Yesterday I read a post on the Daily Kos that included a searing critique of the 4th of July holiday by Frederick Douglass. The article mentioned Douglass’s feud with Abraham Lincoln over the president’s stubborn dedication to the policy of capturing and returning runaway slaves from the South, even while he advocated for abolition.
I was struck by a similarity to President Obama, who often cites Lincoln as his personal role model. Obama recognizes the need to create a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who moved here to find a better life, but now live in constant fear of deportation. He made the issue the most important policy priority of his second term. But at the same time, his administration is deporting immigrants at a faster pace than any president in history, causing hardship and heartbreak among separated families. Moral inconsistency? Political necessity? Who knows.
But here’s the real reason Obama deports so many immigrants. He’s the president of the United States. That means a majority of American voters had to like him better than the other guy. The problem with a lot of American leftists is that they live in places like Berkeley and don’t get out much. They just don’t come in contact with the solid majority of Americans who support drone strikes, militarizing the border, and all sorts of other nasty things.
Honestly, ask yourself: Could I be elected president of the United States? I couldn’t– not by a long shot.
Anyone who can be elected president is either:
a) Not really that progressive, or
b) Acts like a centrist really convincingly
In Obama’s case I think it’s a combination of both. Generally I would say Obama is better than the average modern Democratic president of the United States. So I think it’s nice that he’s done more progressive stuff than the guy who signed NAFTA and DOMA, deregulated the banking system and slashed the social safety net. But I’m just not going to expect him to be the messianic love-child of Karl Marx and Gandhi.
Someone recently told me a quote that struck me: “Those who are easily disillusioned were suffering from too many illusions in the first place”.
My main point is one I’ve harped on before.
Elected officials shouldn’t be your movement leaders. They should be your targets. Even elected officials who are your allies should be your targets, because you can often push them to do more than they would otherwise (see Obama, DREAMer sit-ins, Deferred Action).
What I’m trying to say here is don’t expect Obama to become Frederick Douglass. Obama is Lincoln. Frederick Douglass could never be elected president of the United States.
Just be Frederick Douglass. We could really use one right now.
You could fill a high school yearbook with superlatives about different issues within the broader progressive movement: Most Likely to See a Victory This Year, Most Important Total Lost Cause, Best Facebook Profile Picture, etc.
Today I want to cast my vote for “Most Strategic”. I’d define “strategic” as the issue that focusing resources on to win a major victory now will most build the long-term strength of our movement and set us up to be more effective in taking on everything else.
We’ve all heard the talk about how immigrant communities won the election for Obama in 2012 and the Republican Party is doomed. There’s some truth in it. The percent of Americans born in another country is the highest it’s been since the 1920’s. The combined political muscle of those who are immigrants, live in immigrant neighborhoods or have immigrant family members is pretty hefty. Immigrants tend to have more progressive views on most issues than people born in America. And American-born Latinos and Asians are even more progressive than their parents.
But I think we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Latino and Asian voter turnout is still really low. Latinos and Asians are shamefully underrepresented in Congress, more so than African-Americans. Community organizations in Latino and Asian neighborhoods tend to be weaker than those in black neighborhoods.
Lack of political power is a cycle, a positive feedback loop. When a community is disenfranchised and oppressed, people see no value in engaging in a political system that shits on them. This weakens their organizations, results in scarce political representation, and an absence from the negotiating table over policy. This leads to being shafted even further by policy and budget decisions, which further heightens the community’s distrust of politics.
It takes a major social movement to break this cycle. The Civil Rights Movement and its echoes grew political power within the black community. The civil rights generation saw their collective action directly result in change in their daily lives. They saw powerful institutions panic in the face of their strength and scramble to maintain the status quo. And they saw themselves win.
It’s not emphasized enough that winning is fucking important. People like winning. They feel afraid, powerless, and insignificant until they win. Even incremental, incomplete victories create organizations and develop leaders and build the confidence to win again.
It’s no accident that despite a massive coordinated effort to suppress them at the ballot box, black voter turnout rates in 2012 may have surpassed whites for the first time ever. The dominant media narrative said the novelty of voting for the first black president had worn off and turnout would plummet. Maybe true for white liberals. But for the black community, it was no novelty. It was a moment in history where many people of color felt a sense of their political power and the motivation to win again.
We won’t see the true power of American immigrant communities until we win a major victory. The Chicano Movement was smaller and won far fewer victories than the Civil Rights Movement. Immigrants’ rights activists have seen a few small victories lately like deferred action for DREAMers. But something big has yet to come. And when it does, the result will be a shift in our political landscape.
I expect the passage of comprehensive immigration reform to create a shift in communities like the ones I organize in. I believe folks will see the power of taking to the streets and demanding justice, and many more will join future struggles over education, income inequality, even climate change.
Now I’m not saying everyone drop whatever you’re doing and work on immigration reform. I am saying leaders and participants in all progressive movements should be paying close attention to what happens here, because it affects all of us.
Even symbolic displays of solidarity make an impact, especially on issues strongly dependent on winning public support. When a black civil rights leader, a union president, or an LGBT rights activist publicly takes a stand on the issue of immigration, it signals to their followers that their struggles for dignity are bound to each other.
For example, Bill McKibben, one of America’s foremost leaders of the movement to stop climate change, recently wrote an op-ed in the LA Times supporting immigration reform. Environmentalists and immigration advocates haven’t always been BFFs. But McKibben gets it:
Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.” These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign came under fire last week for telling one of their speakers at their rally in front of the Supreme Court not to mention that he was an undocumented immigrant. The largest gay rights group in the country should know that “coming out” as undocumented is a key strategy for moving hearts and minds, because like with LGBT issues, people are most likely to change their minds if they know someone personally affected.
Listen, all I’m saying is, this shit is really important, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for all of us. So try to say nice things and don’t fuck it up, okay?
One might say the ultimate dream of progressives is to replicate the Civil Rights Movement and the accompanying progress on a range of political issues that occurred throughout the 1960’s (and to some extent 1970’s). In fact, I like to talk a lot about how I believe we’re at the beginning of a “movement time”– a decade or so where social change advances quickly on many fronts. (Here’s my case for why I think conditions are ripe.) But if so, it seems like a problem that the face of progressive America is Barack Obama. (I’d challenge anybody to come up with someone else who they can honestly call the face of progressive America.)
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013, which also happens to be President Obama’s second inauguration, like many in the media, I’m irresistibly drawn to compare and contrast the two men.
