When a group called Campus Progress launched its effort to promote progressive values on college campuses in the fall of 2004, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wondered: "Isn't that a bit like pumping sand into the Mojave Desert?"
The assumption that America's campuses are impenetrable bastions of liberalism -- where left-leaning faculty predominate, progressive student activism flourishes and conservatism is fiercely marginalized -- still rules the day. But in reality, since the 1970s, the conservative movement has become the dominant political force on many American campuses. This sea change is not simply a reflection of some students' increasingly right-wing views. Each year, conservative groups pour more than $35 million into hundreds of college campuses. They pay for right-wing speakers, underwrite scores of student papers, provide free leadership training and cushy internships, and equip thousands of new activists with talking points, discipline and missionary zeal.
Today's campus right is unified, on-message and passionate -- in other words, part of a genuine movement. By contrast, the campus left is disparate, undisciplined and segmented along ideological and issue-based lines.
Student progressives have struggled for decades with not only a lack of cohesion but a dearth of resources. "We didn't have our act together," says Joshua Holland, a fair-trade and antiwar activist who graduated from the University of Southern California this past spring. "We tried to keep things nonhierarchical and loosely structured, but at the end of the day, there was a lot of running around in circles, and we weren't getting anything done."
It's a familiar lament among the two dozen student progressives I talked with for this article. But help has arrived. After three decades of unanswered advances by the right, the progressive movement is no longer leaving students to fend for themselves. Campus Progress -- a project of the Center for American Progress (CAP), one of the country's premier think tanks -- is the largest of a handful of organizations that have emerged in the past year to counter the right's campus operations. These groups are offering resources, ideas and training designed to patch up many of the holes that have long deflated the student left. But in attempting to forge a widespread student progressive movement, they face many of the same quandaries that loom large for American progressivism as a whole: What values should define the movement? What tactics should be embraced? And perhaps most difficult of all, to what extent does striving for results mean sacrificing strong principles?
Ever since the heyday of left-wing campus activism in the late 1960s and early '70s, progressive students have struggled with looking frivolous, reactionary or cliched to their peers. At the University of North Carolina, senior Jessica Polk says students have long been "sick of what the left is doing -- they want to walk to class without being handed a flier about a rally or vigil."
Meanwhile, student conservatives have managed to balance organizational and ideological discipline with ragtag rebelliousness, positioning themselves as perpetual underdogs on oppressively liberal campuses. Armed with their version of a screw-the-man mentality, the student right's activism is often shocking: affirmative action bake sales where white students are charged more for cookies than blacks, for instance, or immigrant hunts where students dressed in Border Patrol uniforms chase targeted "illegals" with water guns. As tasteless and offensive as such stunts might be, they make waves on campuses and garner national attention for the movement.
"This is the South Park generation," says Matt Singer, a junior at the University of Montana and creator of the popular right-wing blog Left in the West. "The conservative activism is fun, and it rings with the students in the same way that the left did in the '60s and early '70s."
"The right actually ends up looking cooler than the left," agrees Mani Mostofi, who recently earned his master's degree at the University of Texas. "I don't know how this is possible, but it's true!"
For progressive student activists, attention-getting victories have also been scarce. There have been isolated triumphs in the past year: successful student-led living-wage campaigns for employees at Georgetown University and Washington University of St. Louis, and the multicampus Taco Bell boycott, which helped secure a significant raise for the fast-food chain's tomato pickers.
The most widespread disappointment has been the failure to generate a sustainable movement opposing the war in Iraq. While student mobilization in the run-up to the war was massive in scope and energy, the typical problems plaguing the campus left--ideological splits and lack of organization -- have caused the movement to fade considerably. "It was really a lost cause," says Yale University junior Jared Malsin, "because there was a great deal of infighting among different factions in the movement."
Some student progressives wanted to focus on the fight to keep military recruiters off campus; others were divided over whether to call for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Plus, says Malsin, "there was waning interest in fighting it because it seemed like there was so little we could actually do as students."
Frustrations abound, but the emergence of national progressive organizations on campus has given many student activists renewed hope. In its first year Campus Progress has provided progressive students with tools they've never had before: money and a sense of unity. While its $1.25 million projected budget falls well below the more than $10 million of the right-wing Young America's Foundation, Campus Progress has made an immediate impact. Wayne Huang, editor of Cornell's student progressive publication, Turn Left, has seen his paper "go through a shocking transformation in little under a year," thanks to funding from Campus Progress. On 27 other campuses, formerly cash-strapped student left publications are finally competing with conservative papers, publishing regularly and printing on high-quality paper. At its virtual meeting place, CampusProgress.org, students from across the country are sharing ideas and getting advice on how to communicate their values from the likes of Sen. Barack Obama. Features like "Know Your Right-Wing Speakers" and "Crib Sheet" provide concise talking points for fighting the right.
For the first time, Campus Progress has given progressive students a sense that they, like the campus right, are part of a tangible movement. When 600 progressive students convened in Washington, D.C., last summer for the first annual Campus Progress National Student Conference, many felt a profound sense of relief. "For so long, there's been a disconnect of dialogue between progressives," says University of Kentucky junior Yuriy Bronshteyn.
"There's been nothing central to look to." The mere existence of an organizational infrastructure seems miraculous to Bronshteyn, who says, "This is almost like a star that we can all see in the sky every night -- it can give us the feeling that we're all fighting the same fight."
