By Ruth Conniff on January 04, 2011

In a letter To The New York Times, Ralph Nader takes issue with the paper's editorial asserting that Tea Party victories show there is "no progressive champion" for the poor and powerless.

"Hello!" writes Nader.

"There are plenty of progressive champions lobbying, rallying, exposing, suing and organizing at the national, state and local level," he says. The problem, he says, is that the mainstream media, including The New York Times, fails to cover their efforts.

You can understand Nader's frustration, particularly as one whose efforts to champion the poor against the powerful were systematically belittled by the Times and other mainstream outlets when he ran for President from outside the corporate-dominated two-party apparatus.

Certainly the Fox Newsification of the mainstream media has contributed to the current political climate.

But the yawning gap on the left that the Times notes is also undeniable.

How can it be that in such dark economic times, most of the political energy in the country is focused on dismantling unions, undoing President Obama's modest effort at health care reform, and giving even more power and even larger tax breaks to the rich and big business?

In the editorial that stirred Nader's ire, the Times notes: "In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty. Now the many who are struggling have no progressive champion. The left have ceded the field to the Tea Party and, in doing so, allowed it to make history. It is building political power by selling the promise of a return to a mythic past."

The right's re-ascendancy this week is a sobering spectacle, as Republicans take power in the House of Representatives and Tea Party-affiliated governors and legislatures are sworn in around the country.

The ideological lines could not be starker. As the 112th Congress convenes, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has promised to cut $100 billion in domestic spending from the federal budget. Across the country, Republican attorneys general are suing the Administration to stop the extension of health care benefits to citizens of their states. Governors in Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin have declared war on public employees' unions, announcing that teachers should be fired if they attempt to strike (Ohio), that government workers should not be allowed to join unions (Wisconsin) and that union funds, particularly those used for political purposes, should be cut off (ten states).

This is a war on organized labor, on the poor, on working people and on the whole notion of a middle class. In Wisconsin, newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker ran on the assertion that public employees should not be able to enjoy college savings funds and pensions when private sector workers are hurting.

In this race-to-the-bottom worldview, the anger and pain felt by unemployed workers in a recession means no one should have a decent life.

No one, that is, except the rich "producers" who need bigger tax cuts to keep generating jobs, to quote the Ayn Rand-loving Senator Ron Johnson who takes over Russ Feingold's seat this week.

Where are the voices on the other side? In Wisconsin, a state that has been wholly taken over by rightwing Republicans, the Democrats are bleating that they favor tax cuts, too.

The me-tooism of Wisconsin Democrats once prompted old-line progressive Assemblyman Frank Boyle, who represented Wisconsin's 73rd district in Superior for 22 years until he retired in 2008, to rail, "I'm telling you, there are no liberal Democrats anymore!"

Nationally, we see the same conflict-avoidance posture among Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration.

Nader is right that there are plenty of activists who are responding more energetically to the rightwing assault.

Some of them, organized by Citizen Action, gathered on the steps of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, during governor Scott Walker's inauguration to protest his anti-union, anti-worker stance--and his decision to cancel a high-speed rail project that would have generated 15,000 family-supporting jobs and brought $810 million in federal funds to the state.

Milwaukee, with one of the highest rates of African American male unemployment in the industrial Midwest, sent a large delegation of protesters. They know what is at stake.

But their voices are tiny compared to the howling of the Tea Partiers and their victorious candidates.

Opening up a bound volume of the Progressive Magazine from 1933, you can feel the energy of opposition to the kinds of rightwing policies that are back in vogue today:

"The Senate banking committee will resume its probe of the national banking scandal later this month . . . "

(Flip back to today and a press release from the watchdog group Bankster makes predictions for 2011 that include the demise of Bank of America after Wikileaks releases damaging internal documents and a new crisis as rampant mortgage fraud is uncovered in the banking industry. This fraud, the group says, will create a foreclosure tsunami, and even bigger behemoth banks--thanks to the federal government's coddling—and it will also bankrupt cities and states.)

From the May 1933 issue of the Progressive: "Thousands of Chicago teachers who have not been paid since last June mobbed Chicago's biggest banks--and closed them, too . . . " (An accompanying photo shows a large crowd of teachers, many of them women, outside the City National Bank in Chicago. The teachers succeeded in getting bank president General Charles Dawes to come out and listen to their complaints, until he yelled, "To hell with trouble makers!")

(Today, Republican governor of Ohio John Kasich is quoted in The New York Times saying teachers should be barred from striking. "If they want to strike they should be fired," Kasich said in a speech. "They've got good jobs, they've got high pay, they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?")

Finally, from 1933, an editorial cartoon shows a nest of vultures on top of a crumbling schoolhouse with a caption that describes school closures and overcrowding, and concludes: "In sum, the whole public school system of the nation faces imminent breakdown, the disastrous social and moral effect of which will be felt for generations. No 'economy' is so false as the false economy that breeds ignorance, poverty and crime in this enlightened republic. America must save the schools to save herself. What is the federal government going to do about it?"

We need that kind of clear, loud voice on the left more than ever almost 8 decades later.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Richard Holbrooke's Demise and Wikileaks' Rise."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

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Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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