When Barack Obama defeated John McCain to become president and Democrats retained solid control of Congress in the 2008 elections, progressives rejoiced at the prospect of having their agenda implemented. Two years later, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Progressives have found themselves locked out of the debate in Washington on issues such as health care and the war in Afghanistan while the right wing has regrouped. With the economy still in the doldrums, many are predicting a Republican resurgence in the November 2010 Congressional elections.
But a new coalition of hundreds of liberal organizations is looking to change the absence of progressives in the national debate by asserting a progressive policy agenda this Saturday with a large rally in Washington. The rally is taking place under the banner of the “One Nation Working Together” coalition. Endorsing organizations ranging from the NAACP to the American Federation of Teachers to CodePink Women for Peace are hoping to see tens of thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial call for the creation of new jobs, the strengthening of the safety net and the need for quality public education, among other demands.
Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America, a union that represents over 700,000 people, sees the One Nation Working Together coalition as a “big tent” of progressives working together. The union, along with groups like the National Council of La Raza, a Latino rights organization, and Green For All, an environmental group pushing for green jobs, are key organizers behind the effort, which was first put together by the NAACP and the Service Employees United International 1199 union.
“The overarching message is that together, we represent a majority of the country, and we believe in the change that was represented in the 2008 election,” said Cohen. “We’re going to work together for economic justice. It’s not there.”
The coalition’s call for more unemployment relief, economic stimulus, workers’ rights and protecting Social Security and Medicare is likely to resonate in an weak economy plagued by an official unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. Recently released U.S. Census data has added to the economic doom and gloom, with figures showing that 44 million Americans–one in seven–are living below the poverty line, a record high. In addition to demanding economic justice, One Nation Working Together is also calling for immigration reform and an end to detentions and deportations of undocumented workers, a halt to racial profiling and mandatory minimum sentencing that disproportionally affects people of color and protecting and enhancing voters’ rights by allowing former felons to vote and securing representation in Congress for residents of D.C.
“We’re really about restoring national priorities to focus on jobs, justice and education,” said Denise Gray-Felder, a senior adviser and the director of communications for the coalition. “It’s time for a movement of American people in this country to really put aside our differences, move beyond the hatred and the divisiveness that others have tried to create in this country and come together for what I like to call jobs, jobs and more jobs.”
Another of the coalition’s demands is for an overhaul of U.S. Senate rules, where constant Republican filibusters have frustrated a progressive agenda that has gotten more support in the House of Representatives.
“We need to break the gridlock in Washington, and we need decisive leadership and policy that will move all in Congress, especially the Senate, forward,” reads the coalition’s policy principles, in part.
The rally, which has been promoted by progressive publications like the Nation and media figures like MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, came together in the past few months as national organizations and activist groups in New York City began to have a conversation about the need for a broad progressive agenda, according to Cohen. Organizers are hoping for tens of thousands of people to come out for speeches, music and comedy during the four-hour afternoon program. There will be a number of feeder marches into the rally at the Lincoln Memorial led by different organizations endorsing the effort. And there will be dozens of local events happening around the country in conjunction with the rally, ranging from a march in Brattleboro, Vermont demanding an end to the war in Afghanistan, to solidarity actions in California and voter registration drives around the country.
Corporate media coverage of the rally has painted it as a response to Tea Party activism and to Glenn Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial in August. But Gray-Felder said it was about laying out a platform to refocus the nation’s priorities and to help the economy rebound.
“It’s not personality driven, this is not about celebrities or glitz,” Gray-Felder said. “It’s about average people in America who have real concerns about how to pull our country back together and put our country back to work.”
Many of the major groups that are part of the One Nation Working Together coalition are strong supporters of the Democratic Party, and the rally seems in part an attempt to encourage progressive Democrats to get out the vote come November, although the organizers say the rally is about issues and not political parties. Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic National Committee, will reportedly encourage its members to attend the event.
David Sirota, a liberal columnist and author of The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Washington, was skeptical of the rally. Sirota said the organizations behind the coalition have been “acquiescent” to the Obama administration even in the face of a presidential administration pushing an agenda at odds with the progressive movement’s priorities.
“Rank and file people who are participating, I think they should participate if they can. But this raises much deeper and much more embarrassing questions for the leaders of the organizations and the media voices who are all of a sudden organizing this,” said Sirota. “It raises not deeper questions about what they ultimately want to get done, but deeper questions about where their loyalties lie, who they respond to, and where they have been for the last two years.”
Many progressives have been deeply disappointed with the Obama administration, which has followed the Bush administration’s tack on civil liberties, escalated the war in Afghanistan and pushed through a health care plan without a public option.
“I hold out hope that maybe this march will be about making specific demands on the White House,” said Sirota.
For Cohen, the rally is a crucial event. He says the coalition is looking for the October 2 rally to be a “renewal of this notion that we need a big tent and groups like these groups to put real resources into joint work.”
“We’re putting huge resources not only into the march, but to continue to work together in key states for November 2nd, and also far beyond,” he said.
Alex Kane is a student, journalist and blogger based in New York City. He is a writer for the Indypendent and a frequent contributor to the blog Mondoweiss. He blogs at alexbkane.wordpress.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.