I’m not angry about Obama being sworn in on MLK’s bible. I’m a strong Obama supporter and I think by historical standards of American presidents, he’s been great for progressives.
But Barack Obama has done a good job as an American president, not as an American social movement leader. As much as the Obama team has adopted the language of organizing, as much as he painstakingly emphases passages in his speeches like “this has never been about just one election” and “this campaign belongs to you”, Barack Obama left the community organizing business decades ago. He inspires people to come to events to see him speak, and to wait in lines to vote for him. He can claim the most “liked” picture in Facebook history. But he does not inspire people to march on Washington together or engage in civil disobedience to demand change (except the Tea Party). Not a personal failing. That’s just not what presidents do.
Barack Obama is not our Martin Luther King. Barack Obama is our Lyndon Johnson, to a yet-undiscovered Martin Luther King.
I’m really interested in his new organization that he’s been asking his supporters to join, the revamped OFA– Organizing for Action. I think it could be an innovative tool for advancing the president’s legislative agenda in Congress– it’s got a big list and can probably generate insane numbers of phone calls and petitions etc. But I don’t think anybody seriously believes it’s going to be a movement-building organization like MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s run by people with the Campaign Brain, and will never be truly independent of the Democratic Party, will never have people willing to be beaten and jailed and shot for it.
At the time of his death, King was not just the de facto leader of the civil rights movement, but also one of the nation’s most prominent labor/antipoverty activists, one of America’s premier antiwar activists. He did not need to engage in fiscal cliff negotiations. His job was instead to fuel the burning engine of pure human will that drove forward social progress– and allow the axles and cogs of the legislative machinery to be ground along by the miserable grunts of the United States Congress. As a social movement activist, he was not constrained by the demands of re-election, by the pull of donors, by the gravity of his office. He could say things like this, that Barack Obama could never say:
“In the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers, as I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.
But they ask — and rightly so — ‘what about Vietnam?’ They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
He could take unequivocal stands for justice without having to hedge his words while simultaneously awkwardly holding the reins of a government whose laws dictate separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children and sending suspected enemy combatants to detainee camps. The leader of a movement cannot also be the Commander in Chief (unless his name rhymes with Schmitler).
We don’t seem to have our time’s Martin– a powerful, independent, multi-issue voice of the American Left, committed to organization and movement building. Maybe instead we have an equally important behind-the-scenes figure that I’m too inexperienced or unimportant to know about– a modern Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin. Maybe the army of paid staff of advocacy organizations made possible by the nonprofit industrial complex has replaced our need for a few big leaders as the pillars of social movements. Maybe we don’t need leaders at all anymore because of the interwebz and tweets and whatnot.
But I do feel like many of the shortcomings of progress in Obama’s first term were due to a lack of outside social movement. They were due to Obama being the face of the left, the glowing messiah of 2008 who allowed movement activists to chill out and let Barack take care of it. I believe the first black president is part of King’s legacy. But I think a new generation of leaders of organizations within an independent movement for equality, peace and freedom would be a more important legacy.
Like millions of others looking for a relatively stress-free holiday family activity, I watched Les Miserables this weekend.
I was struck by an unshakeable feeling of the story’s old-ness. Maybe it’s the way characters can fall absurdly in love with each other on sight or decide to die after performing tragic monologues.
But to me the clearest sign this story was written in a different time is its unapologetic political statement. Les Miserables is not about economic inequality in 19th century Europe, it’s about a man’s struggle with personal transformation while being trapped in the sins of his past. And yet it recognizes that the personal is political and the political is personal. The suffering Jean Valjean experiences is wrapped in the context of the political and economic system he lives in and the villain is this system, even more than it is Javert.
This all made me wonder: Why don’t we have bestselling novels about class struggle anymore?
The original Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, despite political criticism, was a huge financial success in the western world of the 1800’s. But today our popular culture seems to shy away from placing characters within a political context.
I want to focus on Hollywood here. Novels and plays were the medium for popular culture consumption in the 19th century, but today movies and TV are the way regular people interact with storytelling. (Also if I start talking about books I’d end up revealing, through my complete ignorance, the fact that I mostly stopped reading them at the age of 16.)
I did some research (okay, it was Wikipedia) on the top grossing movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s. (1990 is the beginning of the After Lucas era, before which nothing is relevant). Pretty much the closest we’ve got in the A.L. era is The Matrix, which gets points for symbolism. Maybe at best some sort of vague, fuzzy critique of organized religion in the Da Vinci Code. Avatar I guess says something about environmentalism and respecting indigenous people?
If anything we’ve moved into the superhero movie era—where our heroes are individuals who seek not to change society, but to maintain law and order. Perhaps the perfect counterexample to Les Miserables is the latest Batman movie. Here the masses, discontent with inequality, are easily swayed by manipulative demagogue villains and can be whipped into a dangerous corrupt mob unless fought by a multi-billionaire heir of a military contracting corporation who can use its sheer firepower to restore the status quo. The political statement is only that social change is at best irrelevant, or at worst an illusion, a convenient backdrop for the epic battles of heroes and villains.
So the more important question: Why?
Is the medium of film, with its badass special effects, simply more suited to the empty-headed action movie? Or are writers and producers, or at least the most talented ones, becoming more politically apathetic? Maybe consumers just don’t want to watch political stuff, so political critique is reserved for niche indie film festival audiences and never makes it to the mainstream.
Whatever the reason, this is a problem for those of us in political work. Social movements cannot exist without artistic and cultural works to win the hearts and minds of the public. A blockbuster movie is worth a thousand press releases and a bestselling novel is worth a million petitions.
This is a political organizer’s cry for help to the storytellers of the world: Can we get some movies about the modern-day 99% up in here that don’t involve us getting our asses kicked by Bruce Wayne in a bat costume?
A recent NY Times article highlighted a study of a 1990’s government program that gave subsidies to low-income urban families to move to the suburbs. The theory was that families who left neighborhoods of concentrated poverty would experience better education, better jobs and higher incomes.
The program was a complete failure in achieving those goals. Families in the program got out of the hood but stayed poor, they just happened to live in a neighborhood where there were middle-class people physically near them.
But weirdly enough, these families experienced a large rise in happiness. The self-reported happiness for families making $20k a year who moved was equal to the average of families making $33k a year who stayed.
Was this policy a success or failure? It comes down to a deeper question: What is our ultimate goal in producing social change? Is it actually about people being happier?
