Failing to See the Forest For the Trees Could Crush the Progressive Movement for Decades


“The idea of democracy has been stripped of its moral imperatives and come to denote hollowness and hypocrisy.” – Paul Wellstone (“The Case for Commitment,” undated)

Back in 1990, my grandmother and I attended a rally for an upstart liberal politician from Minnesota who was running for U.S. Senate, a man by the name of Paul Wellstone. He wasn’t expected to beat Senator Rudy Boschwitz, a Republican establishment favorite, but my grandmother insisted we go to support him. It was my first political rally, and I have to admit I wasn’t overly excited about going to it. But we went, and I watched patiently on a warm, sunny Minnesota afternoon as Paul Wellstone took the stage.

He talked at length about all sorts of things from civil rights to protecting the environment, but two things stood out more than anything else to me at the time, and still leave an indelible mark in my mind when recalling the events of that day: his passionate promise to fight for universal health care for all Americans, and the look of pure joy and hope on my grandmother’s face as she watched him speak. “I just love this man!,” I recall her exclaiming as those around her agreed. I didn’t know it at the time, but over the next decade or so he would earn my love and admiration as well. Paul Wellstone was one of the good guys who actually gave a damn, much in the same mould as his friend from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders.

Bernie had this to say about his friend Paul during a tribute in the Senate five years after his death:

“In Minnesota, he brought thousands and thousands of people who had not been involved in the political process together to stand up under a progressive program for economic justice and for a world of peace. And he understood profoundly… that real change takes place from the bottom, not from the top. He was a tireless advocate of grassroots politics.”

That sounds a lot like what Bernie himself has done with millions of people across the country over these past 15 or so months.

I took a few days off from all forms of politics, on television, social media and otherwise. I had to. This election season has been so emotionally and physically taxing on myself and many of my family and friends that a breather can be an absolute necessity – especially after the Republican and Democratic conventions the past few weeks. That said, I know I don’t have the luxury of taking many more days off between now and election day. I cannot stress this enough: everything that we’ve fought for and accomplished as a movement over the past several decades is on the line in November.

As a supporter of Bernie Sanders during the primary, I completely understand and share the discontent many on the left feel toward the Democratic party establishment right now. Many of us are still trying to come to grips with the reality that we could have had one of the most sincere progressive voices of our lifetimes, a true fighter for the 99%, as our candidate against the vile, un-American excuse for a candidate that Republicans have nominated. Our voices and our votes could have lifted Bernie to the White House – there is no question in my mind or my heart that this is true. But due to how our ridiculous primary system has been set up for decades (John Oliver did a wonderful job exposing this) – and due to the fact that Hillary Clinton was the Democratic establishment’s preferred candidate – we didn’t get to carry our dream to fulfillment. Watching Bernie’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was heart-wrenching for many of us who have donated money, time and our collective smarts to figuring out how we could make the impossible happen, for the betterment of our nation and the world.

Let me be very clear on this: we cannot vilify the Democratic party as a whole for what happened in the presidential primary. We absolutely should be furious, we must demand accountability, and we must not forget – but we can’t blame all Democrats for a handful of emails that spoke out against Bernie (a few of which were responses to his campaign speaking out against the DNC), or for Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s utter incompetence as DNC Chair. Demonizing the word “Democrat” does nothing to fix the rigged system itself. Instead, we should continue to push for reforms and cleaning house (much of which has already started). We should continue to drag the party to its senses, as progressives succeeded in doing brilliantly last month with many planks in the Democratic party platform. We didn’t stop TPP, nor did we get strong language against fracking, but the changes we did earn mattered. And those changes only happened because of the hard work and commitment of progressives who want a Democratic party that consistently fights for the vast majority of Americans.

Nina Turner (who would make an excellent choice for DNC Chair, by the way) had it right. When asked if she wanted to join the Green Party ticket as Dr. Jill Stein’s vice presidential candidate, Turner declined, stating, “I’m going to keep fighting in the party, even though I’m disappointed. I’m a Democrat, and that’s worth fighting for.”

She then said something that every self-identified liberal or progressive in the country should pay close attention to: “What I really care about is making this progressive agenda more actionable.”

The easiest way to do that, under our current system, is to elect more progressives who actually give a damn at all levels of government: local, state, and federal. Every single race matters. There are 34 seats in the U.S. Senate, 435 seats in the U.S. House, 1,210 state senate seats and 4,710 state house seats up for election in November – not to mention 12 governor seats as well. Trust me when I say, we don’t have the luxury of sitting this election out. Get to know your candidates and encourage your friends and family to get to know them, even if it’s just a quick look at their campaign website to see what they stand for. Tell them what matters to you and make them listen. Then, if they do earn your vote, hold them accountable. That is how you make a progressive agenda “more actionable.”

This matters tremendously this year, more so than during any other election year in most of our lifetimes. Via Vox:

Faced with a loose-cannon 2016 GOP presidential nominee who disagrees with them on key issues, Charles and David Koch — the two billionaire “Koch brothers” — are directing the vast resources of their political network toward down-ballot races. This should alarm liberals greatly.

The Koch resources are likely to be more effective in state and congressional contests than they would be in the presidential race. What’s more, the Koch network and other ultra-free market networks at the state level already enjoy formidable clout — certainly far more power than the equivalent left-progressive organizations.

