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The Tale of Progressivism's Death Has Been Exaggerated

Five days before Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, Laura Nyro sang “Save the Country” in her only network television appearance.  She ended, biographer Michelle Kort says, “with an almost screaming ‘NOW!!!!!’”  Nyro had composed the song in the wake of the June 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy and refers in the song to the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Kennedy.  She sang:

We could build the dream with love
And I got fury in my soul
Fury's gonna take me to the glory goal
In my mind I can't study war no more
Save the people! Save the children! Save the country!

The events in the seven months between Nyro’s composing “Save the Country” and her appearance on national television included the Chicago police attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention and a presidential election that saw not only Richard Nixon’s victory but 9.9 million votes cast for George Wallace.  Nyro was not alone in wanting to keep the dream of peace, freedom, and equality alive, but it was a disheartening time for progressives. 

Rooted in the needs of their communities and sharing the desire of the majority of Americans that the war in Vietnam be ended, progressives soon regrouped.  Three days after Nyro’s appearance alongside Judy Collins and Stevie Wonder on the NBC-TV special showcasing the sounds of the sixties, ten to fifteen thousand protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. for three days of Counter-Inaugural activities, including a counter-inaugural ball, organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the Vietnam War.  The dream was alive on October 15, 1969 when millions participated in the Vietnam Moratorium in hundreds of towns and campuses across the country and on November 15, 1969 when over a million gathered in protests in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

Nixon began to pull out U.S. troops from Vietnam in response to the protests but when he invaded Cambodia, campuses shut down across the country and forced him to retreat.  The nation’s dissatisfaction with Nixon’s policies was evident in the midterm election of 1970 when Democrats picked up a dozen seats in the House of Representatives.  By the end of that year Congress had voted to repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. 

We are coming to another midterm election in which a different kind of protest movement, the Tea Party, has garnered the media’s attention.  When one recalls that the Tea Party protests began during the first weeks of the Obama administration and that its April 15, 2009 protests were sponsored by Fox News, it should be obvious that this is a movement to restore unrestrained white elite power, not a grass roots movement to “save the country” and the dream of peace, tolerance, and help for the needy.  

Will the Republicans’ financial advantage and the largely uncritical attention lavished on the well-funded Tea Party lead to a Democratic debacle in November?  Will the modest attempts of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress to respond to the needs of ordinary people and put some limits on elite power come to an end?  The polls right now show that Republicans are likely to win control of the House and to pick up several seats in the Senate.  Is there a movement brewing just below the surface that can lead to a different outcome? 

Progressives who mobilized to elect Obama in 2008 have been disappointed with the continued focus on war-making, the high unemployment rate, an education policy that blames teachers and favors charter schools, the weak oversight in the Gulf oil disaster, and the failures to include a public option in the health care reform, enact the Employee Free Choice Act, and end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Should progressives focus on these shortcomings or on such Democratic accomplishments as ending the insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions, allowing children to stay on their parents’ health insurance through age twenty-five, the economic stimulus, financial regulations, the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court, and the proposal to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?  Or should progressives instead focus on mobilizing independently on their own agenda? 

Laura Nyro’s message was to the grass roots.  Although the mainstream media gives it little attention, a grass roots groundswell is growing.  In June, fifteen to twenty thousand activists participated in the World Social Forum in Detroit.  As Julia Hollar points out, it was “at least twenty-five times larger” than the February Tea Party convention that “got all the media coverage.”

On Saturday, October 2, tens of thousands gathered in Washington, D.C., for the One Nation Working Together demonstration sponsored by the AFL-CIO and over one hundred fifty labor, women’s, civil rights, peace, environmental, religious, and community organizations.  They are marching to “Put America Back to Work and to Pull America Back Together” and to “reorder our national priorities so that investments in people come first.”

On Thursday, October 7, scores of student, educational, community, labor, and radical groups are sponsoring demonstrations in California and across the country to Defend Public Education against “budget cuts, tuition hikes, school closings, and right-wing reforms.”  Four days later, on Monday, October 11, Latin American solidarity and peace groups are organizing in cities around the country a National Day of Action to Confront U.S. Militarism in the Americas, close the School of the Americas, end the militarization of the U.S. Mexico-border, and reduce the military budget by 25 percent. 

Whether this grass roots upsurge will have a spillover effect on the midterms remains to be seen.  Many progressives are building for that day, too—knocking on doors for progressive candidates, contributing money, and turning out the vote because the balance in Congress has a significant effect on ordinary people’s lives.  But whatever the outcome on November 2, it seems likely that the wave of progressive people’s protests will continue cresting upward for some time to come.  Nyro’s dream of peace, of building the dream with love, of saving the children, is still alive.