By Don Hazen, AlterNet
June 2, 2003
Each day, millions of frustrated Americans engage in discussions about how
our country has gone off course and how ultraconservatives have taken over our
government. As we put our hearts and souls into figuring out how to achieve
regime change at home in November 2004, these conversations are growing in
How we engage this election will speak volumes about the future of our
country. Our passion in this political moment feels unprecedented. Yet, because
we feel a lot of anxiety about all that's happened to our country since 9/11, we
don't yet know our strength. We forget, for example, that the things we believe
in – equality, fairness, justice, dignity, and ultimately kindness and love
– inspired the greatest moral and political achievements of the 20th century:
civil rights, women's equality, the right to organize, and the growth of the
environmental movement. These values make our society strong and appealing to
the rest of the world. We must protect and promote them in the 21st century as
Some of us have been discouraged by the increasingly conservative corporate
media, which try to marginalize us. We become alarmed as our government ratchets
up the fear quotient and we watch the irrational effect the scare tactics have.
At these moments, we can forget to turn to each other for support.
But we must claim our power and overcome our doubts and fears – as well as
our bad habits. We need to feel proud and joyful, not just angry and defensive.
We must work together, as one huge family, knowing that if we don't, we cannot
We must be united to fight for regime change at home, not just to prevent
more bloodshed, empire building and cruel policies, but to protect virtually all
the progress we've made over the past 40 years. Environmentalists alone cannot
ensure clean air and water; union members alone cannot protect the right to
organize; civil libertarians alone cannot defend the Constitution and the Bill
of Rights; seniors on their own cannot protect Social Security; feminists alone
cannot defend Roe v. Wade; and African-Americans and Latinos alone are not going
to ensure fairness and equality and stop a wide range of cruel budget cuts.
But, by focusing on what we have in common – the clear-cut goal of
defeating Bush in 2004 – we can all succeed. How important is this? It feels
more important than anything we will do for a very long time.
To help us chart our course, what follows is a 12-step program to achieve
regime change. As in all such efforts for change, we need to take an inventory
of our strengths and our weaknesses, confront our bad habits and addictions,
reach out to others, and recover our power.
Step #1: Recognize Our Strengths
Let's start with traditions that serve as our foundation. Social critic Colin
Greer reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr.'s work evolved from his initial
civil rights struggles into protecting poor people of all colors and then to
insisting on peace in Vietnam. An overriding framework of concern linked all of
these causes into one "Beloved Community." Greer notes how the values
of progressive America inspire millions of people every day: health care
advocates; members of environmental, civil rights and civil liberties groups;
volunteers at food banks and women's shelters; people working for their
children's education, and many more. As he says, "We have to communicate
our history and our strength."
Progressives are potentially stronger now than at any time in the past 30
years. Breakthrough efforts like the fast-growing True
Majority, and Move On, with its 1.3 million
members, have significant capacity to reach and motivate new people. Move On's
PAC can also raise large amounts of money. Millions of unaffiliated middle-class
progressives are ripe for organizing. The Win Without War coalition, made up of
40 national membership groups, has committed itself to regime change with a
major investment in media. Many increasingly sophisticated national
organizations are already gathering and dedicating themselves to the work ahead,
focusing on voter registration and education and Get Out the Vote (GOTV)
strategies in key states.
In the battle ahead, we are unified. From progressive to moderate, virtually
all of us agree that regime change is our common goal. Support for third party
politics is invisible, even among those who voted for Nader in 2000.
We were part of a tremendous effort to halt the invasion of Iraq, supported
by many tens of millions of people across the globe. Most of the world is with
us, and for much more than a peace movement; for a movement for sanity, human
values and the future.
We also need to tap into our deepest, most magnanimous courage to help us
give up old habits and narrow agendas, and sacrifice more for the whole. One
woman with a lot of courage is Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who at age 95
is still raising hell; just a few years ago she walked across the country to
promote campaign finance reform. She recently reminded us of something profound.
