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.
A New York Times article today noted the rise in influence of Asian-Americans in philanthropy. It has some weird stuff about Asian cultures having a tradition of giving to charity, which as far as I know may be made up. But the point remains that any time you have a growing community of new money, it means new money to give away.
And in this case, the large numbers of highly-educated Asian immigrants (mostly from India, Korea and Taiwan) who have been brought to the US by high-tech employers might be the biggest new money community in American history. As you might expect, this is making some old money white folks freak out. Mostly about the prospects of their children getting squeezed out of Harvard by the kids of the engineers who designed their iPhones. (Some even say there is an “Asian quota” in the Ivy League, similar to those once faced by Jewish Americans, another new money group of highly-educated immigrants that threatened the halls of America’s elite institutions.)
But what America’s elites should really fear is the inevitable result of trying to close the doors on others: political backlash.
Asian and Pacific Islander voters went even harder for Obama last year than Latinos did. That’s more than double the 31% of Asian-Americans who supported Clinton 20 years ago.
Political analysts are dumbfounded– shouldn’t any group with high average incomes vote Republican out of basic self-interest? In the aftermath of the election they scrambled to come up with all kinds of stupid explanations– Asian culture is collectivist not individualist, Asians like science and the GOP is anti-science, Asians mostly live in liberal coastal cities like SF and NY– none of which makes sense, since it doesn’t explain the shift over the last 20 years from Asian-Americans being conservative voters in the 1990’s.
My theory is that this trend is being driven by younger second-generation API folks who have grown up within the context of America’s racial politics. Most countries have some kind of left/right political divide, but America’s left vs. right is deeply rooted in race in a way that isn’t as intuitive to new immigrants. You also see this among Latino immigrant communities, where US-born Latinos are more likely to self-identify as “liberal” than their parents.
Even if you might have been a conservative in another country, for a person of color in America it takes about 10 minutes of watching Glenn Beck foam at the mouth about Obama’s plans to destroy white America to realize you’re not welcome at this particular tea party. The more familiar you are with American political culture the more likely you are to notice that American conservatism has a racist, exclusionary undertone in a way South Korean or Taiwanese conservatism probably does not.
According to the National Asian American Survey, taken in late September, young (under 35) Asian-Americans were nearly twice as likely to support Obama as their parents’ generation, and also less than half as likely to be undecided on who to vote for.
I predict eventually Asian-Americans will occupy a strange political space similar to Jewish-Americans. (Jewish voters have overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates as far back as data is available). Asian-Americans will also become a group who, despite high average incomes that might otherwise predict conservative leanings, consistently vote Democratic and are heavily represented among prominent progressive activists, academics, politicians and donors.
Money brings political clout. And you can bet that growing philanthropy mentioned above is not just funding universities and soup kitchens, but candidates and advocacy organizations too. And because many API advocacy groups are not ethnic-specific but work on behalf of API Americans as a whole, they often take strong social justice stances because of the many smaller API ethnic groups and older immigrants who are low-income and politically disenfranchised. Like Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans will likely have an influence on politics larger than simple numbers as voters.
But the numbers will be important too. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are now the fastest growing racial group in America. Jewish people make up only 2% of the U.S. population, much less even than the current API population. But Asian-Americans are expected to grow to 9% of all Americans by midcentury. That’s nearly the size of the current black population.
In fact, Asian-Americans will be the fastest-growing, wealthiest, and most rapidly leftward shifting group in America, all at the same time.
And that’s bad news bears for the right wing.
And now for your moment of Zen, Bill O’Reilly being confused by the existence of liberal Asians:
Let me start off by saying that elections get way more emphasis than they should, and that most of the real work of social change happens in the aftermath, pressuring elected officials to do the right thing.
But that being said, elections really do matter, and this one was truly beautiful.