I’ve got a utilitarian streak in me– I’m normally more into the issues that improve people’s everyday living conditions rather than the deeper philosophical stuff, which I find frustratingly fluffy sometimes.
And my main political passion– fighting economic inequality– is partly grounded in a utilitarian view of happiness: Studies show that extra family income brings higher levels of happiness until a certain plateau (around $75k per year in the US) after which additional money doesn’t change your life satisfaction. So boosting overall economic growth does less to improve people’s lives than ensuring the economy’s gains are shared by low and middle-income families.
But if all we cared about was happiness, we might want to give up on the social movement shit and just make funny YouTube videos or build free amusement parks for the masses. Better yet we could create some sort of creepy dystopian future where everybody lies around all day taking happy pills or living in a perfect virtual reality world.
Making people happy isn’t what motivates me to do the work I do. If it was, I’d study engineering and go make iPhones. People fucking love iPhones.
Maybe I’m a disgruntled political animal who just likes the fight itself.
Or maybe there’s some larger abstract idea of justice that matters in its own right. Maybe there’s an inherent moral problem with a world where the few have so much power and the many have so little. Sometimes struggling to tip that balance of power feels like it’s not making people more happy, but maybe there’s some deeper moral value that isn’t just about happiness.
Despite the single-minded focus of the presidential election on economic issues, there has been a deafening silence on one economic issue: poverty.
However, the case of the disappearing poor people in American political discussion is about to be busted wide open. Young Americans are increasingly self-identifying as lower-class, and if trends continue this could fundamentally change American politics.
Mitt Romney faced criticism recently for defining the middle-class as anyone who makes under $200-250k a year. It’s beyond me why liberals aren’t equally outraged that Obama has been basically saying the same thing by using that exact same income level as a cut off for his demands to raise taxes on the rich.
Of course Republicans don’t talk much about poverty because they don’t care very much about poor people.
But the Democratic Party has also given up talking about poverty because it doesn’t poll well. Despite Obama’s background as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, he has virtually stopped mentioning the word “poverty” since becoming president.
Often Democrats use “middle-class” as code for everyone but the rich. But I think many Democrats have actually abandoned thinking about poverty at all.
It’s common knowledge among poli sci douchebag undergraduates that most Americans of all income levels consider themselves middle-class, so you have to frame every political issue as how it benefits the middle-class.
Right? Wrong! According to new Pew polling, somewhere in the last few years we officially crossed the threshold—only 49% of Americans in 2012 consider themselves middle-class. Now nearly a third of Americans define themselves as “lower class”.
Where is the change coming from? Mostly a big shift in Americans under the age of 30.
Experiencing hard times in a recession is very different from altering your class identity. It takes a lot for someone who grew up in a middle-class suburb, graduated from college, whose parents still expect them to be a well-paid professional, and whose friends and romantic partners all come from pretty much that same socioeconomic background, to suddenly change their identity to being “lower class”, even if their official income puts them in that statistical tier.
I think there’s actually a deeper-level shift going on among young people who came of age during the Great Recession.
So what are the implications of that kind of shift?
Lefty activist types are always moaning about the lack of class-consciousness among the American working class. Why do so many low-income people vote against their own interests because they identify as middle-class? It’s so much harder in the US to create the political pressure to reduce income inequality. No one wants to wage another War on Poverty if everyone thinks their family is the Brady Bunch.
So if that changes, it changes everything. If our generation signals a new trend, in the next generation we could see broad new demands for the political system to serve the interests of low-income Americans: single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, free universities, strong unions, affordable housing, real public transportation and a return to 1950’s-era taxes on the rich. A change in the identity of millions of young Americans could mean no less than a reemergence of the political power of the working-class.
It’s Labor Day! Let’s talk about unions. Specifically about how the decline of labor unions is the biggest thing young progressives should be freaked out about and aren’t.
Now that I’ve made one sweeping bold statement with minimal evidence (isn’t that the whole point of a blog?), here goes another: I believe the economic justice movement will be the most important social movement of our generation.
Income inequality has reached levels only rivaled by those that ignited the American labor movement and the New Deal, and doesn’t show any signs of turning the other direction. Clearly the spontaneous explosion of Occupy shows that this is the biggest issue resonating with our generation right now.
The decline of organized labor is one of the largest factors in the growth of income inequality and shrinking middle class of the last few decades. Although trends like globalization and technology are creating larger gaps between rich and poor across the world, no industrialized country has experienced the immense rise in income inequality that is happening here in the US. That is to say, this problem is manmade: through policy, institutions, and culture specific to our country.
As an organizer, I believe most things happen or don’t happen as a result of political struggles whose outcomes are determined by the power built by organizing people and/or money. Given that, if we can’t figure out how to reverse our shrinking ability to organize people as workers, our hopes of achieving a more fair economy look pretty dismal.
There are all kinds of differing theories for why organized labor is in decline: unions have priced themselves out of the market in an increasingly competitive global economy, public opinion has turned against them, employers have developed a hostile anti-union culture, policy change has rigged the rules against labor organizers, the growing service sector is much harder to organize, etc.
Policy does play a role—an op-ed today from economist Dean Baker highlights how Canada has not had a decline in union membership during the several decades that unions have been decimated in America. Baker credits the legality of card-check unionization drives, where a majority of workers simply have to sign a card, rather than an election where employers can delay, intimidate, and fire union supporters. However, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have created a similar system in the US died in Congress and is unlikely to pass any time soon. I think legislation requiring strict time limits for union elections and harsh penalties for employer intimidation would be a more likely alternative in the more conservative political culture of the US.
However, I think the path to real change lies in a complete overhaul of the American labor movement. Complaints about unfair rules, although true, show the myopic stagnation of modern American organized labor. At the height of the American labor movement, unions were illegal in the US. You don’t get much more “hostile policy environment” than Pinkerton detectives literally beating your ass in the streets.
The truth is, the American economy has changed completely since the 1970’s. Labor organizing has to shift as the economy shifts. Organized labor found itself at a similar hopeless low point in the 1920’s, as America had made a major transition into an industrial economy, where craft unions had become increasingly irrelevant. Skilled craftsmen had been replaced by industrial machines that employed masses of unskilled immigrant laborers who the old unions viewed as unorganizable. But the CIO built a new model of unionization that sought to organize whole factories, whole industries at a time using strikes and sit-ins. The CIO’s meteoric rise ushered in the height of the American labor movement and the largest middle class ever created in world history.
