A driving message coming from the 10,000+ activists assembled at the U.S. Social Forum is that our country needs a new kind of politics.
Not politics in the traditional sense. Most of the grassroots activists, non-profit leaders, progressive journalists, socially-engaged scholars and others here in Atlanta aren't the kind that would go to, say, the Take Back America confab of progressive electoral leaders that happened in D.C. earlier this month.
The Social Forum goes beyond "politics as usual." The issues being discussed -- from profit-driven health care to U.S. imperial wars -- are those routinely ignored by Big Media. The voices given a platform -- people of color, poor and working-class activists -- are those typically locked out of the debate. The strategies are more aimed at challenging the imbalances of wealth and power in our society than how to impact the 2008 elections.
As a result, it's no accident that the make-up of conference attendees is so different from most progressive events (and more closely resembles the realities of our country): my quick and unscientific estimate is that about half the participants are people of color, and judging from last night's excellent plenary on immigrant rights, a sizable number are new immigrants -- just like the U.S.
My friend John Nichols, who's covering the Forum for The Nation and also covers establishment politics in Washington, gives his take of the political spirit here:
Instead of imagining what might be, contemporary politicians spend most of their time talking, at best, about treating existing wounds to the body politic and, at worst, about "threats" that no longer exist. In the former category, place all the Democratic and Republican politicians who promise a "new direction" with regard to the Iraq quagmire but never get around to rejecting the neo-conservative -- or more precisely, neo-colonial -- policies that got us into the mess in the first place. In the latter category, place all the partisans who suggest that the problem with our health-care system is too much government involvement -- which is a little like claiming that the problem with a headache is too much aspirin.
At a certain point, you just want to say: "Get over it! At a point when only one in five Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, isn't it time we changed course?"
That's the message of the thousands of Americans who have gathered in Atlanta in recent days for the U.S. Social Forum.
I think it would be interesting if the people who came to the U.S. Social Forum were put in the same room -- or mega-convention center -- with people more closely involved in progressive electoral politics. In 1972, Julian Bond -- the civil rights veteran (and co-founder of the Institute for Southern Studies) -- argued in his book "A Time to Speak, A Time to Act" that it was imperative for 1960s activists to "transform our movement into an electoral instrument," to translate the era's grassroots base-building into political power.
The disconnect between the amazing display of activist energy here in Atlanta, and the decisions being made in Washington, make clear that this is also an issue today.
But it's also clear that our political establishment needs shaking up -- and that, as always, there's a need for powerful movements outside conventional politics that tackle the hard questions, and force new issues and ideas into the national consciousness (and in the process, help us realize that ideas now dismissed as the fringe -- like universal health care -- are actually mainstream).
As Nichols at The Nation says:
There is no question of the need for such a movement. Our electoral processes are a shambles, as evidenced by the dubious results of the last two presidential elections. Our campaign finance system is a crime. Our media aids and abets all that afflicts the nation. And working families find it harder and harder to make their voices heard on the job, in the school or in the community. The crisis is clear. What's exciting about the U.S. Social Forum is that the solutions -- fundamental structural and policy changes in foreign and domestic policies, rather than tinkers around the edges -- are coming into focus.