During the recent peace marches, despite the angry speeches and the losses to be
suffered by so many, she said: "The people in the marches were joyful. Did
you notice that? Did you feel it yourself? The best smiles I've seen in
years." She went on to state that this time can also be "about
something far deeper than the Bush attack du jour... Did you not hope, as a
child, that one day it would be in your hands to save the world? Is it not
indeed joyful to embark on a life of great meaning? Aren't we joyful for this
moment, when all is at stake? We are, we are. And do not stand in the way of our
Step #2: Acknowledge What We Are Powerless to Change
We can't change the fact that September 11 happened and fundamentally
transformed the nature of American politics. We need to face the reality of our
defeat in trying to stop the attack on Iraq. We never stood a chance. The rules
have changed. We were playing by the old rules, advocating for inspections and
multilateralism, thinking that politics is about negotiation and listening to
constituencies. Now it's about raw power, and we need to exercise our own power
in the campaign to defeat Bush. The conservatives effectively established new
rules of engagement: Anything goes; be as radical and as unreasonable as you can
get away with; play the fear card; and count on the corporate media to carry the
message. Conservatives got away with invading Iraq, and the only way to stop
them is to defeat them in the election of 2004.
The conservatives have invested enough money particularly by wealthy
right-wingers in think tanks and communications over the past 40 years to reach
the point where, according to the New York Times, they believe that they have
initiated "an era of dominance" – despite the fact that significant
majorities oppose their positions. We can't change the fact that the
conservatives are likely to raise half a billion dollars to support the Bush
candidacy; or that the corporate media, especially radio networks and television
networks like Fox and NBC/General Electric, will work hard to get Bush
If we are to succeed, we must recognize some important truths. Politically,
the "facts" will not set us free, and issues alone will not win us
elections. The other side thinks very differently than we do. Forty percent of
the U.S. population will accept virtually anything that Bush and Co. say. Most
of these people get all their news from television. This 40 percent of the
population will never agree with us, and there is nothing we can do about it.
They will not change, nor will they see the light. They are the fundamentalists
of America, the religious shock troops, the millions of fearful, and the
conservative wealthy who fund and fuel the current conservative efforts at
It's not easy to write off 100 million people. In our own stubborn way, we
liberals and progressives think everyone can change.
If you don't accept the depth of this conservative hold on 40 percent of the
population, read "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives
Think," by University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff.
The book explains how conservatives think profoundly differently than
progressives and why white males vote against their economic interests. It also
offers insights into how we might frame our own issues.
Still, none of the things we can't change matter as much as what we can
do, by educating, mobilizing, motivating, sacrificing, sharing and setting good
examples. We will use plain old people power to rise up and regain balance in
our country. We have the numbers, we have the truth, and we have the vision for
a better world. We need the confidence, the discipline, and the smarts to pull
Step #3: Communicate Our Vision
To be successful in American politics, we need undecided voters to come over
to our side. We must communicate a positive vision of the future. Most Americans
like to be on the winning team, so we need winning ideas and stars who can carry
the message forward. Going negative doesn't help. When we attack the
conservative frame, we actually reinforce their messages. We need our
A strong vision would draw on the deep history and powerful metaphor of
people working together to make this country strong, to protect ourselves and
one another, to care about the health and safety of all our people.
Giving one example of a big picture vision is Granny D: "We are the
people who believe in a world of environmental beauty, of happiness and not
exploitation, of justice and not oppression and torture. A world safe for
children. Government budgets that invest in our smart babies, not smart bombs.
We believe in international law and cooperative action."
Step #4: Confront Our Weaknesses
To be honest with ourselves, we have to confront our seeming compulsion to
repeat the same strategies, no matter how many times they fail. We specialize in
large single-issue membership organizations. We pride ourselves on our
unswerving dedication to myriad idealistic issues. Our organizations at times
become little more than self-perpetuating efforts to secure funding dollars.
This may sound harsh. Many of these issues are important in their own way,
but now, with so much at stake, the many do not add up to the whole.
Moving forward requires acknowledging what's not serving us. Single-issue
politics is the Achilles' heel of progressive Democrats. Conservatives
understand that individual issues need to be linked to an overall moral and
ethical perspective. As George Lakoff explains, "They fit the issues
together, develop conservative value-based language, and then highjack American
virtues like freedom and compassion and give them conservative
definitions...Progressives in contrast are hampered by the plethora of issues,
rather than the overarching value perspective that rationalizes the
The longstanding approach of "letting a thousands flowers bloom"
has not added up. Battles on hundreds of fronts, competing for attention and
funding, will not bring us political power. Too many voices often cancel each
other out, and the confusing cacophony can send people away. We have to rethink
change and appreciate that by gaining political clout our issues have a better
chance of winning.
Step #5: Practice Being Realistic
A big behavioral change for many will be diving into electoral politics. Many
of us have viewed elections as tainted, trivial or hopelessly uncool. We may
have preferred the detachment of the cynical or the purity of issue advocacy.
After decades of attacking the political system as hopelessly corrupted by
campaign financing, we regard politics as dirty and impervious to change. But
alas, despite its enormous flaws, it is the only system we've got.