As Campus Progress works to build a national community for student progressives, Young People For (YP4) focuses on developing individual leaders. A project of People for the American Way, YP4 mirrors the right's Leadership Institute, which has trained more than 40,000 young conservatives, including movement heavyweights Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, since its inception in 1979. Providing a leadership pipeline for the left, YP4 has trained 126 students on forty campuses in its first year.
Jenny Parker, a YP4 fellow at Baylor University, wanted to organize a living-wage campaign on her campus but had no idea how. After YP4 training in January 2005 in media outreach, coalition building and event planning, Parker says, "now we have the most organized campaign I could ever imagine." Especially helpful, she says, was YP4's guidance on framing the message. "Our audience at Baylor is very conservative and was turned off at the announcement of a living-wage campaign," Parker says. "We realized we had to spin our message a bit in order to gain support. We changed our campaign to the 1 John 3 Campaign" -- a reference to a biblical passage urging aid for the poor. "Now our campaign is centered on the idea that this is our Christian obligation."
The largest Baptist university in the world has not yet passed a living wage for its workers, but Parker and her fellow activists are making headway with 1 John 3. They convinced the Student Congress to pass a resolution calling for a living wage, and have motivated 600 students to send postcards to the university president supporting the campaign.
Since the national groups have emerged, Joshua Holland, who was a YP4 fellow at USC, says campus progressives "actually get things done, which is a huge relief, because we're so used to not getting things done."
Progressives organized the most widely publicized student protest of 2005, the Princeton Frist-a-Buster. What began as a small event staged by eight students in front of the Frist Campus Center -- each student took turns reading out of the campus phone book to protest Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's threat to abolish the filibuster for judicial nominees -- quickly grew into a nationwide phenomenon. Hundreds of students and professors, a Nobel laureate and two U.S. senators took turns reading everything from Shakespeare to 3,500 digits of pi at Princeton, while students at 35 other campuses staged copycat events.
"We had a situation where the rhetoric was moderate, it was billed as nonpartisan, and the people running it weren't the crazy activists but committed students who knew what they were talking about," says Princeton's Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a core organizer of the 384-hour talk marathon. "We spent hours learning the history, learning the rules, so we could talk authoritatively about it. When our peers asked us what we were doing, it was far more convincing to them."
To David Halperin, director of Campus Progress, the Frist-a-Buster was the perfect model for the kind of movement his group wants to foster -- clean, polished, on-message, but also humorous and inventive. The protest wasn't initiated by the national organization, he is quick to note, but by Siddique and his co-organizers. Campus Progress embraced the idea, provided resources and publicity and served, in Halperin's words, as a "megaphone" for the activists. That's how he wants his group to work. Unlike the largely top-town model of right-wing student advocacy groups, Halperin wants Campus Progress to be pushed "by the students' agendas."
But in choosing which student activities to support, which publications to finance and which speakers to bring on tour, Campus Progress can't help pushing an ideology. Some worry that the organization, run in part by former Clinton Administration officials, is more interested in promoting a centrist agenda than a strong, progressive alternative to the campus right. Several students who attended last summer's National Student Conference -- where the keynote speaker was none other than Bill Clinton -- felt that truly progressive perspectives were lacking. One panel, "Stronger and Smarter National Security," featured three panelists who, despite their criticism of George W. Bush's handling of the war, advocated expanding the military presence in Iraq. The subject of withdrawing troops was not even broached.
On the day of the conference, an article titled "What Is Progressive" was prominently displayed on the Campus Progress website, reading like a Port Huron statement for the new movement. "Progressivism," wrote Cornell University senior and Campus Progress intern Andrew Garib, "is far more flexible than any one ideology. Traditionally, conservatives see the world, especially human nature, as predictable and static. Liberals are often burdened with endless optimism -- a belief that all problems can be solved through implementing utopian visions." The new student politics emerging from the conference should be defined not by revolutionary idealism, Garib wrote, but by pragmatism: "See the world for what it is, accept it as ever-changing and dynamic, and choose the best course of action in line with decidedly American values."
To Ishaan Tharoor, who edits the Campus Progress-funded Yale Hippolytic, Garib's manifesto was rife with centrist ambiguity. Tharoor fears the new progressive student movement will be dominated by "a cadre of resume-pushing College Dems" who value expediency over principle. To Tharoor that's hardly the most "pragmatic" way to contest the right-wing movement's deeply held and sharply defined views. "Their extremism can only be taken to task by our own 'politics of conviction,'" Tharoor wrote on the Campus Progress blog. "As long as we cling to the shadows of a Clintonian past and timidly skirt the issues that truly divide our country, that politics shall never emerge."
Halperin insists that Campus Progress is eager to bring students across the left's spectrum into the fold. If the ideological diversity of the students at the conference was limited, he chalks that up to the fact that Campus Progress recruited a large portion of the attendees from the D.C.-based progressive organizations where many work as interns. The 2006 conference, he vows, will reflect a broader outreach.
"My biggest concern from the beginning, about CAP getting involved in the campus biz, is that we would look like the McDonald's or Microsoft of progressive organizing -- that it would be sort of corporate-style, clean, gleaming and neat, and not the kind of messy, grassroots, crunchy or angry version of what campus organizing is supposed to look like," Halperin says. "We've tried very hard, without compromising what we stand for, to make sure that we are serious about progressive values, and that we believe in inclusion."
Campus Progress has funded several student papers with strong left-wing content, like the University of Texas Issue, which recently featured an interview with a member of the radical Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. Thus far, Campus Progress has not engaged in any editorial oversight. "Anytime CAP is associated with something far left, it's going to hurt us," Halperin says, "but if we're censoring students, it's also going to be a problem." He acknowledges that "we'd have a problem if students were writing editorials in support of the Iraqi insurgency or calling for the elimination of the state of Israel."
