The sleeper issue of 2004

Arianna Huffington calls on progressives to present not just a political vision for America, but a moral one.

By Arianna Huffington
Published March 18, 2004 7:27PM (EST)

It's certainly great to be here at the National Voice Summit ... or as I prefer to think of it: "The Passion of the Progressives."

It's amazing what three years of fanatical right-wing policies can do to bring progressive-minded people together.

In fact, Grover Norquist has done so much to bring us together I understand he has been listed as an honorary organizer. Here is a sample of the conservative movement's philosophy as articulated by Grover: "There is now another challenge in front of us as activists, and that is to create the conditions that make it possible for elected officials to say not only 'no' to tax increases, but 'no' to the spending interests."

For those who are not bilingual, "spending interests" in the conservative movement lexicon are things like roads, clean water, Social Security, Medicare, a court system.

What I'd like to do today is present an alternative vision, a political and moral frame into which all of this incredible, inspiring work you are doing can be fitted so we can reach as many people as possible.

We are, undoubtedly, a nation divided. And a nation divided cannot stand, let alone move forward. But it can, paradoxically, as we've seen in the last three years, move backwards.

So our vision has to be bigger than the things that divide us. A vision that returns us to the idealism, boldness, and generosity of spirit that marked the presidencies of FDR and JFK and the short-lived presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy. A nation that has been divided by fear can be united by hope.

Great social movements -- and I believe that is what we are a part of here today -- are not sparked by subtle shifts in policy or retooled versions of familiar proposals. Nor are they sparked by attacks alone, however brilliant and justified. In other words, pointing out all that is destructive about the Bush administration's policies will not be enough in 2004. Nor will offering a new-and-improved prescription drug plan for senior citizens.

We need to offer an overarching moral vision for America that is the alternative to the conservative movement's "Leave us Alone Coalition." This is not a vision based on right versus left. It's a vision based on right versus wrong.

My response to the Leave-Us-Alone Coalition is simple: Sorry, no can do. There are no gates or walls high enough. There are no bank accounts large enough to isolate you from the consequences of growing social inequities. We are all in this boat together. And the fact that there isn't a hole at your end of the boat doesn't mean you are safe.

The vision of all of us in the same boat together is the founding vision of this country. Even before there was a United States of America, when John Winthrop landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he stood on the deck of the Arbella and gave a speech that gave voice to what would become the central American creed: "We must bear one another's burdens ... we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others' necessities." This is the heart of what this country is about. And the exact opposite of the Republican messianic vision of national salvation through ever-bigger tax cuts. But let's not fool ourselves. This call to worship at the church of tax cuts, while very destructive, has also proven incredibly alluring: It's clear, it's broad, and it's accessible. Its downsides aren't immediately apparent, especially given how the media covers our elections as something between a horse race and a reality dating show.

That's why we must present a bold alternative vision that is equally clear, broad, and accessible. One that answers a larger question than simply, "Do you want to keep more of your money?" The question we must make this election about, the one which every presidential election should be about, and the one which our vision should answer is this: "What sort of America do you want to live in?"

There are four elements to this vision:

1) It's based on the values that have served as the foundation for every great social breakthrough in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation. The 19th Amendment. The New Deal. The Voting Rights Act. The Clean Air Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act. These are all milestones on our journey toward a just society -- and they all represent values held dear by most Americans. Values, I repeat, not founded on questions of right or left, but on questions of right or wrong. These milestones were all once considered unthinkable ... until society realized they were right -- and inevitable.

2) This vision will respond to the real hunger in this country to be part of something larger ... something better. I believe the country is so longing for this that I consider an appeal to idealism the sleeper issue of 2004. And there was a lot in the fascinating findings that Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake presented yesterday that backs this up. So instead of censoring, editing, mitigating and homogenizing the progressive message to appeal to the 4-6 percent of swing voters, let the message be bold, inspiring and appealing to the 50 percent of voters -- 100 million of them -- who have given up on even voting. Instead of slicing and dicing our message, let us appeal to the better angels of all Americans, including those who are now sitting on the other side of our House Divided.

