul Hackett; if he wins the primary, he'll face Republican incumbent Mike DeWine, a senator with some of the lowest approval ratings in the country, but a seat that the Republicans will zealously defend. With Ohio still the nation's premier political battlefield, the race will be one of next year's most-watched campaigns: If a bedrock economic populist like Brown can win in a red state, it will explode the post-Clinton conventional wisdom that anything resembling "class warfare" is a non-starter for the Democrats.

But Brown's decision to enter the race after first saying he wouldn't prompted paroxysms of recrimination and anger in the blogosphere. "Brown's indecision created an ugly and totally unnecessary scene," wrote blogger Lindsay Beyerstein, one of Hackett's most prominent online supporters. "If he'd declared in the first place, Hackett probably wouldn't have challenged him for the nomination. Now, there's probably going to be a nasty little primary and lasting bad blood amongst Ohio Democrats. These are very real costs that Brown chose to inflict on his party."

Hackett, whom many bloggers treat like the local boy made good, and who was recently the subject of a glowing profile in Mother Jones titled "The Democrat Who Fought," provides the blogosphere an opportunity to prove, unequivocally, its own influence. "The reason to support Hackett over Brown is simple," wrote Beyerstein, "if Hackett wins (and he can win), the progressive blogosphere makes history."

Blog opinion on the race is by no means uniform. Many support Brown, but it's a strange feature of the blogosphere that a newcomer to politics like Hackett is widely considered a known quantity, while Brown, who's spent his entire adult life in public office, is a mystery. One skeptical blogger on the Web site Swing State Project summed up his reservations with a post titled: "Who is Sherrod Brown?"

Brown lacks the national profile of colleagues like Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders, but for the duration of his six-and-a-half terms in office, he has been one of Congress's most stalwart progressives. "I've known him for many years," says Sanders. "What's very clear is that Sherrod Brown knows which side of the struggle he is on." And when Brown's friend John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, says, "Sherrod Brown is one of us," he means it in the literal, familial sense. Brown's older daughter Emily is a union organizer for SEIU. When I met Brown, Emily had just lost a union election in a New Jersey nursing home. "She was crushed," Brown told me. "I mean, it's horrible. Have you ever sat and watched an election? They count the votes publicly and you can tell within 15 votes what's going to happen, and the workers are scared. … It's pretty depressing for the organizer but it's more depressing for the workers."

If Brown had announced a decision to enter the U.S. Senate race over the summer when he was being recruited by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, he likely wouldn't be facing a primary challenger and the "netroots," as progressive bloggers have taken to calling themselves, would be four-square behind him. But Brown demurred. His first marriage had ended in divorce, and he was aware of the strain that a campaign can place on a relationship, particularly a new one. After spending most of his first year of marriage in D.C. organizing against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), he and Schultz had not even moved in together. Brown was preparing for Emily's wedding and sending Schultz's daughter Caitlin off to college. And there were also questions about how a Senate candidacy would affect Schultz's job at the Plain Dealer.

Some Democrats, frustrated with Brown's dithering, are convinced that he was reluctant simply because he wasn't sure he could win. "I think he's cautious," says one Democratic Hill staffer who knows Ohio politics well and supports Brown. "I think that's the real reason. He values the seat he has and he's only willing to give it up if he's got a really good shot at winning."

On August 17, Brown posted a letter on his Web site GrowOhio.org, announcing he wouldn't run for Senate, and since 17th District Congressman Tim Ryan had also declined to run, it looked like the Democrats might have trouble finding a candidate. That's when Hackett stepped in. The 43-year-old attorney gained national attention this summer when he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq to his suburban Cincinnati home and ran in a special election to replace the 2nd District's Congressman, Rob Portman, who'd been appointed United States Trade Representative.

At first Hackett, who'd never held an office higher than city council in a small suburb, escaped the attention of the national media and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But his campaign was followed avidly by blogs, and Democracy for America, which together raised more than $500,000 and pushed him into the national spotlight. Hackett's credibility to talk about the mistakes in Iraq, coupled with his tough-talking demeanor (he called Bush a "son of a bitch" and Rush Limbaugh a "fatass drug addict") made the netroots swoon. It was like Howard Dean in uniform. Hackett ultimately lost the August 2 election in an overwhelmingly Republican district by just four points. A star, of sorts, was born.

In mid-September, Hackett started to lay the groundwork for a Senate run and paid Brown a call at his D.C. office. Brown had supported Hackett during the special election, paying the salary of online organizer Tim Tagaris and loaning Hackett his trusted political organizer Dan Lucas. Hackett says that in the meeting Brown spoke "in a general way" about supporting him in the Senate race; Brown says it was clear that he gave no endorsement. In either case, the take-away was that Brown wasn't getting in the race.

But three weeks later, Brown changed his mind. Schultz was able to make sure his candidacy wouldn't jeopardize her job at the Plain Dealer; Emily was married; Caitlin had gone off to college; friends and colleagues kept urging Brown to run; and as Schultz put it, "We moved into a really new house where we could open a window without a hammer, and we both said, 'There is a real danger here of getting too comfortable, and we didn't work this hard to get too comfortable.'"

In early October, Brown called both Hackett and DeWine to let them know he was in. "Telling those two guys," he says, "it wasn't the most fun day of my life."

Born to run

Sherrod Brown was born in Mansfield, Ohio in 1952, the youngest of three sons. His father Charles was a physician. His mother Emily hailed from Georgia and was an early supporter of the civil rights movement, introducing her boys to political activism at an young age. Sherrod was elected president of his high school student council. "He caused people a lot of headaches because he was such an activist," says his mother. "The principal didn't really care for him at all."

In 1970, he and his friends organized a march in Mansfield for the first Earth Day. "We did this really cool march and we had a really big crowd," says Brown with pride. "But we get down to the square and none of us had thought about what you do when you get down there. We didn't have any speakers, and it was like, 'Oh, shit.' So we just disbanded."

Brown enrolled at Yale, where he split his time between Russian Studies and campaign work for liberal candidates, including George McGovern. He so impressed Don Kindt, his local Democratic County Chairman, that the next spring, when Brown was back at Yale finishing up his senior year, Kindt called Brown and asked him to run for state representative. "I remember him calling me," says Sherrod's older brother Charles, who was in Yale Law School at the time. "'You just can't believe this, this is the most exciting news. Don Kindt wants me to run!'"

Sherrod graduated and moved back home, where his father, a Republican, was initially skeptical. "My dad says, 'I'm not voting for you, you're too young,'" says Sherrod. "But he helped a lot." Mrs. Brown recruited neighborhood kids to lick stamps and stuff envelopes in the basement of their house, and Charles spent nearly the whole semester in Mansfield running the campaign. By the time the election rolled around, Sherrod had knocked on 20,000 doors, nearly half the households in the district. In a stunning upset, he beat the Republican incumbent. She never saw it coming.

In 1982 at age 29, after eight years in the state House, Brown was elected Secretary of State. He spent two terms in Columbus, where his signature effort was voter registration outreach. He convinced McDonald's to print voter registration forms on their tray liners. "You could see voter registration cards with ketchup and mustard on them," he says, "and we accepted them."

Brown's first electoral defeat came in 1990, at the hands of a Hamilton County Commissioner with a franchise name: now-scandal-ridden governor Bob Taft. Taft's media consultant was none other than one-time Nixon aide and current head of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Brown says, "It was the worst campaign I've ever run." By all accounts the race for governor was brutal and the ads vicious. At one point, Brown showed up at Taft's campaign office and confronted him. The scene quickly devolved into a shouting match.

After the defeat, Brown moved back to northeastern Ohio and jumped into a crowded primary for an open congressional seat near his old home district outside Cleveland. He won the primary and immediately began a district-wide bike tour that passed through every township. It worked to great effect. He reports in his first book, "Congress from the Inside," that in a debate with his opponent late in the race he challenged her to name the high schools in the two largest towns in the district. She couldn't. He also made a series of promises, including a pledge to pay for his own health care out-of-pocket until Congress passed universal coverage. For the past 13 years, he's kept that pledge, turning down the insurance offered to members and purchasing his own, until recently, when at the cajoling of his wife, he joined her plan.

A Capitol story

Brown entered Congress at a heady time, one of 110 freshmen in the most diverse House class in history. Bill Clinton had ended the Democrats' exile, and for the first time in more than a decade the party had control of both the White House and Capitol Hill. Two years later, of course, after Clinton's health plan had gone down in defeat and Gingrich had assiduously laid the groundwork for an insurrection, 54 House seats swung from Democrats to Republicans, ending 40 years of Democratic control. Brown barely survived that year's anti-incumbent sentiment to return for a second term to a Congress in which, as he wrote in "Congress from the Inside," the "sometimes chaotic, no-one-seems-to-be-in-charge days of the Democratic majority were over. A hierarchical, military-like style with one man in charge was in place."

The "man in charge" has changed from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay, but for the last decade, life as a Democratic congressman has been frustrating if not downright depressing. "It's Kabuki theater," says Kuebler. "I stand over here and make a speech. You stand over there and say a speech. Then we pass what the Republicans want." The majority rarely allows amendments or opposition bills to come to a vote, and any Democratic changes to legislation that do make it out of committee are promptly gutted before reaching the floor. Perhaps most maddeningly, House Republicans now hold votes open two to three hours past the customary voting period while they break enough kneecaps to win. In a 2003 op-ed about the Medicare vote, Brown described one Republican hiding in the Democratic cloakroom to avoid the bullying of DeLay's enforcers. These votes are, "always in the middle of the night," Brown wrote. "Always after the press had passed their deadlines. Always after the American people had turned off the news and gone to bed."

Despite all this, Brown seems to relish the legislative process. When I ask him if he ever feels that being a minority-party congressman is an exercise in futility, he says "Well, the one thing about this place is that if you focus on an issue, particularly one that other members don't know anything about, you can really get something done."

One such issue is tuberculosis, the global scourge that infects one third of the world's population and kills 2 million people every year. After Joanne Carter, the legislative director for the NGO Results, first broached the topic of TB with Brown in 1997, he began using his position as ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee to lobby for increased funding. He traveled with public health advocate Paul Farmer to Haiti and visited Siberia, where rates of multi-drug resistant TB are frighteningly high. "It was an issue that was dying for lack of attention," says Carter. "He saw that as an opportunity. It was kind of an ego-less thing. It wasn't about 'this is my issue,' it was more: 'Who can I work with to get more resources for this and make sure the resources get better spent'" In 1997 Congress appropriated no funds for combating global TB and today it budgets more than $90 million. "He certainly deserves some of the credit for that," says Carter. "He helped create attention for this out of nothing."

Other than public health, the issue for which Brown is best known has been his energetic and sustained opposition to the free trade agreements pushed by both the Clinton and Bush White Houses. In his second book, "The Myths of Free Trade," Brown argues that "[a]n unregulated global economy is a threat to all of us," from "the child in Avon Lake, Ohio, who eats raspberries grown in Guatemala by poorly paid farmers who use pesticides banned in the United States," to "the Chinese prison camp laborer."

As wages in the United States have continued to stagnate and the trade deficit explodes, free-trade agreements face stiffer opposition among Democrats. While NAFTA passed with support from 40 percent of Democrats in the House, CAFTA passed with the support of only 7 percent.

For almost all of the last year, Brown was in D.C. coordinating the effort to block CAFTA, which will create a NAFTA-like "free-trade" agreement between the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. While corporate America pushed the bill hard with talk of opening markets, Brown pointed out that the combined purchasing power of the countries included in the agreement was roughly equivalent to Columbus, Ohio. He argues that it was cheap labor that CAFTA's corporate supporters were really after. The agreement was also loaded with intellectual property protections for big American corporations, but included no serious labor or environmental standards.

