Harvard Symposium

For a resurgent liberalism, we must convince working Americans of a simple truth: we’re on their side. And the Right Wing promotes the interests of big money and giant corporations. Those were the powerful messages that emerged consistently from the ADA Education Fund’s post-election symposium held on November 20, 2011 at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The day-long event featured over a dozen experts analyzing what happened at the polls and how progressives can reverse those results in 2012.

Far beyond Harvard, the event was shared through such social media outlets as Facebook, Twitter and live streaming. Four distinguished panels parsed the election results and laid out a political, economic, and legislative strategy.

Former ADA president and Harvard professor Richard Parker welcomed the symposium to the Kennedy School campus and noted that the next two years were “not going to be easy, but the struggle’s never easy.”

The event was opened by ADA’s president, U.S. Representative Lynn Woolsey, who rejected the common wisdom and attributed electoral losses to the administration’s caution, not “overreaching.” The symposium concluded with a provocative appraisal of the Obama Administration by noted economist and ADA vice president James K. Galbraith.

Throughout the day, pollsters and politicos, academics and activists shared ideas and engaged in spirited dialog with each other and the audience.

The political roundtable panel focused on key polling data and messaging advice. Blogger Mike Lux reported that in the 2008 election, President Obama led by 49% among voters who said their personal economic condition had recently worsened. In the 2010 election, Republicans carried those voters by 29% — what he called an unprecedented 71% swing in a voting demographic. Why the defection? Voters had come to associate the Democratic Party too closely with Wall Street.

Pollster Karen Emerson reported low turnout among unmarried women. In addition, for the first time since 1979, the number of women in Congress will decline in the 112th Congress. Despite the Republicans’ electoral success, unlike at the time of the big GOP Congressional gains in 1994, this time the public now was “not invested emotionally in this Republican Party.”

According to political consultant Vic Fingerhut, the reason for the Democrats’ losses was simple: “When you have 15 million people out of work, they ain’t going to vote for you.” He also cautioned the party against political “elitism” and urged the Democrats to reclaim their identification in voters’ eyes as being “for people like us.”

Various progressive approaches were espoused at the economic round-table session. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute urged a traditional defense of working families, keyed to rejecting the budget cuts anticipated from the Federal Deficit Commission. He was pessimistic that the new Congress would enact economic recovery legislation, but noted the political value in “strategic losses” if strong positions are articulated well and publicized broadly.

“Plan A is: fix the economy,” he advised. “Plan B is: if someone’s stopping you from fixing the economy, blame them for it.”

Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, called for a “dark green policy that addresses both our economic and ecological problems” and outlined the social, economic, and environmental benefits of shorter working hours. Jeff Madrick, editor of the economics journal Challenge, pointed to the fallacies underlying the deficit commission’s proposals. He said that if adopted, they could “consign this nation to a lost decade, and lead to the rise of fanaticism.”

The congressional roundtable panel featured former U.S. Representative and current director of Win Without War Tom Andrews, who urged confronting conservative forces. Progressives should adopt the “jujitsu approach: use their weight against them.” Andrews outlined a plan for establishing a veterans’ trust fund before launching future wars in order to recognize upfront the true cost. He will challenge conservatives to support the idea in the interest of true patriotism.

Representative Woolsey (D-CA) challenged liberals to face “the three M’s: money, media and might.” They must rid politics of big money, break up the media oligopoly, and find the “might”—or “spine”—to do both, or else risk the destruction of democracy.

On the issues and constituencies panel, ADA board member and Harvard law student Nate Kilbert tackled the growing burden on America’s youth. Higher education today costs on average $25,000 annually (roughly $100,000 for a four-year degree), forcing one-third of recent college graduates to live with their parents for more than a year after graduation.

Immigration activists are “expecting some really bad things” from the new Congress, according Ali Noorani, the director of the Immigration Forum. Meanwhile, according to Gregory King, AFSCME public affairs associate director and ADA National Board Member, organized labor is anticipating attacks on collective bargaining in a dozen states where conservatives gained power in the elections. Yet he said AFSCME and its allies plan to continue fighting back vigorously. It is the latest phase of a 30-year political assault on working families.

Of all the challenges raised at the symposium, the most controversial were left to the end. James K. Galbraith’s closing remarks, delivered in a sober and deliberate tone, described the Obama Administration as “inept, unprepared, weak, and ineffective.” Galbraith used admittedly “harsh” words in claiming the President had “betrayed” ordinary Americans by serving the interests of Wall Street in his economic policies.

“We are heading now into a very dark time, so let’s face it with eyes open,” Galbraith concluded. “And if we must, let’s seek leadership that shares our values, fights for our principles, and deserves our trust.”

The coming year will present real challenges for the progressive agenda, but ADA Education Fund’s history proves that now is the best time to regroup and fight harder for those issues that are threatened by the right-wing’s corporate agen­da.

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ADA Education Fund

The ADA Education Fund is an independent, charitable entity that focuses on increasing public awareness through education and community organizing that builds capacity for change. The Ed Fund produces periodic policy briefs, hosts progressive speakers on a range of issues, sponsors advocacy and research fellowships, and works to expand civic participation through community organizing around economic and social justice issues.