To me this election confirmed my belief that we are at the beginning of a movement time, one of those eras when waves of progress seem to come all at once. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. But it’s a lot more messy and uncertain when you’re experiencing it live than when we look back in the history books. Here’s my case for why I think progressives are going to win huge victories in the coming years.
But here’s my 7 Reasons Why Last Night Was The Best Night Ever:
1. Barack Obama is our president and we never have to hear about Mitt Romney again. In terms of policy change, I’m not that excited about this– honestly the next four years will look like the last two years– Republican Congress, total gridlock, not much getting done. Basically they just gave a black man the worst job in the world for another four years.
What was significant about the presidential race was that in the age of Citizens United, Wall St. wasn’t able to buy this election. Finance normally hedges their bets by giving to both parties or the expected winner. But after the major financial reforms enacted by the Obama administration, they went all in for Romney. And lost. When was the last time Wall St. lost anything except your money? Now I hope Obama has the cojones to give them some ice cold retribution. I’m also happy that in the darkest hour of the campaign, right after the first debate, I still called the election for Obama. Saying I told you so is the best.
2. The youth vote made an even larger impact than in 2008. I was so sick of all the bullshit narratives about apathetic young people who came out in 2008 for a fluke because they were brainwashed by Obama and won’t vote anymore because now they’re stupid and lazy blah blah blah. Oh what’s that? Young people made up 19% of the vote in 2012, EVEN MORE than in 2008? SUCK. ON. THAT. SHIT.
3. California passed Prop 30 and defeated Prop 32. This is near and dear to my heart because it’s what I’ve been working on this election. I think the incredible thing about Prop 30 is it’s a turning point. Since Prop 13 passed in the “tax revolt” of the late 70’s, California has been on the path of endless budget cuts to education. Yesterday we turned this around– the voters chose to invest in our youth and our future. In concrete terms, this resulted in a tuition freeze at the UC’s this year instead of a 20% fee hike. And Prop 32, which may have actually been more important than 30 for big picture strategic reasons, went down too. This all despite millions of dollars spent against us by billionaires and Super PACs who are now being investigated for money laundering. I worked with dozens of high school and community college students who spent countless hours volunteering to get out the vote because they knew their future depended on it. I’m so proud of them.
4. In California, Democrats will likely win 2/3rds supermajorities in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Some close races have ballots left to be counted, but newspapers are already calling it. This is a big fucking deal. Much of California’s budget craziness is due to the fact that you need a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes, or until recently, to approve the budget at all. The California Republican Party has become increasingly isolated and radical, viewing any compromise as a sign of weakness, making it nearly impossible to get the couple of extra votes needed to pass no-brainer bills like the Middle Class Scholarship Act. The bill would have closed a corporate tax loophole that benefits out-of-state corporations and used the money to slash college tuition by 60% for most students in California but failed this year. But this also opens up huge new opportunities. Some of these Dems are pretty conservative, and will be reluctant to vote for more revenue. But with a Democratic supermajority and some good organizing, you could potentially get single payer health care in California, or universal preschool, or dramatically reduce college tuition. As I said, big fucking deal.
5. The next Congress will have more women than any Congress in American history. Women candidates broke records in both the House and the Senate. One of these women, Tammy Baldwin, is the first openly-gay Senator ever.
6. Marriage equality made major strides. Maine and Maryland voted to legalize gay marriage, and Washington looks like it’s on its way. The tide is moving, it’s only a matter of time.
7. We can all stop talking about Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney!
Also, bonus points. For my Ventura Couny folks, we were in one of the closest congressional races in the entire country, and the Democrat, Julia Brownley squeaked out a victory over Tony Strickland, a politician I personally can’t stand. And Measure S in Berkeley, which would have criminalized the homeless for sitting on the sidewalks, was defeated.
For a person of color running for office, a hint of the radical left is the kiss of death. We live far from a “post-racial society”, but most voters do seem to be willing to give a candidate with a funny name who looks different from them the benefit of the doubt as long as they’re squeaky clean all-American on the inside. However, that trust can evaporate quickly if the candidate evokes memories among white voters of the more confrontational racial politics of an older generation.