Author Jonathan Schell says, "Elections are a fabulous tool for bringing
about change – if you use them! You have to infuse them with your energy.
There's something tautological about rejecting elections. It's like an admission
of defeat. It's very bad to admit defeat when you're in a movement. It's a big
mistake. You should try to win. You may fail; there's no victory guaranteed in
this world, in life. But you should aim to win and really change things."
When we opt out of campaigns, the political consultants and media buyers take
over. These guys just add to the nasty image of politics, particularly with
their multi-million dollar hit ads, often designed to turn people off voting
altogether and leave them confused, discouraged and disgusted.
We'll also need to sacrifice some of our purity. As Granny D put it,
"Politics is about winning. For us, it is about winning to save lives and
raise people up from poverty and illness and loneliness and injustice."
Finally, we need to shake our frequent paralysis regarding public educational
activity of non-profits. The outrageously partisan behavior of Pat Robertson's
and other conservative groups operating as tax exempt ultimately prevailed in
the courts. Still, many liberal foundations and their grantees remain gun-shy
about aggressive public education.
Some estimate that just a top group of the largest liberal non-profit
organizations has as much as $2 billion dollars in operating budgets. Although
tax laws prohibit organizations from advocating for specific candidates, they
can still do a lot of public education offering workable models and far
different approaches to current domestic and foreign policies. And staff are
free to be partisan on their own time.
Step #6: Stop Squabbling and Make Amends
You may have heard the joke: What's a progressive firing squad? Answer: A
Enough! Or, as progressive leader and communications guy Dan Carol says:
"Kumbaya dammit. There are ways to stand for principles without fighting
over crumbs. Start with everyone sharing their vision of what they want and need
... and check your passive aggressiveness at the door. Let's not forget that the
perfect is the enemy of the good."
It is time to declare an amnesty. If South Africa can have a reconciliation,
why not progressives? Let us join our competitors and our former enemies in new
collaborations toward victory.
Step #7: Think Strategically
If you have read this far, you are probably part of the core Democratic vote.
Not enough of us have been active in Democratic Party politics or elections.
Let's make that history.
Make no mistake; we are not a majority. Clinton won the '92 presidential race
with 39 percent of the vote (with Perot in the race against Bob Dole). We hover
around 40 percent of the electorate. The conservatives and Republicans are also
close to 40 percent. To become a majority, we need to reach swing voters.
Electoral College rules mean that the Democratic candidate could win the popular
vote by a million votes in 2004 and still lose the election. We need to win a
couple of red states while hanging on to the blue states Gore won in 2000.
Do you know which states are red? Which are swing states? Which voters are
swing voters? It's time to get strategic! Below is a list. If you live in a
swing state, get to work; if you don't live in a swing state, start visiting and
finding all your friends and relatives who are in one.
Swing State Line Up:
The Blues: In 2000, Al Gore really won 10 states by less than 6%: Florida
(which was given to the Republicans by the Supreme Court); New Mexico,
Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon (by less than 1%); Minnesota (by 2.5%); and
Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine and Washington (by about 5%).
The Reds: George W. Bush won nine states by less than 6.5% (not counting
Florida), five of those by less than 5%: New Hampshire (which he won by only
7,200 votes, or 1.3%); Ohio, Nevada and Missouri (by about 3.5%); Tennessee
(4%); Arkansas (5.5%); Arizona and West Virginia (about 6.5%).
Step #8: Deal With the Politics of Fear
Fear is the subtext of American politics. The Republicans know that fearful
people tend to vote conservative, so generating and exploiting fear will be high
on their agenda. Expect every kind of Republican surprise: Code Reds, new acts
of terrorism, invasions of other countries, the sudden capture of Osama bin
Laden or Saddam Hussein. There may be dirty tricks in this election.
Even though some of us don't feel it acutely, fear is a fundamental issue in
America. It's no accident that we have more than 11,000 gun deaths a year while
neighboring Canada has far fewer with as many guns per capita. America just
passed the 2 million mark in the number of people incarcerated in prisons. While
violent crime goes down, the presentation of violent crime in the media
Generating fear of "the other" is a staple of Republican politics.
