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Book review: Start Making Sense edited by Don Hazen and Lakshmi Chaudhry

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Do we really need another post-mortem on the 2004 election? In the months that followed, Kerry's defeat was blamed on everything from his failure to answer the Swift Boat Veterans' attack ads to his lame attempts at courting the hook-and-bullet crowd by dressing up in camo gear and blasting at waterfowl. And, of course, wholesale electoral fraud. As Jim Hightower put it in an interview shortly after the election, "Kerry is certainly a decent guy, a smart guy, but he couldn't connect with working people if he was giving away Budweisers and Slim Jims."

The newest book-length liberal roadmap to the future is a compilation of essays and interviews -- some new, others that were previously aired or published -- from AlterNet, a syndication service of the alternative press to which Seven Days subscribes. It's called Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 Into Winning Progressive Politics. Reader's reactions to this mixed bag of works will vary widely, depending upon how much they're immersed in the current round of liberal soul-searching. For those who mourned the 2004 defeat by tuning out American politics altogether and shopping for apartments in Montréal or Prague, this book may offer a few reasons to stay on U.S. soil. But for folks who've spent the last six months arguing with friends, family and co-workers about what went wrong, there's not a lot here that's especially new or groundbreaking.

Nevertheless, Start Making Sense offers a useful outline for deconstructing the 2004 election, as well as some helpful hints for taking back the White House. Broken into three sections -- "Looking Back," "Looking Forward" and "Getting Active" -- the book offers insightful essays and interviews with many of the Left's usual suspects, such as Arianna Huffington, Tom Hayden, Thomas Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower and many others. There's even an excerpt from Barack Obama's stirring DNC convention speech.

In a December 2004 interview, AlterNet Executive Editor Don Hazen questions Howard Dean on the many lessons progressives can glean from the success of conservative grassroots groups. The book also includes the "November 3rd Theses" by Adam Werbach, who was just 23 years old when he became president of the Sierra Club. The morning after Kerry's defeat, Werbach posted his theses on the door of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, alleging that the party's poor showing was due to years of benign neglect. His words were quickly disseminated over the Internet and posted on the doors of other Democratic headquarters across the nation.

Start Making Sense also contains several short but interesting analyses of the media's election coverage, including one by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman. In a February 2005 interview, she discusses the need for more alternative and independent news outlets. There's also an interview Hazen did in November with Robert Greenwald, the documentary filmmaker who produced Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism.

In another Q & A, Canadian columnist Naomi Klein deconstructs Kerry's failed position on the Iraq War -- for anyone who, understandably, had trouble figuring out what it was -- and offers strategies for resurrecting the antiwar movement. On a similar subject, 1960s activist Tom Hayden offers some concrete suggestions for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Most of the book's chapters are short and easily digestible. They don't have to be read in any particular order. The common thesis -- that Kerry's defeat wasn't a wipeout of Walter Mondale proportions -- points to opportunities for the Left to exploit. For example, as Hazen points out in the "Looking Back" section, had Kerry picked up just 64,000 more Hispanic votes in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, he would have taken the White House.

Hazen also points to the political potential of unmarried young women, who made up the single largest pool of new progressive voters in the country. Although 7.5 million more unmarried women voted in 2004 than in 2000, they remain a largely untapped resource for the Democrats. About 55 percent of them voted for Kerry over Bush. Sixty-four percent told exit pollers they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Clearly, this demographic should be a prime focus for Democrats in 2006 and beyond.

Alternet Associate Editor Evan Derkacz has compiled a list of progressive victories that were largely overshadowed by the main event last November -- evidence the country isn't nearly as conservative as the red-blue maps make it appear. At the state level, for example, Democrats took over twice as many legislative chambers as did the Republicans, including both chambers of the Colorado Legislature, for the first time in 44 years.

Likewise, in Montana, where three out of five voters went for Bush, the Dems picked up the governor's office, the attorney general's office and the Senate, and came within one seat of retaking the House of Representatives. Electoral results like that reveal the vast, untapped power of grassroots politics.

Overall, Start Making Sense does a good job of moving beyond the usual liberal screeds about working-class Americans voting against their economic self-interest, fear winning out over anger, and urban elites belittling "values voters" as uneducated boobs and hypocritical Bible thumpers. And for those who felt that the Kerry campaign was too much "Republican-lite," it's refreshing to hear calls for overhauling the Democratic Party's campaign machine.

One of the most compelling sections of the book is an interview with George Lakoff -- a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at Berkeley, and author of the much-ballyhooed Don't Think of an Elephant. Lakoff discusses how the Right has co-opted the entire political debate by controlling the language, with words such as "death tax," "tax relief" and "partial-birth abortion."

"You can't have one side understanding this -- the conservatives -- and the other side -- progressives -- ignoring it, and the media not even understanding what's going on," says Lakoff. "The Right figured out how to physically change our brains, and the Left is only beginning to recognize this very basic fact of cognitive science."

Ultimately, Lakoff concludes with one of the book's more important messages: Progressives need to recognize that Bush's victory had a lot to do with his clearly defined world view. "People vote their identities and their values, not their economic self-interests," Lakoff assets. "If you don't have a clear, positive identity and values that people can relate to, you do not have a chance."

When comes to specifics, however, Start Making Sense falls short. No one suggests that progressives should get over their apparent squeamishness about discussing religious issues in the political arena and start talking to social conservatives in a language that resonates with them. For example, on Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative," Kerry never needed to say a word about parts per million of mercury contamination. He could have slammed the Bush plan for destroying God's creation and bemoaned what all that mercury poisoning is doing to unborn babies. And on Bush's policies toward the poor, elderly and disabled, Kerry missed a golden opportunity to pose a simple question: What would Jesus do?

The message of Start Making Sense isn't always consistent, either. In his chapter entitled "Fight Dirty," activist David Morris suggests it's high time Democrats viewed politics as open warfare -- as the GOP does -- instead of as a polite contact sport. But other writers, such as Don Hazen in his "Twelve Step Program for Progressive Victory," make the case that leftists shouldn't compromise their core values. He believes they should stick to the moral high ground and "communicate a positive vision."

Start Making Sense doesn't pretend to be the final word on any one subject. Rather, it's more of a salvo in the ongoing debate about how progressives can reclaim American politics from the fear mongers and fundamentalists. And, like a college survey course, it introduces the reader to a smorgasbord of ideas -- on the culture wars, economic populism, do-it-yourself organizing, etc. -- without getting too bogged down on the details.

In the end, though, Start Making Sense may also leave many readers hungry for much more. As the book itself argues about the Democrats, "'A little more and a little better' won't do the trick." If progressives ever intend to become America's leadership party again, they'll need a lot more advice and guidance than this book delivers.

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