How, I asked, would Campus Progress respond if students requested radical intellectual Noam Chomsky as a speaker? After all, right-wing groups like Young America's Foundation almost exclusively fund speakers from the radical end of the right's spectrum. "Well, I don't think Chomsky would do business with us," Halperin replied. "But let's say we planned to bring Al Gore to campuses, and students said, 'How about bringing Ralph Nader to debate him?' If that's what they wanted, we'd do it."
Campus Progress began this past fall to offer student activism grants, some of which will promote causes that extend beyond the mainstream aims of the Frist-a-Buster -- like the $1,000 given to students organizing a living-wage campaign at Vanderbilt University. According to director Iara Peng, YP4 also wants to emphasize bottom-up initiatives. "There was no way we could design this program from the top down and tell students what to do," says Peng. "We made a deliberate choice to break out of the right-wing model and allow students to define us."
On each campus, YP4 chooses three fellows (often with differing ideologies) who collectively agree on an activism project. YP4-sponsored activities have included living-wage and anti-Wal-Mart activism. Notably missing from the list of YP4 efforts -- not to mention those sponsored by Campus Progress -- is antiwar activism, arguably the core cause of the day among progressives. According to Peng, students from only one campus, Southern Methodist University, have expressed any interest in Iraq-related organizing. But even there, it didn't happen; the Southern Methodist students "decided instead to do coalition-building with progressive organizations."
"That was the only interest we received on forty campuses," Peng said. "That is not to say fellows are not organizing on Iraq -- just not through the program."
In part, that's no doubt because of the group's philosophy. "We look for issues that will not polarize people but work toward common ground," Peng says. "We're not here to totally fight the right on campuses; in some ways we're here to work together toward our collective visions. If a Republican wants to work with us and work toward a better world, great."
Not all of the major efforts to organize campus progressives are coming from the outside. The Roosevelt Institution, founded by Stanford University students in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, is billed as the nation's first progressive student think tank. Providing much of Roosevelt's steam is executive director Quinn Wilhelmi, an ambitious and ultra-enthusiastic junior who quotes Spider-Man and Henry David Thoreau in the same breath. His message -- that progressive students can and should be fighting in the war of ideas -- is resonating with thousands of students across the country; the Roosevelt Institution already boasts chapters at 120 campuses. In early October students from across the country met in Washington to present policy recommendations at the House office building's Cannon caucus room. Debuting their policy journal, the Roosevelt Review, students held forth on relatively mainstream topics ranging from AIDS prevention to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge crisis. At the launch of Yale's Roosevelt chapter this fall, students donned formal attire, nibbled on fancy hors d'oeuvres and watched a prerecorded video appearance from Hillary Clinton.
"This was not our parents' campus activism," Yale senior Sarah Laskow wrote of the event on CampusProgress.org. "So much the better, say the Roosevelt kids. We'd rather shine our shoes than dred our hair. We'd rather speak alongside our political leaders than shout out rhetoric from campus quads. We'd rather write policy papers than compose protest songs. The political elders have used us for our bodies and our energies. Now we want to offer them our minds. Our politics of revolution pushes not for actions but for ideas."
Wilhelmi says that the Roosevelt Institution is not an attempt to replace grassroots activism but rather to complement it. "Nothing would have happened in the '60s without the sit-ins, but nothing would have happened without the Civil Rights Act either," he says. "I hope students will do both. I hope they'll do the sit-ins and then also work toward getting a city government to pass a law." He also maintains that Roosevelt will be a "big tent" for progressive ideas. Even though the organization is courting DLC darling Hillary Clinton, it has The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and liberal philosopher Richard Rorty on its advisory board.
Some progressives are suspicious of the professionalism of the Roosevelt movement, fearing it is already marginalizing traditional left-wing activism on campuses. "Anything could happen, but at this point the pendulum seems like it's swinging toward the center-left -- Roosevelt, Campus Progress -- the fine, upstanding, clean-shaven young white men standing up for this new brand of progressivism," said one student organizer (speaking on condition of anonymity because "they're already too powerful"). "It's no heir to SDS." I asked the former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Todd Gitlin, now a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, for his thoughts about the trends on the new student left. "I think there's a desire for results, a hard-bitten realism," says Gitlin. "The primary goal is not some sort of symbolic display, or some sort of posture or attitude, but results. If that's what it means, then I applaud the turn to practicality. Today the far right is in charge, and I don't think you can create the possibility of broad-based radicalism until you defeat the far right. Put the center in power and then you have the possibility -- or the luxury -- of radicalism."
But SDS co-founder and lifelong activist Tom Hayden is wary of organizations that emphasize efficacy over ideals. "Students are being channeled into the Democratic Party or other mainstream institutions that will never bring about social change without a challenge and pressure from idealistic and free-thinking campus activists," says Hayden. None of the issues Hayden believes are "the great moral challenges before this generation" -- the Iraq War, fighting the oil companies, resisting the pressure of military recruiters, debating alternatives to corporate-led globalization -- are being pushed by the groups organizing campus progressives. "The immediate need," says Hayden, "is to say no to those who would channel students into safe alternatives to these challenges."
