“I’m hopeful that just when you think things are inevitable you see change that you can’t imagine.”
–David Bender, Political Director Progressive Voices
If you combine the great historical perspective of a life actively involved in the political process for more than 40 years with the ability to grasp 21st century technology and its potential impact on our future you begin to understand the wisdom of David Bender, one of today’s leading “Progressive Voices.”
Bender’s four-decade career as a political activist began at the age of 12 when he took a “leave of absence” from the seventh grade to become a full-time volunteer in the presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. From that day forward, his resume reinforces his commitment and work to progressing liberal ideas. As a high school reporter, Bender covered the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. He was literally a “boy on the bus,” traveling in the company of such journalistic legends as Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid. Later, he became a key aide to the legendary liberal activist Allard K. Lowenstein, the former New York congressman who was a pivotal figure in both the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. He was also on the national field staff of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, and in 2003, Bender served as a senior adviser on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.
Add to that stellar resume his work as political director for Air America Radio and now as vice president and political director for Progress Voices, a new platform for the 21st century to aggregate and convey political content, and you have the perfect Progressive Profile to launch our 2014 series. We are pleased to present Bender’s progressive retrospective and his vision for the future. And for more on his newest Progressive Voices endeavor, see our sidebar below.
“It’s hard to look at America in 2014 and fell like it’s the America we grew up in,” Bender said in a recent interview with Wisdom Voices. “Our politics are broken; they are not what I knew growing up and what I believed in fervently and worked in. I’ve watched close up as there’s been this evolution in which our politics have become something other than a meaningful instrument of social change. In many respects it’s now become an opportunity for profiteering at a level we haven’t seen since the robber barons of the 19th century. The income disparity in our country would be shocking if we were in the third world; but this is America.
“From FDR to LBJ, government was viewed as an extension of ‘us.’ Government is us. It’s not a ‘them.’ Government is the person fixing the road, the teacher or firefighter. But now government has become the evil ‘them.’ Government—whether in Washington or the state capitol—is viewed as the ‘other’ and therefore something to be feared and hated. It has now become the fundamental premise by which Republicans, many Independents and frankly some Democrats operate. We’ve created a system in which it’s very difficult to view our electoral structure as something that can create positive change. The forces that exist—and they’re economic forces—the very things that (President Dwight) Eisenhower warned against (the military industrial complex), have created an intelligence structure and a corporate structure that acts with impunity and without legal consequences. That is so disheartening from when I began in politics working for Robert Kennedy in 1968.
“1968 was a hellish year. We lost Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. There were riots in Chicago. Richard Nixon was elected president and George Wallace carried five states. War raged on in Vietnam. It was not a good year; but it was a profound year because a lot of people woke up to what was going on.
“So, we need to look at what happened between 1969-74 when Nixon resigned. We saw —and in no small part because of a judicial system that worked independently—the release of the Nixon tapes. That’s what really cracked the thing open. We had a Supreme Court that voted 9-0 to release those tapes; some of those justices were Nixon appointees. One should think back and try to remember a Supreme Court decision in the last 15 years that has been 9-0 on anything. They voted unanimously because the American people had a right to know what their president was doing. And people then saw all the myriad examples of Nixon’s hubris and arrogance, his incredible, almost psychotic use of power against his enemies. That led to his resignation and so much of the revelations and abuses were exposed by Senator Frank Church and his committee. There was a call to account for those excesses by putting in constraints and government oversight.
“Now people laugh at the notion of genuine government oversight over either the military, the intelligence community, or corporations. The idea of the original progressives—the Teddy Roosevelts and the trustbusters was to break up the concentration of wealth because it was bad for the country and bad for capitalism actually. Today most of that is gone. There’s no enforcement of anti-trust laws. That has been part and parcel of everything that Republicans have started doing since the 1970s.”
The Powell Memorandum
Understanding the importance of historical context is a unique gift and Bender reflected back to an important element from the early 1970s that continues to shape much of our lives today. Instead of embracing the positive change coming from the social and political gains of the late 1960s and early 1970s (civil rights, voting right, environmental laws), conservatives opted for another route.