We are moving from an industrial to a service economy, and this change has dramatically accelerated during the Great Recession. Although most of the jobs lost were in middle-class sectors like manufacturing and construction, most of the jobs being gained are in low-wage industries like hospitality, food service, and retail. This is the growing share of the economy that most unions have long dismissed as unorganizable—service jobs dominated by young people, women and people of color, where worksites contain small groups of people scattered across large geographic areas who are often part-time or temporary.
We need a new organizing model for the service economy—not just unions that organize service workers, because there are a few (and to give them some deserved credit, these are some of the most progressive unions today). But a whole new model, like the CIO invented for industrial workers.
We can continue to have broadly shared prosperity and a strong middle-class with a service-based economy. Service workers can and should have the dignity of being able to afford to live in a safe home, to take care of their family when they get sick, to send their kids to a good school and to retire after working hard in life. There is no inherent reason why an assembly line worker should be able to be middle-class and a service worker should be poor, except for the fact that it is easier to organize a union under the current model in a GM factory than a Chipotle.
What should this new model look like? I have no idea and won’t pretend to. I have spent zero years as a labor organizer and only a few years as a service worker.
What I do know is that it will likely take the collective brains of a lot of great organizers to figure it out.
But what we don’t need is more of the same. We don’t need unions spending so much of their time pushing bills like EFCA that are dead on arrival. We don’t need unions fighting losing battles over trade agreements and globalization. We don’t need unions being cash cows for the Democratic Party and then being ignored as soon as elections are over. We don’t need unions clinging to the last safe harbor, the public sector, where unions are seen as a special interest pitted in opposition to the average taxpayer rather than workers fighting against corporate greed.
What we need is a real investment in organizing new workers, and an approach that is open to experimentation. (If I had more space I’d like to give credit where credit is due to the many examples where this is already starting to happen.)
So here’s where the young progressive activists come in. Of all the friends I know who went into community organizing, campaign work, policy work, nonprofits, etc. since I graduated, I only know one who decided to be a labor organizer.
If we believe in a fair, sustainable economy with human dignity for all, we must create a vibrant labor movement. If we want to rejuvenate the labor movement, it will require experimenting with new approaches to organizing service workers. And if we want the establishment of organized labor in America to try new models of organizing service workers, we young people have to start putting our shoulders up against that bureaucratic wall and pushing against the heavy inertia of tradition.
And if we don’t? It’s our asses on the line. It’s us and our friends who will be struggling to support families on that paycheck from the mall.
Happy Labor Day, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but history shows that it’s not impossible. If our predecessors could do it against all odds, so can we.
American progressives act like a teenager who’s gotten so used to being rejected for prom and picked last in dodgeball that we just keep our heads down and try to make it through another day without getting our asses kicked. The message I want to send to the American political left is similar to what I want to tell all disaffected and awkward teenagers. I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say “Chill the fuck out! You got this!”
It’s fair for progressives to feel like losers. After all, we’ve mostly been fighting defensive, losing battles for a solid forty years, leaving us with a nation of gaping income inequality, a tattered social safety net, and immense corporate influence over elections and lawmaking. We’ve been beat not only in the arena of laws and government, but in the arena of ideas: The commonly accepted worldview in America every day seems to bear a closer and closer resemblance to the Hunger Games, with ruthless competition and inequality accepted as the necessary conditions for the prosperity of life’s winners.
So when the Supreme Court upheld health care reform, setting the stage for the rollout of arguably the most historic victory for the left in a generation, many of us were stunned. Not because we thought Obamacare was actually unconstitutional, but because we’ve seen the right wing consistently dominate nearly every major American institution, including the Supreme Court, and expected a losing vote along ideological lines.
But progressives, get your boots on, because we’re entering a new era of ass-kicking. And no, the asses being kicked won’t be ours. I believe we’re going to win this round of history and here are my three reasons why.
1. Their Coalition is Falling Apart, Our Coalition is Coming Together
The right’s coalition is essentially made of three parts: working-class rural evangelicals, wealthy pro-business social moderates, and national security war hawks. All three loved Ronald Reagan, a unity that lasted through much of the Bush years, but ultimately ended in fracture best seen in the 2008 GOP presidential frontrunners: Mike Huckabee (working-class evangelicals), Mitt Romney (Wall St. types), and John McCain (war hawks).
Like any coalition, it was built over time. In the late 1960’s, the Republican Party created the “Southern Strategy”, a plan to wedge working-class Southern whites away from the Democratic New Deal Coalition that had held dominance since the time of FDR. Nixon and his strategists used racial issues and the Democratic Party’s passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s to make white Southerners place their political allegiances with the side that served their racial interests, not the side that served their economic interests. The emergence of the Christian Right in the late 1970’s pulled working-class rural whites further into the coalition. The religious establishment embarked on a campaign to politicize their base and move into partisan politics and media, starting organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. Through much of American history, war has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. But neoconservative war hawks gathered under the banner of the right in opposition to the peace movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. They argued that a powerful American military presence was necessary to secure global freedom in the face of communism, and later Islam. Thus national security interests became aligned with the religious and economic interests of the right wing, as protecting the Christian American tradition and free market capitalism became the main motive for use of US military force around the world. And Wall St. pro-business types? Well, they’ve been with the right since the days of Herbert Hoover. By 1980, the modern conservative coalition was solid enough to usher in decades of social change according to their demands: deregulation of industry and finance, slashing the social safety net, and dramatically lowering the top tax rate.