In an op-ed published on July 24, four days before the vote, Brown predicted, "If the House of Representatives passes the Central American Free Trade Agreement, it will take place in the middle of the night, the normal 15-minute roll call will be extended to about three hours so that House leaders can twist arms, and the legislation will pass by one or two votes." He was exactly right: The bill passed 217 to 215, in an extended vote that gaveled closed just three minutes after midnight. One hundred eighty-seven Democrats voted against the bill, joined by 27 Republicans. (According to The Hill, the 15 Democrats who voted for the bill have since reaped their rewards. Pro-CAFTA business interests have hosted more than a dozen fundraisers on their behalf.)

'A nasty little primary?'

One online organizer familiar with Hackett told me that if primary voters thought the race was going to be decided by Iraq, they'd be inclined to vote for Hackett, whereas if they thought it would come down to domestic issues, they'd vote for Brown. Hackett's recent service does give him undeniable credibility on Iraq. But Sherrod Brown is no John Kerry when it comes to the war. He has been an outspoken critic from its inception, and he voted against granting the president authority to wage it. In early 2003, as the United States massed troops and U.N. inspectors were allowed to return, Brown co-wrote a letter to the president, signed by 133 other members of Congress, affirming their belief that the "U.S. should make every attempt to achieve Iraq's disarmament through diplomatic means and with the full support of our allies."

Inspired by a biography of John Quincy Adams that described his practice of reading letters of constituents opposed to slavery, Brown took to the House floor nearly every night to read letters from constituents opposing the war. As the war has dragged on, he voted for some supplemental funding, but repeatedly called for a fuller accounting by the administration of both the mistakes leading up to the war and the billions of dollars that continue to be unaccounted for. He's currently a co-sponsor of a bi-partisan bill calling for the president to present a plan for withdrawal by December 31 and to begin removing troops by next October.

Hackett says that because Brown voted for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which expressed "the sense of Congress" that the United States should "support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq" and "promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime," Brown voted for the war. "How do you do regime change without invasion?" Hackett asks. "Did he think Tinkerbell was going to come down from outer space and wave her magic wand? I don't think so. Guys like me have to go in and do that. Sherrod Brown voted for regime change; he voted for military intervention in Iraq."

But the text of the bill itself explicitly contradicts that logic. "Nothing in this Act," it reads, "shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces" with the exception of training and weapons for Iraqi opposition groups. If Hackett's standard is to be applied, then Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, who both voted for the bill, and Ted Kennedy and the late Paul Wellstone, who were in the Senate where it passed unanimously, are all pro-war.

Brown could hardly believe Hackett's assertion. "Paul's failure to make a distinction between something like that and a vote to attack a sovereign country shows either his inexperience or his willingness to say anything to get elected," Brown said. "My position on the war has been consistent. Over the last three months, from his congressional race to now, he's had three positions. I think he's decided the only way for him to win is to be the most antiwar candidate, but he's danced too much for that."

During his campaign in the 2nd District, Hackett firmly opposed calls for withdrawal, saying, like Bush, that the United States could not "cut and run." On October 19 Democracy for America sent out an e-mail from Hackett asking recipients to sign a pledge that they would only support candidates who "[a]dvocate for a responsible exit plan with a timeline." Yet when I interviewed Hackett in early November, he called congressional requests for a mandated timeline "absolutely ludicrous," and said instead it was the role of Congress to "pressure the executive branch to issue the order to the Pentagon to develop the plan to withdraw the troops."

More than substantive differences on the issues, those supporting Hackett seem most seduced by his blunt manner. "I'm sure Brown would win my support if it were based solely on a checklist of issue positions," wrote one commenter on Beyerstein's blog Majikthise. "But the thing about Hackett, besides the merely neat and cool netroots stuff, is that the guy's got pizazz. I mean it. Pizazz counts. PH is a straight shootin', hairy chested, bare knuckled, 'bite me' war vet [sic]."

Brown, who's been intimately connected to the progressive grassroots for the entirety of his career, evinces more than a little bafflement at the portion of the new blog constituency that has been lobbing rhetorical hand grenades in his direction. "My wife says it's like when you have a cold sore, you keep running your tongue over it," Brown says. "I keep telling her, 'Connie, stop reading the blogs!' But she can't help herself."

But Brown's a shrewd campaigner, and seems to grasp the potential of online organizing. Back in June, he started GrowOhio.org, a "community-based project with the goal of empowering the grassroots of Ohio's Democratic Party." Upon entering the race, his campaign took out blog ads announcing his candidacy on all of the top progressive blogs. He also hired Jerome Armstrong, formerly of MyDD, and one of the original netroots gurus. He even posted a help wanted ad on the blogs seeking a campaign Web manager. "Hackett started out with an edge in the blogs," Brown tells me, "but we should have that neutralized soon."

Part of the reason for all of the rancor in the early stages of the primary is that the eventual opponent, two-term Senator Mike DeWine, seems so tantalizingly beatable. Survey USA ranks DeWine in 97th place among senators, with a 45 percent approval rating. In June, DeWine's own party's voters offered him a stinging rebuke, when his son Pat finished fourth in the Republican primary for the special election for Ohio's 2nd District. Many observers viewed this as fallout from the base's anger at DeWine for his role in the so-called Gang of 14, who stopped the GOP from carrying out its threat to use the "nuclear option" to get rid of the filibuster. In a recent Columbus Dispatch poll, Brown was ahead of DeWine 35 to 31. In the same poll, Hackett was down a point in a head-to-head match-up with DeWine, but earlier polls, without Brown, also had Hackett beating DeWine.

Hackett argues that with his military service and pro-gun stances he will be immune from the God, guns and gays campaign that Republicans pull out of the drawer for every race against Democrats these days. "2006 won't be the year of musical chairs for career politicians," he says. "At the risk of sounding overly impressed with losing the race in the 2nd District, I demonstrated I can cut deeply into Republicans and independents."

Brown believes his long progressive record will help rather than hinder. "For 10 years I won in a congressional district that was slightly Republican," Brown says. "I think that voters that don't agree with me on some issues will still say, 'Brown's on my side.' On economic issues I'm clearly not just in the mainstream, but in the great majority. The overwhelming number of people think the drug companies, the oil companies and the insurance companies rip Americans off. They don't like the Medicare bill, they want a minimum wage increase and they think our trade agreements hurt our country. On every one of those issues, I beat DeWine."

"I'll debate those with anybody."

The Case for a Democratic Marker

Journalist and historian Rick Perlstein's new book, The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party, begins with a "political parable" about the rise and decline of the American airplane giant Boeing. Founded in 1917 with a singular vision of cheap, accessible commercial air travel despite its huge risks, Boeing ultimately became one of the country's most successful companies by sticking to its ambitious vision through thick and thin. In the '80s, just as they were abandoning this long-term thinking for the quarterly profit-driven tactics approved by Wall Street, the upstart Airbus came onto the scene with their own long-term vision of the superjumbo. Boeing thought it folly, but it now appears that Airbus will get the last laugh--their new plane, the world's largest passenger aircraft, made its maiden voyage in April. For Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, this story serves as an analogy for the fortunes of the Democrats, who abandoned their own long-term project in the centrist '90s to please the "stock ticker" of the next election. Perlstein took time away from work on his forthcoming sequel to Before the Storm to talk about why Democrats must recommit to a long-term vision and stop playing by stock ticker rules.

You have this analogy between Boeing's multi-generational devotion to building the first jumbo jet and the Democratic Party's multi-generational commitment to insuring economic security. How have successive generations of Democrats built on the same project?

Take something like federal aid to education. That was an idea Democrats had ever since the New Deal. It never succeeded for various political reasons, but they just kept at it and by 1965 Lyndon Johnson finally passed the thing. By that time, everyone knew what the Democrats were about: They were the party that supported federal aid for education. Compare that to when the Clintons proposed their health care plan in the early '90s. He ran and won on the idea that he was going to deliver health care to all Americans, and for various complicated reasons he lost that battle. But instead of saying well, this is what the Democrats are about, we're going to stick to it despite the setback, Hillary Clinton very explicitly said: What I learned was that you have to do things in small steps and incrementally. She specifically backed off the marker that the Democrats laid down, that we are the party defined by our pledge to deliver health care to everyone.

I like this term 'marker.' What's it mean?

It's a gambling term. A marker basically is a commitment to pay. In Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit would say, "that guy holds my marker." It's something you can't back out of, on pain of getting your knees broken. The marker that Republicans have is that everyone who runs for office has to sign a pledge--it's enforced by their own knee-breaker, Grover Norquist--that on pain of political death they're not going to raise taxes.

My thesis is that a commitment that doesn't waver adds value by the very fact of the commitment. The evidence is that even though the individual initiatives that make up the conservative project poll quite poorly, they've managed to succeed simply because everyone knows what the Republicans stand for. And the most profound exit poll finding in the last election had nothing to do with moral values, it was all the people who said that they disagreed with the Republicans on individual issues, but they voted for George W. Bush anyway because they knew what he stood for.

He'd given them a marker.

Exactly. The world is an uncertain and scary place and there's value just in making credible demonstrations of fortitude. Now the amazing thing about this is that it's a virtuous circle for the Democrats. Not only can we increase the devotion of an electorate that looks at Democrats as piddling and feckless, it just so happens that when you poll the public on what they want, it looks much more like the Democratic agenda than the Republican agenda.

Okay, but if our superjumbo is "Big Government," many Democrats say that plane won't fly anymore. The project is intellectually bankrupt, we need a new one. What do you say to that?

Well, first of all, I'm a historian and the only time Democrats have been able to pull together a new majority and to grow was when they laid down these markers, pledges to ordinary Americans that the government would protect their economic interests.

The other thing is, there's a story about economic history of the recent past that historians will find us strange for not speaking about more often, and that's the stagnation of incomes for ordinary Americans. What could be more contemporary? What could be more timely than programs that address that crying need? Between WWII and the '70s the real incomes of Americans doubled. People who used to have outhouses were able to afford vacation cottages. Well, that's dropped off a cliff. If it makes me an old Democrat to try and restore what the Democrats of the '40s, '50s and '60s accomplished, which was running the country, sue me. I'm an old Democrat.

The most common analysis of why Democrats have strayed from this project--as one New Deal congressman whom you quote says "Freedom Plus Groceries"--points to corporate money. Today's Dems are feeding at the same trough and they can no longer take on the insurance companies, etc. But in the latter half of the book, you provide a fascinating psychological account of why the Democrats strayed from this project, which was sort of born out of the conflict of the '60s.

Yeah. The trauma of the generation of people who are running the Democratic Party was being blindsided by the political failures of left-of-center boldness. If you look at a lot of the most resonant and stalwart centrists and Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Democrats, for a lot of them, their political coming-of-age was being blindsided by conservatism. For Bill Clinton, it was losing the governorship in 1980. For Joe Lieberman, it was losing a congressional race in 1980. For Evan Bayh, the chair of the DLC, it was seeing his dad lose his Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. But the formative traumas of my generation of Democrats--and I'm 35--have been the failures of left-of-center timidity. So there really is a structural generational battle among Democrats. People of a certain age are terrified that the electorate is going to associate them with the excesses of the '60s, but most voters are too young to remember that stuff. The Republicans keep trying to paint the Democrats as the party of the hippies and punks who burn the flag.

In fact, we just got a new flag-burning amendment.

Yeah, but there's really less juice you can squeeze out of that orange every year.

So then how much do you think the political situation has changed since November? Do you see any positive movement forward?

