Monthly Archives: August 2012

#CPNC12: Progressives push for inspired action

On July 26th, I attended my second Campus Progress National Conference, the premier annual event for young progressives and activists, in Washington, DC

Campus Progress is the youth initiative of the Center for American Progress, a progressive left-wing think tank founded by John Podesta, a former Chief of Staff for President Clinton. The Center for American Progress is easily one of the most influential and well-run left-leaning political organizations in the country. Podesta also served as the head of President Obama’s transition team, so the Center maintains a uniquely close relationship with the current administration.

While the Center produces the excellent ThinkProgress blog and numerous data reports in good think-tank fashion, Campus Progress is working to create a movement for progressive action among youth. If there is one thing that conservatives do extremely well, it is building up their support among young people from early on. In contrast, the left is not particularly good at coordinating messaging between its leaders and supporters. Campus Progress and the Center ,however, are working hard to change this reality and create a far more cohesive movement.

Now in its eighth year, the National Conference serves as a counterpoint to CPAC, the major conservative youth conference. Poignantly, this year Campus Progress chose to hold their conference at the Marriot Wardman Park hotel, the same venue that CPAC uses for its event.

The plenary speaker highlights this year were U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka, John Podesta, undocumented activist journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, marriage equality activist and YouTube sensation Zach Wahls, Senator Dick Durbin, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Overall, there were more than 70 speakers total.

It is a testament to the Center’s quality (and funding) that they could get top names while keeping the event free. When Campus Progress first announced the speakers, my gut reaction felt that it was an inspiring line-up, but heavy on the number of politicians. After seeing many politicians speak in recent years, I am used to having low expectations for them. Typically, they give stump speeches, especially in an election year. Many of the speeches left me pleasantly surprised. Rep. Debbi Wasserman Schultz painted a compelling narrative of her journey as a young woman in politics, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis highlighted her story as a Latina following the American Dream, and Senator Dick Durbin provided what was arguably the most engaging interview I have ever heard a political figure give, even throwing in a positive mention of Lisa Murkowski.

Minority Leader Pelosi garnered the biggest reaction from the conference attendees, receiving a standing ovation from the enthralled crowd as she walked to the podium. Her speech highlighted the successes of the Democratic party and progressive movement within the last four years, but the emphasis was on thanking activists for making it happen. Pelosi made it clear that liberal success was impossible without youth constituent support.

One of the more enlightening and fiery speeches of the day came early on when Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, took the stage. The modern labor organizing movement in America is struggling, but Occupy and new discussions around economic inequality have provided unions with new talking points to reengage the American public. While Trumka evoked some of this language, especially in concluding his speech with an intense appeal to “take this country back for the 99%,” his concessions about organized labor’s failures were stunning. Trumka emphasized his awareness of unions being out of touch with today’s youth, leading to a weaker movement.

The conference did have its weaker moments: a panel on citizen journalism turned into a circular repetition of talking points, the audience only allowed to ask questions in the last 10 minutes of the hour-long discussion. Meanwhile, an earlier panel on progressive foreign policy revealed deep disagreements in the definition of American leadership and of what constitutes infringement on sovereignty. On a whole, the conference reaffirmed that although domestic political literacy is growing among young people, we still have much further to go in creating a globally aware electorate.

Campus Progress should be commended for running the event, but the takeaway from the greater conversation on progressivism is this: it is time for action. While it is fine to be fired up about leaders and the issues, if young progressives want to create change, they need to take the effort into their own hands. I do not say this from a position in the ivory tower of activism, as I too need to become more active. Political conferences are only useful if attendees use the tools and inspiration they provide: whether this is the case for #CPNC12 remains to be seen.

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