This is why we must get organized and on the same page. Failing to see the forest for the trees in this election could set the country – and the progressive movement – back decades. The hard work of millions of people past and present on any number of issues that directly impact the lives of women, LGBT people, minorities and non-Christians (and should matter to all of us as a nation, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race or religion) could very conceivably be wiped away by a federal government under complete Republican control and a Supreme Court with a majority of conservative Justices. Furthermore, voting rights would be decimated, making it even more difficult to gain back our progressive voice in the years ahead.

There’s a reason why organizations like the NRA and people like Ted Nugent, Sarah Palin, David Duke, Roger Stone, Sheldon Adelson, Jerry Falwell and this guy have all endorsed the Republican excuse for a presidential candidate. The same reason why they, along with millions of conservatives across the country, want Congress to remain firmly in Republican control as well. They want to “take their country back” and “make America great again,” remember? In other words, they desperately want to sound the death knell for the progressive agenda while simultaneously reversing progress that’s already been made on issues affecting millions of Americans.

The hope for universal health care? Forget about it. Abortion? Ban it. Gay marriage? Annul it. Black lives? Don’t matter.

We can’t allow this to happen.

I trust the judgment of Bernie Sanders, who has announced plans to launch “Our Revolution” which will support at least 100 progressive candidates running for various offices across the country. I trust people like Nina Turner to continue to speak out and hold the Democratic party accountable. I trust people like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Cory Booker to continue to champion progressive causes in the Senate with (hopefully) more power to actually get things done rather than being forced to counter Republican nonsense.

When Paul Wellstone eventually beat Rudy Boschwitz for that Senate seat in 1990 (despite being outspent 7-1) he entered the Senate convinced he could continue his grassroots progressivism and bring about positive change on numerous issues. He promised to work “with a lot of people around the country—progressive grassroots people, social-action activists—to extend the limits of what’s considered politically realistic.”

“I have always been a community organizer, and I can do that here,” he said.

He was wrong. From InTheseTimes:

During most of Wellstone’s Senate career, the Democrats were the minority party. In his 2002 book The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, he acknowledged that he spent nearly 85 percent of his time on defense, battling Republican attacks on working families and preventing bad things—like oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—from happening.

Think about that for a moment: 85 percent of Paul Wellstone’s time in the Senate was spent dealing with Republican bullshit, desperately trying to protect things progressives care about. This isn’t a new phenomenon, folks; Republicans have been blocking progress and fighting against the will of the majority of Americans for decades. Meanwhile, we haven’t had enough true fighters in the mould of a Paul Wellstone or Elizabeth Warren to effectively fight back.

That brings us back to working “with a lot of people around the country—progressive grassroots people, social-action activists—to extend the limits of what’s considered politically realistic.” That part is up to all of us. We can’t just elect people to office and then warm the benches for four years waiting for the next presidential election year before we get involved again. We need to demand progressive champions who will fight for us at the local, state and federal levels, and we need them to know they’ll be held accountable for their actions.

Regardless of what you think of Hillary Clinton, she’s not “equally as bad” or “worse than” the Republican excuse for a presidential candidate. I’m not here to demand you vote for her, and she deserves a lot of the criticism she gets from the left on her hawkish credentials and ties to Wall Street. But I am here to say that we must keep Republicans from winning as many races as possible. If you need to refocus your energy, spend some time on a few of these hundreds of other races that matter around the nation and tune out the presidential nonsense for a while. (Here’s a convenient list of Berniecrats running for House or Senate seats who need all the help they can get.)

Furthermore, if you belong to “progressive” groups on Facebook that seem to do nothing but regurgitate hate against Democrats or garbage about “election fraud” while ignoring literally everything else, I’d suggest finding new groups that focus on solutions, accountability, and organization for November and beyond. This was an escalating problem that got to ridiculous levels during the primary, with nonsense clickbait articles from fly-by-night blogs (often registered in other countries) getting shared by tens of thousands of people and influencing emotions during an already emotional and tense time. (For an eye-opening breakdown showing this in action, check out this article by Matthew Smollon on Medium. It’s not pretty.)

This primary sucked the political life out of myself and many other Bernie supporters, but we can take that disappointment and despondence and use it as kindling to keep the passion for progress alive across the country – just like Bernie wants us to do. Use the flame that he sparked to educate others about what they can do to influence positive change.

This isn’t about assuring that any one particular Democrat, or the Democratic party as a whole, “wins” this November. This is about protecting the heart of the progressive movement and everything we’ve fought for, while demanding that reforms are made within the Democratic party and doing a better job at holding all of our elected officials accountable for their words, their votes, and their actions. I still believe deep down that the Democratic party can be saved, reformed, and consistently progressive with the right people making it happen. But that includes commitment from us. 

Millions of people saw firsthand the hollowness and hypocrisy of our so-called democracy during this primary season. Now it’s time to get focused and do something about it.

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Thomas Barr is a writer, editor and activist who's passionate about progressive ideals, with extra attention given to the fight for universal health care, medical marijuana, and saving our nation from decades of devastating trickle-down policies. Thomas is also a dedicated advocate for Type 1 diabetes research and education.