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The Nation Magazine's Most Valuable Progressives of 2008

by John Nichols on 12/31/2008

This article originally appeared here.

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Progressives had more to celebrate in 2008 than in any year since the Supreme Court got into the business of stealing elections. The jubilant mood is dampened, of course, by the fact of a country is stuck in two military quagmires, ravaged by the most fearsome economic downturn in at least a half century and suffering from a serious case of Constitutional degeneration. Perhaps we have not yet reached an ideal champagne moment. But there is still good reason to toast the year's MVPs--Most Valuable Progressives.

Here they are:

MOST VALUABLE UNION: The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America

The big players in the labor movement were trying to figure out what to ask of the first genuinely labor-friendly president since Harry Truman, and they weren't doing a very good job of it in the weeks after the election. Then the Bank of America (having supped prodigiously at Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's bailout banquet) made the mistake of pulling the operating credit for an Illinois-based window manufacturing firm and a small independent union showed the rest of the movement what was possible. When Republic Windows and Doors announced it was shuttering its factory in Chicago, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union who worked at the plant borrowed a page from the radical labor activists of the 1930s and refused to leave. Their sit-down strike earned headlines, solidarity support from bigger unions, an endorsement from President-elect Barack Obama and, finally, commitments by the bank and the company to pay the displaced workers what they were owed. The Rev. Jesse Jackson compared the UE members to Rosa Parks and described their bold response to the shutdown as "the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence." Let's hope he is right.

MOST VALUABLE POLITICAL GROUP: Progressive Democrats of America

Paul Wellstone's "Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party" finally has a functional voice, in the form of PDA, a national group that has over the past several years struggled mightily – and often effectively – to pull the party to the left on issues of war and peace, health-care reform, economic justice and presidential accountability. While Democratic "leaders" in Washington compromised on matters of principle, PDA pushed for a fixed timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, questioned Barack Obama's talk of surging more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, worked with Michigan Congressman John Conyers to promote a single-payer response to the health-care crisis and argued that, yes, George Bush and Dick Cheney should be impeached. When Obama secured the Democratic presidential nod, PDA forged an essential bridge to independent lefties, mounting a Progressives for Obama campaign, successfully pressuring party platform writers to improve language on health care and trade issues and organizing (with support from The Nation) a busy program of policy events on the fringe of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. In a measure of the PDA's expanding role within the party, those convention sessions attracted a dozen key members of Congress including Conyers and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actor Sean Penn and dozens of delegates. As 2008 ended, PDA was still taking on the most daunting issues – urging Obama and other Democrats to do more to promote a ceasefire in Gaza – and proving that this group understands the importance of keeping the pressure on party leaders in Washington to serve not just as Democrats but as progressives.


This group that is still best known for leading the anti-apartheid fight of the 1980s in the U.S. has evolved into a smart, aggressive and deeply principled force advocating on behalf of justice for the people of Africa and the African Diaspora. Under the able leadership of Nicole Lee, who took over as executive director at the end of 2006, and board chair Danny Glover, TransAfrica has taken bold positions on complex and often difficult issues--Zimbabwe, Haiti, the militarization of east Africa, the proposed U.S.-Columbia Free Trade Agreement--and created space for open and honest debate about U.S. foreign policy. As the Obama administration seeks to reengage with the world, no perspective is going to be more useful than that of TransAfrica.

MOST VALUABLE POLICY GROUP: The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

The global food crisis that made a bit of news early in 2008 highlighted the economic pathologies that would come into stark relief as the financial meltdown accelerated in the fall. But most journalists and policy analysts don't understand or much care about farm and food issues, so they missed the story. Steve Suppan, Shiney Varghese, Ben Lilliston and the rest of the team at the Minneapolis-based IATP were so far ahead of the curve that they rarely got the credit they deserved for recognizing and confronting the challenges posed not merely by the spread of hunger but by the financial gaming that underpinned the crisis. An institute report released in November, "Commodities Market Speculation: The Risk to Food Security and Agriculture" was a finer piece of financial journalism than anything produced by the Wall Street Journal or CNBC. It detailed how excessive speculation in agriculture commodity markets contributed to the traumatic twists and turns in global food prices, and the hunger that resulted. As Suppan explained, "It is important to recognize that many of the deregulatory measures that brought on the Wall Street collapse also contributed to the food security and agricultural market crises." This report should be top-priority reading for Obama and his aides, as should another by IATP staffers Carin Smaller and Sophia Murphy: "Bridging the Divide: A Human Rights Vision for Global Food Trade."


Bridging the gap between sometimes esoteric national debates about economic issues and the real-life challenges faced by people living in Cleveland, Youngstown and Dayton, Policy Matters Ohio is a non-profit research and advocacy organization that pushes the envelope on debates about tax policy and the funding of essential education and safety-net programs. Intellectually rigorous, yet always accessible in its approach, this group has produced more than 160 reports that have given Ohio's progressive activists and legislators the tools they need to challenge corporate spin and pressure tactics. In tight economic times, groups such as Policy Matters Ohio are absolutely essential players in life-and-death debates about how state and local governmental agencies should respond to revenue shortfalls and rising demands for services. PMO's founding executive director, Amy Hanauer, is great at making the link between the initiatives of national groups with which she works--the Economic Policy Institute, Demos and the Apollo Alliance--and local and legislative policymakers in Ohio, moving progressive priorities out of Washington to the communities where good ideas can and must be turned into practical programs. As an example of what Policy Matters Ohio does, check out the group's great report: Limiting Loopholes: A dozen tax breaks Ohio can do without


This joint project of Global Exchange and Co-op America organizes huge events in major cities across the country to celebrate "what's working in our communities--for people, business and the environment" with an emphasis on "safe, healthy communities and a strong local economy." You have to attend a Green Festival in San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, Denver or Chicago to fully understand the scope and power of these events, which draw together internationally-recognized thinkers and activists (Van Jones, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Majora Carter and Amy Goodman, among others), local small-business owners and thousands of citizens for remarkable explorations of what a sustainable economy can and should look like.


The Oakland Institute's executive director has emerged as an essential commentator on trade, development, human rights and food security issues. When major media outlets--especially The New York Times--were stumbling around trying to come up with explanations for the global food crisis, Mittal, a former co-director of Food First, calmly explained the deadly role played by free-trade absolutists, international lenders and speculators. Most importantly, she argued that it is time to "stop worshiping the golden calf of the so-called free market and embrace, instead, the principle [that] every country and every people have a right to food that is affordable. When the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give." It is this sort of clear-headed assessment of not just the food crisis but a host of international development issues that helps Mittal, who established the Oakland Institute in 2004 with the purpose of increasing public participation in domestic and foreign policy debates, define what an enlightened American discourse about this country's place in the world should sound like.


It has been a long time since the United States had a Secretary of Labor who had a record of walking picket lines. That's what makes California Congresswoman Hilda Solis, Obama's pick to fill this Cabinet post, so remarkable. She was raised in a union household, cut her political teeth as an advocate for the United Farm Workers union and won her House seat by mounting a primary challenge to a Clintonite Democratic incumbent who had voted wrong on trade and economic issues. In the House, Solis has been a stalwart proponent of economic and social justice--she's a longtime member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus--and an unapologetic defender of the rights of immigrant workers. She is the right person for this job, and her selection serves as the single best signal from Obama that he intends to serve as a pro-worker president. Let's hope that Solis is allowed to renew a Labor Department that has been neglected--and disempowered--by Democratic and Republican presidents.


