RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

It's About Issues -- Remember?

"If we can get it loose, we can move it," Jim Hightower told an enthusiastic crowd, kicking off the Kansas City version of "Rolling Thunder," a festival of, for and by progressive groups like Sierra Club, National Organization for Women and Kansas City Food Circle. And, indeed, the autumn day was devoted to trying to get IT -- meaning the political agenda -- loose. There were information booths, speeches, songs and entertainers. One booth asked you to put a pin on a map to mark the country where your shirt was made. A thousand pins in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. One pin in the United States.

A guy in a railroad uniform worked the crowd, stopping every so often to belt out a union organizer's speech from the 1930s. Kids sported buttons saying "No War" and "Get your laws off my body."

Hightower's idea is brilliant in the tradition of tent meetings, populist gatherings and evangelist rallies. Get us together, let us look at each other, and we'll connect. First, the issues, then the organizing, will happen. At Rolling Thunder, I munched on a locally-raised pork sandwich from Patchwork Family Farms and listened to the conversations -- the connections. It gave me courage.

My friend Barb and I left the place feeling brave enough to wear our "No War" buttons and "Stop Factory Farms" t-shirts into enemy territory on the way home. We stopped for supper at a Baptist Church fish fry in an unknown community -- no factory food for us! After walking through the parking lot and a forest of Bush bumper stickers, we became the most ignored folks in the church basement. It was OK. The fish was fresh out of someone's lake, and really tasty.

We left before dessert, frozen cakes from the big box store.

So here are the lessons: There are people who think like you do, and you can find them. When surrounded by people who don't think like you do, eat their fish if it's from a local pond and ignore their pre-fab cake.

But you gotta hand it to those Rs, they know how to use language and media to manipulate the public. How do we stay strong against that?

First of all, we get over the idea that everyone watches the TV news. I've never seen footage of the president serving Thanksgiving turkey to the troops, and there are plenty of people like me. We read enough to put Dude, Where's My Country? on the bestseller's list, we surf the Internet, we talk to each other. Most importantly, we listen and think.

Second of all, we get over the idea that organizing is dirty work. The Progressives, the Suffragists, the Populists and all the Civil Rights workers triumphed and brought justice to new populations only because they dared to organize. They called their neighbors, set up information booths and created a body of motivated voters.

Third, we focus. The right has been successful not because they have ideas -- they don't -- but because they have focus. They've created catch phrases that wipe out argument: "Right to life." "Axis of Evil." "Family values." "Orange Alert." Do you have a favorite issue? Can you get it into three or four words? Why do we think we need to explain everything?

There are a lot of issues in 2004, and the differences are plain as the nose on your face. The Bush administration has trashed environmental safeguards, ignored food security concerns, eliminated personal freedoms and put us in an unnecessary and unpopular war. By November, we'll have 1,000 dead American soldiers and at least a $500 billion deficit. The Bush team, however, will be well-compensated. They see war as a growth industry, all at taxpayer expense. And, oh yeah, Junior has also relieved them of the burden of paying taxes.

It was hard to build power in 2000. With a hefty surplus and thriving economy, we had to invent stuff to argue about. The college kids and twenty-somethings were so bored by the talk about Medicare, Social Security and the Supreme Court that they totally tuned out the election.

This year, it should be different. Even the young 'uns should be paying attention as they see their friends shipped out, or coming back with a message: That war is bull crap. It's not making us safer -- it's making us a world full of enemies.

In the primaries, Democratic candidates have put out a plethora of issues. All the candidates have promised to turn the Iraq mess over to the UN. In addition, they've figured out how to immediately take us out of the WTO and NAFTA (Kucinich), re-structure or eliminate USDA (Kerry), rescue schools in rural areas (Clark), label GMO foods (Dean), and put a moratorium on CAFOs (Edwards).

These ideas provide a winning blueprint, but will they remain unchanged until the election? No. In primary season, candidates speak to the most uncompromising voters. By election time, we'll see considerable revisions. But this much is clear: Voters have issues in 2004, and we owe it to ourselves to help the candidates refine their messages in our direction.

And -- I just gotta say this -- God bless them one and all.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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