With Social Security, where they've said "this far and no farther," could that be leveraged into something a little more ambitious?


Democratic politicians have done one thing very well this year. They've drawn the line on Social Security. It's been not only morally imperative, but enormously successful politically. The popularity of congressional Democrats has kept going up and the president's popularity keeps going down.

Now think about this: We're talking about a 70-year-old program. They're still drawing on the capital that Democrats bequeathed them 70 years ago. Isn't it their duty to work towards bequeathing some capital for Democrats 70 years from now to draw on? To me, the answer is obvious: Every American needs guaranteed health insurance. Unless these guys create a reason for people to identify with the Democratic Party, they have to work so hard every two years to squeeze out that 51 percent of the vote.

I want to make your job easy, guys. Do you really think that if the Democrats could make a credible pledge to Americans--vote in enough Democrats and you'll never have to pay another health care bill--people would still be voting on gay marriage?

We do have a timid bunch of folks in the Democratic Party, but that doesn't mean all is lost. Timid and cautious people can often express their timidity and cautiousness by being swept up in a tide. We've got to provide the tide and let them surf it.

Coins of the Realm

It's hard to think of a state outside the Deep South where the Democratic Party has been more thoroughly whupped than Ohio. For over a decade, Republicans have controlled the governor's mansion and all statewide constitutional offices and had near two-thirds majorities in both state legislative chambers. Both US senators are Republican, as are twelve of eighteen Representatives.

The sad fact is that the GOP has encountered precious little resistance on its path to hegemony; Democrats have been out-fundraised more than 2-to-1 and fight each other harder than they fight their Republican opponents. Lucas County, around Toledo, has two tribes of Democrats--the local press refers to them as Team A and Team B--whose members regularly battle each other for local office.

"The Ohio Democratic Party is so terrible and ineffectual," a friend who worked on the campaign in Ohio last year recently told me, "it ought to be taken into receivership."

But things might be about to change. Thanks to the arrogance and corruption of the state GOP and the tireless investigative journalism of the Toledo Blade, every day Ohio voters are learning more about "coingate," a scandal at once farcical and outrageous, that touches nearly every prominent elected Republican in the state and could finally pave the way for a Democratic resurgence.

The scandal starts back in 1997, when the state's Bureau of Workers Compensation, which provides workplace injury insurance for Ohio's workers, decided to start an "emerging managers" program that would allow outside managers to invest some of the fund's $18 billion in assets. With then-Governor George Voinovich's direct appointee at BWC calling the shots on who got the money, the $500 million set aside for the program offered a jackpot of prime contracts that could be doled out to supporters. In all, one hundred fifty-four fund managers were contracted to invest BWC money under Voinovich and his successor, Bob Taft.

Enter Thomas Noe, a GOP rainmaker (and Bush Pioneer) from the Toledo suburbs who, along with his wife, Bernadette, has contributed more than $200,000 to Republican candidates over the past fifteen years. Noe made his fortune in the rare coin business and somehow convinced the BWC that it could do the same.

In 1998, he got a contract to invest $25 million of state money in coins, with 80 percent of the profits supposedly going to the state. It was an unorthodox deal: not a single other state invests in the completely unregulated rare coin market, and there was no supervision of Noe, who acted as the main assessor of the collection's value and kept the coins stashed in warehouses around the country, all but one of which state overseers never visited. When the contract was reviewed in 2000, a state auditor immediately recognized the potential for self-dealing.

Noting that Noe and his associates "could potentially be realizing profits on sales of coins to the [fund]" he warned, "such a situation presents a conflict of interest and potentially exposes both the managers and [the bureau] to allegations of improper activity."

Not only did then-Republican State Auditor (and now Attorney General) Jim Petro ignore this warning, Noe was rewarded with another $25 million. The Blade's reporting has revealed that the auditor's concerns were well-founded: 121 precious coins have disappeared, including two worth $300,000 that were "lost" en route to a business partner of Noe in Colorado named Mike Storeim, who's since been accused of scamming the fund. Noe wrote off $850,000 of debt owed to the coin fund by another partner who had served a year in federal prison for laundering drug money, and after much prodding, Noe has now admitted that he can't account for somewhere between $10 and $12 million in state money--cash that investigators suspect he stole.

As an added wrinkle, the FBI is currently investigating Noe for violating federal campaign finance law by distributing cash to associates to donate to Bush at an October 2003 fundraiser. This suggests that the entire enterprise was functioning as a closed loop of cronyism: Republicans gave Noe access to state money, some of which he then skimmed for himself and some of which he funneled back into contributions to Republican candidates, up to and including the President of the United States.

Once reporters and investigators started looking into the BWC management, Noe's coin shenanigans turned out to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The BWC also lost $215 million (!) in a high-risk hedge fund and recently the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the BWC continued to allow another fund manager, Alan Brian Bond, to manage $50 million for eighteen months after the New York money manager had been indicted in a high-publicity kickback scheme. This prompted Democratic State Senator Marc Dann to craft a bill requiring BWC administrators to Google the investment managers once a month to make sure they haven't been indicted.

With its ever widening circle of misbehavior and Maltese Falcon trappings of rare gold coins and sketchy collectors, the scandal has captured the public's imagination. "I walked in the Memorial Day parade and people were handing me coins," says Dann, who represents suburban Youngstown. "When I go into Speedway, the coffee lady asks me every day about the individual developments in specific detail."

So far the state's prominent Republicans have been remarkably tone deaf in their handling of the fallout. At first Taft insisted the coin investments had outperformed the stock market and lashed out at the Blade for its "vendetta." Then amid calls for the state to file suit against Noe, Petro dragged his feet for fifty-one days, potentially allowing Noe time to move money around and hide assets. Now each day brings a new revelation of misdeeds and the states' Republicans are, in Dann's words, "arguing about whether they're incompetent or corrupt."

It's beginning to take a political toll: The head of the BWC has resigned, Governor Taft, whose second and final terms ends in 2006, has an approval rating of 19 percent, and Petro, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and Auditor Betty Montgomery, all of whom hope to succeed Taft, are working furiously to distance themselves from Noe, despite having all been beneficiaries of his largesse.

But will this all add up to Democratic gains in 2006?

Pete Giangreco, a Democratic political consultant who's worked in both Illinois and Ohio, says there's good precedent: In 2002 Illinois Dems swept to power, capturing the governor's mansion for the first time in twenty-six years in the wake of a licenses-for-bribes scandal swirling around then-Governor George Ryan. "I was in Columbus yesterday and was talking about how similar Ohio in '06 is to Illinois in '02. It's déjà vu all over again," Giangreco says. "Two things did it in Illinois, and it looks like the same dynamic: Pretty serious economic problems brought on by a GOP administration and a huge scandal and corruption in completely Republican-dominated state government."

"The public knows the problem is not just the people in power but the system itself," says attorney Chris Glaros, who recently co-founded the grassroots group Blue 88 to bring Ohio back to the Democratic Party. But unless Democrats get behind clean elections legislation, he adds, "disgust with the current scandal will not translate into trust that Democrats can do better."

"Democrats," Glaros says, "are going to win by arguing for real reform rather than making the case that they're inherently more trustworthy."

How to Turn Your Red State Blue

Last fall, I spent seven weeks in the suburbs of Madison, Wis., canvassing undecided voters for John Kerry. Driving back one day from a long session pounding the pavement, our car passed two young Mormon missionaries on bicycles. They were dressed in their standard garb: grim but oddly stylish black suits, white shirts, skinny ties and backpacks, all of which were getting soaked in the rain as they struggled up a hill, standing on their pedals for extra leverage.

"Now that," said a fellow organizer sitting in the backseat, "is canvassing."

Going door to door was hard enough. My pulse would quicken at each door, and after three hours tromping through numbing subdivisions I invariably got the urge to fill in numbers on my walk sheet, grab a soda and wait for the carpool to pick me up. And all we wanted was three minutes of someone's time to ask a few questions, give a short pitch and hand out some literature. A missionary who approaches a stranger's door is seeking nothing less than a complete reconstitution of that person's worldview. One imagines a lot of door slamming, unpleasant words and icy stares.

And yet the improbable fact about missionary activity is that it works, regardless of the faith's specific dogma. Mormons are the fastest-growing church in the country. Evangelical protestant congregations make up 58 percent of all new churches in the United States. Globally, Islam continues to reach into new and unfamiliar lands, experiencing explosive growth in China. Religions that actively proselytize – Pentecostals, Mormons, Muslims – grow, almost without exception.

There's a corollary to this in politics. Yale political scientists Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber have found in numerous studies of voter contact that face-to-face canvassing is far and away the most effective means of persuasion: Roughly one out of every 15 voters approached at the door will add their vote to your tally.

In a speech accepting his new position as chair of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean stressed the importance of reaching out to unbelievers through retail politics. "People will vote for Democratic candidates in Texas, and Utah, and West Virginia," he said, "if we knock on their door, introduce ourselves and tell them what we believe."

Five months after the election, progressives' efforts have largely shifted away from people's doorsteps, toward saving Social Security, opposing reactionary judicial appointees and reining in the administration's foreign policy. But I can't stop thinking about those Mormons on their bicycles. What are progressives doing to win conversions to our faith? Where are our young people on bikes approaching unfamiliar doors? How are we preaching the good news?

The True Political Nature of Americans

In all the ink spilled post-November about "What We Need To Do Now," precious few answers to this question have been put forth. Commentators seem to think either (a) we don't need to convert people because they already have fundamentally progressive values, or (b) converting voters is impossible, so the Democratic Party should just become more conservative. Both views are misleading and counterproductive; they divert attention from the crucial work of expanding the reach of progressivism.

Joe Conason, in his book Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (published before the election), offers a succinct articulation of the first theory: "Whether they now describe themselves as liberal or not, most Americans remain strongly progressive in their views about taxation, health care, education spending, Social Security, environmental protection and corporate regulation."

There are heaps of polls supporting this claim, but before concluding that the Democratic Party's recent misfortunes are the result of mass confusion or false consciousness, these polls must be considered alongside other evidence that suggests something deeper is at work.

Over the past several decades, the Democratic Party's traditional advantage in party identification has evaporated. Equal numbers of voters now consider themselves Democrats and Republicans. In 1977, upward of 45 percent of the population identified themselves as Democrats. Even more dramatic are the percentages of "liberals" and "conservatives" in the electorate. In exit polls from 2004, 34 percent of voters identified as conservative while only 21 percent identified as liberal.

Then there's the fact that both the government's policies and the electorate's voting behavior have shifted dramatically to the right in the last 30 years. Common sense would suggest that the best explanation for this is that most voters are conservative and the Republicans are the conservative party. If this is true, we cannot continue to imagine there exists a slumbering progressive majority waiting to be awakened with the right trumpet call. We cannot cling to the fiction that conservatives have somehow hypnotized the electorate, hoodwinking them into voting for Republicans and reactionaries while leaving untouched their internal worldviews, which somehow remain fundamentally progressive. It is important that we stare directly into the sun on this point. The right has fundamentally reconstituted the way Americans view government, politics, policy and the public sphere. We need to change it back.

In contrast to Conason, and others who have faith in the innate progressivism of the American voters, are Beltway strategists who take the polity's rightward turn as a given and subscribe to thesis (b), that conversion is impossible. Democrats can revive their party, they argue, only by changing their positions so that they more closely represent the conservative electorate.

Members of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its founder Al From adhere to this line of thinking. Within the DLC are two groups: One says Democrats need to win back white working-class voters by moderating on social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.), while another seeks to poach socially-moderate, suburban, Christine Todd Whitman-like Republicans by promulgating an even more slavishly pro-business, free market platform.