However, in the aftermath of the Bush years, the mess of the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and finally the crushing loss to Barack Obama, this coalition began to unravel. With politics focused on the economy, the main fissure came at the seam between rural evangelicals and the pro-business establishment. Many conservatives, suspicious of Wall St.’s ties to government, believed the Mitt Romneys of the world had sold out their small-government conservative principles for corporate welfare and might even secretly not quite believe in their social values, only embracing them at arms length in order to get the votes of rural evangelicals. (Now why would they think that?) Grassroots conservative activists saw this as part of some larger morality play, where the reason the right had lost in 2008 was a lack of faithfulness to its right-wing principles. This tension finally erupted into the Tea Party, a movement of raw anger not just directed at Obama, but also the Republican Party establishment. The schizophrenic GOP primary of 2012 made clear that a large portion of conservatives could barely stomach Mitt Romney and everything his part of the right wing coalition represented. The coalition may remain intact as long as they are united by a common enemy (Obama), but it seems to be inevitably on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, a modern progressive coalition is uniting closer than ever before. Throughout world history, the left has mostly been a ragtag team of disenfranchised groups who through some miracle (and a lot of hard organizing) managed to band together under some general values like equality, community, compassion etc. Yet this coalition is often fraught with arguments over who is more oppressed and whose progress should be the priority, like a pissed off hydra whose multiple heads can’t decide which enemy to bite and often just bite each other. Environmentalists sometimes find themselves at odds with organized labor, who sometimes take positions against immigrants, who sometimes vote in opposition to LGBT people, who sometimes help gentrify black neighborhoods. But I think we’ve recently seen a historic consolidation of our progressive coalition. Just this year, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza both endorsed marriage equality for gays and lesbians for the first time. In 2009, the two federations of labor unions in the US for the first time came to an agreement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalist groups teamed up with unions in 2006 to create the Blue Green Alliance advocating for green jobs. Meanwhile, mainstream environmentalist groups have begun to adopt the principles of environmental justice. Urban community organizations have been doing groundbreaking coalition work between blacks and Latinos, fighting the narrative that pits American born low-wage workers against immigrants.
Like the right wing coalition that was built over a decade from the late 60’s to the late 70’s, this modern progressive coalition will take some time to reach its true strength. But the signs are clear: there is more unity on the left, and less unity on the right, than any time in recent history.
2. Modern Communication Technology is Eroding the Right’s Advantage in Messaging
Over the last few decades, conservatives have won the war of ideas. The basis of right wing ideology (individualism is the natural way of things, government is always bad, racism doesn’t exist anymore, etc) has become the basis of American political thought in general. For a long time, the right has simply had stronger, more cohesive messaging. I’ll acknowledge some of it is just that their communications people are smarter and more strategic than ours. But I think much of it comes from political psychology, and the different ways that conservatives and liberals approach political communication. Studies have shown that people who identify as conservative have stronger impulses to respect authority and more group discipline. They also think more in the language of abstract values and principles than policy analysis and comparing outcomes. Thus the right has a natural advantage in top-down, highly cohesive, simplistic messaging. In other words, they’re bred for the age of talk radio and cable news. Thus, as talk radio and cable news eclipsed print newspapers and as people began to prefer TV commentators shouting at each other over the old boring evening news anchors, the effectiveness of conservative messaging grew. Right wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch learned how to use the media effectively as a political tool and built an empire of news outlets that reached millions of Americans. The TV commentators of the left were no match for the titans of conservative cable TV (think Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O’Reilly). Republican Party political figures coordinated their messages with conservative activists and media pundits much more closely than the Democratic Party did with left-wing activists. It all relied on the willingness of conservatives to all roughly stick to the same set of messages and talking points distributed from the top down.
On the left, cohesive messaging has never been our strong point. Most of us hear a simple, powerful political argument and say something like: “Well what you didn’t mention is how this group is affected, and the potential unintended consequences of that policy. Here’s a series of statistics and a great Noam Chomsky book to explain what I mean.” We’re a less homogenous group, so we tend to craft messages in ways that help mobilize our own communities. The way we talk to a middle-class white college student about health care reform is different from how we talk to a middle-aged black mother or an uninsured immigrant service worker, and the different parts of our coalition have a hard time sitting down at the table to come up with some talking points that work for everyone. If the Democratic Party tried to hand down talking points to progressive journalists, nonprofits, and professors they would get smacked upside their collective heads. When we try to communicate our message to political moderates, it ends up being full of wonky facts to contradict the dominant conservative worldview (“GDP growth has no correlation with marginal tax rates!”) or fringe-sounding arguments that use unfamiliar academic language (like “reproductive justice” and “intersectionality”). What we don’t do is collectively articulate our own values in words people understand and clearly frame our vision of a different world. Without strong, unified messaging, we quickly lose ground in major policy debates. For example, when you poll Americans on individual parts of the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of them get solid public support, including majority support among Republican voters for many major provisions of health care reform. However, when you ask Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the law overall, it remains widely unpopular. We managed to take something the American public liked and wanted, and let the right convince them that they hated it.
But the light at the end of the tunnel is here! We are entering an age of new media. Having conservative TV pundits, radio show personalities, Republican politicians, right wing advocacy groups and think tanks all arguing from the same set of talking points is becoming less and less advantageous. The era of Rush Limbaugh is over! All hail the era of the viral infographic! And we’re great at viral infographics! Anyone can create their own content that would appeal to their own social network, and thus micro-target our messages to the narrowest of socioeconomic, demographic or regional categories. Policy wonks and political junkies can share news and data in a way that is visually appealing and accessible, and have it spread virally out to the grassroots. Here, the top-down approach of strict adherence to a set of talking points will fail. People don’t click on a link to the same dogmatic argument they’ve heard for years. People don’t obediently share memes made by the Republican National Committee.
Of course we’re still at the beginning stages of this change. Most people get their news from the traditional sources still, and although the Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world are on the decline, they remain powerful. However, we know where things are headed and it can only be good for us on the left. What social media is allowing us to do is crowdsource our messaging. In fact, it’s what we progressives have been doing all along, it just wasn’t working before.
3. Our Base is Growing, Their Base is Shrinking
We are a demographic bomb that’s going to explode in Rush Limbaugh’s face. The best part is, he knows it. Even between the 2008 election and the 2012 election, the voting bloc of young people, single women and people of color identified by liberal strategists as the “Rising American Electorate” will have grown by millions. In fact, the RAE accounted for 81% of the population growth in the country between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census. Progressive-leaning demographic groups are steadily rising as a share of the voting population, and conservative-leaning groups are declining. No one believes this trend is going to turn around any time soon. Soon enough, America will look like California and California will look like LA. And astonishingly, the GOP and the right as a whole are proving themselves either a) laughably incompetent at appealing to anyone other than straight white males or b) actually crazy enough to be willing to shrivel up and die rather than give up racism, sexism and homophobia. Maybe it’s just that people are smart enough not to trust an ideology that’s been trying to screw them over for all of human history just because they get a Cuban senator who offers up a watered down version of the DREAM Act. Either way I think it’s safe to say that everyone saw this coming and in 30 years what’s left of the Republican Party will be wondering why they actively chose to dig their own grave generations ago.
