The American Dream Conference: Hope for the Future?

by Zelda Bronstein on October 11, 2011

Last week I spent two and a half days on the East Coast participating in what was billed as a Left version of the Tea Party. No, I was not standing shoulder to shoulder with Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park; I was sitting in the bowels of the Washington Hilton along with two thousand other attendees at the Take Back the American Dream conference. Organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, the conference was intended to energize the American Dream movement that Van Jones launched in New York City last August with the declared hope of sparking Tea Party-like passion for a Left agenda. By early October, the project had garnered the support of 78 organizations, including MoveOn, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Daily Kos, the Sierra Club and the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Over 130,000 people attending almost 1,600 house meetings had vetted goals for the ten-point Contract for the American Dream. The conference itself featured some of the biggest names in organized labor (Trumka, Henry, Gerard), liberal commentary (Baker, Reich), Left organizing (Booth, Ruben), progressive officialdom (Lee, Sanders, Schakowsky) and would-be progressive officialdom (Warren — speaking via a live video feed).

Yet two days before it began, the Washington gathering was unintentionally upstaged by youthful demonstrators in lower Manhattan (and, it must be conceded, some ill-advised actions of the New York City Police Department). I say unintentionally, because I’m sure that few if any of the people marching across Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 had heard of the American Dream movement, much less the conference that would shortly begin in the nation’s capital, even though the grievances they voiced resonated with the conferees’ own complaints about the American democracy.

What’s far more puzzling is that those who not only knew about the event but had a major role in publicizing it — namely, the Left media — gave it short shrift. The Nation, to take the most salient example, was a conference sponsor; its publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, addressed a plenary session; she and Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage wrote the story whose title — “The American Dream: Can a Movement Save It?” — was splashed across the cover of the October 10 issue that was tucked into conferees’ packets; and its Washington correspondent, John Nichols, organized and moderated a breakout session. Yet the magazine’s website gave scant coverage to the conference proceedings, instead turning its attention to the street actions that mushroomed in New York City and elsewhere during the first week of October.

This is unfortunate. As the events in Egypt last spring showed, massive demonstrations of righteous political anger can spark profound change. But as those events also showed, to have a meaningful say on the long-term (and for that matter, short-term) direction of such change, activists have to do more than demonstrate; they need to get organized or to ally with others who are already organized. They need leadership and discipline, a clear agenda and a effective strategy for implementing their demands. Otherwise, like the young agitators who initiated the protests in Tahrir Square, they’re going to be shoved aside.

Can those seeking truly progressive, i.e. democratic, change rely on the American Dream movement to provide crucial strategic and structural support? Maybe. What raises my doubts are the project’s top-down character and its equivocal relationship to Obama and the Democratic Party.

Jones and Borosage like to cite the crowdsourced origins of the Contract for the American Dream. But they’ve never said who finally decided on the document’s ten goals, or how those decisions were taken. To my knowledge, the votes from the house parties have never been published. The vetting process was run by MoveOn, whose own un-democratic character is increasingly an issue at the grass-roots. During the conference breakout session called “The American Dream Movement: How Do Movements Build?” a disgruntled attendee from New York’s Finger Lakes district who’d participated in the house party vetting asked the session moderator, MoveOn Field Director Lenore Palladino, how single-payer health insurance came to be excluded from the Contract. Palladino brushed him off, saying they could discuss the matter “later.”

Equally troubling is the Dream movement’s murky position on Obama. At the conference’s opening plenary on October 3, Borosage declared that “crony capitalism” had “corrupted both parties” and called for “a politics that is disruptive” modeled on Occupy Wall Street. On the same day, he was cited in a Washington Post op-ed by E.J. Dionne as saying that “the question for the left … is whether progressives can ‘establish independence and momentum’ while also being able ‘to make a strategic voting choice.’ The idea,” Dionne wrote approvingly, “is not to pretend that Obama is as progressive as his core supporters want him to be, but to rally support for him nonetheless as the man standing between the country and the right wing.” At the conference’s media briefing the next day, I asked Borosage if the idea of rallying progressive support for Obama was his or Dionne’s. I could not get a straight answer. Jones also muddied the waters. “Some people love the president,” he said, “some people are mad at him — God bless ‘em. What are we going to do?” The American Dream Movement, he added, is “so much bigger than trying to rescue a presidency.” But does its capacious agenda include such a rescue effort?

