As the last full day of the Take Back the American Dream conference ended, the "Building the Progressive Movement: What Should We Do Next?" action strategy session posed the question that was probably on the minds of many attendees: What should we do next? The answers, shared between a filled room of activists and a panel of progressive leaders — Levanya Layendecker, Joan Blades, Tim Carpenter, Adam Green, Michael Kieschnick — distilled and expanded upon the best of all that attendees heard over the course of conference.
What should we do next? What's our next move? Make no mistake, whatever the next 16 months and beyond bring, the next move is ours to make, and the fight to rebuild and reclaim the American Dream is ours to win.
Democracy for America's Levanya Layendecker moderated the panel and opened with two questions — two first steps towards "what's next" for the progressive movement. What do we need to build? What do we need to tear town? Layendecker's answers echoed Van Jones' message from the beginning of the conference. Jones addressed progressives' tendency to "speak collectively and act individually," compared to the tea party's tendency to "speak individually and act collectively" — until 2008, when Barack Obama's candidacy broke us out of our organizational and issue-based "silos."
Laydecker identified those "silos" as "what we should tear down," and shared a one minute ad DFA created by asking progressive leaders in key Florida districts to find stories for use in targeted "Don't Kill the Dream" television spots, as an example of "working across organizational boundaries." Like the protests in Wisconsin, the Occupy Wall Street movement, both of which spread to other cities and states and drew support from diverse groups, the "Don't Kill the Dream" campaign is an example of proactively reaching across boundaries and "silos" to advance progressive issues. (For that matter, the Take Back the American Dream conference itself is such an example.)
Tim Carpenter, of Progressive Democrats of America, said the question, "What should be do next?" was "Where the rubber meets the road" for progressives. And, Carpenter added, we must not be merely driven to elect Democrats, but must instead build an independent progressive movement. "By simply electing Democrats," he said, "we're not going to get where we need to be. We need to elect a progressive Democratic governing majority." Carpenter defined political solutions — a financial transfer tax, getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq — but emphasized the need for the Democratic party to "get back to its progressive roots," and the need for progressive to get it there by finding and supporting those candidates that support us, and back solutions based on progressive ideals.
Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org and MomsRising.org, pointed to MomsRising's successes to show that may of the issues near and dear to progressives also appeal to independent voters, again incorporating the theme of reaching across issue-based and organizational boundaries. Indeed, Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Chris Green reminded the audience that packed the room just how many progressive issues resonated with the overwhelming majority of Americans — nearly 4 to 1 in favor of increasing the taxes on the wealthy, and against cuts in Social Security and Medicare to solve the deficit. Green pointed to the health care debate, and Rep. Jared Polis' "Dear Colleague" letter on the public option as an example of progressive activists, policymakers, intellectuals and media working effectively together.
The late Paul Wellstone once said, "Sometimes you have to pick a fight to win one." CREDO's Michael Kieschnick pointed out the need for progressives to pick fights, and pick them not just based on whether they are winnable or not, but on whether they offer an opportunity to educate people about why they should engage. He identified several categories of fights progressive should pick in the next election and beyond — including things Obama can do without Congress, to what we can achieve in Congress, fighting Fox News, and countering voter ID laws. "You have to engage in the fight, and then you can do the politics," Kieschnick said, asserting that we lose by choosing fights based on policy instead of engagement. Some fights, after all, are worth having regardless of whether they're winnable, if they build a foundation and supportive base for bigger fights down the line. (And history shows, as Robert Reich reminded us, that progressive movements win the bigger fights in the long term.)
What should we do next? What will we do next? Participants in the Take Back the American Dream conference will rally at the Capitol, to demand that Congress stop pushing job-killing cuts and take bold action to create jobs and put Americans back to work. But any progressive knows the answers to those questions are as numerous and varied as progressives themselves. Sometimes, "what's next" is as spontaneous as the protests in Wisconsin and on Wall Street, or "crowd sourced" like the Contract for the American Dream.
"What's next" may even be an idea that hasn't been thought of yet. What progressives should do next is what we are doing now, building an independent movement dedicated not the fortunes of any particular party, but to an economy that works for all Americans, with good jobs that sustain and support a strong middle-class — and with it a stronger and more perfect union with, yes, liberty and justice for all.