|Public Theology||About Organize Theology Church Philosophy Ethics Politics Planning Society Economy Creation Peace Preach Media TheoEd Contact Home Subscribe||
Get Our Newsletter
Guidelines for Political Organizing in Lousy Times
The editor at Proreview's Undernews has some pithy comments about the temper of the times for those trying to do something.
By Sam Smith
Since 1989, we have occasionally published a guide to getting through the crummy era that we are still in. It seems time for a new, updated edition.
Face the facts. The First American Republic is over. The Constitution is being trashed by both major parties. We are incapable of responding to the environmental crisis. Liberals can't tell the difference between being elite and being extinct. We're in the most expensive wars of no purpose in our history. Both major parties have moved steadily to the right over the past thirty years. Both have never been so corrupt. Ethnic prejudice is at an overt level unseen since the days of the civil rights struggles. The economy is still in the pits. Our creative culture has been reduced to the likes of Lady Gaga and Jersey Shore. And Barack Obama has turned out to be the Bernie Madoff of the Democratic Party - successfully conning America's liberals out of their hope and spare change.
Work around it. If a hurricane comes to your neighborhood, you don't just sit around the kitchen table complaining about it; you do things to help your survival. The same is true of the great storm of American disintegration. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time. It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
Use the word 'progressive" and not 'liberal.' There are still a lot of nice liberals around with whom to make common cause, but the word itself carries too much baggage. Progressives are activists; liberals are a demographic. Progressives emphasize economic change; liberals in recent years have largely ignored it. Progressives convert their opponents; liberals rant about them. Progressives are grassroots; liberals are fedocentric.
Put national politics on the back burner. State and local politics are still a good battlefield, but national politics has been so completely bought by corporate interests that it won't change until a lot of other things do first. It's movement time again, just as it was in the 1950s and 60s. We must create for our era what the civil rights, peace and environmental activists did then. Then the politics will respond. Few things scare national politicians more than people getting organized.
Become an existentialist. Existentialism has been described as the philosophy that no one can take your shower for you. Weigh your words and actions on your conscience, not on polls. We may not be able to change history, but we can always choose how we react to history.
Read 1984 again. In Orwell's 1984, the Inner Party amounted to only 2% of Oceana's population; the Outer Party - the worker drones of the establishment (like those in Washington and on Wall Street) - were 13%. The rest were the proles, looked down upon socially yet retaining more freedom than those above them. We are in a similar situation - where, oddly, the lack of power can mean the presence of freedom. As we move towards - and even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Orwell and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World,', it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the elites more than those who lived in the manner of centuries of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power. This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a sociopathic elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today - an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of a few young men with simple weapons.
Read about movements that worked, particularly the populists, the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements, the gay and women's rights efforts. And don't forget the Beats. They were the warm-up band for one of the biggest eras of change in our history.
Look up and down, not left and right. Consider the purported major achievements of the Obama administration. Each of them - the stimulus, healthcare bill, education changes and foreign policy - has at its core helping the top class of America grab still more of our economic and cultural assets. The healthcare bill was specifically warped to favor private insurance companies. The stimulus gave vastly more attention to Wall Street than to homeowners threatened with foreclosure or the unemployed. Plans to improve train service emphasize high speed rail - i.e. business and not coach class service. And so forth.
We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of the civil rights movement. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Have noble goals, but look out for yourself: As maritime wisdom puts it: one hand for the ship and one for yourself. You're no good to the cause if you're injured, depressed or fall overboard.
It's the people's economy that matters. Losing jobs while the GDP goes up is not an improving economy. Public policy should first and foremost be aimed at making economic conditions better for ordinary Americans.
Be nice to small business. Few in politics, at either the national or local level, pay much attention to small business. That goes for Republicans, Democrats and Greens. The problem is that small businesses put too little into campaign coffers. But small business is the big job creator, it's the hardest part of the economy to outsource, and its about the only part of the business world that can honestly talk about being in a free market. Further, small business people are important community leaders and useful viral marketers of opinion. Be nice to them and it will pay off.
