Posted by rflacks on:
It's become a truism for progressive activists and analysts: grassroots mobilization for progressive change is essential if real gains are to be made. And there is a good deal of consensus about what such a movement should push for-job creation, meaningful financial reform, the green economy, immigration reform, a timetable for ending the Afghan war, a redirection of military spending toward socially necessary investment. Corporate and Republican resistance to these goals is unrelenting-so the building of people power for them is crucial. But such building hasn't yet been able to match the need.
I continue to be bothered by the tendency of leftists to blame Obama for the shortfalls of hope. The current leftwing conventional wisdom has shifted from charging him with ‘betrayal' to the ‘insight' that he really is a moderate and not a progressive. That shift is politically healthy-since it is accompanied usually by some acceptance of the need for ‘us' to make the push for change, and refocuses anger on the rightwing rather than the administration. But a different set of criticisms revolves around the argument that the Obama team has made big strategic and tactical mistakes. These ‘mistakes' form a pattern: try to win significant reform by proposing centrist rather than truly progressive policy, hoping that this will achieve some corporate support for reform, and some GOP votes. So-jettison single payer, hope for a public option, and abandon that to get a bill; water down consumer protection in the bank reform; settle for a modest stimulus package; propose cap and trade climate change reform, and express openness for nuclear power, ‘clean coal' and coastal drilling-all in the interest of some sort of climate change/energy reform. I am dismayed as hell by all these but I've found it hard to imagine how a more left wing posture by the President would have a better result. Indeed, such a posture would certainly further polarize the electorate and give the Republicans more running room for their anti-reform politics.
There is a strategic sense to the Obama modus operandi which I think deserves more recognition. In all of these cases, his position has provided space for progressive mobilization. Whet's implicit (and sometimes explicit) is that those who want change should be upset enough, and fired up enough, to take action. The compromised and centrist policies the administration has put on the table may, as in the health care case actually win in the face of massive lobbying and raging negative propaganda. But if we want more meaningful results massive and raging leftwing demand is needed.
There is, in fact, more mobilization than is generally perceived. As Peter Dreier among others has been arguing, the passage of healthcare reform was undoubtedly made possible by an outpouring of grassroots calls, emails and rallies (organized by MoveOn, by unions and other groups in the healthcare coalition) that was, in the end, well targeted at wavering house Democrats. As we speak, a variety of protest actions aimed at banks as well as at congress seems to be pushing the center of gravity leftward on finance reform. A major demonstration on Wall Street is supposedly planned for April 29, sponsored by key unions, aimed at bailing out people not banks. Immigration reform got a strong push from the recent national demonstration for immigrant rights. The March 4th and subsequent actions by California unions and by students focused on the budget cuts were something of a break through. And if your town is at all like mine, this week's earth day participation was another positive sign.
BUT, the above paragraph grasps a lot of straws. Progressive mobilization is weak, scattered and hesitant:
Popular skepticism about the healthcare reform remains very strong-and this is not just fueled by rightwing disinformation, but reflects a lot of very valid feeling that the reform doesn't control the insurance industry and won't control consumer costs.
Anti-bank/wall street protests are planned for the coming week but it's a long shot whether they will get reported in ways that will spark authentic leftwing populist action
A promising grassroots initiative in California-George Lakoff's effort to eliminate the 2/3 rules in the California legislature-was withdrawn from circulation last week. California teachers and other unions are marching on Sacramento this Wednesday-but haven't spelled out an agenda that can change the stalemate.
Major polls indicate that the Democratic base is much less likely to vote in the fall election than independents and Republicans who want to punish congress.
Progressive activists and ordinary voters are disappointed and angry because of the limited change so far achieved by the administration and the Democratic congressional majority. Each of the major social movements has much reason for frustration and worry, as their major goals are put off or compromised. Growing cynicism undermines the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party. It feeds into the incredible campaign of falsehood and anarcho-fascism engineered by the GOP.
I think the Obama team is hoping for the passage very soon of a bank regulation bill. This will be followed immediately by the unveiling of a senate version of the green economy bill: the ‘Kerry-Graham-Lieberman clean energy jobs and climate protection bill' which they hope to pass rather quickly because it will not have major corporate opposition, and the mainstream environmental organizations will accept it. This compromise entails major concessions to oil, nuclear energy and coal interests-and it remains to be seen what if anything it will do to reduce carbon levels effectively. Going to the people in the fall with major reform achievements like this, and with an improving economy, may save congressional seats (shifting the volatile ‘independent' voters back toward Democrats).
These compromised legislative victories could define the limits of progressive change in our time. But they could, on the other hand, become the foundation for real movement. We can define these measures, in each case, as starts toward an economy that serves the people and saves the future rather than as the best we can hope for. The unfinished agenda after these bills pass:
These sorts of advances depend on an energized grassroots activism. To move in these directions, national progressive organizations and coalitions have to stop taking cues from the white house (especially once the initial white house agenda has been legislated), and focus on the means to nurture those grass roots.
Let's march on Washington
I can't help feeling that one scenario toward this end would be to organize a massive march on Washington for early fall (when the school year starts and before the election), a new march for jobs and justice that emphasizes the unfinished and unfulfilled promise for change. Such a march, first of all, would provide a framework for local organizations and organizers, an alternative to frustration and cynicism. It should be framed to demonstrate that it represents the real majority massively overshadowing the tea party in both numbers and diversity. It should have as a strategic focus the necessity to vote, so that we have a hope of a congress that would be receptive to progressive demands. It could highlight campaigns that promise to change red seats to blue, and that challenge sitting blue dogs. It could provide participants with tools for continuing activism (everyone who goes gets a DVD that can be used for local organizing?) It should be defined as the start of a national movement to make the future ours.
Let me know what you think! Weigh in on the blog site (using state Street as the name for Santa Barbara's main street), or send me an email.