By Neshani Jani

A response to a public conversation with Reverend Jesse Jackson and Katrina vanden Heuvel at Columbia University on October 25th, 2012. View photos of the conversation here.

With the 2012 Presidential election occurring tomorrow, a Mitt Romney win would be a devastating blow to the progressive movement and would represent a step backwards on a range of issues, including rights for women, immigrants and the LGBT community, as well as strides made on healthcare, social security, labor laws and other major civil liberties developed over the past 50 years. It is important to acknowledge that while a second term for President Obama will not solve all of the country’s current problems, an Obama Presidency will continue to foster a space for social movements (both progressive and conservative) to grow and will continue to enable progressives to raise questions of consciousness that will help shape the political agenda over the next four years.

This is the main point that I took away from the discussion between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and publisher of the Nation Magazine, Katrina vanden Heuvel, on October 25th at Columbia University. Hosted by the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life and the African American studies department, the event was moderated by Obery Hendricks, Visiting Scholar in the Department of Religion, and covered a range of issues, including the intersection of race, religion and spirituality, and the role of social movements in the upcoming election.

At the heart of the discussion was the idea that progressives need to join together to build strength at local levels and push the Democratic Party in a more unified direction. Reverend Jackson spoke of the need to “democratize” our existing democracy by pushing a third rail agenda, comprised of hot button issues that Romney and Obama have either largely stayed away from, or circumvented during the debates, such as poverty, gun control and violence. Katrina vanden Heuvel emphasized that no matter who wins, the issues and challenges surrounding the election will be the same. However, she stressed that what voters need to remember before going to the polls on November 6th is that each candidate’s response to these challenges and issues starkly differ. Over the next four years, the President will have the power to shape the direction of this country through appointments to the Supreme Court, which can in turn influence our political landscape for decades.

While the conversation was peppered with discussions on the value of strengthening the relationship between spirituality and politics, and the relationship between the rise of the religious right and the coarsening of compassion in the Unites States, it ultimately always gravitated to the idea of strengthening the progressive social movement.

While I appreciated the depth of conversation between Katrina vanden Heuvel and Reverend Jackson, I left the event feeling hopeful, yet unsettled. During the Q&A session, a graduate student asked a poignant question that had been going through my head all night. After explaining that he and many of his peers understand and identify with the need to create a unified progressive movement to bring about actual change, he asked Reverend Jackson to expand on what steps he thought we (the youth) should take to begin moving forward with actually creating this movement. The student mentioned that while he and many of his peers are inspired by progressive ideals, the practical aspects of creating and/or joining a movement seem out of reach.

What was Reverend Jackson’s response? He told the student that he and his peers needed to find professors whom they respect to mentor them and guide them through the process. “Once you find them, do not let them go,” the Reverend advised. While this may work for the particular student asking the question, I didn’t find Reverend Jackson’s advice helpful or relevant to the larger public. What about those of us who are not students at Columbia or who are no longer in school?  And those of us who were never able to attend a university?  And what professor really has that much time? A more practical answer to this question, such as Katrina vanden Huevel’s earlier comments on the strengths of the Occupy movement – namely the effect it has had on President Obama and the nature of dissidence and political discourse in this country – would have been more fruitful and more relevant to the heart of the discussion.

Overall, however, I think that Reverend Jackson and Katrina vanden Heuvel did a great job of contextualizing what many on the left refer to as the “progressive tension” or the tension between the Obama administration and the progressive left. When we go to the polls tomorrow Reverend Jackson and Katrina vanden Huevel want us to keep one major thing on our minds – what type of democracy do we want to live in for the next four years: one that has the potential to be progressive or one that will most certainly put us on the path to regression? The choice is ours.

Neshani Jani is a graduate of the MA program in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. She currently works in education and international development in New York City and is a freelancer in her spare time.