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Blue Grit: Laura Flanders on How “True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians”

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Radio host and author Laura Flanders joins us to discuss her new book, “Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians.” Flanders says, “[The Democratic leadership] is constantly running away from their base, who — whether they like it or not — are gays and lesbians, women who support abortions, people of color … that’s the base they depend on every time they come to an election.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The big news from Washington, D.C., this week: money for elections, money for war. Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Barack Obama, announced that he raised over $25 million in the first three months of the year. The total is just shy of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s record amount. Campaign records show Obama received more individual donations than Clinton and John Edwards combined. The 2008 election is expected to be the most expensive presidential campaign ever.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a key Democratic leader has given new indications Democrats are prepared to back down on their call to cut off war funding if President Bush vetoes a bill calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Speaking on ABC Sunday, Armed Services Committee chair, Senator Carl Levin, said, “We’re not going to vote to cut funding, period.” Levin said a veto would lead Democrats to consider removing language calling for the withdrawal of troops.

Are Democrats fulfilling their elected mandate, or are they ignoring the grassroots movements that helped sweep them to office? That’s one question raised in a new book by radio host and author Laura Flanders. The book is called Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians. Laura is the host of RadioNation on the national Air America Radio network. Her previous books include Bushwomen: How They Won the White House for Their Man and The W Effect: Sexual Politics in the Bush Years and Beyond. Laura Flanders joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Laura.

LAURA FLANDERS: It’s great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: What is “Blue Grit”?

LAURA FLANDERS: Blue Grit. You know, grit, that’s the stuff that gets you through, the mettle that enables you that take on tough stuff. It’s also the stuff that gets in your shoe and blisters your toe. Blue Gritters, the folks I’m talking about, do both of those things for the Democratic Party: They discomfort the establishment, and I think they bring the passion to the issues that won the election last year.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you fit Blue Grit into this last vote, the vote for timetable, but for continued funding for war?

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, I think the fact that the Democratic leadership is talking about timetables at all is a victory for the Blue Grit Democrats out there. And Democrats, in my book, are those that call themselves capital-D “Democrats” and a lot of other people besides. The reason I think that this is a moment of a kind of Blue Grit tide rising is because you do have a Democratic leadership that have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position now having to acknowledge that their position in power is attributable to the forces at their base. And that’s what I document in the book, that I think has really been happening really since ’04.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have just written a piece for AlterNet, talking about, to beat the right, Clinton and Obama need to be clear about supporting gay rights.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, there’s been a big trend in the left and the center to say, “The way for the Democrats to win next time is to not get snookered by marriage equality and abortion rights.” I say the Democrats in denial, their denial is what loses them. Let’s face it. I mean, the right doesn’t need any more ammunition against Hillary Clinton. What she needs to do — she’s one of the contenders — is to woo more support on the left. The Democratic leadership is never going to be anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-racial equality enough to be able to persuade their opponents that they’re on the same side or they’re not a threat. But in constantly running away from their base, who, you know, whether they like it or not, are gays and lesbians, women who support abortion, people of color, they may not like it, but that’s the base they’ve got, and that’s the base they depend on every time it comes to an election.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just talking about Don Imus referring to Rutgers athletes, women on the basketball team, as “nappy-[headed] hos,” and this demand for his resignation. You refer, in your piece, to Ann Coulter, speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., referring to John Edwards as a “faggot.” Talk more about that.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, we’ve seen it before. The right will raise a trial balloon, and if it’s not shot down fast, it carries on. Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about girlie men. He used that first against the Democrats in the California Assembly. The next thing we know, he’s using the word about all Democrats on the stage of the Republican National Convention. I don’t think believe that trial balloon from Coulter has burst yet, and I think that it’s — the lesson of the gay and lesbian rights movement and other movements of grassroots folks who, let’s face it, were the first people to be swift-boated in this country — it wasn’t John Kerry. Remember the “welfare queen.” The communities we’re talking about are the people who have learned about how to tackle and respond to the right, and they know being nice to a bully doesn’t work. You’ve got to fight back. You’ve got to stand up. And that’s what these candidates have got to learn.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does Peter Pace, the general’s comments about homosexuality have to do with the Democrats? What do you think of the Democrats’ response to it?