The same ambiguity pervaded many of the plenary sessions, especially when Democratic officials were on the dais. Granted, I did not hear Barbara Lee or Keith Ellison. But I did hear Jan Schakowsky, in her seventh term representing Illinois’ 9th Congressional District, respond to a question from the floor about why Obama put Geithner, Summers and Gates in his cabinet. Schakowsky said that while she “[wasn’t] going to disagree about some of the choices …. Shame on us, if we don’t bring people out to vote.” For whom, pray tell. Her colleague in the House, Donna Edwards (D-MD), admitted that she “[hadn’t] always been a happy camper” but insisted that “we’re not going to have a food fight with other progressives or with the President.”

It wasn’t until the last day of the conference that I encountered what one might call a Tea Party attitude — an uncompromising demand for responsiveness from members of the party that ostensibly represents one’s interests. The context was a breakout session called “Holding Democrats Accountable, from Obama on Down,” organized and moderated by Gloria Totten, the executive director of Progressive Majority. Totten and the three panelists — Julie Martinez Ortega of PowerPAC, Rashad Robinson from ColorofChange.org and Mike Podhorzer from the AFL-CIO — were all adamant about rejecting “hack Democrats” who don’t support labor and economic justice. Totten actually referred to Democratic losses in the 2010 midterm elections as “house-cleaning.”

The session’s attendees included a group of young African-American women wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with the words “I NEED A JOB.” One of them was Cindy Foster, the president of the Southern Piedmont Central Labor Council, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of the Democrats’ 2012 national convention and the Bank of America headquarters. Foster asked the panel for help. Charlotte’s mayor, she said, is an African-American Democrat who rode to office in 2009 “on the Obama wave….He didn’t thank labor for our endorsement,…. and he’s done nothing for labor or the community.” That hasn’t stopped him for seeking another endorsement for this November, when he’ll be up for re-election. Foster said that unlike some AFL-CIO members of the labor council who are pushing to endorse him, “I don’t want to go on supporting people who don’t support me.” As AFL-CIO Political Director Podhorzer took notes, she was told: Don’t back down.

Besides a hard line on accountability, the session displayed other admirable qualities: an attentiveness to specifics, and a recognition of the challenges of sustained progressive politics. By contrast, the plenaries had the air of a rally, with pulsing music, high-flying speakers and reflexive applause. (AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka asked the assembled conferees not to applaud the anti-labor trade deals under consideration in Congress; after mentioning those proposals, he’d paused, and his listeners had simply begun to clap). Cheerleading’s great, as long as it’s accompanied by political nuts and bolts.

On the latter score, the plenary statements from Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steel Workers and Leo Hindery, Jr., managing partner of InterMedia Partners, were particularly memorable. Gerard and Hindery had already made forceful presentations at a breakout session on reindustrializing the U.S. economy, as did Connecticut Congressman Chris Murphy. Murphy, who wants to fill retiring Joe Lieberman’s seat in the Senate, observed that, disastrously, we’re the only industrial country without a coordinated industrial policy. The Dream movement’s organizers are to be commended for highlighting the urgent need to revive our nation’s manufacturing — an issue that until recently has been neglected if not dismissed (think Robert Reich) by American progressives.

The most cheering (in several senses) occasion that I witnessed was the breakout session on Wisconsin and Ohio. The panel consisted of representatives from four unions — AFSCME, UFCW, USW and IAFF — who eloquently described their continuing fights against the draconian policies enacted by their states’ contemptible Republican officials. As they spoke, a slideshow documented the militancy, the breadth and, not least, the flair of their resistance. With many Wisconsin and Ohio activists in the standing room only crowd, moderator John Nichols, a Madison resident, called on people in the audience by name, asking them to tell their own stories, which they did, to general delight.

That forum yielded two important, not entirely compatible insights that could well serve to guide progressives’ ongoing assessment of the American Dream movement. “Nothing about the Wisconsin fight” said AFSCME’s Doug Burnett, “is unique to Wisconsin.” And from Nichols: “You can’t take it from Wisconsin. Your struggle has to be rooted in the values of the place.” Solidarity forever, and be sure to organize from the ground up.

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