The right has created a student movement not simply by providing infrastructure but by promoting hard-core conservative ideology on campuses. The fledgling effort to organize campus progressives has provided the much-needed infrastructure. But if progressive students are encouraged to embrace pragmatic politics over bold and sweeping challenges to the status quo, could something else -- something essential -- be lost? After all, radical students have stood at the forefront of many critical battles in this country, propelling social change by refusing to think within the accepted boundaries of debate. What will it mean for the progressive movement in the long run if cries for a new society are replaced by calls for incremental improvement? Is the future of the progressive movement better off in the hands of young pragmatists or young visionaries?
Gabe Bruno is a 29-year veteran of the Federal Aviation Administration. A dedicated, faithful, and -- in retrospect, he believes -- "naive" public servant, Bruno learned the hard way that blowing the whistle within the federal government is at best, a futile endeavor, and at worst, a career-destroying choice. He agreed to share his story with AlterNet under the safeguards of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
In 1998, Bruno, a field manager at the FAA's Orlando, Fla., Flight Standards District Office, was assigned to oversee safety standards during the merger between Valujet and AirTran, shortly after the former airline suffered a tragic accident that killed all 110 passengers on board. In the aftermath of the Valujet crash, the FAA carried out a 90-day safety review and created a new inspection program for all airlines to comply with. To Bruno's amazement, however, the FAA never applied this new program to AirTran (which had absorbed Valujet) itself. Bruno made numerous attempts to address the problem, but was "actively denied" by the FAA.
Meanwhile, in a separate incident, it came to light that over 1,000 FAA-certified mechanics had fraudulently obtained their credentials -- literally buying "A" grades on a paper certification test from a long-time FAA-designated examiner. After the examiner was criminally prosecuted and convicted, Bruno demanded that all mechanics be retested. This time, Bruno required mechanics to demonstrate hands-on skills on real airplanes; 75 percent failed. Yet, in the spring of 2001, Bruno's newly appointed superiors cancelled his re-examination program, offering scant rationale for the decision, and repeatedly rebuffed his attempts to re-install the program.
Fearing a repeat of the 1996 tragedy, he requested a face-to-face meeting with FAA Associate Administrator Nicholas Sabotini. "Instead of taking my concerns seriously and making the necessary changes, he treated me as some sort of disgruntled employee," said Bruno. "Next thing I know, after 26 years of outstanding performance evaluations, I've lost my management job." Bruno, who had spent over half of his career in management, was re-assigned to a lower-level runway safety position. He now works from home, isolated from his colleagues, "where I can voice my concerns but no one can hear me," he said.
After failing to correct the problems "from the inside, like a good soldier," Bruno took his fight to the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) -- an independent federal agency responsible for aiding and protecting whistleblowers within the government. Initially, there were signs of hope. Elaine Kaplan, the Clinton-appointed special counsel found "substantial likelihood" that Bruno's case had merit and ordered the inspector general (IG) of the Department of Transportation to carry out an investigation. The IG found no wrongdoing within the FAA, despite the fact that Bruno had provided a huge amount of documentary evidence to support his claims.
Kaplan demanded a re-investigation after Bruno provided point-by-point rebuttals to the IG's findings. Again, the IG reported that they had found no problems. "I could tell that the IG was pretty experienced at this, that there were a lot of midnight-oil meetings behind closed doors where people were saying, 'How are we going to respond to this, how are we going to respond to that?'" said Bruno. "None of my documentation changed, but their stories seemed to be evolving as the investigation went on."
But Kaplan remained convinced that Bruno's case was meritorious, ordering yet another investigation. By now, though, it was 2003, and Kaplan's five-year tenure as special counsel had expired. President Bush appointed Scott Bloch -- then deputy director of Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives -- to replace her and, soon after, everything would change.
All of a sudden, no one would take Bruno's calls at the OSC. When the IG's fourth report came back and dismissed Bruno's charges, he once again provided a comprehensive and detailed written rebuttal. Yet, no one at the OSC -- with which he had been closely working for months -- responded to his letters or emails, and his requests to meet Bloch in person were never answered. The OSC closed the case, failing to address Bruno's claims of far-reaching corruption and coverups, and determined that any alleged wrongdoing on the part of the FAA was unintentional. Bruno's first charge -- that the FAA's post-Valujet safety program had not been applied to AirTran -- was completely ignored. And although the OSC asserted that the fraudulently certified engineers should be retested, it made no mention of requiring hands-on examination -- the very core of Bruno's complaint. "Basically, they misrepresented and soft-pedaled on everything that was wrong about the FAA," said Bruno.
The silencing of Gabe Bruno and the whitewashing of FAA corruption is far from an aberration; under the tenure of Scott Bloch, such treatment has become standard practice. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), whistleblowers are coming forward in record numbers, yet the number of whistleblowers who have been helped by the OSC has plummeted.
Since Bloch took office, over 1,000 whistleblower complaints -- many leveling serious charges of government corruption and incompetence, including allegations of misconduct within FEMA before the Katrina disaster -- have been summarily dismissed. In the words of Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, the OSC has become "a plumber's unit for the Bush administration, plugging leaks, blocking investigations, and discrediting sources."
One of the first orders Bloch gave his staff, according to a former OSC employee, was to not call whistleblowers upon receiving written disclosures of corruption and abuse, In previous years, OSC staffers would directly contact whistleblowers to hear details and discern whether the cases merited further investigation. This part of the process was crucial, explained the former OSC staffer, because many of the whistleblowers had filed their complaints without guidance from attorneys and thus often failed to present information critical to their cases. But Bloch ordered staffers to immediately dismiss any cases deemed ambiguous or lacking in information. "I'd never seen anything like this in my life," said the former staffer. "If he had whistleblowers' interests at heart, he wouldn't be telling his staff not to call whistleblowers back." In fact, according to PEER, Bloch even authorized summer interns who hadn't even completed law school to make the judgment call on whistleblower complaints, almost all of which were rejected.
