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Reality and Surreality in DC
David Lytel

First they managed to attach Ronald Reagan’s name to National Airport. Now that they managed to get the scion of privilege elected, they’re clogging the runways with Lear Jets and the parking lots with limousines. The moneyed elite that governs this country - and for whom everyone from the Supreme Court on down really works - has come to Washington this weekend. You can actually see them and talk to them. They either have high hair or wear ten-gallon hats, so they are easy to spot.

But amidst the fireworks and the celebration of the inauguration of America’s first illegitimate president, progressive activists from all over the U.S. also gathered in Washington today. In meeting rooms in Senate and House office buildings, we plotted openly on how to ensure that the Republican partying doesn’t last more than two years. And, frankly, I’m not sure who is having more fun. I think we are.

In the back of their minds the Republicans all know their take-no-prisoners, stop at nothing strategy has damaged the republic. Strangely, it is the progressive Democratic office holders and the activist community that are feeling empowered and confident. As DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton put it, “We are liberated and can now become a powerful opposition.”

Norton spoke at the Hart Senate Office Building this morning at a workshop sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and reminded us what it felt like to be in the opposition during the Reagan years. “We were all on the defensive. The darts were coming from all over. Well I am here to tell you,” she continued, “I ain’t going that way this time.”

“The largest piece of unfinished voting business in the US,” Norton said, “is the absence of voting rights in the nation’s capital.” And Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont drove home her point by reminding people that the 600,000 people he represents in Vermont have a vote in Congress but the 600,000 American citizens that Norton represents in the District of Columbia do not.

And Sanders made it clear that just removing the barriers to representation and to voting would not be enough. He pointed out that the U.S. has the least participatory electorate in the industrialized world, and urged us to focus sufficient attention on the non-voters, and taking action to bring them into a system that is responsive to them. “Does anyone doubt that if we can get large numbers of young people, low income people and working people to vote that this country and our entire election system would be fundamentally different than it is today? Today we have Newt Gingrich’s vision of what democracy is about – low turnout and a political system that is controlled by big money.”

Marcus Raskin, co-founder of IPS, urged that we truly listen to what the non-voters are saying. As he put it, “We cannot ask people to vote unless we are willing to reform the system.” When nonvoters express the fear that their vote would go toward legitimizing a system rather than changing it, they are “fundamentally right,” according to Raskin.

So how to build an effective coalition that includes both electoral reform and substantive political and economic change as its goal? Actor Danny Glover put it best when he urged us not to keep our struggles segregated. “We must embrace one another’s struggles,” he said. “The march to victory two years from now begins right now,” he added. “We have to build that movement and legitimize what we believe to be our truth and our vision.”

Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future also presented a good insight. What the Democratic Party should have learned from this election is that one of Bush’s most effective strategies was blurring the issues that previously had given good margins for Democrats, like education and Social Security. “The lesson that needs to come from this,” he said, “is that we have a bolder statement on issues which are more difficult for Republicans to co-opt.”

Probably the day’s greatest star was Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who talked about the bizarre race game that redistricting has become. Districts with overwhelming percentages of white voters are legal, but somehow districts with large percentages of black voters are unconstitutional. “It is time to stop tinkering around the edges,” says McKinney, “and put together a movement that will bring substantive change in this country.”

The other big star (measured by standing ovations) was Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He put the most urgent task squarely on our shoulders: “The progressive wing of the Democratic Party must take as its mission the organization of the unorganized. You must first ask them what is on their minds, then you must have the capacity to organize.” He urged us not to wait for leadership. “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for,” he observed.

So today was a day for thought and reflection. But tomorrow is a day for action. The VoterMarch rally at Dupont Circle in the morning and then the march to the Ellipse. So far those who have come to celebrate George W. Bush and those who have come to challenge his claim to power have been side by side, but not really together. Tomorrow is a day to be outdoors and to make some noise.

I’m not feeling very confrontational, but I’m also not feeling very ready to back down, either. When a Republican sees my “Bush Doesn’t Count” button and tells me to “you lost, get over it” I can reply with the calm threat “don’t count on it.”

On the bus on the way in from Dulles airport on Thursday morning there were only two of us, me in my business suit and a nicely dressed woman wearing fur. I asked the driver if he wouldn’t mind dropping me at the White House because I had a meeting there and didn’t want to ride with him all the way to the Convention Center.” He agreed, and the woman perked up and asked me if I had gotten my tickets yet. “M’am,” I replied as politely as I could, “I don’t think you and I are here for the same purpose.”