Rather than moderate their views on issues like immigration or women’s rights, conservatives are making last ditch attempts to ensure this demographic change does not lead to political change. They know if all those immigrants’ kids whose parents they tried to deport, all those young single women whose ability to sue for equal pay they filibustered, and all those young people whose college tuition they raised, actually register to vote, turn out at the polls, and get politically organized, they’re totally fucked. It might explain many Republican members of Congress’s reversal on the (formerly) bipartisan DREAM Act, or any other proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens and vote. Today’s slew of voter suppression laws and voter registration purges spreading across the country, supposedly designed to address some nonexistent wave of rampant voter fraud, are a transparent attack on young people, immigrants, and low-income communities. UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud in the US, but somehow conservatives around the country have decided this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with, preferably before November 6, 2012. The right has also developed an obsession with taking down organizations that enhance the political power of those progressive-leaning groups: ACORN, Planned Parenthood, unions, etc. Perhaps the scariest is the Tea Party vigilante “True the Vote” groups that are traveling all over the country to intimidate voters at the polls, again under the strange assumption that there’s some epidemic of illegal college student voters trying to ruin America.
These kind of tactics might work for a while. They succeeded in the post-slavery South for a few generations between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. But in the end, they’re a desperate short-term strategy that will fail. Eventually the right will have to concede that they ignored the writing on the wall and have spent most of history trying to limit who was defined as part of the “real America”, as Sarah Palin would say. But as their idea of “real Americans” becomes a smaller minority of the population, they will either have to acknowledge the humanity of others or shrivel away into the margins of the history books.
However, demographic change does not automatically produce political power. If California is a predictor of what the national population will look like soon, it is also a warning that conservatives can have an influence far disproportionate to their share of the population if they remain more politically organized. Voter education, registration and turnout efforts will help win political battles. But this must be combined with stronger stances to make real progress on issues like college affordability or immigration reform (I’m looking at you, Democratic Party establishment). A voter taken for granted is a voter who has better things to do on election night. However, with some tough organizers and some accountable elected officials, we can change the electoral map in the United States, and thus the realm of political possibility, forever.
The Roadmap to Victory
From the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s, conservatives built a powerful movement that fundamentally altered the course of the nation’s history. They stood upon a bedrock foundation of America’s strongest institutions: big business, the church and the military. Unified, clear, and values-based right-wing messages echoed through millions of homes in the era of talk radio and cable news commentators. Elections still mostly hinged on who could win the votes of older white males, and conservatives rallied monolithic support from this base.
But at the beginning of the 21st century, this movement has begun to stumble. A rift has appeared between the grassroots conservatives of America’s heartland and the business elites that dominated the Republican Party. The media megaphones of the right, Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, are beginning to fade from prominence. And their single-minded focus on older white voters is backfiring, as a more diverse and progressive generation comes of age.
I believe that the history books will one day read that starting in the late 2000’s, the progressive movement began to shift the balance of power. The books will say that starting around this time, a series of stunning alliances formed between groups with historical tensions. Unions, immigrants, civil rights groups, LGBT activists, environmentalists and more began to stick together under a banner of solidarity based on the basic values of fairness, community and dignity. They ultimately failed to come up with anything resembling a cohesive message, but in the age of social media it didn’t matter. Their ideas spread like wildfire across social networks, with millions of grassroots activists and everyday supporters writing blogs, sharing news, creating graphics that communicated the values of their movement. And starting in 2008, something changed: the presidential election didn’t depend on who won the votes of older white males, but on black and young voters turning out to the polls like never before. From then on, the tide began to shift, and a new growing majority looked at the politicians who had dismissed them in favor of the “real America”, and this new majority declared: “We are the real America.”
Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left. Those trying to predict the movement’s impact should stop wondering whether the protesters will adopt “clear demands” and look instead at strategy and structure. Pundits speculate the movement might sweep into power in Congress, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But for many of the protesters, winning the upcoming elections or passing bills is not the goal of the movement. They have a deeper discontent, struggling against the very structure of modern American society.
The Tea Party knew what it wanted immediately and took it. Far from a motley crew, the Tea Party is actually a highly regimented election machine run by some of the sharpest conservative political operatives in the country, which has harnessed the power of corporate money and grassroots organizing to relentlessly push a single legislative goal: cut everything. Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strength, its democratic spontaneity, is also a natural disadvantage that will keep it from ever becoming the Tea Party. But it could rival it by forming membership organizations to sustain networks of supporters, using an electoral strategy run by experienced progressive strategists, and rallying around spokespeople who can powerfully convey the vision of the movement.
Politicians are driven by fear and opportunity. Members of Congress will not take action unless they fear Occupy Wall Street as they did the Tea Party. If OWS rejects a legislative/electoral strategy, its absence in November 2012 will not be the fault of the protesters, but the fault of establishment progressive politicians, donors, and strategists for sitting on the sidelines.
The difference is not in type of strategy, but in the existence of a centralized strategy itself. Beneath the surface the Tea Party is run by veteran Republican Party political operatives, such as Dick Armey, who runs FreedomWorks. It is funded with a deep war chest from long-time Republican campaign donors like the Koch brothers. These strategists were the architects of the monumental grassroots pressure during the summer of 2009 that put healthcare reform on life support. They crafted the talking points that shouted down Democratic members of Congress in town hall meetings across America and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. By November 2010, they had built powerful voter mobilization networks of canvassers and phonebankers, and recruited, trained, and funded candidates that swept Congress, knocking out Democrats and traditional Republicans alike.
Veteran Republican politicians like John McCain dropped their moderate leanings and moved to the right, fearing more conservative primary challengers. Democrats in swing districts feared the power of the Tea Party’s electoral machine even more. Even the Republican congressional leadership feared the threat of rebellion from the Tea Party Caucus at any hint of moderation. The Tea Party pushed their demands relentlessly, through ruthless brinksmanship over default on the national debt, government shutdown, unemployment insurance, even hurricane disaster relief. And they won big again and again, forcing trillions of dollars in cuts.
Congress does not fear Occupy Wall Street the way they feared the Tea Party. The feeble lip service of Democrats and the scornful shrugs of Republicans show they feel no urgency to meet their demands. This is not an underestimation of their strength, but a calculation of their strategy. OWS is built on disillusionment with Washington that may extend all the way to the ballot box. No one can be sure how many of the protestors will even vote in November, let alone build something like the Tea Party’s campaign juggernaut.