“It was the Lewis Powell’s memorandum (1971) that laid out the mistakes conservatives and corporations had made,” Bender said. “They had allowed lobbyists for real people (e.g., environmentalists) to bring about the clean air act and the clean water act. Our mistake, they said, is that we don’t have business lobbyists. So they put a plan into place—the Powell memorandum—that ultimately became the template for how conservatives and corporate interests have bought and paid for the U.S. government. At that’s at every level—not just the federal level, but the state and local level as we’ve seen from ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).
“So what we’re seeing has all been planned. The last 40 years going back to Ronald Reagan there has been a consistent effort to change what you and I believe is the fundamental premise of a democratic republic—so that people’s voices cannot be heard. Oh, they can be heard, but they are heard shouting into a maelstrom. We are overwhelmed by money and we see phenomena like the Tea Party funded by the billionaires and called grass roots efforts. It’s hard for me to look at this and see that we are dealing with the same system that you and I grew up cherishing and believing was the vehicle that all Americans used to affect the future of our country.
“Today there is a cynicism and that’s the difference between the 60s and the 70s. You have young people growing up now who do not look at this as anything other than the norm. They view politics as something inherently corrupted and by definition is not worth their participation. This is not the FDR or LBJ generation. So we’ve seen, until Barack Obama, young people always turn out disproportionately to older voters, which frankly, in 2010 was a disaster. The fact remains that Obama for all of his talents and his fundamental decency and intelligence and commitment to progressive social change couldn’t fix Washington because the problem is systemic. We can no longer look at the presidency from the same lens as when we did with an FDR or Reagan, individuals who could, through the force of personality, turn the American political system around and change its direction. Barack Obama has been unable to do that because from Day 1 he has been undermined in a way that has been so pernicious, so deliberately planned.”
Where Hope Lies
So for a warrior from the 1960s, where does hope lie? Not surprisingly, the answer is simple, if not easy. It is up to “we the people” to reclaim our voices and our role in shaping the future.
“I’m hopeful only in that just when you think things are inevitable you see change that you can’t imagine,” Bender noted. “Richard Nixon carried 49 states; two years later he was out of office. Inevitably it’s their hubris that brings them down. People who tell you that they know what the future holds haven’t done politics for any period of time. That’s the one thing I know. I believe we need to find a way to break or remake this broken system; we’re not going to get it through the courts until the courts change fundamentally. The (recent U.S. Senate) breaking of the filibuster was a good first step. That, over time, will change some of the right-wing judiciary. Whether we change the 5-4 majority on the court in the next 3 years, I don’t know. But we’re dealing with something bigger than that. We’re dealing with the fact that there is no accountability for corporate malfeasance. Until there’s some real oversight—stronger than Dodd Frank—over corporations in America, then it doesn’t matter who we elect.
“As long as the institutional levers of power are controlled by the military and intelligence community and contractors and the corporations that are doing billions if not trillions of dollars worth of business and who set public policy based on their agendas and not that of the American people, nothing will change. That’s what I see as the challenge. That means we have to come up with a new way of dealing with this. We have to find ways for people to use the power they have—the power of the ballot is not what it once was. In fact, voting has become more theater than substance. We need to find a way to harness the power of the American people and the power they’ve got is strength in numbers, which can overwhelm the likes of the Koch Brothers, no matter how much money they have. The Koch Brothers can influence public policy but they cannot buy 300 million people. They can distract them; they can mislead them; they can pay for networks like Fox News but they cannot buy the people. And where I see the future and hope is that ultimately through this new technology with a platform like we have with Progressive Voices, we’re going to reach the next generation and they’re going to recognize something that Europeans have recognized for a long time. When Europeans have a situation in which workers’ rights are taken away—as they were in Wisconsin—they stop working. When consumers see a situation in which they are being exploited by large corporations who double and triple oil prices, then the only power you have collectively—if we were to harness it—is to simply tell those corporations ‘no.’ You don’t have our money. We are not going to buy your products; we aren’t going to participate in whatever this anti-union, anti-worker system is.
