Progressive Democrats of America Energized by National Conference

By David Swanson

Progressive Democrats of America marked the beginning of its seventh year with a three-day conference that brought hundreds of activist leaders from all over the country to a Cleveland, Ohio, hotel this past weekend. Participants heard from and met with star speakers, and split up and strategized in groups organized around issue areas and geography.

PDA activists engaged in similar work in distant states — opposing war funding, promoting single-payer healthcare, protecting civil rights, and advancing progressive candidates’ campaigns — were able to compare their tactics and success rates. Many commented in the closing plenary on how much they’d benefitted. Videos of many of the weekend’s events are being posted at

While I missed the opening on Friday evening, I understand that Jim Hightower was at his very finest and am looking forward to the video. Steve Cobble, PDA’s and our country’s best political consultant, is always at his finest, but I caught up with him on Saturday and Sunday, as well as with Daniel Ellsberg, John Nichols, Jeff Cohen, and dozens of other stand-out friends of PDA and the progressive movement who attended the conference in full. On Saturday morning, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, out of whose campaign for the presidency PDA was born in 2004, gave a rousing speech (video). PDA’s national director Tim carpenter is careful to always film video interviews with visiting congress members and congressional candidates — of whom there were a number in attendance. This way PDA’s top questions are sure to be answered. Here are Carpenter and Kucinich: (video).

One of the highlights on Saturday was a session on healthcare that included:
Michael Lighty, Director of Public Policy for the California Nurses Association
Chuck Pennacchio, Executive Director of Healthcare4AllPennsylvania
Kurt Bateman, State Director SPAN-Ohio
Mark Dudzic, National Coordinator Labor Campaign for Single-Payer
Donna Smith, Healthcare Not Warfare co-chair
Wendell Potter, Senior fellow on Healthcare with the Center for Media and Democracy

Don’t tell any of them I missed it. I was hanging out with Ellsberg and Cohen. The real highlights of these conferences sometimes happen in the hallways and restaurants, and it was useful for me to hear in depth where Ellsberg thinks we are right now, even before I knew that Wikileaks would release new Pentagon Papers on Sunday. I told Dan on Saturday that I didn’t think any new secrets could have the same impact he did, even if released earlier, at least not on paper although possibly if they took the form of videos or photographs. Ellsberg agreed on how many damning facts were already out in the open. But he clearly hopes, as do we all, that what Wikileaks has released will impact the discussion in the corporate media.

Here’s a clip with Ellsberg, Kucinich, and Donna Smith in Cleveland: (video).

PDA’s activists strategized on Saturday on how to spread their messages and educate the public, but focused on Sunday on how to influence elected officials. It’s worth recalling, I think, both the recent studies showing that a large percentage of those still believing lies about Iraq cannot be persuaded to change their minds with any amount of information, and the experience of the past couple of centuries showing that elected officials care far more about being unelected than they do about behaving immorally. David Dayen blogged this comment over the weekend:

“I almost forgot to add an insight to this that I got from Matthew Hoh, the former State Department appointee who resigned his post in Afghanistan and has now spoken out repeatedly against the war. Before the Wikileaks release, he told me after a Netroots Nation panel that the staffers in many House offices did not want to hear his take on the war and its myriad problems because if they understood it, they would have a harder time justifying their members’ war vote. They would literally rather remain in ignorance than know the truth. The Wikileaks release makes that less possible now.”

I don’t know how much that last sentence will prove true, but the ones before it are key and explain the work that PDA and other peace groups are doing. Communications is crucial, but it has to translate into the ability to swing elections, or our representatives will simply vote for policies that have become less popular.

On the communications front, no American can do any better than to watch the video of Saturday evening’s panel in Cleveland on “Delivering a progressive message to a corporate media,” which included:
John Nichols, author and Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine
Jeff Cohen, author and founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College
Marcy Winograd, former PDA-endorsed congressional candidate and Advisory Board member
Wendell Potter, Senior fellow on Healthcare with the Center for Media and Democracy

While Marcy provided the progressive candidate’s view of the media, Wendell Potter gave that of a former corporate hack and a current whistleblower, Cohen that of a former television talking head and current media critic and university professor, and the always brilliant John Nichols laid out in concise detail the documented dying of the old media and the lack of any birth, as of yet, of a new media that can replace it. Here’s Cohen: (video).

Also on Saturday, we shared notes in regional groupings, and I took part in the Southern one, where energy was high and planning eager. Southern progressives are on the move and planning a regional conference, possibly in Atlanta.

Sunday morning, we split up along other lines, joining one or more of PDA’s six Issue Organizing Teams:
• End War and Occupation IOT: Norman Solomon and Steve Carlson, table leaders
• Healthcare for All/Single-payer IOT: Donna Smith and Chuck Pennacchio, table leaders
• Stop Global Warming/Environmental IOT: Laura Bonham, table leader
• Accountability and Justice IOT: Susan Harman and David Swanson, table leaders
• Amend to Suspend Action Group (opposing corporate personhood): Dave Keeler, table leader
• Immigration Reform Action Group: Dan O’Neal, table leader

PDA is a major participant in immigrant rights struggles in Arizona and wants everyone to watch for big actions there on Thursday, July 29th. Through the combination of two groups into a single meeting, and by running down the hall, I was able to take part in three of the meetings. Each group laid plans for the coming months, assigned roles, and jumped to work, including taking on this week’s expected House vote on war escalation funding. At the same time, some of PDA’s key anti-war leaders were attending and playing a leading role in a huge and hugely successful national peace conference in Albany, NY. The peace movement is joining forces with the labor and civil rights movements this fall, and PDA is in the thick of that. George Korn from Rainbow PUSH was at the PDA Conference planning a campaign for Jobs, Justice, and Peace with the United Auto Workers and others.

At the same time, PDA is campaigning for congressional candidates, among whom I saw David Gill and Doug Tudor at the conference, and staff for David Segal and Marleine Bastien. The conference closed with a beautiful speech by John Nichols comparing the creation of the then-radical-and-progressive Republican Party with the prospect of turning the Democratic party into something radical and progressive. Some of us may believe the key to accomplishing that or another solution to our broken government is truly independent organizing, but I work with PDA because — despite its odd choice of name — it provides the closest thing to that right now, drawing its agenda not from Washington but from the active chapters around the country whose true representatives took part in so much fruitful discussion and debate in Cleveland.

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