It’s impossible to foresee what impact the movement will have on the next election, but without a significant change of direction, it may be almost none. If this happens, don’t blame the occupying protesters. They aren’t the cause of a lack of faith in government, they are a symptom. We should blame the James Carvilles for not building electoral campaigns around this movement, and blame the George Soros’s for not funding its operations. Michelle Bachmann formed the Tea Party Caucus four months before the elections that swept the Tea Party into power. A charismatic young progressive member of Congress should be forming the “99% Caucus” in Congress right now.
The Tea Party gained influence even before the election because members knew that it would soon be at their doorstep. They were already feeling the mounting pressure of citizens who packed their events and flooded their offices with calls. This gave Tea Party organizers short-term victories, such as the watering down of health care reform and the abandonment of capping carbon emissions.
Short-term victories keep up the momentum in social movements, energizing participants who can easily lose focus or faith in their own efforts. People participating in the political process for the first time can be inspired by a new movement they identify with, but easily let down when it runs up against the wall of political inertia.
We’ll see if the Occupy Wall Street movement can win any short-term victories. It will need a clear immediate battle to focus on. This is much more important than whether or not they choose to develop a laundry list platform of demands. If they choose not to take up a legislative agenda, they could use direct action tactics like recruiting millions to switch from banks to credit unions.
If they do want to take up battles over specific legislation, like the Tea Party did with health care reform, it will require them to be feared and respected in Congress. They will need to create a situation where Democrats are genuinely afraid that if they don’t stand behind a dramatic increase in taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, they will be thrown out by a popular primary challenger from the left. Republicans in swing districts will need to be afraid that if they don’t vote against their party, a grassroots opponent will mobilize volunteers and energize donors to take their seat.
This is unlikely to happen with OWS without a significant shift in direction. They would need one short-term issue focus, a few Congressional champions to write legislation for them, a strategy for pressuring members of Congress to vote their way, and the electoral muscle to back up their threats if they don’t.
The Tea Party has a key advantage over Occupy Wall Street: easy messaging. The Tea Party has a message of destruction. Get rid of government. Take it out with a chainsaw, not with a scalpel. They don’t care how, they just want it big and they want it now. $200 billion is better than $100 billion in budget cuts. $300 billion is better than $200 billion. They don’t need a ten-point platform. They have a one-point platform.
What does OWS want? Do they want higher taxes on the top 1% for deficit reduction, job creation, social services, or lower taxes on the rest of us? The weakening of corporate influence in Washington? Stronger financial reform to prevent another meltdown? Or do they want a society that simply gets rid of big financial institutions? Do they envision the ultimate overthrow of modern multinational corporate capitalism and a return to simple regional economies, expansive social safety nets, or some sort of cooperative system?
The truth is, “they” don’t want anything. Individual people within the movement want different things—they are each disparate pixels in a picture that has yet to emerge in clarity. Whether or not to draft up specific demands is one of the main contentions between rival camps within the movement.
Of course the minute details of financial regulation or campaign finance reform should be worked out by legislators and policy experts. They can analyze the Volcker Rule and leverage ratios and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure-only committees. Those who say the people in Zuccotti Park need to work them out are ignoring the history of social movements. But unfortunately, the problems of political and economic inequality this movement seeks to solve will require extremely complex solutions, unlike the perceived problem the Tea Party seeks to solve, which only requires budget cutting.
Eventually, as the Wisconsin protesters coalesced around “Kill the Bill” and the Egyptian protesters demanded the resignation of Mubarak, successful protests will need a clear short-term demand that can be met by their targets. This gives them the first decisive victory they need to grow.
If OWS develops an immediate goal, their next challenge will be selling it to the public. The movement started with a much steeper uphill climb in getting media recognition than the Tea Party. It took hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge to be taken seriously by the press. The Tea Party had national spokespeople, such as Glenn Beck, who could articulate and broadcast their goals to millions from the mountaintop of the most widely viewed news network in America. This gave them message control, in addition to the natural message control that comes with wanting something so simplistic.
Think of any major social movement in American history. The first thing that comes to mind is often its spokespeople. Why? Not because Martin Luther King Jr. himself singlehandedly delivered civil rights to America. But because he was the spokesperson that articulated the movement’s vision to the average American. He provided a coherent “dream”, an idea of a more just world that people could picture in their minds, an imagined world that seemed better than the existing reality.
A spokesperson can make a radical idea make sense to everyday people. Without spokespeople, reporters delight in interviewing the most ignorant person they can find in a crowd and portraying an entire movement as insane. When reporters know the leader they need a quote from for every new political development, they interview them. Malcolm X was a communications genius, explaining the tenets of Black Nationalism with remarkable clarity and denying the media the ability to portray his followers as disorganized and confused.
This kind of message discipline requires spokespeople, and will be hard to enforce on a movement that is so democratic it resists using microphones. This highlights the real difference between OWS and the Tea Party: OWS is actually grassroots, while the Tea Party is artificial. Most Tea Party members are not regular struggling Americans who suddenly turned against Obama’s economic policies; the vast majority of Tea Party members are longtime registered Republicans who were excited about hating Obama. Their movement briefly captured the imagination of the country, but lost popularity as Americans recognized it as a cheap reproduction of old ideas. However, many OWS protesters are disillusioned people who are participating in political action for the first time in their lives, who didn’t even vote in the last election. They emotionally connect to new recruits in a way the Tea Party simply can’t, using the language of those who feel voiceless and helpless in the new American Gilded Age.
They are fiercely against hierarchy and wary of leaders of the Democratic Party who might proclaim themselves spokespeople. But movements tend to gravitate to charismatic leaders, and sooner or later, one will likely emerge. Elizabeth Warren seems like an ideal pick. If she risked her Senate bid to step into the front of this movement, she might become much more powerful than a regular US Senator. Whether someone like her can organize OWS to have focused message control will determine much of the movement’s success.
In retrospect we imagine nebulous movements, but they are built on institutions. No one joined the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t come to a Civil Rights Movement meeting or take a Civil Rights Movement flier. They came to a SNCC meeting or an SCLC meeting or a CORE meeting. Those organizations created long-term strategies around specific issues, built networks of members on personal relationships, and executed actions around which they could mobilize people and pressure decision-makers to act.
Movements are sparked before institutions. Oddly enough, the Tea Party was ignited by an on-air rant from a stock trader turned financial reporter. OWS was launched by Canadian activist magazine Adbusters.