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, when Hillary Clinton was asked what she thought about that, she said she would leave it for other people to decide. That is no kind of a response. You’ve got to stand up for what’s right, and it will serve your interests. Ask somebody like the people I profile in the book, Lupe Valdez, the sheriff of Dallas. No lefty community, Dallas elected its first Latina, its first woman sheriff, its first out lesbian and its first Democrat in 20 years, when they elected a woman who had the chutzpah to stand up and say that she had respect for herself, she wanted other people to respect her, too, she was an agent of change, and she was going to serve the people as the sheriff. She’s there doing the work and being exactly what she said she would be.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, you talk about the right being a much better model for mobilizing grassroots.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, you know, it’s not just the left that has grassroots, and sometimes we forget that. In the cover story that I have in The Nation magazine about what happened in Montana, I say, “Isn’t it interesting there’s a kind of leper-versus-lover relationship to people at marginal groups?” On the right, they have this lover approach: They seduce, they flirt, they kiss the ring of the people at their margins, make them promises, invite them to dinner, take them out on dates. The Democratic Party treat those at their margins as lepers, if they acknowledge at all that they exist.

And yet, look at a state like Montana. There are lessons to learn there about victories for Democrats across the West and for progressive issues across the West, but not if you only look at the candidates. You need to look at the grassroots movements that brought the governor’s victory in 2004, flipped the House and the Senate, and brought about Jon Tester’s victory in the Senate last year.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about Montana as an example.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, you know, one of the problems with horse-race coverage — and we talk about the media covering campaigns as if they were horse races — the problem with that, as many people say, is it makes it looks as if the horses on the track are the only people that matter. What about all those people in the stands? This book, Blue Grit, is to direct attention back up to the stands.

And looking at Montana, you realize, yeah, there are lessons to learn, but not if they stop and start with the candidate. What you had there was a coalition of organizations, of environmentalists, women’s groups, Native Americans, who expanded the electorate, who worked their networks, and a state Democratic Party that built relationships with those groups. It’s no news to Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester that their victory wasn’t built by, you know, a single hero alone. But for those of us on the outside, we’re often led to see just the candidate, just the miracle. They talked about the Montana “miracle” and not, as it were, the nine months in mom. You know, you’re seeing the beaming baby and not what went into it.

We study the right, don’t we? We’re great at drawing those spidery maps of the relationships that bring issues from the margins of the right to the center, and yet somehow we haven’t done that work on the left. But power builds in the same way on the left-hand side of the spectrum as it does on the right, which is from the bottom up.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Nevada.

LAURA FLANDERS: Nevada. Nevada. That will be the big test of the Democratic candidates, whether they can say it right, and so far they’re doing a good job. Here you have a state where John Kerry in 2004 narrowly lost a battleground state, where a lot of resources were poured in. A lot of outside activists flew in from California to walk those streets to register voters to try and turn people out.

What you also had was an indigenous progressive movement that had been around for many years, and one of the lead groups I talk about is PLAN, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, in Reno, in the south, that was based in the labor movement, in the culinary workers, in the SEIU and the AFL. What you had was a difference of tactic. The people flown in were getting to know the place for the first time. The people based there were working on issues that they knew would move people: issues of immigration rights, issues of raising the minimum wage.

And on the minimum wage, they passed a ballot initiative, raising the minimum wage by a dollar, and then keeping in track with inflation in every county, in every precinct, in every part of that state — rich, poor, rural, urban, conservative, liberal. How did they do that? It was clearly a popular issue, and yet half of those people who voted for it also voted for Bush, I believe, because the presidential candidates failed to bind themselves to the issue, to speak the language that the Nevadans were speaking, and to understand that that was what was hot on the ground. And that was what they needed to get up real close to. They would have won.

AMY GOODMAN: Utah is called the reddest state in the nation. You even question red/blue.

LAURA FLANDERS: I do question red/blue. I think the diagnosis of this country as two warring factions, red versus blue, is problematic. You get down to the county level, and you realize that the person that wins, the victor, is the person that claims a narrow margin of victory. Most of those county level maps are very purple. What makes the difference is who has passion on the ground, who has the foot soldiers who are going to go that extra step to get people to the polls.

Utah, yeah, the reddest state of the union, until very recently, still giving George Bush pretty much his only thumbs-up approval ratings. Now, interestingly, even Mormons polled are against the war in Iraq. But Utah is a fascinating state, where for two terms the largest city in the reddest state has elected one of the most progressive mayors in the country, Rocky Anderson, a man who is pro-marriage equality, pro-environmental protection, signed his city onto the Kyoto Protocols, and they’re meeting the goals way years in advance, a man who managed to work with the Mormon Church, the LDS Church, work with the ACLU, where he came from, and bring a community together around, among other issues, environmental protection. Utah, the big ski capital of the Western Rockies, they know that if their snow melts, they’re in trouble. They’ve brought people together to make a difference.