Such repositioning can easily be self-defeating. In politics it's often more important that you stand for something rather than what you stand for. Like clockwork, every two years the DLC urges the Democrats to "move to the middle" during campaigns. Then, when candidates take their advice and the inevitable failure ensues, Al From & Co. chide the party for not having gone far enough. The most common complaint I heard while canvassing in Wisconsin was that voters didn't know what Kerry stood for. And a recent Democracy Corps poll reported that twice as many people thought that the Republican Party knows what it stands for. Diluting what little there is left of the Democratic brand seems a poor marketing idea.

In other words, when someone proves initially unreceptive to an evangelizer's pitch, the young missionary doesn't then say, "Well, would you be interested in converting if you didn't have to believe in Jesus?"

Good Cop, Better Cop

There's a deeper philosophical question, though: What profit a party if it gain a majority and lose its soul? Even if it were true that a kind of neo-Clintonian Democratic majority is the best that can be achieved in the short term, the ultimate goal for progressives is the implementation of policies that promote social and economic justice, a more robust safety net, greater opportunity for all and the democratization of corporate power. Which is to say, electoral victories are means to ends.

Too often, we view the goals of winning elections and implementing a progressive agenda as inherently contradictory, when they can actually be parallel and mutually reinforcing. Creating more self-identified progressives accomplishes both: It creates more Democratic voters and builds a constituency for progressive policies.

Currently, a dysfunctional division of labor exists between Democratic politicians and the progressive base, in which the base spends much of its energy attempting to stop Democratic politicians from selling out core progressive principles, while it is left to the politicians to reach out to those in the mushy middle.

Ideally progressives should be giving candidates cover to implement a progressive agenda by doing the reaching out and convincing themselves. Kerry and Bush won liberals and conservatives by equal margins, respectively, but with conservatives outnumbering liberals five to three, Kerry's nine-point margin among moderates wasn't enough for victory. "Given the big conservative edge over liberals, that was the election," observed E. J. Dionne in The Washington Post. "Unless liberalism can refurbish itself, it will continue to be a drag on Democratic opportunities."

If a political party's job is to win elections by doing what is politically expedient, the activist's job is to make doing the right thing politically expedient. The GOP base hollers and screams about judicial nominations, while senators like Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch present themselves as voices of moderation, but the overall outcome has been a significant and scary rightward lurch in the federal judiciary. I've interviewed right-wing activists who rail against the GOP for selling them out on judicial nominees, but at some level they know they're winning, slowly but surely.

Over the years, progressives have used this bad cop-good cop dynamic to great effect: The tension between labor led by John Lewis (bad cop) and Franklin Roosevelt (good cop) produced the National Labor Relations Act. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement (bad cop) and LBJ (good cop) brought about the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

The lesson is that political parties are empty vessels. A party without a sufficiently militant base will end up standing for very little, and voters would rather vote for something than for nothing. At the same time, however, a party too tightly controlled by its base will likely pull the party toward electoral failure. Only by the productive interchange between activists and the party hierarchy can electoral success and long-term implementation of an ideological vision both be achieved. The challenge is to reach out without selling out. Today, the Democratic Party is failing to do the former while succeeding in the latter. It's the worst of both worlds.

Rick Perlstein, in his marvelous Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, writes of a young, ambitious Brent Bozell surveying the prospects for conservatism in 1959. As opposed to fellow Republicans, "who simply assumed a bedrock majority of Americans thought just like them," Bozell argued there was no conservative majority in America. "A conservative electorate," he wrote after Democratic victories in the 1958 mid-term elections, "has to be created."

Since Bozell wrote those words, he and his allies have succeeded in building that electorate largely by making more people into conservatives. The operative question for building a long-term progressive majority is not how we stitch together 51 percent of the voters into the Democratic quilt, nor how we wake people up to their own elusive progressivism. It is how we make more progressives.

Points of Access

Getting my hair cut the other day, my hairdresser, a gay man in his 40s who just went back to school to become a social worker, told me about his family's politics. "I can't even discuss politics with my siblings," he said. "My sister is a born-again Christian and my brother is the second-best Army recruiter in the nation." He paused for effect. "And they say my lifestyle recruits."

That accusation is one of the loopier bits of right-wing slander, but it's part of a larger narrative that claims the entire left is scheming non-stop to seduce and indoctrinate the unsuspecting. This is a comical bit of projection because it is the right that has so effectively created institutions to preach conservatism and win converts.

Examples of right-wing outreach abound, not the least of which are the numerous evangelical churches that became functionally indistinguishable from the Republican Party during the last election. Right-wing talk and Christian radio dominate the airwaves. The "pro-life" movement has created organizations like Feminists for Life and blackgenocide.org that seek to draw in those who don't initially self-identify as conservatives. Under Karl Rove's guidance, the GOP has aggressively courted Latinos through business and professional associations and African Americans through black churches. Conservative think tanks have funded right-wing undergraduate publications and groups that bring conservative stars to campus. The Federalist Society – a club of right-wing lawyers, many of whom played key roles in the Clinton impeachment and now populate the federal judiciary – distributes literature and hosts events attended by almost every first-year law student in the country, many of whom don't realize the group, with its innocuous-sounding name, is essentially a training program for conservative movement lawyers.

As the right has actively pursued a program of evangelization, it has simultaneously sought to infiltrate, discredit or destroy any institution that exposes people to progressive thought.

Consider a baby born in 2005 to a conservative family anywhere in America – that is anywhere outside of a major city where the very particles in the air are liberal. How might this child become a progressive? Her first possible exposure to a progressive worldview would be through children's media: books, videos and television shows. Conservatives patrol this border vigorously. Every several months or so, it seems James Dobson or Jerry Falwell is in high dudgeon railing against the perversions of some innocuous children's television character, from Bert and Ernie to SpongeBob SquarePants. Most recently, conservatives targeted Buster the cartoon rabbit, whose visit in one episode of his PBS show to a lesbian couple in Vermont prompted an angry rebuke from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Next, the child will likely attend public school, an institution conservatives have sought to control by taking over local school boards in order to introduce creationist textbooks, establish abstinence-only sex education and excise any lesson plans tolerant of homosexuality. And while activists seek to influence local curricula, right-wing think tanks advocate fully dismantling public education through vouchers and other ruses.

If our hypothetical student goes to college she will finally, for the first time, come face to face with a progressive worldview. Higher education stands as the only institution in American life today with a significant progressive presence. In classes, in clubs and in dorms, students are exposed to progressives and their views. Not surprisingly, Kerry won college-educated women by nine points, and all voters with post-graduate degrees by 11 points. And while he lost college-educated men, the trend lines are promising. He managed to do four points better than Gore.

Since college enrollment continues to climb, and the economy increasingly puts a premium on post-graduate degrees, this bodes well for Democrats. Conservatives realize this chink in their armor, which explains why their attacks on higher education are so ardent. David Horowitz's latest anti-university gimmick is Students for Academic Freedom, a web site where disgruntled conservative undergrads can post complaints, like this one, about unfair treatment from liberal faculty: On the last [paper], I wrote about how family values in the books weve [sic] read aren't good. I know the paper was pretty much great [sic] because I spell checked it and proofred [sic] it twice. I got an [sic] D- just because the professor hates families and thinks its [sic] okay to be gay.

Absurd as this is, Horowitz remains a serious threat. Currently eight different state legislatures are considering the Horowitz-authored "Academic Bill of Rights," which, unsurprisingly, would revoke academic freedom by making the government enforce some ill-defined "diversity." (Critics have pointed out that, as the bill currently reads, it could become mandatory for the underrepresented political views of, say, al Qaeda to be more widely taught.) There are already numerous conservative influences on contemporary campuses: business schools, well-funded publications, economics departments and major corporations that partner with universities in research. With the attacks of Horowitz and others intensifying, we must defend the independent progressive character of American undergraduate education with every arrow in our quiver.

Let's say, though, that our hypothetical youngster doesn't go to college, and instead enters the workforce. If her job is unionized, she will immediately be exposed to progressive ideas about fairness and workplace democracy, but the odds are overwhelmingly against her holding a union job. Over the last 30 years, unionization has fallen from more than 35 percent to less than 12 percent of the workforce due to, among other things, a sustained attack by Republicans on the right to organize. From the instant the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, the business class has recognized that unions are the most direct means by which working-class voters are brought into the left. Being in a union has an even more dramatic effect on voting behavior than college. Kerry won two-thirds of union members, and among working-class white voters, a group Kerry lost by 24 points, he won a majority of those in a union.

In fact, when you survey the trend lines in the Democratic coalition, you see an odd but altogether predictable trend. College-educated voters are increasingly moving to the left while working class voters are moving to the right. A host of ideas have been put forward to explain this, but the erosion of labor unions and the progressive character of the academy accounts for much of it.

Outside of school, work and friends, the only other real entry point for our hypothetical subject is the Internet and blogosphere. And while these are invaluable resources for people who have no other access to progressive ideas, they don't ring your doorbell or leaflet your local supermarket. High-profile groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Sierra Club and People for the American Way don't help much either. Though they fight tooth and nail for progressive causes, they are essentially self-contained, devoting little energy toward recruiting non-progressives. Organizations like MoveOn and Democracy For America have revived grassroots, meeting-based membership organizations, but they serve chiefly as a means of coordinating existing progressives rather than pulling new people into the fold. How would moderates, conservatives or those with little in the way of fixed politics ever find themselves interfacing with MoveOn other than a TV ad?

Growing the Flock

Andy Stern, the controversial head of the nation's fastest-growing union, Service Employees International Union, likes to say that he's a "radical about growth." He's recently made waves in the labor movement by pushing for radical restructuring of the AFL-CIO, with an eye toward focusing the movement's efforts on organizing new workers and bringing millions more under labor's tent. He points out that while unions poured unprecedented resources into the 2004 presidential campaign and did an impressive job of getting their members to the polls to vote for John Kerry, there simply weren't enough union members to swing the election.

The same could be said of progressives in general: We can mobilize all we want, but if we are mobilizing a shrinking group of people, it's worth little.

In order to grow, progressives need to systematically expand the universe of access points to the progressive worldview and actively recruit people into the fold. There are three main ways this can be achieved: the development of a vibrant progressive mass media, a revived labor movement, and the organizing of large-scale grassroots social movements in regions and among constituencies that are currently estranged from progressivism. Many astute commentators have written extensively about the first two, so it seems wise to focus here on why the third part of this strategy is important, and what it might entail.

Once upon a time, organizing meant more than coordinating e-mail petitions or hosting house parties to raise money and awareness. It meant something much closer to what we now think of as missionary work. A union would send an organizer into, say, a small mining town in Pennsylvania. He would reach out to the miners, get to know them and their families, and tell them what a union was and how it could help them. He would try to convince them to risk their livelihoods by banding together and demanding a safer workplace and better wages. This was difficult, often bloody work. But when it worked – and often it didn't – it effected a transformation of the miners who joined the union. They now had a new identity. Even if they had joined solely for higher wages or a mine less likely to kill them, after suffering lockouts, harassment and possibly beatings, they would have an entirely new perspective on bosses and power. They would be more progressive.

This is what social movements at their best do. They pull back the curtain on power and expose its workings. They politicize those without political engagements by transforming personal grievances in the workplace, at home and in society into political issues. Before the labor movement, a dangerous workplace, low wages and arduously long workdays were just crappy things about a person's life. Before feminism, stifling your personal ambitions in favor of doting on your husband was just a drawback to being a woman.

And here's one point of access that conservative policies are inadvertently expanding: the moments of personal crisis – unmanageable debt, hospitalization without health insurance, lack of mental health services, sudden unemployment – that reveal to Americans that the right's ideology of "personal responsibility" masks the destruction of a social safety net for middle-and lower-income workers.