I learned a profound political lesson in January 1993, 11 years ago, when I was still a Republican -- and let's not forget Dennis Miller was still a liberal, and still funny. At a "Conservative Summit," in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Review, I gave a speech entitled "Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?" The event was kicked off in bombastic style by Master of Ceremonies Charlton Heston, who smugly announced that he was "one of the most politically incorrect people" because "I am heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, married to the same woman for 49 years, and not the recipient of any entitlement of any kind." That type of statement tends to set a certain tone. Sitting on the dais, scanning my notes, I listened with mounting horror to the speaker who preceded me, Brent Bozell, who had been the national finance chairman of the legendarily inclusive '92 Buchanan for President campaign. As Bozell's hard-right homilies were paraded in front of what, in the interest of fairness, can only be described as an adoring crowd, I asked myself two questions: "How can he and I both call ourselves Republicans?" and "Where is the nearest exit?"

Approaching the podium with trepidation, I wondered what the audience that applauded the previous speakers' harsh brand of conservatism would do with mine, which challenged the audience to rise to what I considered the core of true conservatism -- the biblical admonition that we shall be judged by what we do for the least among us.

But the same conservative audience that gave a standing ovation to Bozell gave a standing ovation to me. We just appealed to different parts of their brains and their psyches.

We are all -- even the very best of us -- a mixture of good and evil, of self-interest and generosity. For our movement to change America, we need to appeal to what is best in people -- and trust that they will respond. This trust -- and the reason I am so optimistic about this vision -- is because of my ultimate faith in human nature. Goodness, empathy, and engagement in building community often begin in small steps. And then people begin to see themselves differently.

But remember, for years, for decades now, our leaders have pandered to our baser instincts and our empathetic muscles have atrophied. Even after 9/11, when the longing to be called to a large, collective purpose was paramount, all we were called to do was to go shopping. But the generosity, selflessness and courage that emerged on 9/11 are still very much part of who we are.

3) In politics, he who controls the language defines the political debate. So we need to take back from the conservatives certain magical words that they have appropriated and perverted: Responsibility, values, family, security, strength and, yes, morality, which the right wing has reduced to sexual morality. Look at Wal-Mart, which considers itself so moral it made a huge fuss of pulling three men's magazines off the shelf at the same time it treats women like second-class citizens, fires workers who try to unionize, and is being sued in 30 states for refusing to pay overtime. So we've come to the point where laddie magazines are immoral, but cheating your workers is not.

We have to change this. And we need to start by taking "responsibility" back. Indeed, in the book I just finished on the subject, I call this moral vision "The Vision of New Responsibility." Personal responsibility is essential, but so is developing a sense of responsibility for others. I have two daughters, 12 and 14, and that's what I teach them -- that's what we all teach our children, unless we want to see them growing up to be Ayn Rand fanatics celebrating "the virtue of selfishness," like, say, Alan Greenspan. Social responsibility is also the essence of extended family, so central to the immigrant experience.

If we win this battle, then we'll win the battle on taxes -- a word that has become a synonym for evil. Because in a society where social responsibility thrives, education, healthcare and opportunity for all are not something we get to if we can, but a moral imperative.

When we articulate this vision, we move the game to our field. Right now, we are playing on Grover Norquist's and Karl Rove's home turf -- and therefore, we are playing defense -- never more so than on the question of values and especially family values. We need to take back family values and point out that struggling working parents have a really hard time pulling off the Ozzie and Harriet routine. A home-cooked meal? When? Talk to your kids about drugs? When? In the waits at the emergency room which you're using as your general practitioner because you haven't got health insurance?

4) John Lewis said that "when Bobby Kennedy died, something died in American politics, something died in all of us." But I believe that something can be reborn -- and I believe this much more now than I believed it on Sunday night before this conference began. And, if our movement becomes the midwife of this rebirth, we'll be unstoppable and we will produce the landslide Joan Blades envisioned this morning. But to do this we must remember not just to give facts but to tell stories, both stories that put flesh and blood on the faceless statistics of the unemployed and the working poor, and stories about the other side of the mountain, about the country we can create if this vision guides our public policy. So whatever else we may be doing, whether we are connecting to the African-American constituency, or single women, or making people laugh on Air America Radio, let's remember that our common purpose is to put heart and soul back in American politics.

These are big dreams, but if we are to seize this moment in our history, nothing less will do.

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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