Remember that diversity includes those you don't like. Both the absolute rights of a libertarian and those rights derived from a liberal government falter on the issue of what to do when presumed rights are in conflict. A good way to deal with this is think of liberty as reciprocal, which is to say that I can't have my liberty unless you have yours. To retain both our liberties, we must engage in constant negotiation rather than a battle to the death over our philosophies. Let's talk more about a democracy in which everyone wins instead of one in which only approximately half do. Instant runoff voting and proportional representation are good approaches for starters.
There has been a stunning increase in class-based arrogance and disparagement by liberals towards large blocs of voters dismissed as red staters, fly-overs, evangelicals, etc. For a species that prides itself on avoiding stereotypes this is a bit hypocritical. Worse, it is terrible politics. Remember, we've always had Christian fundamentalists in this country, but there was a time that we called them New Deal Democrats.
Martin Luther King reminded his aides that among their goals was that the people they were opposing would one day be their friends. One good way to do this: go after to the big guys - the rightwing pols, hypocritical preachers and so forth - and leave the little guys alone.
Build cross-cultural coalitions quietly on issues, not noisily on guilt. One of the best ways to build a cross-cultural coalition is to work on campaigns and projects together and in so doing build cooperation and trust from successful experience rather than on good intentions and nice words. There are far too many noble thoughts about racism even as opportunities for multi-ethnic cooperation pass unnoticed. There particularly is a tendency for white progressives to become involved in symbolic and celebrated multi-cultural issues, while ignoring the potential and necessity of more consistent, more local, and less flashy support of the interests and causes of those still seeking a fair share of America. And one of the most powerful progressive coalitions would be a long overdue black-latino combination.
Create a counterculture. It worked in the 1960s and it work again. You don't have to be a prisoner of the dominant culture. You can help create an alternative, just as the young did in the 1960s, without money or power. And without a counterculture there will be no significant change.
Be nice to white men. One of the besetting sins of many in the progressive movement is that they have made white men the enemy. In fact, no ethnic group in history gave up so much power so quickly and so peacefully. Every social movement of the past 40 years has depended on either the acquiescence or active participation of large numbers of white men. To bash them is both bad politics and bad philosophy, throwing away constituency and logic at the same time. One of the basic reasons for the Democrats' current problems is that they have implicitly treated minorities and women, on the one hand, and white males, on the other, as mutually exclusive groups. This perception has helped to drive white males to the Republicans. While it is obvious that white men have been responsible for most of the horrendous political and ecological policies that have left us in our current situation, it should be equally obvious that most white men have also been among their victims -- in everything from war to black lung disease to economic exploitation.
Be frugal. Both liberals and conservatives spend too much money on the wrong things as soon as they are in office. liberals get 99% of the rap for it. Here is another case of the left stipulating to a conservative stereotype. Ral frugality, at the moment, is an untouched political cause. Progressives need to shuck the assumption that spending money in the name of something is the same as spending money for something. Billions are spent in Washington in the name of good causes; far less actually serves those causes. A number of states have dealt with this problem as it exists in charities by placing a limit on the bureaucratic overhead a non-profit can have and still claim tax-exemption. Progressives should seek a similar standard for government. Few things would change more the popular impression of progressives than if they began to concern themselves with the efficient use of the taxpayers' dollars.
Think Green. A progressive movement that is going to make a difference is going to include a Green Party movement. You can't do it just with a bunch of lite Republicans who happen to support abortion. This doesn't mean that everyone joins the Green Party, but it means, for example, a powerful green wing within the Democratic Party and an end to the anti-Green Party nastiness by Democratic liberals.
Rediscover populism. The real divide in this country is not between Democrats and Republicans, blue states and red, conservatives and liberals, faith-based and sectarian, or socialists and capitalists, but between little folk and big shots, between ordinary citizens and their leaders. Both Democrats and Republicans don't want you thinking about this because they get their money from the latter even while pretending to represent the former.
Don't be too pure. It's okay to be a saint but don't expect many others to follow you into self-deprivation, moral perfection, supererogation or martyrdom. Be happy if someone votes the right way, writes the letter you want or shows up for the meeting. And if you find among them some anti-abortionists who are also against our policy in Afghanistan, don't knock them; put them on a committee. Progressives need a constituency, not disciples. Besides, most people aren't as interested in this stuff as you are. They're more like Oscar Wilde who said he could never become a socialist because he liked to keep his evenings free.