A further look into Bloch's record at the OSC reveals a bizarre litany of transgressions. As David S. Bernstein reported in the Boston Phoenix ("Bush's House Homophobe"), Bloch outraged gay rights advocates in February of 2004 when he removed any mention of sexual-orientation discrimination law from the OSC's website. Bloch, a devout Catholic with ties to the stridently anti-homosexual Claremont Institute, claimed that homosexuals were not a "protected class," radically reinterpreting a federal policy in place since the Nixon era.
Bloch has stacked the OSC with graduates of Ave Maria, an ultraconservative Catholic law school in Michigan, and signed the former headmaster of his son's Catholic high school to a no-bid consulting contract (a crony hire that flies in the face of the very anti-nepotism laws Bloch is also required to enforce as special counsel, says Ruch). And despite dismissing hundreds of seemingly valid whistleblower complaints, Bloch aggressively defended Richard Sternberg -- a Smithsonian research associate who supposedly faced retaliation for publishing an article in defense of Intelligent Design -- even though the OSC had absolutely no jurisdiction over the matter because Sternberg was not actually a government employee.
Bloch's behavior raised more than a few eyebrows at the OSC. But when staffers began to complain about his abuses to the media and advocacy organizations like PEER, Bloch began to silence and retaliate against whistleblowers from within the OSC itself. First, he issued an officewide gag order. Then, on Jan. 6, 2005, Bloch ordered 12 of the office's hundred-person staff, who were actual or perceived whistleblowers (two of whom were openly gay), to be reassigned to different regional offices. Most were ordered to move to a new office in Detroit. Offering no explanation for the move, Bloch gave staffers weeks to decide whether to uproot their lives, or alternatively, be fired. Ten of the 12 either resigned or were fired.
The former staffer I spoke with was one of these 10. Having entered the OSC under Elaine Kaplan -- an open lesbian who publicly criticized Bloch's homophobic actions -- the staffer now realizes he was "tagged as a dead man" from the beginning by Bloch. The employee, who, like Gabe Bruno, was routinely praised for his excellence on the job, learned that in Bush's universe, only the incompetent and the yes-men are rewarded.
"My division was the most productive for three years in a row. But for me and many of my co-workers it seemed like, because we did a good job and helped the agency to be more effective, we got punished," the former staffer told me. "He hurt so many innocent people who worked there, including young people in their 20s and 30s who did nothing but a fantastic job, and people with families. Sure, we've all got new jobs now, but not all of us are necessarily working jobs that we want to be at. He turned our lives upside down, and many of us have not recovered."
Ruch says the "the ironies run so deep" at the OSC under Bloch that the office has become, in effect, "an irony-free zone." But is Bloch merely a "bad apple," or does the problem lie with the OSC as an institution?
According to Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Bloch has "disgraced the office, denigrating it to irrelevance," but is far from the worst special counsel he's seen since the OSC was created. It quickly became clear that the OSC, born in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1979, would never have substantial power to protect whistleblowers. When the first special counsel, Patrick Swygert, made a name for himself by protecting minorities who had been victims of racism within the federal government, Congress slashed the OSC's budget. The office was forced to lay off 90 percent of its employees by 1980, and the message became clear to future special counsels.
Swygert's successors, Alex Kozinski and William O'Connor then turned the office into a "Trojan horse," says Devine, literally sharing disclosures with accused managers, who would in turn engage in retaliatory action and purge whistleblowers from the federal government. In 1989, the Whistleblower Protection Act became law, a measure that was supposed to reform the office, but the OSC remained headed by political appointees who knew that their real role was to make the administration look as good as possible. Clinton's appointee, Kaplan, was the one exception; Ruch and Devine refer to her tenure as the "Golden Years of the OSC," during which several high-profile whistleblowers were protected. Whistleblower advocacy groups urged Bush to extend Kaplan's appointment after her five-year tenure expired. They got Bloch instead.
Having apparently broken almost every law he was appointed by President Bush to enforce -- including retaliating against whistleblowers from inside his own office -- Bloch is your typical Bush thug in charge of a federal agency. This is a pattern of behavior we've seen across the federal government: from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the Environmental Protection Agency. And like the rest of the Bush bureaucrats, Bloch continues to face little to no repercussions for what he's done. When a Senate committee held an oversight hearing to investigate some of the allegations levied against Bloch last May, Bloch defended his record, arguing that twice as many whistleblower complaints had advanced during the first year of his tenure than under any year of Kaplan's. The former staffer I spoke with explained that Bloch had blatantly fudged these numbers; in fact, the figures only represented one 30-day period, not an entire year, as Bloch had claimed. Requests to interview Bloch for this article were not returned.
In March 2005, the law offices of Lynne Bernabei and Debra Katz, acting on behalf of the dismissed OSC staffers, demanded an investigation by the Council on Integrity and Efficiency. Bloch deliberately stalled the process for months, but finally, in October Bernabei and Katz received a letter confirming that Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland of the Office of Personnel Management would carry out an investigation. Yet, according to Katz, the process remains in limbo and the investigation is going nowhere.
"I think Mr. Bloch has been allowed to act with impunity by the administration," says Katz. "It's not just bureaucratic inertia. It is, in effect, a nod to Bloch that he can continue to operate as he has." It is a safe bet that Bloch will continue his work, unhindered, and that the OSC will remain a "plumbers unit" for the next three years. For the time being, there is little hope for federal whistleblowers.
