Losses Teach Lessons

Cynthia McKinney aggressively promoted progressive populist issues during her tenure in Congress. We will be sorry to see her leave after five terms. We think US Jewish political leaders made a mistake in deciding to take her down in retaliation for her support of Palestine. They orchestrated political donations to her Democratic primary opponent, former state judge Denise Majette, as they did in a June primary race in Alabama between five-term Rep. Earl Hilliard and newcomer Artur Davis, a former federal prosecutor. These heavy-handed interventions against two of the few Congress members who dared to question the blank check of support for Israel reinforce hard feelings and suspicions that already exist between many African and Jewish Americans.

Money from outside their districts gave the business-oriented challengers the juice, and right-wing talk show gasbags egged them on, but voters in their respective districts had the final say. McKinney (who like Hilliard got out-of-state support from American Muslims -- and probably some populist Jews as well) had working-class support, as she embraced the agenda of organized labor and voted against "Fast Track" trade authority. She worked to ensure voting rights for minorities, including a bill to allow election of members of Congress by proportional representation. She was praised by Ralph Nader as one of the House's strongest champions of consumers and workers, as she compiled a perfect 100% record on votes cited by Public Citizen involving campaign finance reform, trade, Medicare, patients' bill of rights, workplace safety, energy and economic stimulus. But she spoke out loud and offended powerful people, particularly when she questioned what George W. Bush knew about the threat posed by al-Qaeda and when he knew it, and suggesting that Bush's friends and family stood to gain financially from the attacks. She earned the opposition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the business establishment, which seized its chance to knock her off. McKinney's pollster, Ron Lester, told the Washington Post a large segment of voters approved her performance on domestic matters, "but the feeling that she crossed a line on this 9/11 thing really hurt her."

Republicans are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary in Georgia. They apparently exercised that option in McKinney's district, and overwhelmingly supported Majette, who embraces the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council (Republican Lite) approach. Majette ended up with 58% to McKinney's 42%. McKinney got 49,000 votes -- more than she has ever gotten in a primary -- and that should have been enough to win. But this primary logged 45% of the district's registered voters, the highest turnout in the state.

McKinney's is unbowed. Her campaign website (www.cynthia2002.com) suggests she is considering a race for the US Senate, presumably against Demopublican Sen. Zell Miller in 2004. Miller, who supported Majette, could use the exercise after consistently selling out Democrats.

But progressive populists should take a lesson from McKinney's loss: Politicians who threaten the establishment can expect to find well-financed opposition who won't necessarily play fair. Progressive populists will get no quarter from the mainstream news media that is owned by the business establishment. The political establishment, which hires out to the business establishment, won't give populists a break either. But progressive populists need to reach the middle-class voters who are losing their jobs and their pensions.

The DLC, the tribune of corporate interests in the Democratic Party, has been bad-mouthing populism ever since Al Gore used rhetoric of "people versus the powerful" to jump-start his moribund presidential campaign two years ago. The DLC ignores the fact that Gore got 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. Now that Democrats have been handed a tailor-made issue with the misdeeds of corporate executives run amok, DLC eminences such as Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Evan Bayh counsel the party's candidates not to submit to base appeals that might upset their corporate backers.

This strategy is reminiscent of the one used in 1988 to play down the Reagan-era savings and loan scandal. Democrats booted the chance to stoke public outrage and reform the banking system. Instead, they remade themselves as Republican Lite. Eventually they went along with Sen. Phil Gramm's further deregulation of the financial industry in 1999 that repealed the New Deal restrictions on the integration of banking, insurance and stock trading. That set up the stock market speculation and collapse of the past couple years.

John D. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, in the Sept. 9 The American Prospect, wrote on "Why Democrats Must Be Populists," tracing the history of populism from Andrew Jackson through the agrarian populist movement of the late 1800s, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and on to Bill Clinton, who despite his genuflection to the DLC called his 1992 platform "Putting People First," and evoked populist visions in his campaigns. (Then he did sign the Gramm bill and a few other bad ones.)

To rebuild a populist movement we must establish our own media. Of course, we modestly blush, The Progressive Populist is part of the plan. It has taken us more than seven years to get over 6,000 circulation but we are still growing, as our resources permit. Bill of Rights bashing by George W. Bush and John Ashcroft notwithstanding, we will continue to do so.

We cannot start our own radio and TV stations because Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have made sure that you need a billion dollars in capital to own a radio or TV station. Bush's FCC won't allow low-power radio stations for communities whose local stations have been abducted by national chains. But we can set up websites on the Internet, disseminate unsanctioned views by email as well as regular mail and produce public access cable TV programs. (Check our web site at www.populist.com -- you'll find plenty of other links to other alternative media sites there.)

Also, pay attention to what may seem to be arcane debate about attempts to regulate the Internet. Big media corporations have smart people on the payroll full-time trying to figure out how to put a gate on the 'Net. Don't let them.

Support populist Democrats when you can. Sides already are forming for 2004. On page 12 see a speech US Rep. Dennis Kucinich gave to the Iowa AFL-CIO. Some feminists dismiss Kucinich out of hand because he has voted to restrict abortions. "Pro-life" is a fact of politics in his Cleveland district but Kucinich, as Progressive Caucus chair and possible presidential candidate, indicates he is flexible on choice as he enters the national arena. Unfortunately, "flexible" is not what the National Abortion Rights Action League is looking for. Read his speech and consider whether he still might be a better Democratic presidential choice than the more doctrinaire "pro-choice" Democrats who are willing to sell American workers, farmers and small businesses down the river whenever corporate lobbyists come calling. Too often, it's the populists who are expected to be flexible.

As we have said before, we think progressives need to put away the "shivs" and form a Democrat/Green coalition this year. In three-way races, Green challengers often help conservative Republicans beat moderate Democrats. (If Democrats were smart, they'd work with the Greens to enact instant-runoff voting at the state level to allow Green voters to vent their spleen and then check the Democrat as the second choice.) In the meantime, with the Bush administration leading an assault on the Bill of Rights, workers' rights, public health and human services and the environment, progressives cannot afford to let the GOP get control of Congress as well as the White House and the Supreme Court. Democratic Leader Tom Daschle may seem like a poor brakeman in the Senate at times but he could use more progressive hands there as well as Dick Gephardt working the brakes in the House. Brakes are about the best we can hope for as long as Dubya is in the White House. -- JMC

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