“In Europe it’s called a general strike. But what it allows people to do is vote with their pocketbooks. That collectively is the power we have. They can manipulate and buy our influence through the electoral process; they can’t make us spend money. What we need to do—through platforms like Progressive Voices—is to say the enemy is not government. We have to strengthen government to bring these people down. We have to break up these concentrations of wealth that have such influence over public policy; we have to reverse Citizens United; we have to reverse Buckley v. Valeo (money is speech) and that’s going to take a generation or two.”
The advent of social media and new platforms such as ProgressiveVoices.com sets the groundwork for more people to be part of the conversation. The web site offers a one-click option to live broadcasts of major progressive talk shows, and the Progressive Voices app is the first and only one-stop-shop for everything Progressive: news, opinion, audio and video. More than half a million people a month listen to the Progressive Voices Channel either through the app or on Tunein, another indication that new technology powers the conversations for knowledge-seeking consumers.
“We still rely on touchstones like Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, and Mike Malloy, and all of the people who have built up tremendous followings and credibility over a long time,” Bender said of the top progressive voices up and running on the Progressive Voices site. “We know empirically there are more of us than there are Koch brothers. But what we haven’t been able to do by the infrastructure of traditional radio is connect with our audience. A lot of that is because the deck has been stacked from the very beginning against progressive voices being able to reach a broad, public audience. Money dictates media. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (co-host of Ring of Fire) has spoken eloquently on the subject of how a free media—not a corporate media—is essential to a democracy. And we simply do not have that. Therefore we do not have a functioning democracy.
“Progressive Voices was founded by some of the same people who started Air America,” Bender noted. “Air America was a wonderful idea that never got traction. The idea was sound and what we did see when there was an opportunity to go head to head with the right wing shows was that Air America was beating conservative talk radio in some markets. (e.g., Al Franken vs. Bill O’Reilly). I would offer that Al Franken wouldn’t be in the Senate without Air America. It helped to show how gifted and talented a public servant he is. The same is true of Rachel Maddow; we wouldn’t have a Rachel Maddow without Air America. For those who say Air America was a failed experiment, they miss what it did do, which was to create opportunities and prove there is an audience for progressive talk.
“What we’re doing with Progressive Voices is making it a platform for the 21st century. The means of conveying content are the devices we use everyday to make phone calls and to read our email. Our iPhones and tablets are where most people under 30—and that age keeps going up—get their information. New cars are going to be built with Internet radio platforms.
“We’re setting up a platform that aggregates people such as Ed (Schultz), Stephanie (Miller), Mike Malloy, Thom Hartmann, Bill Press, Leslie Marshall, Robert F. Kennedy and Mike Papantonio, (Ring of Fire). I’m serving the function that I did at Air America—that of political director. We’re also trying to bring in the new younger voices. We have to deepen our bench; we need the next generation of Rachel Maddows on the air. I invite you to go to ProgressiveVoices.com and take a look at what we’re doing; download the app to your phone; be a part of it. There is strength in numbers. We’re building this progressive infrastructure without the old obstacles that existed for Air America—the corporate ones. Progressive Voices doesn’t depend on that; it depends on having people participate; it goes back to what can happen if we use our economic power. And there are many companies, Whole Foods, for example, that should be part of the progressive universe. Or a great progressive phone company like CREDO Mobile that we should support. I would submit we have to change the model and the only way to do that is through strength in numbers. We know that there are more of us than them. They are a very powerful but increasingly small number of people with a huge concentration of wealth.
“America in 2014 reminds me of Johannesburg hanging on before the end of apartheid. And what’s going to happen if we use our strength of numbers is that ultimately America is going to look like California. It’s going to be multi-cultural; it’s going to have strength in its diversity; it’s going to be very blue; and that’s the direction we can move in. But the dinosaur is not going to go down without a fight. That’s what we’re seeing now is with the current infrastructure set in place by Republicans, who have desperately poured money in to hang on to their power. This is going to be a fight, and Progressive Voices is working to provide a voice for millions of Americans to counterbalance the handful of billionaires who fund right wing media. My bet is on the American people. “