So what does Tom Devine recommend for those who are considering blowing the whistle at the federal level? "Well," he said with a sigh, "basically we tell them that they've got to out-Machiavelli the Machiavellis. If they simply relied on their legal rights, they'd be engaging in professional suicide. So we've worked to develop the tactics of helping whistleblowers commit the truth and get away with it." Under the current laws, the odds are appalling: Since 1995, the Federal Court of Appeals has ruled against whistleblowers 119 out of 120 times.
Asked if he'd do it all over again, Gabe Bruno said, "It's a hard question because it has been a really rough road for me and my family. Intellectually, no, but emotionally, I had to do it -- I couldn't just sit there with all this information, knowing that this stuff was brewing, and keep my mouth shut. This was about public safety, human lives -- I could not do it. But I would tell someone else in my position, weigh carefully what you're doing, because it is going to disrupt your career at a minimum and destroy it at a maximum. So you better weigh your conscience seriously."
You've chosen an unorthodox distribution strategy for "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" -- forgoing theatrical release and instead screening the film at house parties and community centers. What about this formula works for this kind of film?
I like going to the movies. I like having popcorn. But if your goal is to create social change, it's not even a question that this is the way to go. Let's think about it for a minute. You go to the movies, you have to spend $10. What are the chances you're going to get someone to go to a movie on a subject they don't care about, or they disagree with you on? Very, very slim.
However, if it's on at your church, or your neighbor invites you over for a drink and shows the DVD, or if it's at your student union hall or your bowling alley, it's an entirely different thing. Everyone has a friend who disagrees with them politically, everyone has relatives they fight with all the time, people they argue with at workÃ¢â‚¬Â¦these are the kinds of people we are reaching with this kind of campaign.
With "Outfoxed," we reached an enormous amount of people -- never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how many people we would end up reaching this way.
In your other films, "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered," you focus largely on expert opinion. Why did you decide to make ordinary Americans the focus of this film?
I felt the way to tell the Wal-Mart story was to go very small, intimate and personal. It was a key creative and political decision; if the movie was going to be effective, it had to be done this way. Many of the people in this film are self-identified conservatives. The issue of corporate greed far exceeds any issue of Democrats and Republicans.
Wal-Mart says it has been unfairly scapegoated and that many of America's large corporations employ similar tactics. Why focus on Wal-Mart?
They're the largest corporation in the world, and they have a huge impact. Their policy has been leading the drive to the bottom -- not following, leading.
Because of their size and power, they're having an enormous effect. The way they drive costs down by externalizing benefits to their employees (i.e., they don't pay for benefits; taxpayers wind up paying it) gives them an unfair advantage in competing with other businesses.
The amount that they have decimated communities around the United States -- family businesses, homeowners -- the width and breadth of that has been staggering to me. But there is tremendous resistance spreading and also tremendous success.
One of the exciting things for people working on this film is to be able to go out and use it as an organizing tool. What the movie does -- and we're seeing it this week, in blazing, living color -- is bring attention to the issue. It says to people: Take the film, put it under your arm and go out and change the world. Wherever there's a TV screen, there's an opportunity for change.
Once people have seen the film and are emotionally and intellectually affected, they can go to our website. There are a huge number of possible actions that they can take, and we provide links to the groups that are working on this issue, such as Wake Up Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Watch, ACORN, Jobs with Justice and Good Jobs First.
Your critics are dismissing the film as propaganda. What do you see as the difference between documentary and propaganda?
I spent a year of my life, seven days a week, with a large group of incredibly dedicated folks, making sure that everything in the film was accurate, and that's not propaganda. It's stuff I did not make up, and it's stuff that Wal-Mart should make an effort to change.
In addition to spending millions of dollars to attack, defame and call me names -- the messenger, rather than the message -- they made a "hit" video with a picture of me on it, which talks about all of the mistakes in the film (which they're dead-wrong on).
In fact, Wal-Mart should get their money back from Edelmen [the company's public relations firm], because it's so badly done. So we took their video and revoiced it with our announcer, and we put it online. I think your audience will get a kick out of that, because they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on theirs, and we just got somebody with a microphone. In 24 hours, we took it and made it ours.
Wal-Mart has made a practice of refusing to carry books and films it finds objectionable, from Jon Stewart's America to Liza Featherstone's Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart. It's probably a safe bet they aren't going to be selling your film.
First we're trying to get them to see it -- to stop attacking it and actually see it. Then we'll see if we can get them to carry it.
No one wrote about Terry McAuliffe's first 100 days as the chair of the Democratic National Committee. I'm willing to bet the landmark didn't even occur to anyone, with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. McAuliffe himself. But when 100 days passes and his successor, Howard Dean -- the most highly anticipated, scrutinized, equally loathed and beloved DNC chair in recent memory -- is at the helm of the party, it's a different story. It is, in fact, a story.
It goes without saying that 100 days is an arbitrary and premature point at which to assess whether Dean is saving or screwing the party. Right-wing pundits have already started celebrating what they see as Dean's speedy march towards failure. Although Dean is hitting "record levels," according to DNC spokesperson Laura Gross, with a million-dollar-a-week fundraising pace, conservatives are gloating over RNC chair Ken Mehlman's $34.2 million-twice the amount Dean has raised so far.
And Dean's image problem was and still is a primary concern of party leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, who publicly opposed Dean's candidacy and privately urged him to tone down his rhetoric after being appointed Dean sent shudders through the Democratic establishment with his now-infamous suggestion in May that Tom Delay "go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence."
