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Rallying the two poles of the Democratic base

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Saturday, the season's lone march on Washington not convened by a television personality will unfold in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Sponsored by One Nation Working Together -- a coalition of black, Latino, feminist, gay and lesbian civil rights groups; unions; and environmental organizations -- the march is clearly intended as a counterweight to Glenn Beck's religious-right extravaganza of August. It also has become something between a counterpoint and a complement to the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert comedic shriek scheduled for late October.

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At first glance, the two October marches represent the two dominant groups in the Democratic base. Saturday's march aims to bring together the party's long-standing activist core, which has roots in minority and working-class communities. The Comedy Central cadenza is likely to bring out a whiter, more upper-middle-class crowd. The distinctions between the assemblages may well be plain for all to see. The overlaps between them may be more subtle.

One overlap, however, is likely to be anything but subtle. Both marches aim to rally America's liberals in the days leading up to a midterm election that threatens to put the nation on a radically more conservative course. "We're building a get-out-the-vote" operation, says NAACP President Ben Jealous, who came up with the idea for the rally shortly after health-care reform passed in March. The Stewart-Colbert rally has no such explicit agenda, and its scheduling -- three days before the Nov. 2 election -- wouldn't allow any time for organizational follow-up even if it had. Nonetheless, the rally clearly is timed to lift liberal spirits -- keeping irony, and perhaps even hope, alive -- on the eve of the elections.

That said, the programmatic agenda of this Saturday's march is likely to appeal to virtually everyone who turns out for the Stewart-Colbert Octoberfest. It signals a convergence of agendas among liberalism's distinct activist groups. Jealous, who has brought a new measure of dynamism and strategic savvy to the venerable NAACP, has prodded his organization and a number of African American church groups to support gay and lesbian rights. More middle-class environmental and gay and lesbian groups back the rally's call for job creation through a range of Keynesian measures. All the groups involved this weekend have endorsed the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

The convergence of agendas is largely strategic. At the first spring meeting of the groups that planned this weekend's march, Deepak Bhargava, who heads the Center for Community Change and is one of liberal America's leading strategists, asked participants to "raise your hand if you can get your agenda through [Congress] by yourself." Nobody did.

At least some of the convergence is also a function of generational change. The acceptance of gay and lesbian equality is highest among youth of all races and classes, as is support for a greener economy. The recession, meanwhile, has intensified liberal support for governmental job creation, not just for economic reasons but also because the recession has given rise to expressions of radical-right phobias that threaten immigrants and minorities -- such as Arizona's draconian immigration law -- and that could thwart the agendas of every progressive constituency.

"We live in a moment of increasing diversity and decreasing prosperity," says Jealous. "We can either attack diversity or increase prosperity" -- and fearing the former, the forces at the rally are calling on the government to invest in job creation, something the private sector remains unable or unwilling to do.

The most significant outcome of Saturday's march may be the establishment of state-based coalitions in places where effective progressive alliances have been few and far between. Helped by funding from unions, including the Communications Workers of America, one such coalition is already thriving in North Carolina, and another is growing in Mississippi, where the increasing Latino immigrant population, added to the state's sizable African American presence, has created a black-brown coalition that within a decade could turn Mississippi politics upside down.

The group of dispossessed not likely to be well represented Saturday, sadly, is the white working class from those parts of the country (the Midwest above all) that our industrial corporations have abandoned. The de-industrialization of the Midwest has also meant a decrease in unionization, and absent those unions and decent economic prospects, this group appears more open to Glenn Beck's messages -- attacking diversity -- than those of Saturday's marchers. If the government doesn't do more to help create jobs, worry those marching this weekend, those attacks will fall disproportionately on them. In today's political climate, a rally for jobs is also a rally against bigotry.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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