The Progressive Honor Roll of 2011

John Nichols   December 21, 2011   |
This article appears in the January 9-16, 2012 edition of The Nation. 


When Mitt Romney came to the Iowa State Fair, he tried to peddle the fantasy that entitlement cuts are needed because the only alternative is to raise taxes on Americans. But his framing of a false choice failed when activists from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement hollered that we should “tax corporations.” Unnerved, Romney shot back, “Corporations are people, my friend.” “No, they’re not!” shouted the Iowa CCI crowd. “Of course they are,” replied Romney, who didn’t seem to realize he was embracing his own stereotype. In 2011 conservative candidates thought they could use Iowa as a backdrop for their extremist pitches. Iowa CCI didn’t let them get away with it—providing a model for how grassroots activists can mic-check even the most powerful politicians.

MOST VALUABLE RAPID RESPONSE: Iraq Veterans Against the War

When Iraq War vet Scott Olsen was seriously injured during the police crackdown on Occupy Oakland, IVAW leapt into action. It used every media list and social network to provide background information, videos of the incident and access to other vets who had witnessed this brutal overreaction to nonviolent civil disobedience against an economic system that has abandoned too many vets. Veterans for Peace quickly aligned with IVAW, as did other vet groups. “We Are All Scott Olsen” marches and vigils were held across the country. When Olsen had recovered enough to speak about the incident, he used TV appearances to focus poignantly and powerfully on the plight of a new generation of veterans. He reminded Americans that as a marine, he had sworn an oath to serve the Constitution, which protects the right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances.

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Wherever protests swelled in 2011, the veteran Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist was there in his Nightwatchman persona to sing “Solidarity Forever,” “This Land Is Your Land” and his own songs of the movement. After hitting the streets of Madison with Wayne Kramer of MC5 fame and the brilliant Street Dogs, Morello penned “Union Town,” with its shout, “If you come to strip our rights away, we’ll give you hell every time.” Before the year was done, Morello, who featured footage of protests in his videos and donated proceeds to union causes, had produced World Wide Rebel Songs, an anthem for a moment that began with the Arab Spring and is still going strong. When the Occupy movement exploded, Morello was singing at protest sites and signing on with Lou Reed, Amanda Palmer and hundreds of other Occupy musicians.


Want to understand the Federal Reserve? Want to know why people who are facing foreclosure should be allowed to rent their home? Want to make sense of the eurocrisis and why it matters to you? Beat the Press, economist Dean Baker’s blog on the Center for Economic and Policy Research website (, does not just have the answers to those questions. In 2011 his blog framed the debate to such an extent that media outlets, members of Congress and citizens came to rely on it as a resource and agenda-setting tool. Baker offered savvy perspectives on the fights over Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as on issues like work sharing and a financial transactions tax. And he did it with perfect pitch, making sound economic arguments that activists could use.


Nowhere was the assault on public services more aggressive than in the push to downsize the Postal Service. Battered by a Congressional mandate that pensions be prepaid for the next seventy-five years, the USPS announced plans to eliminate services, lay off tens of thousands of workers and close as many as 3,700 local offices. The American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers stepped up to fight the cuts, making powerful arguments against the slide toward privatization.And Steve Hutkins’s website,, became an essential resource for a network of grassroots groups in all fifty states defending local post offices—along with the idea that the founders were right when they argued that a strong postal service does not just deliver mail; it builds communities and links them as a nation. Best of all, Save the Post Office has made smart arguments for expanding the USPS by doing things like renewing the old postal banking system.

MOST VALUABLE JURIST: District Judge Jed Rakoff

When Rakoff rejected the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed $285 million settlement with Citigroup over the sale of toxic mortgage debt, he sent a shock wave through the financial-services industry and the regulatory community. Rakoff excoriated the regulators for appearing to be uninterested in Citigroup’s wrongdoing, dismissing the settlement as “neither reasonable, nor fair, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.” This wasn’t the first time Rakoff has scored the SEC for seeming to be more interested in grabbing headlines than in cracking down on corporate fraud; in 2009 he rejected a settlement that failed to address serious issues raised by Bank of America’s takeover of Merrill Lynch. Rakoff has provided overwhelming evidence of why it is essential for judges to prevent regulators and corporations from cutting deals behind closed doors to avoid public trials, transparency and accountability.

MOST VALUABLE BOOK: Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?

The only good thing that can be said about Glenn Beck is that his attacks on Piven reminded Americans of just how vital her contributions (often with her late husband, Richard Cloward) have been to American progress. Piven has always asked tough questions about the role that economic inequality, structural barriers and outright suppression play in limiting the democratic franchise. The distinguished professor of political science and sociology has, through research and advocacy, played a critical role in securing reforms like the 1993 “motor voter” law. Now that corporate interests are using groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council to undo a half-century of voting-rights progress, Piven’s arguments are more important than ever. Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate (New Press) highlights her brilliant contributions to debates about poverty, welfare, voting rights and progressive reform.

MOST VALUABLE UNION: International Association of Fire Fighters

When GOP politicians attacked public sector unions, the response was overwhelming. The labor movement flexed muscles it had not exercised for years. Although labor did not win every battle, unions were back in the fight—and waging it with new sophistication and creativity. Leading the way was the IAFF. Firefighters were key players in one of labor’s biggest wins in years: the Ohio referendum that overturned Governor Kasich’s assault on collective-bargaining rights. And IAFF members taught a powerful lesson in solidarity when Wisconsin firefighters, exempted from Governor Walker’s attack on collective bargaining, nonetheless joined AFSCME, AFT, NEA and other unions on the front lines of resistance. The IAFF’s commitment and flexibility are exactly what unions need to build on the momentum of 2011.

MOST VALUABLE CAMPAIGN: Draft Elizabeth Warren

After President Obama decided not to fight to make Elizabeth Warren the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency she had conceived and gotten off the ground, most of official Washington assumed she would return to Harvard and teach law. But the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and National Nurses United had another idea: they wanted Warren to run for the Senate from Massachusetts. The PCCC push, and an early endorsement from the nurses, created an old-fashioned draft campaign. And it worked. Warren announced her candidacy on September 14. She is now one of a quartet of Democratic women—which includes Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp—whose economic populist campaigns hold out the hope that the Senate could be occupied by servants of the people, instead of what Senator Robert La Follette once dismissed as “the feudal serfs of corporate capital.”


Of course, the Adbusters magazine call to Occupy Wall Street was a stroke of genius. And “99 Percent” was the perfect calculus. But what made the movement a movement was the concept that it could—and should—be everywhere. From Toledo to Des Moines to Pocatello to San Jose, Occupy groups sprang up, and all linked up on the brilliant, inspiring website. By the end of the year, the constantly updated hub was pointing millions of visitors to thousands of Occupy groups and to the message: “We Stand Together! We Will Advance Together! And We Will Occupy Together!”

About the Author

John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999.

Also by the Author

There is something positively Dickensian about the Republican debate. Perhaps the contenders shall require visits by the spirits of Christmases past, present and future.

December 21, 2011   |    This article appears in the January 9-16, 2012 edition of The Nation.

By Published On: December 26th, 2011Comments Off on The Nation> The Progressive Honor Roll of 2011

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