And they show why cities are important. And it raises another question. Cities are the heart, are the beating vibrant heart of the Democratic base. Why, then, did they receive so little attention and so little kind of — such a low profile in the Democratic races? I think they’re a place of hope, but they’re a place in trouble. Look at New Orleans, look at Miami. We need to shore cities up and address city issues, but typically Democratic candidates have focused on rural issues and rural states, and that’s because they’re chasing after those undecided votes.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, what about Mississippi, New Orleans, Florida?

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, you know, one of the exciting things that we’ve seen recently in Florida is, a governor decided to re-enfranchise felons. Now, that comes after years of work by grassroots groups. Another question: Why was it a Republican governor who realized that he could free up hundreds of thousands of potential voters simply with the movement of a pen across a page? Democratic governors, Mark Warner in Virginia, had the opportunity to re-enfranchise felons. Those are largely Democratic voters, and yet, he chose not to. That would have been 300,000 people — estimate — 300,000 more likely Democratic voters, but from what we can see, he didn’t want to get that close to felons, to African Americans, the people who are scapegoated in the press.

So what’s interesting about Florida is grassroots groups have managed to make the issue of voting reform and voting rights a hot-button issue in the state, and it hasn’t been partisan. It’s been Republicans and Democrats working together. We’ve covered it a lot in our program.

With respect to New Orleans, it comes up in the book. I’ve been there several times, as I know have you. It’s the big story to me that raises another question — I guess the book is full of them — about the media. We like to blame often our problems on the failure of media to cover a situation. What we saw post-Katrina, post the breaking of the levees in New Orleans, was all the media in the world, but still no policy agenda that responded to what we saw there, no policy proposals coming from Washington to talk about how do we rebuild the social safety net around our cities and our states. I think that’s because you can have the media, but if you don’t have the movements, you don’t have the power to change the agenda. So, in the book, I call — I sort of say, you know, we actually have a lot of progressive media. Do we have The Wall Street Journal? Do we have Fox News? Not quite. But we can’t simply blame the lack of media coverage. We have to also look at the need to build movements that will demand real change, in the way that the right laid out an agenda, worked for it, built from the grassroots up, and over 30 years, came an awfully close distance to where they wanted to get.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that it’s appropriate to raise the issue of Mary Cheney about to have a baby? Apparently, the vice president just announced that the baby that she will have in a month will be a grandson. He’s very much looking forward to his grandson, he said. But when he was questioned about it before, he said it was totally inappropriate to raise this issue.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, I think John Edwards, during the debates in '04, was clumsy when he, instead of just standing up for what was right, kind of played gotcha with the vice president about having a gay daughter. That's not the point. We’re talking about human equality. What’s so problematic, for example, when Hillary Clinton was asked what she thought about Peter Pace’s comments, what would have been so difficult about saying, “You want to talk about morality, General, Chief of Staff? You know, you want to talk morality? Let’s talk torture.”

Human equality is promised under the U.S. Constitution. What is the 14th Amendment about? We, as a society, can no longer afford to discriminate against people on the basis of who they love. It’s wrong, it hurts me, it hurts our community. It’s not about, “Ooh, you’ve got a gay daughter. Ooh, you’re going to have a grandson of a gay couple.” I think we can get bigger than that.

And frankly, people are getting bigger than that. Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, every Massachusetts legislator that took a position for gay marriage and marriage equality was re-elected. You’ve got people all over the state who are finding, this isn’t a losing issue. The Legislature of Idaho just threw out — Indiana just threw out an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. Idaho rejected it, too. Arizona, in the last election, the first state to vote down an initiative. You look at the grand scheme of American history, you know, like Dr. King said, the arc tends towards justice.

And on these very issues that we’re told are the hot-button social issues, “Don’t go near them at the cost of your life,” we’re winning. Look how far we’ve come on female equality, on gay and lesbian equality. We have 66 percent of people saying they believe in and approve some legal recognition for domestic partners. That’s a huge distance. These are not losers, not if you stand up with authenticity and, frankly, as John Edwards did this recently, say that he believes that this is right and that what Peter Pace and others say is wrong. It’s as simple as that. Look like you believe it, talk about your real honest beliefs, and I think people respond to that. Paul Wellstone found it was true.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Laura is beginning her national tour. She’s going to be going around the country, in New York tomorrow night at the 92nd Street Y, going on to Washington, D.C., then Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, back in New York. You can go to her website, lauraflanders.com. Her new book is Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians.

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