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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

There are three important lessons that progressives and Democrats need to learn from the One Nation rally this past Saturday – and whether the rally was as big as Glen Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally is not one of them.

Ever since the Tea Party rallies and demonstrations began in April 2009, articles in The Democratic Strategist have repeatedly noted that the wildly inflated crowd estimates the organizers promoted were a two-edged sword. On the one hand they certainly cheered up the participants in the events and gave conservative publications a useful propaganda tool. But, at the same time, they also produced among the Tea Party activists a profoundly distorted notion of themselves as genuinely representing the vast, indeed overwhelming, majority of Americans — an illusion that has fueled their purge of more mainstream and more electable GOP candidates in favor of true believers and in consequence significantly weakened the GOP’s long term prospects.
As a result, Democrats and progressives should steadfastly resist the temptation to try to measure the success or value of Saturday’s event by arguing about whether it was as large, or larger, than either Glen Beck’s Restore Honor rally on August 28th or the much smaller Tea Party rally organized by Freedomworks this September 12th. Glen Beck’s rally, it must be remembered, was heavily promoted by the largest single TV network in America, featured the two most prominent and mediagenic national figures in the Tea Party conservative world, and provided an outlet for protest by people who felt profoundly marginalized by the preceding election. To create a roughly comparable sociological situation, one would have to imagine that, in 2006 — when liberals and Democrats were livid with fury at George W. Bush — Teddy Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King (had she still been alive at the time) had all jointly headlined a Washington march that was relentlessly promoted by CNN, NBC and all of the major liberal blogs and magazines.
The One Nation rally, in contrast, had no TV promotion, no major speakers, and no major and passionate unifying issue like the outrage liberals and Democrats felt in 2006 toward the Bush administration. As a result, the fact that it was almost certainly not as large as Beck’s August 28th rally but rather perhaps as large or larger than the September 12 Tea Party rally of this year should be considered neither surprising nor disheartening.
What is important, on the other hand, is not simply to recognize that the rally nonetheless represented a major step forward for the progressive movement, but, more important, to recognize three significant weaknesses that were exposed by the event.
First, although the formation of the coalition of 300 organizations that called the rally represents a major advance for the American progressive movement, the only sector of the new coalition that was actually able to mobilize large numbers of participants to attend the rally were the major progressive trade unions. There were substantial contingents at the rally from SIEU, the UAW, AFSME and the NEA. Each of these groups filled one of a variety of pre-divided sections of the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II memorial.
On the other hand, however, there were no comparable mobilized mass contingents from other major components of the coalition such as the Latino, GLBT, progressive youth or even African-American organizations. To be sure, there were many individual participants with shirts and signs reflecting their allegiance to organizations that represent these communities, and there were various clusters of hundreds who marched together under the banners of these groups. But there should have been clusters of thousands of people marching under those banners rather than just hundreds if these sectors of the coalition still retained the ability to mobilize their supporters in the way that major grass-roots organizations could in the past.
In truth, this is not a surprise. The ability to motivate and mobilize people to come to a demonstration in Washington does not arise spontaneously. It is built on the base of solid local grass-roots organizations. For many progressive groups this grass-roots foundation has withered greatly in the last few decades, leaving them with “supporters” whose support is to a large degree verbal or abstract and cannot be translated into mass action.
The second, related weakness that was revealed by the Washington rally was the startling absence of the progressive netroots. There was no large organized participation visible from any of the major internet based organizations – MoveOn, Daily Kos, Netroots Nation, Huffpo, Democrats.org, FireDogLake, Open Left and so on. While it would be understandable that participants in these online organizations might not be able to arrive at the rally together, the fact that none of these groups joined together in any organized presence for themselves once at the demonstration reflects a very significant disconnect between the virtual and real-world progressive movements. If the progressive netroots is not able to organize and play any significant part in real world progressive actions like mass demonstrations, its strength and relevance for progressive politics is substantially less than is often assumed.
Finally, the rally revealed that this new coalition has not yet developed any common vision or unifying program that could give it the coherence to play the role a leading progressive coalition must inevitably try to assume. The various speakers at the rally reasserted the outlooks and perspectives of their individual organizations but there was no common conceptual framework or agenda for action that could unify the audience at the rally once they returned home.
In particular, it was striking to note the absence of any clear recognition that the Republican Party has basically sabotaged the Obama administration and is now planning to paralyze the operation of government in order to prevent the enactment of policies with which they disagree. This is a profoundly radical and indeed “insurrectionary” program for an American political party and is one which the new progressive coalition will inevitably find itself compelled to oppose. As of yet, however, the looming threat has not even been clearly defined.
None of these weaknesses are intended to be criticisms of the new coalition or to diminish the substantial step forward that the One Nation rally represents. For the first major action of a new political force, the Saturday rally was more than enough of an achievement.
But as a movement that takes itself seriously, however, the new “One Nation” coalition must not imitate the infantile behavior of the Tea Party and make absurd overestimations of the attendance at its event or promote the notion that it already represents the majority of the country. There is hard work ahead, and no time to waste before getting started.

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