Lessons Learned

Like most of you, I'm depressed that fear, lies and hate were rewarded with victory at the polls. That a majority of Bush supporters believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks shows a fundamental breakdown in democratic debate. This combination of the big lies told by the president and media collaboration is pathetic, but it no doubt required an ideological disposition by conservative voters to ignore all contrary evidence, so it reflects the ideological divide in our country.

What We Did Right: That said, I think the first thing progressives should do is understand what we did right in this election. A few hundred thousand more votes in Ohio and a lot of people would be talking about the brilliance of the Kerry campaign in withstanding the barrage of Bush lies and dirty tricks. And the record turnout of Democrats is something we can collectively take great pride in. A higher percentage of the eligible voting population voted for Kerry than ever voted for Gore, Clinton or any candidate since Carter won in 1976 -- and Kerry got about as high a percentage of potential voters as Carter. Whatever we do in the future, we need to respect the power of outreach and not go back to the past when too little money was spent on the nuts and bolts of turnout.

And whatever criticism people might have of Kerry's campaign, it's worth noting that he ran on a strong progressive platform -- pro-labor, pro-environment, anti-death penalty, committed to civil rights. And while folks wax nostalgic for Bill Clinton, his campaigns were often conducted at the expense of progressive values through "Sister Souljah" moments and "triangulations" such as selling out welfare moms in 1996. We should sit back and appreciate that a record 55 million Americans supported a campaign committed to progressive values.

Bush and "moral values": The problem for the campaign, of course, is that Bush pulled an even higher turnout. Fear is a great motivator, but we need to understand why many lower-income voters -- folks who will be harmed by Bush's economic policies &endash;-voted for Bush on "moral values." And we don't know because in many of the religious communities where these votes are cast, we don't have organizers talking to them on a day-to-day basis.

We progressives need to do what we did right in this election and make engagement with strongly religious voters a priority. There are groups that regularly organize for social justice in religious communities, but other progressives have rarely made support and funding of such groups a priority in the same way we've made outreach to other communities a key goal.

Where We Agree with Evangelicals: For those who somehow think Christian evangelicals are some kind of alien species with whom we can't make common cause on many issues, it might be worth checking out the main association of those churches, the National Association of Evangelicals. While they say many things you will disagree with, you might want to read a recent report they issued on civic involvement by evangelicals called "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." While abortion and gay marriage are discussed, when you get to around page 8, there is a serious discussion about economic justice, including these excerpts:

"God identifies with the poor (Ps. 146:5-9), and says that those who 'are kind to the poor lend to the Lord' (Prov. 19:17), while those who oppress the poor 'show contempt for their Maker' (Prov. 14:31). Jesus said that those who do not care for the needy and the imprisoned will depart eternally from the living God (Matt. 25:31-46). The vulnerable may include not only the poor, but women, children, the aged, persons with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, minorities, the persecuted, and prisoners. God measures societies by how they treat the people at the bottom. ...

"We further believe that care for the vulnerable should extend beyond our national borders. American foreign policy and trade policies often have an impact on the poor. We should try to persuade our leaders to change patterns of trade that harm the poor and to make the reduction of global poverty a central concern of American foreign policy. We must support policies that encourage honesty in government, correct unfair socioeconomic structures, generously support effective programs that empower the poor, and foster economic development and prosperity. Christians should also encourage continued government support of international aid agencies, including those that are faith based."

These folks may be voting for Bush based on social issues, but they have fundamental disagreements on what Bush's policies are doing to poor people. Some may recognize this and be voting for him anyway, but I suspect that many don't know the whole story, because we don't talk to them enough.

So the challenge going forward is to build on what we've done in mobilizing our core communities -- unions, urban centers, civil rights groups, womens' networks, and so on -- and make a concerted drive to split off the economic justice-oriented evangelicals from the rightwing corporate political machine.

If you work with people day to day on common concerns, like economic justice, they won't necessarily cease disagreeing with you on other issues, but they will trust you that one disagreement does not disguise ill intent or hidden agendas that they may fear. The main point is not to change our values, but to make it clearer to these voters that they differ far more from Bush on core issues of justice than they do from progressives on the social issues Karl Rove raised to a frenzy.

Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer and longtime community activist. Email or see

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