Speak United States. The people we are trying to convince speak United States; it helps to talk the same language.. Most Americans don't talk about stimuli, transparency or infrastructure. But you'd never know it listening to typical Democratic politicians. Avoid the language of the corporate executive, pompous academic, hustling preacher, or boring lawyer.
Don't let the right rewrite history. Since only 6% of the country has ever known, as adults, a progressive president , and since the media has generally bought the GOP line on progressive politics, it is important to remember what life would be like if it hadn't been for progressives. For example we would not have
- Regulation of banks and stock brokerage firms
- Protection of your bank account
- Social Security
- A minimum wage
- Legal alcohol
- Regulation of the stock exchanges
- Right of labor to bargain with employers
- Soil Conservation Service and other early environmental programs
- National parks and monuments such as Death Valley, Blue Ridge, Everglades, Boulder Dam, Bull Run, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton, Cape Cod, Fire Island, and San Juan Islands just to name a few.
- Tennessee Valley Authority
- Rural electrification
- College education for innumerable veterans
- Housing loans for innumerable veterans
- FHA housing loans
- The bulk of hospital beds in the country
- Unemployment insurance
- Small Business Administration
- National Endowment for the Arts
- Peace Corps
Get a plan. Many Americans think they know what the Republicans and Democrats stand for. The trouble is that they learned it from the Republicans. This is because Democrats and progressives have been miserably incapable of stating clearly what they are about. This is not - as some have suggested - a matter of better rhetoric or proper branding; it is a matter of having something you believe in and explaining it well to others. The Vichy Democrats in control of the party aren't interested in this because it destroys their flexibility to appear to be one thing to their contributors and another thing to their constituents. In the end, to many it appears to many that the GOP stands for all the good things - patriotism, values, family, the economy, security et al - while the Democrats stand for nothing..
Come up with a progressive platform, preferably one that can be written on a single side of a sheet of paper. Here are some samples:
- Economic programs aimed at doing the most for the most and an end to Wall Street bailouts.
- An end to colonial occupation and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- The restoration of democracy and constitutional government in the U.S.
- Single payer health care
- A safe and clean natural environment
- Electoral reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing.
- Government carried out at the lowest practical level
If you don't like that list, then write your own.
Remember what you have in common with others. Since the sixties there has been a tremendous splintering of progressives into groups specializing in a single issue or around a cluster of single issues. This has produced a high level of expertise on these issues, raised the national consciousness on many of them, and provided a cadre capable of writing and criticizing legislation. The less happy side-effect has been that progressives have forgotten how to work in coalitions with one another and seem incapable of providing a holistic vision of that for which they are striving. They have become specialists and technocrats of change rather than leaders and prophets. And far too many fit G. K. Chesterton's description of liberals: they can't lead, they won't follow and they refuse to cooperate.
So go beyond your own cause. It works and helps to undermine stereotypes. Encourage your cause to join worthwhile coalitions even if they seem removed from your own. You'll make new friends and change others' view of you. Gays for guns, women for drug reform, blacks for small business, whatever. . .
Find or build oases of freedom and decency in the desert of globalization and national deterioration - places of sanity or small communities of concerned individuals. Remember that the biggest political divide is between the peoples of the world and their leaders.
Be an activist, not a clicktivist. Signing an online petition or writing a check is not enough. Use the Internet, but only as a tool for organizing real people working with each other. For one model, study the decentralized congregational approach of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that helped to produce civil rights.
Use boycotts. Find things that are easy to boycott, easy to get the word out about, and for which there are alternatives - such as boycotting one brand of several. Boycotts are an especially useful tool in a society as atomized as ours.
But don't be afraid of internal debate. The Democrats used to be far more contentious then they are today. There were liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners, civil rights advocates and segregationists, reformists and the corrupt. As a liberal you learned to fight a two front battle - against the Republicans and against the bad guys in your own party.
With Clinton, liberals packed away their views and their vigor and went along with whatever the top guns of the party wanted. One reason this has worked so badly may be that the very contentiousness of the Democrats sent a message to the rest of the country that all sorts of people could feel at home, even if a bit restless, within the party. Everyone knew the Democrats were a crazy conglomerate of America.