The speculation of San Antonio Mayor and DNC keynote speaker Julian Castro being the first Latino president someday makes sense with almost mathematical precision. A charismatic Latino governor of Texas who carried the massive state for the Democratic Party in 2024ish when changing demographics have made it possible would lock down the electoral map.
However, the right wing is great at playing the guilt by association game. And Julian Castro, like many young politicians of color who awkwardly bear the label of being “post-racial”, also holds the liability of being tied to the radical left on the national stage.
Castro’s mother, Rosie Castro, was an activist in the Chicano Movement of the 1970’s who helped found a political party called La Raza Unida and unsuccessfully ran for San Antonio city council. Julian grew up an activist baby, marching in rallies with her as a kid and working on campaigns as a teenager. He credits his mother for his political consciousness.
For a delightful preview of how this story will be told as he runs for higher office, check out this profile on conservative blog Breitbart.com:
Indeed, he, along with his twin, Joaquin, currently running for Congress, learned their politics on their mother’s knee and in the streets of San Antonio. Their mother, Rosie helped found a radical, anti-white, socialist Chicano party called La Raza Unida (literally “The Race United”) that sought to create a separate country—Aztlan—in the Southwest.
Today she helps manage her sons’ political careers, after a storied career of her own as a community activist and a stint as San Antonio Housing Authority ombudsman.
Far from denouncing his mother’s controversial politics, Castro sees them as his inspiration. As a student at Stanford Castro penned an essay for Writing for Change: A Community Reader (1994) in which he praised his mother’s accomplishments and cited them as an inspiration for his own future political involvement.
If the story seems all too familiar, it’s because it feels exactly like the attacks on Barack Obama’s associations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Van Jones, Bill Ayers, and his own mother and father.
A perfect example of how these attacks easily tap into a latent fear of The Other lying in the heart of voters is the new movie just released called 2016: Obama’s America. Never heard of it? Well it’s grossed over $20 million in the last week and a half, making it the fifth highest grossing political documentary in American history. It’s probably because you’re an urban coastal college-educated liberal and all your friends are too. Go outside sometime.
Written by Dinesh D’Souza, it closely mirrors a book written by the same man, called The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which essentially claims that Obama, in his desire to bring himself closer to his estranged father, adopted the elder Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonialist anger and secretly hates America, blah blah blah. You can find a good synopsis here.
I suspect as more and more “The Next _____ Obama” candidates start to pop up, these young progressive people of color will be increasingly witch hunted with ties to the radical left dug up among family, friends, professors, spiritual leaders, and coworkers.
Because there are a lot of politically radical older people of color out there and young people of color know them. They might be close family. But even for those without politically active parents, most people who enter the world of politics, especially those breaking boundaries, usually do so with the guidance of older mentors and advisers.
Maybe Barack Obama’s father did have anti-colonial anger. Maybe it’s because the British committed atrocities in their colonization of Kenya and much of the suffering in Africa today is connected to the aftermath of colonialism. And I can imagine that Rosie Castro’s life growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Texas in the 1950’s might make her support the radical edge of the Chicano Movement.
The truth is, people of color have faced a lot of really fucked up shit in history. And some people are, not surprisingly, going to be mad about it. And although young people of color who run for office haven’t personally experienced Jim Crow or the Japanese Internment, and many of their feelings toward racial politics might hold more hope than anger, they will probably know at least one person in their community who is angry about American history.
All of this is not to say that Julian Castro shouldn’t run for president. It’s meant as a warning to people like me, young people of color who have contemplated running for office and have family members who would end up on one of Glenn Beck’s chalkboards if we ever did. It’s to say that America is not post-racial, there are deep wounds waiting to be peeled open, and anyone who wants to run for office should be prepared for their opponents to deliberately pick at those racial wounds until they bleed.
That being said, Castro 2024!
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.”
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.