Only united can we can fight it. But this isn't simple and requires a lot of
discussion, thought and creative ideas. The main point is to acknowledge that
fear is on people's minds and not trivialize or deny it. The antidote to fear is
joy and courage. It is mutual support and protection and a clear, forthright
policy on national security. Progressive values are about protecting our
families, our communities, making our lives safe and fulfilling. But we're not
interested, as the Bush administration insists is necessary, in trading freedom
for security. As Move On's Wes Boyd notes: "Luckily, Americans are made of
sterner stuff and we'll continue to protect freedom and it will make us
Step #9: Examine Our Privilege and Embrace Diversity
This step is particularly aimed at those of us in the social change business.
Are we too aloof from the grittiness of electoral politics and face-to-face
organizing and talking with people who don't agree with us? Most of the millions
of people who make up the leadership and rank and file of non-profits and
foundations are highly educated, have health insurance and many have family
support. Even when we have risen from the working class, we have the privilege
of networks and access to mentors and support.
When the economy gets worse, when Medicare and Medicaid are cut, when the
minimum wage is stuck way below the living wage, when tax breaks go to the rich,
most of us remain untouched. In some cases, we actually benefit from political
crises; our organizations can raise more money. But poor people and many people
of color have no such luxuries. They can't criticize elections as a distraction
on the road to political change, as a prominent peace leader did recently. They
have to deal with the political reality.
Diversity is a fundamental progressive value, just like fairness and
protection of families. Our hybridness is a strength. The mix of our skills,
talents, experiences, histories and colors makes us much more than the sum of
our parts and imbues us with the power to defeat the more homogeneous and rigid
We also need to keep in mind that many of our brilliant and exciting current
efforts are white and middle class. We learned from the 2002 primary elections
that ignoring the base and running to the middle will lose elections, as
minority voters stayed home in droves and resources didn't make it into their
communities. Hopefully 2002 was the aberration, and the powerful voter
registering and organizing work that was done in Florida (e.g., that won that
state for Gore, until the Supreme Court decided otherwise) will be the model
across the country. African Americans were far ahead of other groups in opposing
the invasion of Iraq, and the rapidly growing Latino population is very
concerned about the impact of war budgets and tax cuts on services their
communities desperately need. Minority communities represent the strongest
element in the quest for regime change. It is crucial that diversity issues be
addressed at the beginning of any broad-based planning for 2004, and not as an
Step #10: Create an Independent Power, Not Reliant on Parties or
To help us win in 2004, how about organizing a progressive electoral movement
that becomes a force in the election by not picking one of the candidates
in the primaries? Instead we'll raise money, develop an active base nationwide
and effectively target key swing states. We earn our credibility by working
while the primaries are underway, building an infrastructure that is ready to
roll the last four months of the campaign on behalf of whomever the Democrats
All the Democratic candidates are superior to George W. Bush; even Joe
Lieberman, the guy progressives love to hate. Domestically, all these candidates
believe in fundamental values and issues that if framed effectively can appeal
to a wide cross-section of Democrats and swing voters. These are themes, values
and positions that Bush clearly does not support. In addition, a forceful
progressive presence will help keep candidates on message, give them backbone on
issues, and balance the inevitable challenges from the media and the
conservative Democrats when candidates take strong populist positions. Of course
many progressives will support candidates closest to them on key issues. But no
matter who gets nominated, we need to get the nominee elected.
It would be a bold move to quickly organize and grow a large-scale
independent campaign for regime change at home. Let's call it the
"Independent Force." It would counter the stereotypes that
progressives can't work together and that partnerships don't travel well across
race, class and issue lines. If key leadership groups bought in, such a
formation could, by effectively using the Internet, number five million and be
well funded with $10 million by next summer. No, that wouldn't be enough. Yet,
big organizations and coalitions of insiders wielding large amounts of money may
not be the best way to engage the rank and file.
A regime change movement would: a) ensure an organizational infrastructure,
especially in swing states, to help elect the Democratic nominee; b) coordinate
and articulate a clear vision of the values and principles generally shared by
all the Democratic candidates and strongly desired by millions of independent
and progressive Democrats; and c) create a way for the progressive and activist
universe to exercise political influence after the election. It would hold the
Democratic nominee accountable during the election (and hopefully afterward). It
would create effective new ways to work together in the event of Bush's
Progressives need to be a vigilant counterweight to the bad habits of Beltway
thinking, potential big organization in-fighting, and the influence of some of
the Democratic Party's wealthy donors. Ingrained attitudes that take the base of
voters for granted, depend on negative campaigning, run to the middle, instead
of standing for issues clearly and firmly, have led to failure in the past, but
not this time if we succeed.