When Democratic leaders in the House buckled in the face of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's call for a no-strings-attached bailout for big banks, it was Kaptur who rallied the opposition--successfully blocking Paulson's first proposal in the House and forcing minor improvements in the plan. Ultimately, Paulson got most of what he asked for--and the banks pocketed hundreds of billions without aiding beleaguered homeowners or stalling the downward spiral of the economy. Kaptur warned that this would happen, as part of an ongoing critique of the bailout scheme. Throughout the fight, the Toledo Democrat's speeches on the House floor were as visionary as they were populist--making the longest-serving woman in the House something of a YouTube phenomenon. For this, she will get no credit from Democratic party leaders. That's too bad, as her record on economic issues--especially trade and agricultural policy--is one of consistently being right when just about everyone else was wrong. To a greater extent than anyone else in the House, she has defined the distinction between Main Street and Wall Street as something more than a slogan; and she is one of the few Democrats who actually understands that the only economic "fix" for America will be the one that begins on Main Street.


When just about everyone else in the Capitol was absorbed with the presidential race last fall, the independent senator from Vermont recognized that the biggest story of 2008 was not the election--it was the collapse of the economic house of cards that successive Republican and Democratic administrations had built. Like Marcy Kaptur in the House, Sanders refused to panic in the face of demands for a massive bailout of big banks and bad investors. Instead, he argued, "Don't make working people bail out Wall Street!" The Vermonter framed his challenge to the economic orthodoxy of Washington insiders who still do not "get it" in the right way: as part of a broader battle to defend the middle class. And Sanders never forgets the human side of the equation: "It is one thing to read dry economic statistics which describe the collapse of the American middle class," he argues. "It is another thing to understand, in flesh and blood terms, what that means in the lives of ordinary Americans. Yes, since George W. Bush has been in office 5 million Americans have slipped into poverty, 8 million have lost their health insurance and 3 million have lost their pensions. Yes, in the last seven years median household income for working-age Americans has declined by $2,500. Yes, our country, for the first time since the Great Depression, now has a zero personal savings rate and, all across the nation, emergency food shelves are being flooded with working families whose inadequate wages prevent them from feeding their families. Statistics are one thing, however, and real life is another." Sanders highlights the real-life struggles of working Americans on the best website maintained by any member of Congress.


Minnesota's Secretary of State ran for his position in 2006 on a promise to assure that his state would have free and fair elections. Ritchie has been a great advocate for voter registration, verifiable voting and needed election reforms. But he has made headlines as the overseer of the recount fight between Republican Senator Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken. In the face of attacks on his politics and character by partisans who seek to game the system, Ritchie has remained steadfast and good-humored, emphasizing transparency, fairness and the principle that democracy is only made real when election officials assure that the intentions of voters are respected and recorded. Ritchie's approach to the Minnesota recount provides an example of how to do elections right, in stark contrast to the abusive approaches of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to the 2000 presidential recount in her state and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to the 2004 presidential vote in the Buckeye state.


In a city that has been rocked by corruption scandals of the ugliest sort, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore stands out as an example of the sort of steadfast and effective grassroots progressive who has fought the powerbrokers again and again and frequently prevailed. Moore refuses to be constrained by the supposed limits of local government. He has gotten the Chicago city council to oppose the war, defend civil liberties and take on chain-stores that batter local businesses. As the Holiday season approached, Moore was highlighting a "Think Globally, Shop Locally" initiative designed to help local firms compete with the big guys. "In these challenging economic times, retailers, particularly local retailers, often feel the pinch first," declared Moore in a letter to constituents. "We want all of our local businesses to thrive--as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Vacant storefronts, on the other hand, have quite a different effect on our community. As we continue striving to make our community more sustainable, we need to build a retail environment where most of our needs are met locally." Moore has been active with the great national group Cities for Progress.


In hard times, we need a troubadour. And the former guitarist for The Blasters, X and the Gun Club has in recent years displayed the songwriting skills that are required. Along with Texas songwriter James McMurtry, Alvin recognized a good while ago that real damage was being done to millions of working Americans by the policies of successive Democratic and Republican presidents. And he has told the stories of those on the losing end of the class war with a power and a poignancy rarely evidenced by contemporary musicians. Just before the 2008 election, Shout Factory records released a brilliant retrospective of Alvin's solo recordings and his work with a stellar backup band, The Guilty Men: Dave Alvin: The Best of the Hightone Years. Check out the song "California Snow," his remarkably humane yet edgy take on immigration issues.

