Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT--Democrats and the Debs Dinner

“If basic economic issues are removed from the table, . . . only social issues remain to distinguish the parties. And in such a climate, Democratic appeals to people of ordinary means can be easily neutralized.”
-Thomas Franks, What’s the Matter with Kansas

How many leaders from the nation's and Indiana’s Democratic Party marked October 29, 2005
on their calendars? That was the date of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Annual Awards Banquet. More importantly, how many of these leaders attended this conscience and program energizing rally?

This annual event celebrates, supports and recognizes the ideals and the progressive spirit of Terre Haute’s most historically significant native son--Eugene V. Debs. His political and philosophical legacy fills history books. Debs is honored enthusiastically around the world. You can visit his Terre Haute home, now a beautifully appointed museum on North Eighth Street. If you haven’t been there at least once, you probably read too little history and watch too much TV.

While on the subject of TV, you really have to wonder if the Democratic leadership doesn't spend far too much time watching “Lost” or “Survivor” or the weekly weaseling about on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” These Democrats seem confused and lost; they allow themselves to be pushed around and compromised, thinking they are practicing a strategy of survival; and, in general, they comport themselves like apprentice Republicans.

Reality TV projects a scary world into our homes each night, but the real real world we live in, the world of economic hardship and social inequality, is far scarier. That real world was the one Debs confronted in a lifetime of struggle and agitation. It’s a world still very much with us, but the Democrats in charge work hard to avoid it and the issues such a world raises.

For example, in Indiana, we have Evan Bayh leading the charge to the right-center of the political spectrum. He and other Democrats appear to be intent on burning the bridges connecting them to the great liberal tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. They assiduously court corporate campaign dollars while incomes in Indiana and across the country plummet, jobs are exported, unions are busted, health care becomes a luxury most cannot afford, and workers are robbed of their pensions. Straddling fences and interests doesn’t make them a “New and Improved” version of the Democratic party of the past. It makes them a timid and tired version of the Republicans.

Democrats are in dire need of a reality check and the Debs Dinner would have provided one. If in attendance, they heard conversation, music and speeches that were not slippery smooth and modulated like what they regularly hear in paneled boardrooms and at Chamber of Commerce festivals of glad-handing and deal making. Specifically, they might have reconnected with a politics they may faintly recall but has been banished from the so-so polite Democratic Party. Conversations that included words like LIBERAL, WORKING CLASS and UNION. Terms falsely despised, illogically dreaded, ignorantly diminished and unfairly defiled today.

It’s certain that many of these leaders have memories of what it means to be WORKING CLASS. A few may even have experienced the benefits (a living wage, safety measures, security, pride) of a couple of years of UNION membership at some point in their working lives. And, amazing but true, one or two of them might once have actually stated they were LIBERALS! And in public! Not anymore. Those memories and those commitments faded long ago.

At the Debs Dinner working people talk real issues and interests. And, lo and behold, they actually speak those words--LIBERAL, WORKING CLASS and UNION-- out loud. And the sky doesn’t crash through the ceiling. LIBERAL, WORKING CLASS, UNION are words spoken with pride and purpose. You remember, the way your parents and grandparents used these powerful words when times were tough and elected officials were expected to look for solutions. This was back when a responsive government made a difference in working people’s lives. Today, responsive government is about the size of the tax cut the super-rich will be handed.

Hard working Americans want nothing more than a living wage for a week of hard work. The homeless need affordable housing. The uninsured yearn for a national health care system that delivers their families from fear. And the economically left behind crave schools that nurture curiosity and prepare their kids for opportunities not endless tests that tie teachers and students into meaningless knots.

If the Democratic establishment supported programs that delivered these reasonable necessities, really supported them through education, organization and legislation, workers would head for the polls and vote with a smile on their faces and a “Solidarity Forever” song in their hearts.

Democratic leaders and candidates should quit moaning and whining about how the country has turned to the right, how (to take my home example) Indiana is a “Red” state, Indiana is just too conservative, Indiana is Bush’s garden, etc.. How do we know what Indiana (or the nation) is politically and ideologically when there was only a 58% turnout in the 2004 presidential election? Or, again going local, when the Democratic leadership of Vigo County in Indiana, a supposedly Democratic county stronghold, ignores the Kerry candidacy, turns out only 51% of the vote and, to their everlasting shame, hands a majority to the arrogant and incompetent Bush and his cronies?

If these leaders of retreat ever want to become serious about changing themselves back into democratic Democrats, they need to read the brilliant journalist Thomas Frank’s best selling book: What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Frank was this year’s Debs’ Award recipient. Everyone should read this book and truthfully examine whether or not the argument Frank makes for Kansas applies to their home state . The Republican wing of the Democratic Party that runs the show on the banks of the Wabash and across the state all the way to Washington might clearly recognize itself. Democrats need to do some soul searching and ask, What’s the Matter with Indiana [fill in name of any state]? How the Working Class Lost their Voice in America…

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