Even Barney Frank, not exactly a tight-lipped centrist, said Dean's words were "overstate[d]," "unfair," and "just inappropriate." Meanwhile, the people who make up Dean's base -- progressives and grassroots activists eager for an overhaul of the Democratic Party -- haven't been too pleased either. Many are uncomfortable with the news that Dean is buddying up with establishment D.C. Democrats like Reid and New York Senator Chuck Schumer; others are uneasy with him spending time in Washington period.
On April 20 Dean told a Minnesota audience about his Iraq war stance, "Now that we're there, we're there and we can't get out? I hope the President is incredibly successful with his policy now."
Coming from a former presidential candidate whose momentum was built largely on a candid and unwavering anti-Iraq war platform, the statement prompted immediate outrage on the left, voiced in an open letter to Dean from longtime peace activist Tom Hayden. Dennis Kucinich followed Hayden's lead, asking Dean, "Did these words really come from the same man who claimed to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party? It was [our] hope and expectation that you would prevent the party from repeating its past drift to the Republican-lite center."
Dean's first major media appearance as DNC chair did little to abate the criticism. Appearing on Meet the Press on May 22nd, Dean endured an endless barrage of linguistic nitpicking from Tim Russert. Intent on perpetuating Dean's image as an unstable hothead, Russert gave the chairman little opportunity to explain his vision for the Party, instead tossing out gems like, "You said in December of 2003 that we shouldn't prejudge Osama bin Laden. How can you sit here and have a different standard for Tom DeLay and prejudge him?"
Republicans on the Hill snickered. And for the soundbyte-oriented Democratic establishment, this was proof positive of everything they'd warned about Dean. Hayden and Kucinich couldn't have been too happy about the performance either. Even though Dean stood firm on his criticism of Delay, he equivocated on abortion and didn't even approach the issue of withdrawal from Iraq.
It's no wonder then that Dean has avoided the national spotlight, with criticism being launched at him from all sides and media-jealous Democratic colleagues muttering about his inability to stay "on message." But perhaps the main reason that Dean's been AWOL from the Sunday talk show circuit is that he's been busy traveling the country, learning about the state of politics at the local level. Since he began as chair on February 12, Dean's priorities have been set less on cultivating a perfect, all-encompassing message for the Democratic Party and more on "showing up."
In the last three months, Dean has visited 18 states, where he has met with Democratic officials at the state and local level and promoted his plan to build the party infrastructure from the bottom up. Unlike McAuliffe, Dean isn't arriving in limousines; he's flying coach, paying for his own bus tickets, and carrying his own bags. And if you listen to the people that Dean has spent most of his tenure thus far speaking to -- people in some of the Reddest states of the country -- Dean is doing a fantastic job
Dean ran for chair on a platform promising to radically depart from the previous DNC strategy of targeting specific states during crucial election cycles. His plan was to focus on all fifty states, cultivate candidates at all levels of government, and get paid grassroots organizers on the ground immediately. "I'm not much of a Zen person," he remarked upon accepting chairmanship, "But I've found that the path to power, oddly enough, is to trust others with it. That means putting the power where the voters are." Judging from my conversations with state and county leaders, Dean is doing exactly that.
Dean's "Red, White, and Blue" tour through the South was initially met with trepidation, not only by Democratic insiders, but also state party leaders who feared Dean's aggressive "northeastern liberal" style wouldn't fly in their states. When Dean showed up, for the most part, those impressions were shattered. The Dean they saw was not a firebrand, but a pragmatic leader determined to build the nuts and bolts of the party. "I was nervous before Governor Dean came to town," said Gabe Holmstrom, Executive Director of the Arkansas Democratic Party, "but I found that Dean had a lot of insight into local politics and a real interest in taking a much more aggressive role in organizing from the grassroots. His commitment was clear." Party leaders described crowds at Dean events in their states as "electric," "ecstatic," and "very excited." Nick Casey, West Virginia's State Chair told me people were driving in "three hours from the south, five hours from the east, just to hear him."
After years of being virtually ignored by the DNC, state party leaders are extremely enthusiastic about Dean's state partnership program. On April 8, Dean announced the first round of his investments in the states, half a million dollars that would be spread among the state parties of Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Since then, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, and Kansas have received DNC funding. In Nebraska-which received ten times the $12,000 they got from Terry McAuliffe last year-the state party is putting organizers in all 93 of their counties. In West Virginia, Casey is excited about using the additional funds to recruit teachers to serve as mentors for Young Democrats clubs at high schools, and energizing long-stagnant groups like the Federation of Democratic Women. "In 2004, we started campaign after the May primary," says Casey. "We just started our coordinating campaign a month ago for 2008. That makes a hell of a difference."
Chairs from other states which are yet to receive funding, such as Arizona's Jim Pederson, are looking forward to boosting the basics-improving technology, getting enhanced voter files, and putting organizers on the ground to reach out to potential voters who haven't been contacted in years. Montana's State Chair, Bob Ream, is thrilled about the prospects of hiring more organizers for his state. "We only have one person trying to cover the whole state as a field organizer. With funding, we can get two or three more and locate them in far eastern and western Montana," Ream says. "Precinct level organizing was something our party did forty or fifty years ago and I think it's important to get back to that, especially in a state like ours that is so scattered, population-wise."