Movements draw people into something larger than themselves and show them who their friends and enemies are. A union organizer once told me, "I do this work for the three or four times a year when you look in a worker's eyes and you see she realizes what she's up against."

Through opposition and conflict, movements introduce their participants to a broader political ethos, one that may have a host of specific ideological commitments that are initially foreign. In What's the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank highlights how this works on the right. The working-class Kansans he describes who became involved with Operation Rescue because of a strongly held religious belief in the iniquity of abortion didn't start out with a position on the inheritance tax, school vouchers or energy deregulation. But to join the "pro-life" movement is to join the conservative movement as a whole. Quickly members learn who their enemies are – liberal elites, college professors, Hollywood, feminists – and through a sort of ricochet reasoning set their politics on other issues in opposition. Unions work in a similar fashion. When you learn that the boss's interests are, in many cases, diametrically opposed to your own, you start listening to what positions the boss takes and then take the opposite.

Taking on Creditors

So what would a newly evangelical kind of progressive movement look like in 2005 and beyond?

Here's an idea. One thing that nearly all Americans share is debt. Building a movement around credit reform – through the formation of local "debt clubs" that would be part of a national campaign, for example – would be one way for progressives to reach out to non-believers.

Almost one in seven households have declared bankruptcy. Many middle class families that took out second mortgages during the '90s refi craze are now skating on thin ice. The average American family saw its credit card debt rise 53 percent during the '90s. Credit card companies have dramatically raised late fees – revenue from which increased fourfold between 1996 and 2001 – while reducing minimum payments.

The result is that people stay in debt longer and pay more. Using an industry standard 2 percent minimum payment, a $5,000 balance will now take 32 years to pay off, at an interest cost of almost $8,000. In the last decade, more than 14,000 payday lending establishments have sprung up across the country wherever there are working and poor people living paycheck to paycheck (including military bases). Their short-term, high-interest loans, which are easily rolled over, can approach annual rates of 450 percent.

Young people today are beginning their adult lives already buried in debt: The average college student now graduates with $18,900 in student loans, the bulk of it non-subsidized debt at commercial interest rates. The interest costs of these loans are likely to increase as Republicans seek to cut federally-subsidized Stafford loans and Pell grants.

We have a moral obligation to do something about this. Fighting against usury and the persecution of debtors has a long religious history as well as a social justice lineage. If there is one value that progressives should stand for, it is the democratization of capitalism, and few things are as inherently undemocratic as a society where large numbers of middle- and working-class people are at the mercy of a small group of unregulated creditors. Building an anti-debt movement would also be an appropriate strategy for these post-industrial times, when consumers are exploited for their purchasing power just as workers are for their cheap labor. As our economy gets riskier by the day, we need policies that mitigate that risk, not exacerbate it.

Organizing around debt makes a lot of political sense. It hits families with children especially hard (a group Kerry lost by a 19 percent margin). It unites a wide swath of the electorate – urban, rural, black, Latino, white – and has special resonance in places where Democrats fare worst. The 10 states with the highest bankruptcy rates are all red states – Utah, Tennessee, Nevada, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio, Mississippi and Idaho.

A movement for credit reform also has the potential to drive a wedge between cultural and fiscal conservatives, weakening the coalition of conservative interests while building the progressive "brand" by re-associating progressives with fairness, justice and populism. There's ample precedent. During his famous Cross of Gold speech in 1896, populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who in many ways forged the 20th century Democratic Party, asked: "Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight – upon the side of 'the idle holders of idle capital,' [i.e., the banks], or upon the side of 'the struggling masses'?"

The moment is also right. The criminally venal bankruptcy bill just passed in the Senate (with the votes of 18 Democratic senators) caught the attention of the progressive blogosphere, which helped launch an unsuccessful bid to derail it. Ultimately that effort failed because there was no national, grassroots movement made up of debtors. Creating one should be a top progressive priority.

America Coming Together (ACT), a massive voter organization group, could, in a future incarnation, select 100 red counties in red states with high bankruptcy rates and pay for two organizers and an office in each. The organizers would use the extensive e-mail lists of groups like MoveOn and Democracy for America to recruit volunteers from among local progressives, and reach out to people in the area who are in serious debt through canvassing, fliers and other means.

They could form these local debt clubs that would offer an opportunity to share experiences and get practical advice about consolidating debt, the best strategies to avoid foreclosures and how to file for bankruptcy. These clubs might next begin to target local predatory lenders or payday lending outfits, demanding that municipalities change zoning laws to stem their growth.

At the same time as organizing and outreach is happening on the ground locally, ACT could begin a national media campaign around a "credit reform" platform that would reregulate the credit industry, empower those filing for bankruptcy, cap annual interest rates and outlaw predatory lending practices. Groups like MoveOn, TrueMajority and progressive blogs could promote the cause and solicit membership dues from all over the country, the proceeds of which would go to support those who were victims of particularly egregious practices. Progressives nationwide could target the purveyors of the worst practices for a boycott.

Success would build on success. As local groups discovered that credit reform is possible, the agenda might expand toward healthcare reform, since so many bankruptcies are caused by healthcare crises, or debt forgiveness for developing countries suffering from similar fates as American debtors.

With enough time, hard work and resources, one could imagine the development of a real, broad-based and politically powerful constituency in favor of an economically progressive agenda.

Many community groups, like ACORN, are doing work in this vein. But they don't have the resources of ACT or the Democratic National Committee. And most important, due to their tax status, they are unable to bring their leverage to bear in the electoral arena. The "central challenge for progressive politics," Paul Wellstone wrote in Conscience of a Liberal, is "how to build the local victories into a strong national and international presence that can crucially define the quality of life."

In tandem with local organizing, then, the local debt clubs would also need to develop a muscular political program and electoral organization that is independent of, yet operates within, the Democratic Party. Volunteers would be trained as campaign managers and canvassers, and leaders would be groomed for campaigns for local office – alderman, city council, state rep – and campaign on credit reform.

Wellstone's own Senate campaigns fully embodied a successful hybrid of community organizing and electoral politics. As a liberal college professor, he would seem to be the ripest possible target for any number of right-wing smears. Yet he won statewide office in the swing state of Minnesota twice. Much of his success rested on his base of support among poor and working-class rural voters whom he had been organizing for more than a decade prior to his first campaign in 1990.

Clearly, organizing around debt won't by itself revive the Democratic Party. It is just one possible example of the kind of issue that can anchor evangelical grassroots organizing. There are a number of other issues with similar potential – healthcare and a universal living wage both come to mind – and there is no shortage of other avenues to pursue. Progressives must articulate a coherent foreign policy that is non-imperialist, non-militaristic and non-corporatist, but vigilant in its commitment to security and the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.

The efforts to build a real progressive mass media are also vital, since they provide another possible entry point for those isolated from progressivism. Universities and higher education must be defended from reactionary attempts to enforce state-dictated political orthodoxy. The labor movement must be revived by any means necessary.

What must be avoided at all costs is a tendency to hunker down and commiserate over how embattled we are. We must be outward looking, expansionist and evangelical in our every move.

I recently attended a meeting of a local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ where the club's president screened a 10-minute video intended to get people excited about evangelizing. It was a blurry digital video featuring college students answering the question: "Would you be interested in a conversation about God if your friend brought it up?" Uniformly, the students in the video said, yeah, sure, why not. The video ended with an exhortation that is as relevant to progressives as it is to young Christians:

"They're willing to listen," it said. "Are you willing to tell?"

The Fight for Our Future

Here's something to consider: It's a concrete possibility we will wake up one morning and there won't be a single American labor union left. For 30 straight years, American organized labor has been hemorrhaging members, power and influence. [Fifty years ago, 35 percent of workers belonged to unions, today just 12 percent do (and only 9 percent in the public sector).] There are already 22 states in which "right-to-work" rules effectively outlaw collective bargaining; the National Labor Relations Board, entrusted with the sacred duty of protecting the human right to organize, has been turned into just another way station for GOP corporatist hacks; and the American manufacturing sector, once the backbone of the movement, has been eviscerated by globalization.

Faced with the possibility of permanent irrelevance, different factions of the AFL-CIO have recently been engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight over what is to be done. Despite occasional coverage in the mainstream media, this has drawn just a smattering of attention in liberal publications and the blogosphere. But progressives everywhere need to realize that they have a powerful stake in its outcome: Without the American labor movement there is no American left, and the debate taking place right now could very well determine if the movement survives.

So for those of you who've spent the last year following electoral politics (and subsequently sitting shiva for the republic), what follows is a guide to the key points of contention, the major players and what to expect in the months to come.

So what's all this hubbub about the AFL-CIO possibly breaking up?

Last summer Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest and fastest-growing union in the AFL-CIO, threatened to leave the AFL-CIO unless the federation undertook drastic structural reforms – by merging smaller unions to form larger ones and strictly enforcing jurisdictional lines. The announcement caused a stir, not the least because it happened during the heat of the presidential election, when labor was supposed to be presenting a united front. After SEIU made its announcement, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) announced that it would leave the federation if Stern got his way, so the AFL-CIO stands to lose either SEIU or the Machinists, or – if things go badly enough – both.

Stern's announcement seems like it came out of nowhere; had SEIU hinted before that it was dissatisfied with the AFL-CIO?

Yes. The current dissension actually began back in 2003 when, as reported in these pages by David Moberg, the heads of five unions (including Stern) formed the New Unity Partnership (NUP) (see "Organize, Strategize, Revitalize," Feb. 16, 2004). The NUP argued that the union movement was dangerously close to extinction, and needed to make drastic changes. In a strategy memo leaked to the press, the NUP envisioned a labor movement radically altered in structure. As in the trade-union system in Europe, they proposed that each union "be assigned a unique occupation and/or and industry sector(s) to concentrate its growth efforts." The NUP called for the AFL-CIO to sharply focus its efforts on "strategic growth," and called on unions to devote 77 percent of their resources to recruiting new members.

How did the labor movement react to the NUP proposal?

While some hailed the NUP for its bold leadership, the proposal also triggered a backlash. Labor leaders didn't take too kindly to five union presidents appointing themselves as labor's saviors. Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, who derided them as "five guys sitting around and talking," said, "They don't represent the labor movement."

In general, people had a hard time figuring out what exactly the five union heads – Stern, Doug McCarron of the Carpenters, Bruce Raynor of the textile workers (UNITE), John Wilhelm of the hotel workers (HERE) and Terrence O'Sullivan of the Laborers – had in common. They weren't all the biggest unions, they weren't in the same industry and they didn't share the same politics: While Stern ended up endorsing Howard Dean, McCarron gave his support to Bush. Stern said they were all "radicals about growth," but many saw it as an alliance of convenience designed to unseat AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and seize the reins of the federation.

But whatever unions thought about the merits of NUP's proposal, it lit a fire under a labor movement that desperately needed it, and set the terms for much of the current debate about structural reform of the AFL-CIO.

What's happening now?

In November, Sweeney sent a letter to all of the federation's affiliates, requesting they submit a list of issues they felt must be addressed, as well as proposals for reform. So far, about a dozen unions have sent responses, with many more on the way. Both SEIU and the AFL-CIO have posted these proposals on their web sites along with commentary from union members.

What was once just a debate about the pros and cons of the NUP platform has now morphed into a tangled landscape of proposals, alliances and rivalries. The NUP has officially been disbanded because, Stern says, "We all don't agree on our proposals." This all comes in the lead-up to the AFL-CIO's quadrennial convention, which will take place in Chicago in July. There have been whispers for some time that someone from the NUP coalition would challenge Sweeney for the presidency, but as of yet, no one has declared his candidacy. (For a while, Wilhem, co-president of the recently merged UNITE HERE, was rumored to be the guy, but he recently denied he'd run.)