MOST VALUABLE BOOK (ECONOMICS): James K. Galbraith's The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (The Free Press)

Galbraith, a brilliant University of Texas economist and an even more brilliant writer, argues in this exceptional book that it is time to "free up the liberal mind" when it comes to economic-policy debates. Instead of managing the mess created by so-called "conservatives" such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, progressives should recognize that the obsession with budget balancing and constraining government that so many Democrats have bought into involves otherwise well-intentioned officials in the fools mission of "not merely parroting conservatives" but that of "parroting dead conservatives." A passionate, principled and fact-driven argument for rejecting the failed policies of deregulation, monetarism and trickle-down economics, this is the call for Keynesianism that Barack Obama should read, embrace and implement.

MOST VALUABLE BOOK (CONSTITUTIONAL RENEWAL): Peter Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto. Liberties and Commons for All (University of California Press)

The end of the Bush-Cheney administration leaves not just our Constitution – and the system of checks and balances it outlines--in a shambles. The most fundamental traditions of restraining tyranny and protecting freedom have been assaulted, and that assault must be understood if the damage is to be addressed. So argues University of Toledo historian Peter Linebaugh is the year's most lyrical and necessary book on liberty. The Magna Carta Manifesto is such a pleasure to read that it is easy to forget that it provides essential arguments for renewing civil liberties in the U.S. and internationally. But those arguments are going to be more valuable, and more needed, than ever in the months and years to come.

MOST VALUABLE BOOK (INTERNATIONAL POLICY): Mike Marqusee's If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew (Verso)

One need not be a Zionist or an anti-Zionist to benefit from the insights contained in this remarkable memoir by Marqusee, the author of such books as Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s. The personal story is rich and exciting, ranging from the Bronx to suburbia to Pakistan, Morocco and finally London. The thinking about "what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century" is bold and innovative. No one can read this book without having his or her perspective on the Middle East, religion and the left, expanded.


Yes, of course, Katie Couric and Tina Fey did away with Sarah Palin, and more power to them for that. But exposing Palin's pathologies was easy work. Veteran Air America radio host Maddow has engaged in the more complex and difficult struggle to explain and challenge the foibles of Republicans and Democrats as the Bush-Cheney age gives way to the Obama-Biden age. Her MSNBC program is an island of sanity in a sea of cable spin. Maddow rejects cheerleading for Obama (she was an early and energetic critic of the decision to have fundamentalist pastor Rick Warren deliver the benediction at the inauguration) and simple Republican bashing (her recent interview with Mike Huckabee appropriately confrontational yet respectful and revealing). The only problem with Maddow's move to MSNBC is that she had been forced to curtail her Air America work. Luckily, Ron Reagan (yes, that Ron Reagan) has filled the gap with a program that is as smart, unpredictable and politically adventurous as Maddow's.


When Sarah Palin stumbled onto the national stage, after her selection as John McCain's running-mate, everyone scrambled to figure out what was up with Alaska's governor. A lot of the lower-48 blogosphere (and the major media that followed its lead) obsessed about Palin's family life. But Anchorage radio host Camille Conte, who is universally known in Alaska as "CC," steered the discussion toward Troopergate--the scandal that proved Palin was not the reformer her supporters claimed but a Cheney-esque abuser of power. CC's daily "Cutting Edge" show on Anchorage's Air America affiliate, News-Talk 1080/KUDO: Alaska's Progressive Voice became required fare for journalists visiting the state--she had better access than anyone else to the key players, who trusted the veteran local host--and CC turned up on radio stations across the U.S. No one else contributed as much to 2008's Palintological studies.