Step #11: Use and Trust Independent Media
The Republican-controlled FCC has decided to make media more conservative,
more corporate and more concentrated. Given the media system we have already,
that's hard to swallow. Now we'll have more nightmares like Clear Channel, which
owns more than 1,200 stations and is infamous for dumbing down radio and
organizing pro-war rallies.
But even before this latest stage, the "Fox effect" pushed news
coverage to the right. Rupert Murdoch's pending purchase of Direct TV
exponentially increases the power of conservative TV. This is all wrong and
unacceptable, but by everyone's estimation, changing the media system is a
long-term struggle. The corporate media system is likely to get worse as far as
the eye can see.
We don't have time to wait. Yes, we should work the contradictions in
corporate media as best we can, since the media system needs a semblance of
objectivity to be credible enough to make their profits. But also we need to use
our own independent media system, which, with the help of the Internet, has
grown tremendously, risen in quality and reaches many more people than ever
before. AlterNet.org, where I work, Common Dreams, Tom Paine.com, the Nation,
Salon, Pacific News Service and many more (including WireTapmag.org, the feisty
youth site), are powerful daily information sources. When added up, the
independent media often do much more than the corporate media in presenting
details and diversity of voices.
It is important to have alternative perspectives and viable options in play.
Michael Moore, progressive media's superstar, has shown that it's possible to
reach millions with a very strong populist message. (Moore's next film is in the
works and will calculate the tremendous loss of political freedom since 9/11
while tracing the relationship of the bin Laden and Bush families, all in time
for the 2004 election.) But there are dozens of other voices also reaching
millions, because the Internet makes it possible to amplify radio shows,
columns, speeches and great journalism every day.
Many of us have become "connectors," zipping the best ideas,
analysis and personal voices around the web so we all know what Robert Scheer,
Arianna Huffington, Molly Ivins, Arundhati Roy, Amy Goodman and numerous others
are writing, thinking and saying. Worldlink TV and FreeSpeech TV, our only
progressive TV networks, are improving everyday. (Sure, you have to get a
satellite dish to watch them, but you'll also get "The Sopranos," so
When Greg Palast was asked how his current "alternative ' book became a
bestseller, he told the interviewer the alternative press needs to change its
name: "It reaches more people than the mainstream."
Step #12: Make a Commitment
Activist Harriet Barlow has started talking to friends about the "5
percent" plan. If you are really serious about defeating Bush, she says,
commit 5 percent of your income and 5 percent of your time to the cause; more if
you can afford it. And start now. Many others are in tune with Barlow. If you
can, why not vacation or even temporarily relocate to key swing states like
Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada, especially if you are from
there or have family or friends there? Dedicate a portion of your time to what
will be the most important election of our lives. If idealistic young people can
travel to Iraq and Palestine, why not to Kansas City, Cleveland, Pittsburg or
Dropping everything and moving to a swing state may seem extreme, but there
are many steps along the way. One thing we need to do is get together and talk
about what's at stake and give each other encouragement. Regime Change house
parties, salons and picnics can become the rage. Progressive leaders travel all
the time and are aching for invitations – give them a call, especially if you
are in a swing state. Plan on facilitating an exchange of ideas and information,
not just hosting a speech. We need more interaction and voices, fewer speeches.
Many organizations with people on the ground, such as ACORN,
League of Conservation
The Vote and Win Without War
and their affiliates will have local efforts going across the country. Check out
their websites, volunteer, send them money if you can.
Tom Paine.com, True Majority and Peace Action have organized a register
voters for peace campaign, and the Swing
State Project is recruiting volunteers nationwide now. Working
For Change is one of the best places on the web to read about and take part
in political actions. Get on their list.
It is good to remember that change often isn't linear. Dramatic events can
short-circuit everything we think we know. Unexpected combinations of
circumstances and planning have erupted in major historic events – 9/11 of
course, but also the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ending of apartheid, the
feminist and environmentalist revolutions – that all shocked the political
world when they emerged.
But nothing takes the place of organizing. Progressives, as Robert Borosage
underscores in a recent The Nation, have just begun to build the independent
capacity to drive energy into the political debate. Our think tanks will provide
ammunition for our efforts. As we join our web-based communicators like Move on,
Working Assets and True Majority, we help build their strength to broaden the
base. Now is the time to draw the line. We need to dedicate ourselves to the
task ahead fully, without ambivalence, minimizing squabbling, knowing we are
right. The future of our families and our globe is in our hands.
Don Hazen is the executive director of the Independent Media Institute (IMI).
This article was written independently of AlterNet. The opinions expressed in
this article in no way reflect the positions of IMI or AlterNet.