Don't be afraid of popular issues. One of the striking differences between old-style liberals and their descendants is that the former had a knack for finding popular issues such as social security, the minimum wage, and day care funding. Too many contemporary progressives feel almost guilty if they get involved in anything that will take less than years of activism to win general support. This is not to say that unpopular causes should be avoided, but simply to suggest that it is okay to leaven the difficult and the controversial with things people already want.
Avoid dignifying the despicable by treating it as debatable. In rhetoric, analysis and approach, bear in mind that we're often not dealing with ideology or policy, but with mean people, thugs and thieves. Stop harping on Glenn Beck. You're only helping to build his base. Follow Samuel Goldwyn's advice and "don't even ignore him." The more he becomes the issue the less important real issues become.
Describe a future worth fighting for. Optimism is deeply ingrained in American culture. Progressives are in a tough spot in this regard, because they tend to bring America the bad news. And America typically kills them for it. We need a lot more skill in motivating people to correct what's wrong without simultaneously casting a pall over their vision of the future. Progressives need not surrender optimism to the conservatives. As Thomas Jefferson said, "My theory has always been that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair." It was the Democrats, after all, who in the runaway election year of 1936 labeled Republicans as "disciples of despair" floundering in a "fountain of fear." Roosevelt himself got considerable mileage from his insupportable assertion that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. And one of the driving characteristics of the sixties was its vibrant, if unrealistic, vision of the future, including the dream of an Age of Aquarius. Today, the Democrats have an excess of whiners, nagging nannies, and contumelious scolds. Did the politics of joy really die with Hubert Humphrey?
Define your politics issue by issue, not icon by icon. One reason progressive politics fares so poorly is because we spend too much time on individual campaigns and not enough on issues. While the former tend to drive away the independent, the skeptical and those who don't like a particular a candidate, the latter can attract all sorts to join with others who may agree only one issue.
Define your politics by issue by issue, not by ideology. It's a lot easier to get a cross section of people backing a particular issue than it is for them to buy into your whole philosophy of life. Use the former approach on the streets and save the latter for the bar. You don't need common ideology if you have common causes.
No more stimulus packages for grad school liberals. Use fewer experts from the Ivy League and more from Iowa. End the grad school politics that favors those that collect data, assess and legalize issue over those who actually do something. One of the things many people don't like about traditional liberals is how federally oriented they are. This is due in no small part to an elite class that designs jobs for themselves in Washington.
Remember that most minority voters don't get to even look at a glass ceiling. But many of them run into locked doors every day. Pay much more attention to the latter.
Personal to Keith Olbermann and Rachel Madow: A progressive movement can't be built on the mirror image of Bill O'Reilly or with endless sarcastic comments about your opponents. It can be built by people understanding and becoming enthusiastic about the policies you support. Help them and stop worrying so much about Bill O'Reilly.
We need local democracy as much as local lettuce. Progressives are often afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of localization -- having government carried out at the lowest practical level -- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. We need to rediscover the 1960s spirit of localism, including things like credit unions, coops, and community organizing.
One of the great failures of liberalism has been its great disinterest in local power. The closer government is to the people the more they like it and the more responsive it tends to be. Besides, if you can't be an effective progressive in the 'hood, then you'll be a pretty lousy one in Washington.
All national legislation with state and local impact should meet the standards of what the Catholic Church used to call the principle of subsidiarity: government power should exercised at the lowest practical level. There lots of ways to do this in federal legislation. Here are a few:
- Revenue sharing
- Giving money instead of orders to public education and other programs.
- Decentralizing government agencies like some of the best existing ones such at the National Park Service, Coast Guard and US Attorney
- Not making too many decisions at the federal level.
- Supporting the 9th and 10th amendments that clearly limit the federal government's role
Support the Second Amendment for three good reasons: it works, gun prohibition laws don't and you'll make all sorts of new friends.
Change the rules as well as the game. Support instant runoff voting, public campaign financing, more states, a larger House of Representatives with mixed proportional and district representation like Germany, state banks, and a constitutional amendment to end corporations' legal status as "persons."
Distinguish between good regulation and good jobs for regulators. New laws often favor the latter which is why we keep adding regulators but can't even bring the Glass-Steagall Act back.