So what does SEIU want to see happen?

The agenda is spelled out most precisely in SEIU's 10-point plan "Unite to Win." It features a number of suggestions that are fairly non-controversial: The labor movement should launch a campaign to unionize Wal-Mart, it should focus political energy on resuscitating enforcement of statutes that protect the right to organize, and it must build strength in regions of the country historically hostile to organized labor.

The signature proposal – inherited from the NUP, and also the most controversial – is to drastically reduce the total number of unions (from the current 58 to about 15) and to organize each of these new mega-unions around a single industry or sector. It's not a new idea. Once upon a time, Teamsters drove trucks, United Auto Workers built cars and Steelworkers worked with steel. Today Teamsters are truck drivers, but they're also bakers and industrial printers. Social workers in Chicago belong to the UAW and the majority of the Steelworkers don't work with steel. This creeping "general unionism" is largely a result of the fact that as the unionized workforce has shrunk and the legal protections have been eviscerated, unions have sought to bolster their sagging numbers through mergers with other unions outside their core sectors and organizing campaigns in far-flung fields.

"Frankly, there is no rational process here," says University of Illinois at Chicago's Bob Bruno, associate professor at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. "Everybody's going after everyone. If you breathe and you have a job, then we'll organize you and that hasn't proven to be a very efficient way of doing things. It hasn't built power and it certainly hasn't raised class consciousness."

Stern and others think this diffusion of worker power across various institutions, particularly within a given trade, makes it impossible to leverage industry-wide power to properly fight today's massive global corporations. Stern points to the current labor crisis in the airline industry where unions representing pilots, flight attendants and machinists are often pitted against each other to "vote in contradiction to interests of the other workers to cut pensions." Stern notes that "under the current system there's no way for workers to fight back together unless the institutions they belong to are willing to band together."

In addition to competition during contract negotiations, unions are also competing to organize the same pools of workers, particularly in the fast-growing healthcare sector, where more than 30 unions are active. SEIU notes, "In 13 of the 15 major sectors of the economy there are at least four significant unions, and in nine of those sectors there are at least six unions."

SEIU itself has reorganized, replacing metropolitan locals with members from disparate trades with regional locals composed of members from a single industry. The union has had success leveraging this collective power within an industry to reach a kind of density "tipping point," after which they're able to secure representation for a large number of workers. And, as they never fail to point out, with 800,000 new members in the past eight years, SEIU is the nation's fastest-growing union, so they must be doing something right.

That sounds like it makes sense. Why is it so controversial?

Well for one thing, fewer unions mean fewer union presidents, and leaders aren't about to merge themselves out of a job. More substantively, it's unclear just who gets to decide which unions merge. The idea of arranged marriages isn't very popular. American Federation of Teachers President Edward J. McElroy put it this way in an interview with Business Week: "Making decisions about mergers is a democratic process that deals with members of unions. For any organization, the AFL-CIO or individual unions, to point a finger and say, 'This union or that should merge,' strikes me as totally antidemocratic. Those are the kinds of decisions individual workers should make. To say to those people, 'This union is not functioning the way we think it should be,' that isn't right."

You'll notice that McElroy used the phrase "antidemocratic," which, if you start reading the literature of SEIU critics, is one of the most common complaints. Those who have taken up the mantle of "union democracy" argue that SEIU's approach, both in its own practices and in what it's proposing, is top-down, technocratic and fundamentally inimical to the values of bottom-up representation that the labor movement should embody. They ridicule Stern for wanting to mirror the structures of the very corporations the movement is fighting (which Stern himself says is one of his aims), where directives are issued by executives and passed down the hierarchy to those at the bottom.

At a conference at Queens College last year, Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), a small, specialized union that would cease to exist under SEIU's proposal, offered this thinly veiled critique of SEIU and its agenda: "My members are not chess pieces to be maneuvered, nor marionettes waiting to be mobilized. These are real people, and it's their union."

Stern says the rank and file has voted for every strategic move SEIU has pursued, but critics point out that members at locals in San Francisco and Rhode Island started decertification drives after controversial mergers backed by the International were pushed through.

In response to a reference to "union democracy," Stern posted the following to SEIU's blog: "Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy. Workers can win when they are united, and leaders who stand in the way of change screaming "democracy" are failing to understand how workers exercise the limited power they have in a country where only 8.2 percent of the private sector are in unions."

It's rhetoric like this that pisses a lot of people off. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who has a legendary beef with Stern, says "Andy put his foot in his mouth [when he spoke about AFL-CIO reform during the Democratic National Convention last summer], and I thought it was a disgrace." Stern generally tends to inspire strong feelings among both supporters and critics. A typical anti-Stern tract on the web is titled "Why the SEIU's Andy Stern is Full of Shit."

So what do the unions who disagree with Stern say should be done?

It varies. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recommends setting up voluntary coalition bodies that can serve the purpose of industry-wide organizing while avoiding forced mergers. The Machinists say the AFL-CIO should start its own TV network to get labor's message out, and create a centralized database of health claims to drive down costs. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) focuses its platform on making unions more responsive to their current members, increasing training for shop stewards and increasing strike capacity by providing more funds to pay striking workers (something the Steelworkers also endorse).

CWA organizer and writer Steve Early, who has probably been one of Stern's most vocal critics, maintains that only by reinvigorating participation and militancy at the local level can the movement grow. In other words, where Stern argues that rapid growth is a necessary precondition for meaningful union democracy, Early argues that meaningful union democracy is a necessary precondition for rapid growth.

AFSCME, on the other hand, takes the position that becoming more politically effective is the key to reviving the movement. "Whether you do mergers or not, whether you reassert jurisdictional lines or not, whether you have 15 or 50 members of the Executive Committee, those things are important," says Paul Booth, an assistant to the union's president, Gerald McEntee. "But they don't make as much of a difference as winning or losing in politics makes." AFSCME wants the AFL-CIO to focus its efforts on the one thing it's been undeniably successful at: political mobilization of its members. Under Sweeney, labor has increased turnout of union household voters in each of the last three presidential elections.

What's clear is that while NUP and SEIU have successfully initiated and framed the debate, one that even critics such as Booth call "healthy, stimulating, appropriate and welcome," they no longer own it.

What happens next?

In mid-February and early March, the AFL-CIO Executive Council will discuss the various proposals. In the spring, they are expected to issue recommendations, which will likely be voted on at the convention in July.

What's going to happen at the convention is anybody's guess. Sweeney says he's "looking at the issues that are common in a number of these reports as potential areas where we could start early to build a consensus." (In a 15-minute interview, Sweeney, who has the unenviable job of refereeing the impending fracas, used the word "consensus" almost a dozen times.) There are some basic agreements. The parts of the AFL-CIO constitution that are designed to enforce jurisdiction and stop unions from poaching each other's workers are totally dysfunctional, and it is generally agreed that the AFL-CIO needs to focus its mission and play fewer roles better.

The threat of an SEIU exodus still hangs over the convention, but while many fret about the impact of a split in the house of labor, or a high-visibility, rancorous battle at the convention, the real danger is too much consensus and complacency at the cost of change. For all the enmity that the NUP and Stern have inspired, were it not for them, there would likely be no concentrated discussion about the future of the movement. Sweeney, to his credit, has lowered the temperature and quieted talk of an insurgency by moving the debate inside the AFL-CIO's tent. But while everyone pats themselves on the back for "having the debate" and builds alliances for floor votes, the original sense of urgency is slowly being lost, replaced by quibbles about the fine points of AFL-CIO bureaucracy. "It's converted from a debate about substance to a debate about something like the per capita tax," says Cornell labor professor Rick Hurd.

The worst possible outcome is one that seems increasingly likely: watered-down reform, palatable to all the parties involved. That might be the only way to keep the AFL-CIO together, but keeping the AFL-CIO together is not the point. Revitalizing the labor movement is.

A Good Call

For inmates around the country, every opportunity to call friends and family is a mixed blessing. While phone calls provide a much-needed lifeline to the outside world, the exorbitant fees charged for collect calls by phone companies place a further burden on their loved ones.

But relief may soon be coming to relatives and friends of prisoners in North Carolina. State officials earlier this month requested proposals for a new phone contract in which vendors would provide inmates with the option of setting up debit accounts to pay for calls.

"The debit features that we have specified were based on the fact that we wanted to offer inmates and their families other options for paying for calls," says Patricia Deal, telecommunications manager for the state's Division of Prisons.

Under the current contract, inmates' friends and families can pay as much as 51 cents a minute, plus collect surcharges that can be as high as $2.25. For poor families and public defenders, the cumulative cost of collect call surcharges can quickly become a significant obstacle to staying in touch.

"For a decade it has been just a very serious problem for the families of inmates and for inmates themselves," says Michael Hamden, executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. "The inmates have difficulty maintaining ties because it's ruinous to call repeatedly collect at these exorbitant rates, and the families are in the position of being extorted."

Despite repeated complaints from prisoner advocacy groups nationwide, reform has been difficult. Many prisons, both private and public, negotiate exclusive contracts with phone carriers and then take a percentage of revenue as commission. This gives prison officials an incentive to squeeze as much money out of the calls as they can. Prisoner rights advocates argue that this system of financing effectively amounts to subsidizing prison costs out of the pockets of the families of the imprisoned.

For families of inmates serving in private prisons, sometimes thousands of miles from home, the costs are even more onerous, given phone calls represent the only means of routinely staying in touch. In March, a number of prisoner advocacy groups filed a petition supporting an earlier request that the FCC stop private prisons from signing exclusive contracts, require open competition among multiple carriers and allow inmates to set up debit accounts to avoid the markup for collect calls.

North Carolina's prisons are public, and the state's Department of Corrections receives a commission on all collect calls originating from prisons. This netted the DOC about $5 million last year. Deal says reductions in phone revenue could imperil prison services such as education opportunities, indigent inmate funds, and religious and leisure activities. But she's hopeful that by giving prisoners the ability to pay through a debit account, more calls will be connected.

"It allows inmates to make calls [to people] that normally would not accept their calls because they can't afford to," she says, "so that could increase our revenue."

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Not Too Hip to Vote

The crowd lined up outside the Cooper Union great hall on March 25 for a gathering called "Where's My Democracy?" did not look like your typical participants at a political rally. There were no suits and ties, no pleated khakis or Izod shirts, no signs or buttons -- not even a single baby to kiss. No, this crowd, which formed a line that snaked around Astor place onto Lafayette, was garbed in American Apparel t-shirts, thrift store blazers, and the hyper pointy-toed shoes that are currently standard issue for women south of 14th Street.

"A week ago we'd only sold 200 tickets," said Elana Berkowitz, a member of Downtown for Democracy, the group organizing the event, as the crowd of impatient hipsters pressed to get in. "I can't believe we gave away tickets for free to try to fill the place!"

The packed crowd of over 900 had paid a minimum of $50 a head ($10 for students) to listen to readings from some of America's finest writers, including Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag and Jhumpa Lahiri. The event raised $75,000 towards D4D's ultimate target of $3 million, attracting the politically and literarily-minded alike. "When we saw this combination of writers and the cause, it's what we're into right now," said Libby McGuinness who lives in Chelsea and works in publishing. "I actually ran into someone I work with, a much younger person than we are, and you know she works two jobs to get by and ... I can't believe she got together $50 bucks to come here. To feel so strongly for her to give 50 dollars is great."