But sooner or later, without institutions to actively organize members, the rallies start to get smaller and smaller, while elected officials dismiss yet another has-been movement which lost its glamour. Some activists are professional rally-starters who know only one tactic: mobilizing, which they confuse with organizing. The difference between mobilizing and organizing is the ability to drive something long-term through relationship building and continuous leadership development. It takes little more than putting up posters or making a Facebook event to start a huge rally the day the government announces an unpopular decision. The question is: can you bring out a few thousand people again when lobbyists try to silently kill your bill in committee? Do you even know the names of the people you mobilized?
If I Google “Tea Party,” on the first page of results I find the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party.org and the Patriot Action Network. I can sign up to volunteer, donate and find events in my area on the first page of each of their websites.
This may happen with Occupy Wall Street, but it hasn’t yet. To win long-term goals like abolishing corporate personhood, requiring a constitutional amendment, OWS needs a sustainable movement. It will need to create organizations, which may not be able to function on general assembly consensus-only decision-making. A movement should never have one central organization. But OWS could, like the Tea Party, end up with several core organizations.
The Tea Party is an unusual movement with its ranks of millions ready to hit the pavement, but the checkbook of a movement whose goals coincide perfectly with corporate America. I don’t think this advantage is unbeatable. A “99% PAC” could raise Obama-esque money online from small donors and potentially go head to head against big oil, banks, and insurance companies. With the movement behind them, a fiery populist candidate could run for senate raising money online from individuals, not corporations.
This movement may build institutions as it matures. But it also may reject institutions as undemocratic and stifling. Many people, probably a few of my friends, would read this essay and complain that I’m attempting to introduce hierarchy, bureaucratize the movement or let it be co-opted by unions or the Democratic Party to win elections. But if this movement is still standing strong two years from now, it will have built long-lasting institutions to carry on the fight.
This country needs a new powerful and enduring grassroots movement with fresh ideas and passionate energy. It has not been political parties, but movements like these that have changed history. But for every successful movement, there have been ten revolutions that suffered quiet deaths of irrelevance, movements which have flashed and disappeared, slipping into the footnotes of history. If America has any chance of reversing our rampant political and economic inequality, it will need a movement like this to be strategic, to move us, to last, and to make us feel like we own our country again.
America’s founding fathers created a system of checks and balances that would, above all, preserve political moderation from the wild-eyed fervor of democracy. There is a certain advantage in the American political system to being a moderate. Meanwhile, polarization is blamed, with a good deal of truth, for much of the gridlock and mudslinging in modern politics.
That being said… I am not, never have been, and never will be a moderate.
Politics is dirty business. It’s only worth engaging in because at the end of the day, the results of politics, can mean poverty or prosperity, dignity or despair, and even life or death for people in our communities. If we have liberty or equality or basic human rights today, it’s because good people decided politics shouldn’t just be left up to those who are in it for their own fame or fortune. My existence is the result of a history of politics. The fact that I can afford an education, the fact that I have a weekend off work to write this, the fact that my mother was able to become a professional who could raise two children on her own, the fact that my ancestors stopped being excluded from immigrating to this country, is all because some good people engaged in politics and fought the entrenched interests of the status quo.
It is absolutely not because of moderates.
It is because there were brave people who were willing to take a stand, even if it was controversial. People who believed in justice, who believed in compassion and tolerance for other human beings, people who believed in giving everyone the opportunity to succeed, and in a basic standard of living for all human beings. People who felt without doubt that the way things were in their society was undeniably wrong and refused to accept it.
In a time when in the name of austerity, we are cutting away at those ideals, lying the burden of balancing government budgets on children, on the disabled, on women, on the poor, on the elderly, in order to maintain low taxes on the rich and wars overseas, I cannot be a moderate.
Simply because there are people out there who are saying something, does not mean that they are in some way also equally right. There were people who said that the freeing of slaves in this country would collapse our economy, who said that giving women the right to vote would destroy our democracy, who said that the government had no business helping poor kids go to school instead of work in the factories. What did the moderates say then? They insisted that both sides just weren’t listening to each other, everyone was at fault for being so polarized, and that we should look at both sides of the issue and weigh them equally.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. I believe that. It doesn’t bend though, without a lot of pulling. There are those who don’t want that arc to move an inch. And there are moderates who simply follow wherever the arc happens to be, at the place and time that they are living their lives. And then there are those who are doing the pulling, the straining, the backbreaking work of bending that arc in the right direction.
History will not remember as heroes those who urged us to split the difference 50/50 and call it even. I understand that there is an inherent urge in human beings to not rock the boat, to not have to do anything controversial or which powerful people or some large portion of the population might be angry about. That urge stays constant throughout human history, only changing its political platform to accommodate the changing winds of society’s new norms. It is the same urge that made some of us 3/5th human under federal law. It is the same urge that today does not question the constant string of attacks on the poor, on workers, on the elderly, on students, on immigrants, but simply disagrees with the extent of those attacks.
I can think of lots of things that are always better in moderation: alcohol, hot sauce, makeup, the list goes on. But compassion and tolerance are not on that list. They are not better in moderation; they are better loud, unapologetic, audacious, and bold.
There is another Martin Luther King Jr. quote, taken from Dante’s inferno, which says “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
The gap between rich and poor has risen to historic levels, as corporations are taking in record profits while demanding that restrictions and taxes on them be stripped away at the expense of workers and the environment, as our county is strewn with families kicked out of their homes and out of work while the “political capital” to help them seems nowhere to be found, let alone to stop ourselves from baking the very planet we live in. I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that this is a time of great moral conflict.
That is why I am not a moderate.
I am, however, a pragmatist. There is a difference. I think that many people I know who see themselves as political moderates are actually what I would call pragmatists.
A pragmatist puts results over dogma, victory over philosophy. I realize that in a democracy, not a dictatorship, there is no use in intellectual speculation about what the world would be like if I had my way. I don’t. I have a blurred vision of a better world than the one I live in, and I would like to win a few small but significant battles in my life to move reality in that direction.
A moderate views unconditional compromise as the ideal outcome. A pragmatist views compromise as a means to an end, and only does it in order to get something in return. A pragmatist is willing to gain ground towards progress and justice bit by bit, but is never satisfied. A moderate wishes only to stand on whatever ground happens to lie in the middle.
I believe that most of human history has been a long, slow struggle for progress against powerful forces of greed and intolerance, and that this struggle continues today. And I’ve read my history and I know which side I’m on.
So here’s to a life fighting the good fight. Hope I win a few.