Where do we go from here?

by Tony Palmeri

[note: What follows is a transcript of remarks I delivered on November 30, 2004 as part of a UW Oshkosh forum called "After the 2004 Elections: Where do we go from here?" The forum was sponsored by the Campus Greens and the College Democrats. -Tony P.]

I would like to thank the Campus Greens and College Democrats for sponsoring this event.

Let me start off by saying that while I am pleased that hundreds if not thousands of "where do we go from here" forums are being held in reaction to the results of the Nov. 2 elections, I am also a bit disturbed. I am disturbed because had John Kerry won the presidential election, many people would not see the need to participate in a "where do we go from here" forum. Some folks believe that when their favorite guy gets elected, they no longer need to participate in citizen activism. In actual fact, it's even more important to participate in citizen activism when your favorite guy is in power because if you don't, he will take your support for granted.

So where do we go from here?

When the United States Supreme Court in its 1857 Dred Scott decision declared that slaves were mere property not deserving of any constitutionally protected rights, where did African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass go? He went to work. Part of his work was on behalf of what was then a third party--the Republicans. Back then the Republicans ran on a slogan of Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Free Men!

"The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters "--Frederick Douglass

When state legislature after state legislature rejected women's suffrage, and when the federal government did the same, where did Susan B. Anthony go? Did she save all of her activist energy for election cycles, hoping that the nation might finally elect a white man who would do justice for women? No. She went to work.

Susan B. Anthony

And today there's lots of talk about how to discuss religion in public. Well, when the authorities came down on Jesus and his followers, where did the prince of peace go? He went to work.

Now today if you choose to work within the Republican or Democratic parties, more power to you. Just get to work.

This year I chose to work within the Green Party. The establishment party leaders don't care for third parties. They think that Ross Perot and Ed Thompson spoiled it for the Republicans, while Ralph Nader and Tony Palmeri spoiled it for the Dems. If you are a Republican or Democrat worried and angry about third party spoiling, then go to work to change our ancient electoral system. Go to work to pressure the legislature to enact instant runoff voting.

The idea that we need to challenge the establishment parties is not new. Guess who said the following: "I am convinced that the time has come for a militant political movement, independent of the two old party organizations, and responsive to the needs and sentiments of the common people." Give up? That was Bob LaFollette upon entering the race for the presidency as a progressive in 1924.

And did you know that the Wisconsin Progressive Party controlled the state legislature from around 1934 to 1946? How did they do it? Very simply, progressive Republicans were tired of being undermined by the leadership of their own party, so they bolted. The Progressive Party faded because of its inability to establish a national presence, but in Wisconsin they established the principle that progressives are not obligated to work within the confines of the establishment parties. Perhaps contemporary progressive Democrats could afford to learn a lesson from the old Wisconsin progressives.

The 2006 race for governor is going to be a real test for Wisconsin's progressives, especially those who call themselves Democrats. Democratic governor Doyle has drawn the ire of many in his party because of his

support for environmentally devastating legislation like the "Job Creation Act" and his budget assaults on the UW System. In 2006 Ed Thompson will almost certainly run again as a Libertarian, while the Republicans will field formidable challengers like Congressman Mark Green, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, or Assembly Speaker John Gard. And I can tell you right now the Greens will be running a very strong candidate.

So what will the progressive Democrats do? Will you try to move Doyle toward a progressive agenda? And if he refuses to budge, will you stay with him because he is "not as bad" as the Republican candidates? Or because the Green "can't win?"

What to do in 2006 will become much easier to decide if we get out of this demobilizing mentality that says that our major activist efforts must take place during election cycles. What we do in between election cycles is much more important, and vital in terms of creating a base of support for a genuinely progressive program.

So where do we go from here? We go to work! Thank you.

Tony Palmeri Welcomes Your Feedback