Though most of the writers read from non-political works in progress, nearly every one of them had something to say about Bush. "I want to speak at this moment sans hyperbole" said Michael Cunningham, author of the The Hours. "I've never known of an election that mattered this much and darlings, I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Bush #1!"

The event, which featured a voter registration table right next to a table hawking sleek D4D tee shirts, exhibited D4D's novel approach to political activism, a combination of edgy creativity and hard-nosed politicking -- Lou Reed meets James Carville.

But marrying innovation to pragmatism isn't just limited to this one group. With the John Kerry the clear Democratic nominee and the battle lines for the general election firmly drawn, a number of small, independent groups like D4D are coming up with innovative ways to maximize their electoral impact.

Swing State Spring Break, which sends college kids to swing states to canvass, and IMPACT, which trains law students to monitor polls on election day -- in addition to D4D -- are all seeking to tap the potential of specific constituencies, and leverage their abilities, talents and resource to maximum effect. While Bush has inspired a profound and energetic opposition from progressives and even many moderates, the fact remains that no matter how passionately an undergraduate, or artist, or law student feels about unseating Bush, they only have one vote. The challenge for progressives outraged at the Bush administration's abuse of the public trust is to convert depth of sentiment into breadth of influence.

On the Downtown Train

"Our goal is to invigorate progressive politics and defeat George Bush!" said D4D founder Erik Stowers, kicking off the reading to enthusiastic whoops from the crowd. "By mobilizing all those Americans who share our progressive values but don't actively participate in politics, D4D raises funds through contributions and cultural events like this one in Democratic safe states like New York and we spend the money in battleground states where this election is going to be decided."

D4D is the brain child of Stowers and his friend Mike Bullock, who works at the interview magazine Index. The two initially discussed starting a group called Downtown for Dean back when the Vermont Governor was the front runner for the nomination, but ultimately saw the group as "being much longer term and bigger than just the Dean campaign" and decided to file with the Federal Election Commission as a Political Action Committee (PAC).

Stowers, who spent several years working for New York's Working Families Party and the progressive advertising firm Avenging Angels, says he and Bullock saw a huge opportunity to harness the talents of their friends in creative circles for political ends. "There was a long-term permanent need for an organization that would provide a means of access into political activism for people in the culture community," Stowers says. "You do have these people who are culturally very liberal. If you sit down and talk to them they are down the plank: Electoral reform? Yes. The environment? Yes. Women's rights? Yes. But they don't participate in politics."

"Where's My Democracy?" was D4D's second fundraising event. The first, an art auction, raised $130,000, with 85 percent of the donors at that event never having donated to a political campaign before. Over the next seven months, D4D hopes to eventually raise millions of dollars, which they'll funnel to 527s and PACs operating in swing states, as well as to progressive congressional candidates like Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama.

Aside from fundraising, the group also plans to mobilize the "downtown" constituency of creative folks in the swing states. "We want to hit young, mostly urban voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania," says Stowers. "In the summer we're going to have launch events across Ohio and Pennsylvania, probably most of them will be concerts. The months following that will be about registering voters, getting their names in a database and building up a volunteer pool. And then in the few weeks before the election it will switch into GOTV [Get Out the Vote] to make contact with those people again and try to ensure that they get out and vote. What we're thinking about doing for the night of the election is having parties across Ohio and Penn where you can only get in if you voted."

Spring Break Madness

Like D4D, Swing State Spring Break is run out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though unlike D4D, which has an office in a converted industrial building, Swing State is headquartered in Sharif Corinaldi's apartment. Corinaldi is a computer programmer by training who had lost his job at a firm in the tech crash. He says he'd never done much political work -- but has been burning to dump Bush since the 2000 election. "I've just been doing nothing but eating, sleeping and shitting getting Bush out of the White House," he says. "I could either write a check for x number of thousand dollars to the DNC and they could put their own TV ads out there, or I could do something with this program and I could essentially get my own volunteers and do something that's more face to face."

The idea for Swing State Spring Break actually originated with two friends who tossed it out one night in a conversation about politics, but were too busy to follow up. Corinaldi then took the initiative, emailing nearly every College Democrats and Generation Dean chapter in the country, putting up a website and committing himself to the project full time. "We get kids to sign up and donate time to us and indicate where they'd want to do work against Bush or for Kerry," says Corinaldi. "We plug them in with a place that's near or at where they wanted to work and we find them housing; we get them a place to stay; sometimes we even subsidize travel costs. It's supposed to be an ultra convenient way for anybody who doesn't want Bush to be president to sign up and get involved and get active."

Over spring break, the group sent 80 students to swing states where they volunteered for 527s like America Coming Together. This summer, Corinaldi plans to send 150 students, possibly more. "It's all field stuff," he says. "Registering voters, fraud checks to make sure petitions signings are working. In Miami they're doing a minimum wage ballot initiative because that's supposed to boost turnout. We're doing huge canvasses in Philadelphia where they're registering huge numbers of progressive voters."

"I went to Philadelphia and I worked with ACORN [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now] and it was like this amazing experience," says Emily Farris, a 21-year old journalism student at the New School in Manhattan. "The first day they sent me to Norristown which is a suburb of Philly... I actually ran out of registering cards. People were hugging me and welcoming me into their homes."

Farris said she hasn't been politically active in the past, but now she's hooked. "I think I was almost staying away from politics until the time was right and the time is now. We have to do something. George Bush has got to go." She had lined up a writing gig for the summer that paid well, but in light of her experience in Pennsylvania she says she's quitting that job to devote herself to the election. "I am going to single-handedly swing Missouri this summer."

Watching the Polls

While many groups like Swing State and D4D focus on registering voters and then turning them out in November, IMPACT, a group started by students at Columbia Law School, believes that "there is not enough done to protect and empower individual voters prior to and during the election."

To rectify this, IMPACT will send law students to monitor the elections at polling places in swing states where there has been a history of confusion or intimidation. "What we really want to do is get well-trained and effective law students at the polls on election day in the areas where they're going to be able to help the voters who are undergoing the most confusion," says IMPACT co-founder Maggie Williams.

A second-year law student at Columbia, Williams, says that the idea for IMPACT was born out of frustration over the voting debacle in Florida during the 2000 election. "The more I found out about what actually went wrong in Florida ... I just felt really powerless," she says. "On the one hand I feel like in those situations there are three options. One is just to sit back and to think well there's nothing really I can do, it's too complicated, I'm just going to cast my vote on election day. The other is to do something on a personal level and go poll watch on your own and the other is to start to talk to people and wonder why is this so intimidating? Why is this so complicated?"

Unlike D4D, which is officially a PAC, and Swing State Spring Break, which is in the process of incorporating as a 527, IMPACT is a 501c(3) which means it is officially non-partisan. The groups' members might have personal political objections to Bush, but in their capacity as IMPACT officers they say they are only interested in seeing one thing happen: making sure everyone has their votes counted.

After gathering interested students at Columbia, IMPACT has reached out to other law schools, attempting to put in place a national infrastructure for election day. They have joined the Know Your Rights Coalition, a consortium of groups dedicated to election protection (including Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, Brennan Center and People for the American Way), and are currently researching potential problems -- election-day complications that might result from the 2001 the Help America Vote Act.

IMPACT's operations' director Doug Jaffe says that while HAVA does provide some useful voter protection provisions (provisional ballots, for example), some of the new regulations might cause massive confusion on election day, as each state interprets the law in a different fashion. "Some states are giving a lot of discretion to turn away voters to the individual poll workers," he says, "which may not be such a great thing."

In order to effectively safeguard voters' rights, IMPACT plans to train 3600 students from law schools around the country in poll monitoring and electoral law. These law students will then be sent to the 50-100 highest risk polling sites in each of the 12 swing states in which IMPACT will operate. "There's a lot of work that has to happen beforehand," says Williams, who notes that the reception from other schools has already been enthusiastic. "To really do this well and effectively you need a lot of different groups who really know what they're doing and work together."

As John Nichols in the The Nation and Mary Lynn Jones in this publication have reported, there is no shortage of groups, large and small, serious and humorous who have dedicated themselves to unseating Bush this year. But what's particularly striking about these groups is that they are completely organic, born out of the passion of a few people, and incredibly shrewd and strategic in their approach. It is organizing that starts small, but by focusing on electoral pressure points, has the potential to make a huge impact.

In this way, they have more than a passing resemblance to the thousands of MeetUp-enabled groups that flowered during the short-lived Dean campaign. One-time Dean campaign manager and founder of ChangeForAmerica.com Joe Trippi says he sees the Dean campaign as the laboratory for much of the DIY-style activism that these groups embody. "I kind of think there's this great awakening going on," says Trippi. "The Dean campaign was the like the wink of the eye; it's going to be seen as so primitive five years from now, given all these groups that are doing things... These groups are the harbinger of much bigger things to come and we're just sort of at the early moment of it all."

By giving people an outlet for their anger and frustration with the current administration, all three of these groups seek to obliterate the obstacles that separate citizens from affecting political change. Most importantly, though, they help create a norm of political engagement that frowns upon idle complaining and pontificating.

Emily Farris, who canvassed for Swing State Spring Break in Pennsylvania, says she was motivated to get involved in part due to the chiding she received from a bartender at her neighborhood pub. After she had started drunkenly trashing Bush, she says "The bartender said to me, 'You're not doing anybody any good in here. If you want change, go out and make some change, instead of bitching to a bar full of drunken Democrats.' And I was like, he's right! The next week was when I saw the listing from Sharif. And I thought: this is the beginning of the end!"

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

More Liberal Than Us

On March 8th, a group of 25 handpicked Iraqis signed a constitution that will become the law of the land when the United States transfers sovereignty over to the Iraqi Governing Council this June.

The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) is nearly twice as long and significantly more complicated than the U.S. Constitution. It is also, ironically, far more progressive. Despite the right-wing ideologues behind the regime-change experiment, the TAL institutes principles that liberals in American only dream about.

Here are a few highlights:

Article 12: "All Iraqis are equal in their rights without regard to gender, sect, opinion, belief, nationality, religion, or origin, and they are equal before the law."[ital added] The Civil Rights Act bans gender discrimination in the United States, but gender equality is nowhere enshrined in the Constitution. The Equal Rights Amendment would have done that, but after passing the Senate and House in 1971-72 it failed to clear enough statehouses to be ratified.

Article 13(H): "Each Iraqi has the right to privacy." Such a right is not specifically mentioned in the Fourth Amendment, but two centuries of jurisprudence have interpreted it as granting such a right, culminating most controversially in Roe v. Wade. But to this day, Supreme Court justices such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and members of the Federalist Society call it a fiction.

Article 14: "The individual has the right to security, education, health care, and social security." Nothing even approaching such a right exists in the U.S. Constitution, but for millions of kids in failing schools and the 43.5 million Americans without health insurance (me included), the idea of requiring government to provide adequate services is appealing.

Article 15: "No one may be unlawfully arrested or detained. ... Every person deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall have the right of recourse to a court to determine the legality of his arrest or detention without delay. ... Civilians may not be tried before a military tribunal. Special or exceptional courts may not be established."

We do have those rights in our Constitution, kind of. But the U.S. Constitution explicitly allows for habeas corpus to be suspended in "cases of rebellion or invasion." The Bush administration has used that loophole to detain hundreds of suspected terrorists, including two American citizens, without the right to an attorney, due process, or the possibility of appeal or recourse.

Article 17: "It shall not be permitted to possess, bear, buy, or sell arms except on licensure issued in accordance with the law." Our constitution leaves open the possibility of regulating arms, but the NRA and others have fought any regulation, advocating that the Constitution countenances nearly unfettered personal arms use and ownership.

