Progressives To Gather And Focus On Economy

Barack Obama coasted into his presidency largely thanks to many progressive Democrats who were energized by his campaign. This week boasts the largest annual gathering of progressives in the country, an event called Netroots Nation. To learn what's on the progressive agenda for the next election, guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives, and Robert Borosage, founder of the Progressive Majority PAC.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALLISON KEYES, Host:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin has jury duty. Spanish language media is growing with the population of Hispanics in this country. As Hispanic journalists gather in Florida we'll talk issues of technology with one of this country's leading voices on Spanish Language Media. That's just ahead, but first we highlight another gathering. It's one of the largest meetings of progressives in this country and it starts tomorrow in Minneapolis. Organizers of what's called Netroots Nation are looking to strategize and motivate a part of the electorate that helped put President Obama in office.

We're joined by Congressman Keith Ellison. He's one of the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives and he represents parts of Minneapolis and its suburbs. He joins us from Capitol Hill just before heading home to address Netroots Nation. Also with us Robert Borosage, he is co director of the progressive political group called Campaign for America's Future. He joins me here at our Washington studios. Thanks gentleman for being with us.

KEITH ELLISON: Good to be here.

KEYES: Congressman, let me start with you. Netroots Nation is taking place in your backyard and you're about to address a hall full of progressives. What are you going to tell them?

ELLISON: I'm going to tell them that their power to help connect people with their own ability to change things is awesome and that we need them to continue to reach out on the net through the net roots to activate and empower people to make America work for them, as things need to work better. As a matter of fact, you know, we live in a time when, you know, America doesn't feel like it really works for the middle class anymore.

You know, we see the rich gaining and we see middle class people's wages stagnating and we see people, you know, the things like Medicare that we thought we could count on sort of in the balance and then perhaps won't be there. So, we need the Netroots Nation to activate their base so, that they can stand up for the American dream and make sure that it's there for themselves and their posterity.

KEYES: Congressman, you announced with your co-chair yesterday a 12 city summer jobs tour. What are you hoping to achieve on this listening tour?

ELLISON: Well, you know, lobbyists come to Washington all the time and they come to Washington to try to get people like me to do what they want but there is no national association of the unemployed, you know, so, we're going to go out to the people and we're going talk to them, and we're going to talk to them about the job bills that we've already thought of and see - get their reaction.

We're also going to collect stories, we're going to collect experiences, and we're going to hear from people and we're going to gather those things up and we're going to bring them back to Washington and tell our colleagues that this is a urgent thing we must do to have a jobs agenda infrastructure, a surface transportation bill, public jobs bill, local jobs bill, things that support local jobs which are being decimated as local communities have to get rid of their police, fire, teachers, things like that.

And that's what we're going to do.

KEYES: Let me bring Mr. Borosage into this conversation and I'm curious, do you think that your leadership should already know kind of what people are looking for or do you want to have them do something more substantive than a listening tour?

ROBERT BOROSAGE: No, I think it's time to listen here. We have a debate in Washington which is focused on deficit reduction and is fixated on what to cut and how much to cut and how fast to cut and out in the country people are hurting. They are looking for jobs. The jobs they have are getting their benefits cut, their hours cut, their pay cut, homes are still losing value and being foreclosed and they're looking for action on the economy.

They're looking for a much bigger, bolder agenda out of Washington. So, it's important I think for the Progressive Caucus members to go out and listen to people tell their story and bring that back to Washington because there's like this impenetrable fog around the beltway that separates Washington from the rest of the country. One little anecdote about that. Washington, D.C. is the only city in the country, the only metropolitan area in the country where housing prices are going up.

In the rest of the country housing prices are down 33 percent. A lot of people are underwater and are in danger of losing their homes and this city I think is out of touch with the level of pain and agony that's being suffered around the country.

KEYES: I want to ask you, Mr. Borosage, you've been hearing from people out in the country what do they need to hear from their leadership to motivate them to the same levels as we were seeing in 2008? There's been a lot of talk about how progressives are, you know, stepping away from the administration, they're stepping away from support of the president. What are they looking to hear?

BOROSAGE: Well, I think they're looking to hear vision but, you know, on the one hand the right has already mobilized the progressive base again. You know, the assault on labor rights and on education and on Medicare from Wisconsin to Indiana to Ohio to the federal government has mobilized the progressive base in a big way and what they're looking from their leaders for is vision and hope and a strategy to get out of the mess we're in.

KEYES: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat representing parts of Minneapolis and its suburbs. He is co-chair for Progressive Caucus in Congress. Also with us is Robert Borosage. He's co director of the campaign for America's future. We're talking about the progressive agenda.