Support a shorter work week. It sure helped progressive populists in the past.
Don't forget the forgotten. Everyone talks about having a black president, but hardly anyone does anything about the huge number of young black and white males to whom we offer two main futures: incarceration or pain if not death on the battlefield. It is similar with the poor in general. They have not only been deserted by conservatives and centrists but by liberals as well.
Ditch the war on drugs. A great recession is a wonderful time to get rid America's most unsuccessful and expensive policy this side of foreign wars. Ending the war on drugs will save money, reduce the police state, limit prosecutorial discrimination against the poor, lower the crime rate, switch attention to health-based solutions and attract a lot of young voters who didn't even known they were progressives.
Don't be afraid to lead: When your national leadership is pretty much down to Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, you know there's plenty of room for you. Most great movements have been led by those most hadn't even heard of a few years earlier. You could be one of them.
Don't be afraid to follow. One of the most useful techniques in organizing is to support the work of others. A mass movement is built by groups alternately leading and following each other. And one of the best ways to get respect is to give it.
Turn public schools back to their communities. It worked for some 200 years until we decided to turn schools into human drone detention centers where the young are taught to pass tests rather than to learn live. And among the subjects driven out of our schools by the test tyrants: how to become a good citizen.
Don't let anal retentives, turf protectors, budget bullies, data druggies, assessocrats ambitious lawyers and CYA bureaucrats kill good ideas. Given the state of contemporary political culture, it would be unlikely that Social Security, Medicare or a minimum wage could be passed today. That's not so much a reflection of our politics as it is of our culture. We have mainly learned how to say no. Progressives need to reintroduce the concept of yes.
Keep in mind the great 1960s saying: Our goal is not to overthrow the system but to make it irrelevant.
The history of our country has involved repeated conflict between the specifics of the soul and institutional abstractions -- between people and places on the one hand and, on the other, a succession of systems desiring to exploit, subjugate or supplant them. We need to oppose not only the bad systems of the moment but unnatural systems in general - all those that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of human beings and the natural assets of their habitats.
The first rule of staying free is to act free. The number of liberals and progressives that follow this rule is sadly small. Everyone these days seems to prefer to talk about balancing rights instead of exercising them. But the rights outlined in the Constitution weren't bargaining chips; they were permanent guarantees.
Don't surrender the Bible to the right. Progressives leave the right's phony theological arguments largely unchallenged. For example, the Ten Commandments doesn't say anything about abortion or gay marriage but sure as hell is down on adultery, stealing (even on Wall Street), bearing false witness (even in political ads) and coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor (even in the name of capitalism). The Bible also doesn't like usury and strongly suggests that the earth is the lord's and not the property of multinational corporations. The ultimate irony of right wingers is that that they are the leading despoilers, usurers, war-mongers, hypocrites, idolaters and groupies of false prophets - all of whom are frowned upon by the book it pretends to follow. And its opponents, who are more faithful to the words that the conservatives only quote, are often such good Christians that they never say a mumblin' word about it all.
One of the best ways to revive democracy is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.
Value tolerance. It's a word that isn't heard much any more but could ease a lot of our pain. Tolerance is often a necessary waypoint for people on the way to accepting new ideas. It's the trial period before full acceptance.
Educate more and scold less. Issues like climate change are complicated for many and hard to grasp, especially since our schools have devoted more time to teaching driving and creating drug free zones than they have to science. Help people understand issues and don't blame them for not.
Make change from the bottom up - Part of the illusion of mass media is that change can be organized like a TV series. Try it and typically one of two things happen: it fails or it becomes just more political mush. Too many web-based liberal organizations are modeled on corporate lobbying groups. They don't change politics, souls, or history. Despite TV and the Internet, change still comes from the bottom. Build from up there.
Forget the capitalist-socialist conflict obsession. Two questions illustrate the futility:
- Do capitalists ever ride the public subway?
- Who will run the restaurants in the Marxist utopia?
Mix and match based on the reality of the situation and not on somebody's theory.
Define America. If you don't like the way the right does it, come up with your own description, stories and role models.
Have fun. If you don't enjoy your cause, how can you expect others to?
Sponsored by the