We Won’t Be Sister Souljah’d, Lanny Davis

Corporate lobbyist Lanny Davis, former legal counsel for President Clinton, is launching his own firm next week, and he is previewing his tactics with a slimy and erroneous diatribe against progressives in general and against the Campaign for America’s Future in particular.

His column this week in The Hill and The Huffington Post lambastes “elements of the Democratic Party who call themselves the ‘true progressives’ [who] show a danger they represent to the progressive change they say they want to effect.” He in effect recommends that President Obama publicly bitch-slap progressives, creating what he calls a “Sister Souljah moment” akin to President Clinton’s take-down of a provocative African-American writer during his 1992 campaign.

One of the more egregious false statements in this article is about what happened during House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appearance June 8 at our America’s Future Now! conference. Unlike Davis, I was there. And it is a flat-out lie that “Campaign for America’s Future, a self-described “progressive” organization … shouted down and nearly prevented liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from speaking.”

A disability-rights group, ADAPT, was responsible for virtually all of the heckling that took place during Pelosi’s speech. (They were far more disruptive than Code Pink, which sent a few representatives who held up a sign protesting Middle East policy.) The “true progressives” in the room, when it became apparent that the ADAPT protesters could not be quieted without creating an even worse disruption, stood up and moved to the front of the room during Pelosi’s speech, literally forming a human wall between her and the protesters. That is how much she was respected by the people who attended the conference, regardless of differences over individual political decisions Pelosi has made since she was speaker.

But the more important central argument that Davis raises is that progressives are destroying their own agenda by being true to their principles. Davis wants us to join him in cutting deals, making compromises, splitting the baby. Obama, he says, should “challenge those who prefer the perfect over the good.”

Davis should read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s excellent column for washingtonpost.com, in which she patiently explains to the Lanny Davises and Dana Milbanks of the world what’s really going on. Vanden Heuvel captured the message that the conference was trying to convey.

What we see, some 500 days into the Obama administration, is a president obstructed by a partisan Republican opposition, powerful entrenched corporate interests, and a minority of corrupt or conservative Democrats. The thinking is that if progressives organize independently and forge smart coalitions, building a mass movement for reform with a moral compass that can transcend left-right divisions, we may be able to push Obama beyond the limits of his own politics, overcome the timid incrementalism of the establishment Democratic Party and counter the forces of money and power that are true obstacles to change.

In other words, it is not our role, and should not be our role, to figure out how to live within the political limits of the policy debate—limits that have for the better part of four decades been set by conservatives, not by an engaged and vigorous left. It is our role to redraw the political boundaries. Sorry, Mr. Davis, we don’t consider it a victory when another politicians who fits comfortably into the status quo gets into office with a “D” next to his name. We are fighting for a transformation in our politics that is equal to the transformation that conservatives brought to our national politics when Ronald Reagan entered the White House. And we are doing this for no less a cause than the future health and prosperity of this nation.

It is that promise of transformative politics that energized Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and it is the reason why we fight daily to create an environment in which Obama and Congress can take the bold actions on Wall Street reform, economic policy, energy, immigration and other issues that will reverse the damage done by conservative ideology.

And finally, let’s be clear about what the “Sister Souljah” moment was about. Sister Souljah was a community organizer and rapper given to caustic statements about race. In 1992, in her anger over the racial and economic climate in which the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles took place, she said the following in an interview with the late David Mills, then with The Washington Post:

“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?”

Bill Clinton took advantage of the outrage over this remark to burnish his credentials with white moderates and to counter the race-baiting that Republicans were doing around the remark. Never mind the lack of serious deconstruction of what Sister Souljah was talking about, or that virtually no one in the African-American community had signed on to her over-the-top expression of whatever underlying truths there were in her words. The “Sister Souljah moment” did not, at the end of the day, lead to a significant change in how America deals with race. It was, instead, a lesson that a politician could attack a sensational remark by an African American with a few minutes of media fame and score political points.

But there is no “Sister Souljah moment” to be had with the progressive movement. As a rule, we are not making audacious statements to stir up passions or vent our own. We have real concerns that as dramatic the policy changes have been in the past 18 months in health care, economic policy and other areas, they still fall far short of what Americans need. We are engaged in serious discussions of solutions. And we are holding politicians accountable when they do the bidding of the wealthy and corporations and stand against the interests of the middle class. All one has to do is look at the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and listen to day’s sad spectacle of BP CEO Tony Hayward telling House members how out of touch he was with what was going on inside his company, and apparently how out of touch the government was with the consequences of BP’s actions, to appreciate how much we need a progressive movement to prod our political institutions to serve its people and protect the common good above all else.


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