The Coalition Provisional Authority's official line is that the constitution was "written by Iraqis for Iraqis." But it's hard to ignore that it was written by 22 men and three women handpicked by the CPA and that the process was overseen by Paul Bremer, who, as head of an occupying power, had final say. Given that, how does one explain its progressive character?

It is true that many of the articles cited above -- the ban on detentions without charges, for example -- are clearly Iraqi responses to the brutality of Saddam's regime. But the benefits of the TAL's democratic provisions to the Bush administration are equally clear. Now that the retroactive causus belli for the war has become the "liberation"of Iraq, it is vitally important that the United States establish a liberal democracy -- and fast. So with no WMD in sight, and the United States desperate to get U.N.'s help, the CPA has helped produce a constitution that even Dennis Kucinich could love.

But more importantly, since the TAL is operable only until an elected Iraqi government formally drafts a constitution (projected to be about a year from now), it hardly matters how ambitious it is, or what rights it grants.

What's more, despite its progressive provisions, the TAL isn't particularly democratic. It sets up tri-partite presidency composed of one Kurd, one Shiite and one Sunni, and a complicated federalist structure that greatly empowers unelected local councils and allows regional blocs (such as the Kurds) to veto any new constitution.

There is no shortage of noble constitutions in the world. Haiti has a perfectly good constitution, but it hasn't prevented an endless string of coups. Afghanistan has a new constitution, but it hasn't stopped warlords from imposing Taliban-like brutality. Even China's 1982 state constitution proclaims citizens "enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration."

Ultimately, a constitution is only as good as the process by which it's produced and the institutions that exist to support it. Right now the only secular institution in Iraq is the Pentagon -- and it's not equipped or designed to create a stable democracy ex nihilo.

So despite all the attractive provisions in the TAL, I'd still choose our flawed but durable Constitution. Though a right to health care would be nice.

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Small Businesses Need Not Apply

So the Vice President's former employer has been in the news a lot lately. Bilking the U.S. government for millions in Kuwaiti oil imports to Iraq, turning the other way as employees take bribes, overcharging the Army for food served in mess halls. It gets to feeling like the whole "reconstruction effort" is just some bloated, corrupt muddle of patronage and war profiteering.

But then comes February's "Rebuilding Iraq: Small Business Subcontracting Opportunities," convened near O'Hare Airport outside Chicago. Sponsored by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and featuring speakers from -- you guessed it -- Halliburton, among others, the daylong seminar was intended to show that profiting from the Bush administration's foreign policy is anyone's game.

"We are literally here at the direction of the president of the United States to make sure that each and every one of you has the opportunity to be involved in one of the truly major business undertakings of this century," said Gen. Patrick Rea, regional administrator of the SBA. And it's some undertaking. The total value of contracts, Rea assured, "could move to the figure of a half a trillion dollars."

Reducing the Iraq war and subsequent occupation to a business opportunity is disconcerting enough, but far more bizarre was the subtle yet consistent message that Iraqi reconstruction constitutes a comprehensive domestic economic policy agenda. "We're all looking for what are those 21st Century jobs," Rea told the crowd. "You're sitting in a room where they're going to unfold by the thousands."

Rea's right -- there's an awfully large potential for profit. Both the conquest and occupation of Iraq have been the most heavily privatized military ventures in U.S. history. Thanks to an initiative implemented in the early '90s by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the U.S. military now contracts out almost every possible aspect of its work, from food preparation to janitorial services to camp design and construction.

Now this very same approach is being applied to reconstruction, as the government bids out contracts on everything from school construction to power plant design to water treatment. In the last round of contracts alone, $18.6 billion was awarded to about two dozen companies, the majority of which are American mega-firms -- only companies from "coalition member" nations are allowed to bid.

But the Bush administration is committed to spreading around the wealth. It requires that all subcontractors partner with Iraqi firms for work on the ground. And the policy seems to be working. Newsday recently reported that firms associated with Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, the administration's bag man in Baghdad, have raked in $400 million in contracts.

So while big-time entities like Halliburton may get the massive original contracts, they don't do most or even much of the work. "We don't intend to swing the hammers ourselves," Halliburton KBR Small Business Liaison's Kimberla Fairley told the crowd. "We're going to subcontract out all the work."

This is where small businesses come in, at least in theory. Under the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) procurement guidelines, 10 percent of contract dollars must go to certified small business subcontractors. The CPA's guidelines are modeled largely on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), an 1,800-page volume that details the statutes guiding federal government procurement: issuing requests for proposals, evaluating competitive bids and auditing performance. For anyone who hasn't negotiated this terrain, the process can be daunting. And as Jeannie Houston, program manager for Bechtel's Supplier Development and Diversity Program noted, competition is fierce.

During the first phase of reconstruction, she said, Bechtel put up a Web portal for businesses interested in subcontracting. The response crashed the servers. "We had 11,000 people in two months register online," she said.

The ostensible purpose of the conference, then, was to give attendees the inside scoop on beating out the competition. But representatives from Bechtel, Halliburton, Parsons, et al. had precious little in the way of advice to offer, outside of suggesting that firms register on a centralized database, encouraging owners to be persistent and instructing that they partner with Iraqi firms if they seek to complete work on the ground.

It was beginning to look like the Iraqi reconstruction contracts were structured exactly like the Bush tax cuts: While the wealth redounds overwhelmingly to the very richest recipients, the administration argues they're dealing everybody in.

With panelists offering the same warmed-over advice, it was hard, in fact, not to think the conference was just another cynical ruse by the Bush administration to obscure its ties to corporate friends even as it works directly on their behalf.

Now to be fair, the conference did accomplish two key goals: By delivering a group of 500 eager beavers to Halliburton and Bechtel, it made it easier for the prime contractors to fulfill the mandated small business quota, and by increasing the number of small businesses competing for the same pool of contracts it likely drove down the price of winning bids.

At some level, the crowd suspected they were being taken for a ride.

When Sam Artis, the small business liaison for Washington Group International, mentioned during the afternoon panel that Iraqi contracts are exempt from the Buy American Act -- meaning businesses could buy products overseas and ship them directly into the Middle East -- he was met with a hostile response. "Doesn't that sort of undermine U.S. manufacturing?" asked one woman. "I came into this thinking it was to help U.S. small businesses."

"Well," Artis stammered. "I think that they've carved it out fairly equitably among a number of different players."

With Iraqi reconstruction representing one of the only signs of life in an otherwise dead economy, desperate small business owners, these walk-on players not already selected for Team Bush were frantic to be drafted.

After Bechtel's presentation, Sal Hassanien, an Arab American small-business owner from Detroit, stormed to the mike as representative for a group of exile engineers who moved back to Baghdad to take part in reconstruction. "I've been trying to contact Bechtel. I've been trying to contact Parsons and it's impossible," he said. "[We] send e-mail, they never respond, call them by phone, they never respond."

Outside the conference hall, Hassanien voiced frustration with the trivial amount of money trickling down to small firms. "You get a contract that is worth, I don't know, let's say $100," he said. "You know by the time you give it to the Kuwaiti companies, it's $50. By the time you get to the real guys, the Iraqis who are actually doing the work, they get about $10 out of that. Everything else, $90, is going to administration, subcontracting and subcontracting and so on. It's really screwed."

Referring to prime contractors like Halliburton that participated in the day, Hassanien laughed and continued, "The big boys, yes, have put up a dog and pony show."

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Healthy Jobs

When the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, 20,000 home healthcare workers in Illinois had an extra reason to celebrate. Thanks to a new contract negotiated by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 880 and signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, homecare workers saw their hourly wage increase from $7.15 to $7.25. The raise, while small, was the second of a series that will bring the starting hourly wage to $9.35 by 2007.

"We've been fighting for the last 10 years for more money," says SEIU member Diane Cunningham, who has been a homecare worker for two decades. "I like working with elderly people, handicapped people. I've been doing this too long because I love it. I just don't like the money."

Illinois' 37,000 homecare workers may provide vital day-to-day care and assistance for 67,000 state residents, but the majority still make poverty-level wages and receive no health benefits. A study released by Local 880 in April showed that Illinois ranked 44th nationwide in pay rates for homecare workers, with a median hourly wage of $6.60. Nearly half have no medical insurance. And in a survey conducted by SEIU, 49.4 percent said that in the past year they had to choose between buying food and paying utility bills.

Homecare workers might seem unlikely candidates for unionization. There is no shop floor, office or cafeteria where workers can share information and hold union meetings. But homecare workers are exactly the kind of new and rapidly growing workforce that has become SEIU's priority. "It's one of the fastest segments of the labor movement becoming organized," says Local 880 organizer Cindy Boland. "What organizing has done anywhere is it takes an invisible workforce and makes it visible. That's what we're seeing in homecare."

Illinois homecare workers are paid through two programs. The Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), supervised by the Department of Human Services, provides homecare to people with disabilities. While workers can be hired and fired by individual clients, they are paid by the state. For 20 years, Illinois' Republican governors refused to recognize the bargaining rights of these workers, maintaining that their employers were their clients, despite the fact that the state was cutting the checks.

That changed this year, when Democrat Blagojevich signed legislation recognizing Local 880 as the bargaining unit for the state's 20,000 DORS employees. "The fact that Blagojevich was elected was huge for us," says Local 880 spokeswoman Marnie Goodfriend. "We've been organizing for 20 years and this is the first time we have a public sector bargaining unit."

The Community Care Program is Illinois' other homecare administrator. Run through the state's Department of Aging, it provides care to low-income seniors. Unlike DORS, this program is managed and administered by private agencies contracted by the state to connect workers with clients. The state pays these agencies $11.06 an hour, and requires that 73 percent go to the worker.

But "to the worker" includes such things as worker's comp, in-service training and even hepatitis shots, so the hourly wage often ends up being as low as $5.98. Having secured a new contract with the state for DORS workers, SEIU now is pressing for higher wages for homecare workers caring for the elderly through Community Care.

SEIU argues that investing more heavily in homecare workers in the Community Care program is not just the right thing to do, it makes good fiscal sense. Nursing home care currently costs the state about $28,000 a year per person, while homecare costs an average of about $4,000. Nikki Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Aging, says paying higher wages is in the state's best interest. "I mean if you really want to be cold about it, in the long run it saves money, because it keeps people out of institutions," she says.

The number of seniors in Illinois and around the country who will require homecare is going to balloon as baby boomers age. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that direct care worker jobs in long-term-care settings will grow by about 800,000 jobs nationwide, or roughly 45 percent, by 2010. "The baby boomer generation is used to independence," says Goodfriend. "They don't want to go into nursing homes."

Charles Johnson, director of the state's Department of Aging, agrees. "I've never met an older person who couldn't wait to get to the nursing home. People want to stay in their homes and I think it's good public policy."

In anticipation of the greater need for homecare, SEIU has significantly increased their homecare organizing efforts nationwide, with locals in eight states, including Pennsylvania, New York and California, where the union currently represents more than 180,000 home care workers. "There's a homecare division in SEIU now," says Boland, "that wasn't there 10 years ago."

"If you're thinking long term," says SEIU's Wisconsin political director Robert Kraig, "these are jobs that can't be exported overseas. The future of the labor movement isn't industrial workers, it's workers like homecare workers: people of color making seven dollars an hour with no health insurance."

Gloria White, a steward with Local 880 who cares for the elderly deacon of her church on the city's west side, says she looks forward to a day when homecare workers make a living wage.

"There's gonna be more homecare workers, and I would like to see them make at least 10, 11, 12, 13 dollars an hour," she says. "People forget that they're gonna get old one day and they're gonna need the help and they're going to want the best."

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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