The state leaders I spoke with all praised Dean for allotting them with real independence, a tangible indicator of what they see as his dedication to the bottom-up model. Gabe Holmstrom is glad that Dean is "shifting the power outside of the Beltway" an allowing his state party to hire its own staff, from its own state, on its own terms. Jim Hester, State Chair from Tennessee agrees, saying that "It's important from a messaging standpoint too, because it's better when people who are living in the real world -- people who get up, go to work, feed their kids -- are sharing their concerns about the country. We need to talk about what we real people need, not what the disconnected folks in Washington think we need."
Hadley Glover, a 31-year-old mom and Democratic chair of Arkansas' Benton County, says Dean's plan is "music to her ears." With the highest Republican population in the state, Benton County residents are inundated with negative portrayals of Democrats. But with money and county officials on their side, Glover says, Benton county residents can define the party themselves. "It's easy to cast stones or call names or dismiss political parties with cliches. It's very difficult to do the same thing when it's your next door neighbor or the person you go to church with," says Glover. "We've got to put a face on the party that people know. It's very easy for them to dismiss John Kerry as a 'babykiller.' It isn't so easy to call Hadley Glover a 'babykiller.'"
According to Hester, Dean's not only giving state and county-level parties independence to cultivate their own messages, he's asking for their help in cultivating a national message for the party. "We've had more communication and more of a close working relationship with the DNC in the short time he's been here since any other time in my memory," says Hester. "There's a real back and forth exchange of ideas that's taking place now." In Dean, Glover hears the DNC saying, "'We don't have to control all the purse strings, we don't have to make all of the yes-or-no decisions in order to make this work.'"
Time will tell if Dean truly intends to continue in his commitment to the grassroots. Dean intends to personally visit or send DNC staff to party headquarters at all fifty states by the end of July, and plans to extend his partnership program to every state in the country as soon as possible. But will he continue to pour money into organizing on the local level in 2006 and 2008? If the establishment feels the grassroots have gained too much power, will Dean buckle?
Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, who says he saw Dean "roll over like a puppy after Kerry won the nomination when he should have put pressure on him," is a skeptic. Caddell thinks Dean's grassroots talk could very well just be a gimmick. "If you're really going to be empowering people you actually have to let them in, rather than just get money off of them," he says. Additionally, he doubts that the grassroots energy from 2004 can carry over much longer. "You cannot sustain the grassroots enthusiasm without changing what the party stands for. You can't tell me the Democrats have a real vision right now. The grassroots can only exist when you believe in something."
Still, state party leaders like Hester are optimistic. "What Dean is doing right now has never happened before in an off-election year," says Hester. "He's going out there right now and putting DNC money where his mouth is. He said he was gonna come down South and listen to us and that's what he did. That's real and that's tangible."
For all the hits on Dean coming from Washington for his slow fundraising start, his lack of media savvy, and his as-yet undelivered technological improvements to the party machine, it's worth noting that the D.C. Democrats who criticize him don't have much to stand on as they've been a bunch of losers in the recent elections. After all, the only real political "experts" out there are the ones who win campaigns.
The Democratic state chairs in the heavily Republican states -- who have seen why Democrats have been losing firsthand -- think Dean's taken the right approach.Ã‚Â His face-to-face meetings with local party officials and his message of devolving power from Washington are proving to Democrats across the country that they can and should be a part of the political process. And that, at 100 days in, is something can Dean be proud of.
Has Eminem – the poster child of American disenchantment – become the new face of activism?
Those who are accustomed to Eminem's gay-bashing, gun-toting antics will hardly believe their eyes, as they watch his new video in which the top-selling rapper and his posse file into the voting booths, the words "Vote Tuesday, November 2" fading into the screen.
"Mosh" could well be one of the most overtly political pop music videos ever produced, and is easily the most direct anti-Bush cultural statement since Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Although the video debuted just a week before the election, it could have an unprecedented cultural and political impact, coming from the top-grossing rap star in America, and one of the seminal pop icons of the last decade.
The largely animated video begins with a suited Eminem reading "My Pet Goat" upside down to a classroom full of children. Moments later, however, Eminem shifts from his usual mode of sarcastic critique to lyrics reflecting sincere political passion.
We see him shadowboxing in front of a wall plastered with newspaper headlines such as "Bush Knew," "Bush Declares War," "Congress OKs $87 Billion" and "Blechtell" [sic]. We see a soldier coming home from the war, only to find his wife holding out a letter stating "Private Kelly, You Have Been Re-Assigned to Iraq." When the soldier reads the notice, his eyes shift from shock, to fear, to outrage, as he emphatically mouths "Fuck Bush." Later, we see a woman opening an eviction notice while her children watch Bush talking about "tax cuts" on television.
"Mosh"'s brooding beat elevates the song's sense of urgency. "Let the president answer on high anarchy/Strap him with an AK-47, let him go/Fight his own war/ Let him impress daddy that way/No more blood for oil, we got our battles to fight on our own soil," he shouts.
As Eminem and his battalion of urban foot soldiers march through the rain-soaked streets, there is a sense that an epic battle is imminent. He rallies the troops – "let us ... set aside our differences, and assemble our own army, to disarm this weapon of mass destruction that we call our president" – but his army eventually shuns violence for the voting booths.
Critics – especially from the right – will dismiss "Mosh" as a shrewd attempt to boost record sales by capitalizing on the tide of anti-Bush populism. Yet, Eminem has truly made a leap with "Mosh." In his first four albums – despite pointing out the absurdities of American politics and culture – his mantra, ultimately, was "I just don't give a fuck." Never before has he advocated for political change. Even if the song's late arrival gives it a limited impact on the vote, Eminem's pronounced political shift should send shivers through the largely unchecked right wing establishment.