Norman Solomon, who is campaigning for Congress, believes that it's
possible to be an activist and a politician.
by Robert Jensen | Al
Conventional politics in the United States focuses on
elections, while leftist activists typically argue that political change comes
not from electing better politicians but building movements strong enough to
force politicians to accept progressive change.
Norman Solomon has concluded it isn't an either/or choice. A prominent writer
and leader in leftist movements for decades, Solomon is running for Congress in the hopes of
being practical and remaining principled.
"Since I first went to a protest at age 14 in 1966 — a picket line to desegregate
an apartment complex — my outlook on electoral politics has gone through a lot
of changes," Solomon said. "First I thought politics was largely
about elections, later I thought politics had very little to do with elections,
and now I believe that elections are an important part of the mix."
Solomon argues that when the left has treated elections as
irrelevant, the result has been self-marginalization that helps empower the
"The view that genuine progressives should leave the electoral field to
corporate Democrats and right-wing Republicans no longer makes sense to me. I
used to say that having a strong progressive movement was much more important
than who was in office, but now I'd say that what we really need is a strong
progressive movement and much better
people in office," he said. "Having John Conyers, Barbara Lee, Dennis
Kucinich, Jim McGovern, Raul Grijalva, Lynn Woolsey in Congress is important.
We need more of those sorts of legislators as part of the political
The 60-year-old Solomon had been considering such a strategy, and when Woolsey
announced she was not running for re-election in her northern California
district, he entered the race with the goal of staying true to his left-leaning
political views, and winning.
"I'm skeptical about election campaigns that abandon principles, but I'm
also skeptical about campaigns that have no hope of winning and that are only
for protest or public education," he said. "There are more effective
ways to protest and to educate."
Solomon said that, if elected, he would strive to change the relationship
between social movements and members of Congress.
"Progressive movements and leaders in Congress should be working in
tandem," he said. "I want to strengthen the Congressional Progressive Caucus and
help make it more of a force to be reckoned with."
Solomon said that a re-invigorated Progressive Caucus could
be more effective in fighting for the human right of quality healthcare for
all; ending the perpetual war of the warfare state, what Martin Luther King Jr.
called "the madness of militarism"; pushing back against the power of
Wall Street; replacing corporate power with people power.
Solomon is most widely known for his media criticism and activism, through
his Media Beat weekly column
that was nationally syndicated and his work with Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public
Accuracy, a national consortium of policy researchers and analysts for
which he served as executive director for 13 years.
Solomon became more visible in mainstream media through his trip to Iraq with
actor Sean Penn on the eve of the US invasion, part of anti-war efforts to
prevent that coming catastrophe. Solomon's 2005 book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,
and a companion film drew on his media and political expertise to analyze the
war machine. (Full disclosure: I found the book and film so compelling that I
brought Solomon to my campus to speak.)
Polls indicate that Solomon is competitive in a Democratic primary that
includes a state assemblyman, a county supervisor, and two business people. Penn
is supporting Solomon's campaign, which has also received endorsement from US
Representative Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus,
and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Fundraising is
always a struggle, especially since he committed to "corporate-free
No corporate sponsors
"By raising more than $250,000 from more than 2,000 different people,
we've shown that we can raise the needed funds without a single dollar from
corporate PACs," Solomon said. "But we need to raise a lot more, and
the month of December will be crucial - end-of-year totals will be seen by many
as a self-fulfilling gauge of our capacity to gain enough support to win."
Solomon believes that citizen frustration with concentrated wealth, and the
political dominance that big money buys, is opening up new possibilities for
In-depth coverage of the global movement
"Our campaign is very much in sync with Occupy Wall
Street," he said. "Issues that I've been talking about from the outset
of this campaign last January, and for many years before that, are part of the
OWS focus - Wall Street's undemocratic power, the widening disparities between
the rich and the rest of us, the need to eject corporate money from
Solomon has described his politics as "green New Deal", arguing for a
vigorous government role in providing quality education, adequate health care,
consumer protection, civil liberties and environmental safeguards. For
leftists, two questions hover: Can a candidate go beyond liberal positions and
articulate anti-capitalist and anti-empire politics during a campaign? If
elected, can a member of Congress stay true to those principles? Movement
activists are wary of left/liberal politicians who push their rhetoric toward the
centre to get elected and then end up advocating centrist policies.
Solomon said he identifies with a phrase Penn used at a campaign rally:
"Principle as strategy."
"I intend to stick with principles, what I believe and what I'm willing to
fight for," Solomon said. "The quest is not for heightened rhetoric,
it's for deeper meaning, with insistence on policies to match - economic
populism, human rights, civil liberties, ending wars and working for social
Though that agenda suggests radical change, Solomon said he doesn't use the
term "radical", opting instead for terms such as "genuine
progressive", "progressive populism" and "independent
progressive" to describe himself and his campaign.
"The term radical can be understood as 'to the root', but what it conveys
to most of the public is that we are extreme and the status quo isn't," he
said. "But look at the huge disparities between rich and poor,
catastrophic climate change and destruction of ecology, inflicting massive
suffering, extreme violence of war and on and on. I would say the status quo is
Robert Jensen is a
professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. His
latest book is titled All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the
The views expressed in this article are
the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial