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Who is on our bus? and where is this bus going? Progressives see light after 8 years….

 Wanted to share this speech with our community….

Deepak BhargavaRemarks at Closing of Take Back AmericaMarch 19, 2008 

Thank you to the Campaign for America’s Future for its work and for organizing this progressive gathering.  It is a pleasure to be speaking here today with such extraordinary progressive leaders as Anna Burger, Cecile Richards and David Bonior.  

 It seems that the progressive bus is moving down along the highway, and after 8 brutal years, that is worth celebrating. The big questions for progressives today are: “who is on our bus?,” “who is driving the bus,” “where is this bus going” and “who might get run over by the bus along the route”? 

Our history is instructive.  A Republican President, Richard Nixon, gave us affirmative action and proposed a guaranteed annual income for the poor.  Our last Democratic Administration gave us welfare reform, NAFTA, a disastrous crime bill, and punitive immigration reform.  The point is not that elections don’t matter: they matter a great deal.  The point is that the strength of outside movements –and who and what we hold to be at the moral center of our agenda– matters very much to our collective future. 

As happens every even numbered year, there will be massive voter mobilization efforts in low-income communities of color.  The question for all of us is: will those constituencies be central or marginal to the progressive agenda after the election is over? 

This question will play out in ways big and small in 2009.  

Will we put justice for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina at the center of our agenda?  How about reducing or eliminating poverty?  A path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented immigrants? Relief for the victims of subprime lending? 

The evidence of the last couple of years is not heartening in this regard.  As we speak, a hardy band of House Democrats are pushing for a bill that would be just as bad as the Tancredo bill that sparked the mass mobilizations in immigrant communities in 2006. Talk about wresting defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Issues that will probably be at the top of a new President’s agenda in 2009 at first glance have little to do with poverty or race on further consideration pose some stark choice for our movement.    

One of the hidden consequences of climate change legislation is that the increase in energy prices would amount to a tax of $1000 on the poorest 20% of Americans –who earn about $13,000 per year.  Will we as progressives hold as a bottom line the notion that we won’t tolerate driving families more deeply into poverty? 

We hope that universal health care legislation will be on the table in 2009.  We know from the SCHIP debate that immigrants will be the leading wedge used by the opposition to derail the legislation.  Will we throw immigrants under the bus as a matter of expediency?  If so, we should probably call the legislation “health care for more of us,” not “health care for all of us.” 

John Powell has made the case for a set of principles for progressives that he calls “targeted universalism.” The idea is that we should fight for broad policies that benefit everyone, but in so doing that we pay special attention to the most vulnerable parts of our coalition –typically in our society, low-income people of color.  This is necessary because without that attention, our history shows that even historic advances of the kind achieved in the New Deal do not end up benefitting everyone, least of all those most in need.  The Federal Housing Administration created redlining, and the Unemployment Insurance and AFDC systems systematically excluded workers of color for decades. 

It would be wrong to think that this is only a moral question of inclusion, though surely it is.  It is also a strategic question: are we capable of showing that electoral outcomes make a difference to the lives of poor people of color, and in so doing replace the vicious cycle of under-participation with a virtuous cycle of increasing participation?  Do we want to build a progressive movement that can win not only today, but in the demographically changing America that is arriving?   

Progressives should embrace three principles going forward: first, the idea of community values –that we are all in it together, that we are striving to build a beloved community.  That means everyone is on the bus, we don’t let anyone get run over, and especially not the most vulnerable.  Second, we have a collective obligation to make sure that the politically most vulnerable have strong, well resourced organizations from the grassroots to think tanks so that they can drive the progressive bus. 

Finally, we must not confuse the electoral road with the progressive bus.  This is a mistake that conservatives have never made.  Electoral politics are means, not ends in themselves.  A progressive victory that does not reduce poverty and racial injustice will be neither progressive nor a victory.  We hold history in our hands, and now is the time to break some of the patterns of exclusion that have held our movement and the country back.  It’s up to all of us to rise to the challenge.  

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