A lot of people remember 2004 as a bad year — the year George W. Bush was re-elected. I remember that too. But mostly I remember 2004 as an amazing year, a creative renaissance in political organizing. We weren’t excited about the candidate (John Kerry, remember him?), but we were absolutely terrified of the opposition — rightly so. There was no magical Obama campaign. So we had to invent our own organic ways to get people interested. 2004 was the year that grassroots artists, activists and organizers discovered a formerly despised tactic: Voting (eew, gross!). George W. Bush helped us realize we couldn’t afford to ignore it anymore.
2010 is a little bit like 2004. We’re not excited about the candidates (who are the Democrats running again?) but we should be terrified of the opposition. Karl Rove is back, raising $200 million for independent expenditures. The Tea Party is at high tide. And according to pollsters, Republicans are twice as motivated as Democrats to vote in the fall elections. Scary!
The parallels are a bit frightening. Even the dates are the same: Election Day 2010 falls on November 2 — same as in 2004. But what is most scary is that our team appears completely demoralized, uninterested in voting, and basically resigned to losing big in the fall. Can you imagine a sports team doing this? Can you imagine a sports team going into a game like: “Yeah, let’s try to only lose by 15-20 points.”
No, stupid! That’s not how you play the game. If you’re the underdog, that means you have to fight twice as hard and come from behind. You have to play to win!
I know 2004 was a traumatic experience many of us would prefer to forget. November 3, 2004 alone was so depressing that the progressive movement basically went into a coma for six months and barely woke up in time to stop Social Security from being privatized in mid-2005.
But given that we are in a similar situation today, it might behoove us to take a moment to see what we can learn from 2004.
Even though we lost, my friends and I remember 2004 as an incredible year — the year we launched the League of Pissed Off Voters. We had local groups self-organize and create their own local progressive voter guides in 31 states. We held a national conference called Smackdown 2004 in Columbus, Ohio. We gave local groups a 90-Day Plan. We had thousands of volunteers create and distribute 350,000 copies of 147 homemade local voter guides.
We weren’t the only ones doing it.
In 2004, literally every week, another creative new organization was launched to register voters or shoot spitballs at the Bush regime. There were literally three different Bike the Vote projects that weren’t connected to each other. There was a project to row a boat down the Mississippi river from Minnesota to New Orleans to retrace the path of Huckleberry Finn and register voters in the swing states along the river’s banks. In addition to Rock the Vote, there was Smoke the Vote, Fuck the Vote and Votergasm. Yes, there were two different vote-for-sex initiatives. There was Music For America and Punkvoter and Vote Mob and Concerts for Change and Bands Against Bush, Drinking Liberally, and two separate groups of Moms Against Bush. Run Against Bush organized meet-ups for anti-Bush joggers who ran in matching T-shirts. They sold 20,000 shirts online and raised $250,000 for the Democratic Party. Then there was Operation Bubbe which transported New Yorkers to get out the Jewish grandparent vote in Florida. (In 2008, it was revived as The Great Schlep, and Sarah Silverman did a hilarious YouTube video.)
Everywhere you turned, there was another creative idea.
There was Swing State Spring Break which evolved into Swing State Summer Break, which by fall became Swing the State: Your Anti-Bush Travel Agency, which moved thousands of volunteers to battleground states. Not to be confused with the Swing State Project, which was urging Democrats to move to swing states. Or Driving Votes, which arranged rides and carpools to swing states. Or Downtown for Democracy, which did the same thing for New York artists.
There were four major hip-hop voting efforts. Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network was eclipsed by Puffy’s Vote or Die. There was the union-bankrolled Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project that registered 350,000 voters, not to be confused with the National Hip-Hop Political Convention that brought together thousands of young activists in Newark and spawned a network of Local Organizing Committees (also known as LOCs) in more than a dozen states.
You get the idea.
We might not have won the election. But we did generate incredible new momentum and volunteer energy. Yes, we were out-organized by the right-wing field and message machine. But you can’t blame the sandbags for not stopping the tsunami. We tried very hard and we came close. We did create the largest Democratic turnout in history up to that point. We did start young people trending Democratic (youth voted for Kerry 54-45). And we did win a lot of victories down ballot, like Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire – by 127 votes.
There’s a tendency when we lose to think we did everything wrong. And there’s a temptation when you win to think you did everything right. This tends to camouflage the true lessons.
One of the hidden downsides to the Obama campaign’s effectiveness in 2008 is that it sucked up most of the political oxygen and imagination. Progressives didn’t feel the need to build a strong independent political movement or field operation, which left us a little bit screwed in 2009 and 2010. According to progressive pollsters and focus groups, 2008 Obama voters are not responding as strongly to the Democratic brand anymore. Surprise, surprise. You can’t build a movement around one charismatic leader. Authentic independent messengers are needed once again to turn out progressive voters this fall.
So a bunch of us who remember 2004 are getting together, reviving and upgrading some of the best projects we did in 2004. We’re bringing back the 90-Day Plan. It’s called the 12-Week Plan (www.12WeekPlan.org). We’re bringing back Driving Votes and Swing the State’s swing state trips. We’re bringing back progressive voter guides (www.TheBallot.org). And we’re working with a wide spectrum of groups on creative organizing efforts with new technologies and collaboration.
We’re calling this effort All Hands On Deck. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment. Like: Hey, the Titanic is headed for an iceberg! All hands on deck, everybody — let’s turn this ship around. For starters, let’s bring back the most successful efforts of 2004. Let’s bring back our creative, can-do, volunteer-driven, movement-building spirit. That way November 3, 2010 won’t have to be as depressing as November 3, 2004. 2011 won’t have to be as depressing as 2005.
And hopefully this time we’ll learn the other big lesson from 2004 and build this movement for the long run instead of letting it die after 2010.
OK everyone, put your hands in the middle and act like you want to win.
On the count of three…
This story was originally published on Alternet.