Congressman, after the 2008 election you must have thought you were seeing the dawn of a new era, so to speak, and then the resistance from the right was a little stronger than some expected. You've got a more conservative Congress. Do you think that your leadership is playing defense now?

ELLISON: Well, you know, I think it's important to play offense and continue to project a business for what we would do if we were in power. I mean, the fact is is that Americans more than ever, you know, want to have a livable wage job, more than ever want to see themselves be able to retire and some of these things just seem to be getting out of touch and so, you know, yeah, we were successful in 2008.

We got backlash but, you know, what the issues that we stand for are as important as they ever were and we're going to be robust and energetic in asserting the values the progressive values that we stand for.

KEYES: Sorry, Mr. Borosage, what do you see as new issues for the progressive movement that weren't there before?

BOROSAGE: Well, the focus has to be on the economy and what the strategy is for this country in a global economy that will make it work for working people. We have a middle class that has been sinking for now, not just through the recession but for the decades before the recession and we have a strategy that's not working for us. It's we're borrowing two billion dollars a day with trade deficits. We're fighting wars around the world trying to police the world in a way we can't afford.

And so, the progressive agenda is an agenda about the transformation of this economy so, we can once more rebuild the American dream and rebuild the American middle class. We have to have a process that makes making it in America more than a slogan but a strategy. We have to win a leading role in the green industrial revolution that's going to sweep the world that we should be championing and leading and that's going to take real policy change as well as entrepreneurial energy and creativity, and that's the core of the agenda.

KEYES: Congressman, I want to ask you about the Internet because that was a big part of the success of President Obama's campaign in 2008. At the conference what are you talking about, using technology? Are you changing what you're doing this time around?

ELLISON: No, we're improving it. We're using technology in the Netroots Nation to connect people more. I mean, at the end of the day technology is a tool but, you know, people's dreams, what they care about, what they yearn for are the same and that's just some respect, economic respects and dignity to be able to put on a pretty decent life for yourself and your family. So we're going to - we will be talking about how we can employ technology more effectively to help leverage those important things people care about.

So, we will be talking about what's next. I mean, so, like three years ago we weren't really talking much about Twitter. Now, we do again. In three years we'll probably be talking about something else, what's that? But at the end of the day, it's the same old values, and that is economic justice, prosperity and making sure the American dream continues to mean something for the American middle class.

BOROSAGE: Technology can leverage that, can connect it with people much more. So we're going to be right there with the Netroots, figuring out how we can do that better.

KEYES: Mr. Borosage, who do you see as the leaders of the progressive agenda currently?

BOROSAGE: Well, Congressman Ellison...

KEYES: Besides your political leaders, which are obvious. But I mean, who's out there on the ground for you?

BOROSAGE: I think there are leading economists and commentators, from Robert Reich to Paul Krugman, that have laid out a serious agenda. I think there are community leaders and organizers, for instance, the students and labor workers who organized the resistance in Wisconsin and transformed the debate, really, around what Republican governors were trying to do in terms of cutting back basic services for people while cutting taxes on corporations.

I think you're going to see a civil rights movement growing out of the attempt to limit the ability of people to vote, which will disproportionately impact minorities and young people and seniors who don't have the appropriate certified ID. And I think people are going to object to going back to those kinds of Jim Crow laws. And I think there's going to be a real movement that's already starting.

KEYES: Congressman, I want to ask you briefly about the budget that the Progressive Coalition came out with. Everyone's heard about the president's budget, everybody's heard about Paul Ryan's budget. Talk to us really briefly about what makes your budget proposal the best, in your opinion.

BOROSAGE: Well, the People's Budget is the best because it - we get to - we balance in 10 years, which neither one of those other budgets do. We also get out of Iraq. We get out of Afghanistan. We go back to Clinton era tax rates, which was a time when America was pretty prosperous. We have a public option, which is more cost effective and saves money for health care costs. We have Medicare be able to compete and negotiate drug prices, which we can't do now.

So this is the sensible budget. This is the budget that balances within a fairly short period of time. It's the most fiscally responsible budget. And the People's Budget is the budget that makes sense. And we're trying to get people to talk more about it because, you know, we're stuck between these poles of, do we cut a lot or do we cut less than a lot? And what we need to do is really grow and not just have a minimalist vision of America, but an expansive vision of America where we grow and strengthen and create a bigger country.

KEYES: I'm got to leave it there, gentlemen, although we could talk about this for quite some time, but I need to say that. Robert Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. That's a leading progressive political group here in Washington. Congressman Keith Ellison is one of the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. He represents Minnesota's 5th District. And he will be addressing Netroots Nation in Minneapolis later this week. Thank you so much for joining us.

BOROSAGE: Pleasure.

ELLISON: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.