Posted by rflacks on:
"You must take over the leadership". B Brecht
Why the left was too cooperative, has not built a populist movement that can push Obama our way, and did, in large part, support the president's agenda? Why so much passive going along? Mystified by the man and his hope agenda? Back on our heels in order to keep Democratic seats in centrist districts? Too much "organizing" on line? In my own neighborhood--the westside of Los Angeles--when teachers get let go and libraries close down, what to the PTAs and liberal individuals in those schools do? Call for selling of cupcakes and lemonade on the school grounds. Participatory democracy at the baked goods table, instead of 50 buses filled with angry voters on the grounds of the state capital with a progressive agenda in hand. And now we have Jerry Brown, for whom we will all vote, running on who knows what. What happened from November until today?
Since the start of the Obama years, progressives keep saying that pressure from the left is essential if reform possibilities are to be achieved. Kerry Candaele questions are daily more urgent: why hasn't such mobilization been happening?
First of all, however, the assumption that the left is thoroughly demobilized isn't really valid. In just the last few months, tens of thousands marched for immigrant rights in Washington on March 21. Twenty thousand people reportedly participated in the US Social Forum in Detroit at the end of June. In July thousands converged on Phoenix to protest SB 1070 as thousands more demonstrated locally across the country. Last spring, large numbers of students in California mobilized against budget cuts, and public employees marched on Sacramento. None of this action was given significant coverage in the mainstream media, while tea party theatricals were of course widely featured. The march immigrant rights Washington rally was probably much larger than the Beckfest but got no media notice. The Detroit Social Forum was entirely unmentioned.
One reason the left seems demobilized is because actions like the above that could catalyze movement are treated so marginally. The Tea Party/Beck efforts could be similarly marginalized as engineered theatrics by small bands of elderly coupon clippers. Indeed the showing at Beck's rally could be depicted as pitiful, given the alleged size of his audience and the endless hyping of the event by Fox news et al. Or, healthier media treatment would give due attention to grassroots manifestations across the spectrum. Indeed, it's probably the case that immigrant rights movement is greatly facilitated by Spanish language radio and tv coverage that reaches very wide audiences.
But of course there isn't anything like a coherent grassroots progressive movement, and the feeling of demobilization is pervasive. It's sort of a vicious circle: the media frame that the left is dormant reinforces the political withdrawal fueled by disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism, and this confirms the media frame, to the point that such withdrawal is now taken for granted.
Progressive pessimism is fed by the electoral scene. Every day the NY Times reiterates the inevitability of Democrat defeat in the congressional election. Obama's approval ratings have ‘plummeted'. If things look bad for the progressive reform agenda now, just wait till after November!
Every time friends sing such tunes, I'm moved to play some counter melodies. Look: the media said Obama couldn't get the nomination, couldn't possibly get elected, and it seems some pundits have never given up that analysis. If for example one considers that he's the first president to achieve a universal healthcare reform, (deeply compromised, but no more so than FDR's social security!), one might ponder whether detraction of his political potency is fully warranted. Or consider that, according to Ezra Klein:
Obama's current approval rating of 44 percent beats Clinton, Carter and Reagan. All of them were between 39 percent and 41 percent at this point in their presidencies. And all of them were former governors who accomplished less legislatively than Obama has at this point in his presidency.
Moreover, the Times and other mainstream media have barely reported the total collapse of approval for the Republican Party (whose poll ratings have never been lower) and have possibly underplayed the consequences of tea party extremism for the chances of a number of GOP senatorial candidates.
You can gain very useful corrective readings of the political climate-and some very sage thinking on the way the Democrats can define their message-by perusing the Democratic Strategist website from where much of the data I just referred can be gleaned. Even if a large portion of the progressive base will be hard to bring to the polls, a reasonably savvy campaign by Democrats and their supporters may well have surprisingly positive results. One reason many of the polls look bad is that they are based on likely voters, which tends to underweight the very people (young, minority, working class) who helped make the difference in 2008.
Meanwhile, labor unions and other progressive organizers have begun grassroots gotv campaigns. According to Harold Meyerson in today's LA Times, campaign efforts by California unions accounts for the startling fact that Jerry Brown remains ahead of Meg Whitman in the gubernatorial race despite the fact that he has yet to advertise or even campaign, while she has spent $100 million so far. It would be nice if Brown soon provided some reasons of his own for coming to vote for him, but here in California the alleged decline of the Democrats electorally isn't evident.
I'm saying all the above simply to provide a counterweight to liberal and left wing kvetching. There's plenty of potential for progressive mobilization. In this space I've been pleading for some effort to March on Washington before the election. Plans for such a happening have started to come together under this banner:
The coalition includes some 150 organizations led by the AFL-CIO and the NAACP. The march at the Lincoln Memorial is planned for October 2. Little notice of this has yet appeared in the media, spreading the word is something we all can do. Here's a Facebook page.
The ONWT coalition might hold promise of a framework for some of the mobilization that must happen regardless of the outcome in November. But mass marches of this kind, and effective electoral strategy, aren't enough, history suggests. The impetus for the New Deal reform began with direct action by unemployed, evicted tenants and mass strikes in the factories. The impetus for the civil rights and social justice reforms of the sixties came from direct action and civil disobedience in hundreds of southern towns, and ghetto rebellions in the north.
Direct action is strategically directed disruption of the smooth functioning of institutions and routine authority. Such disruption in the right time and place is key to the power of the powerless. But direct action can be highly risky. National leaders of established progressive organizations are very reluctant to mobilize direct action because of the risks. Moreover, effective direct action typically can't be planned in the formal, bureaucratized settings of established organizations. The innovative, creative thinking that leads to direct action usually happens in intense conversation among small groups of young people. It's most often unattached young who have the impatience, spontaneity and readiness for risk to contemplate such action.
The spirit of the Sixties began in southern college dorm rooms where small groups of students challenged each other to break the rules of segregation and sit down at lunch counters, and was carried through below the radar networks that spread the spirit and the method of non-violent direct action. Those networks became SNCC and their members didn't wait for the NAACP or MLK or any other ‘adult' established leader to either initiate or authorize their actions, Had they waited for or followed Dr. King the movement might well have stalled. Their autonomous readiness to organize and act was crucial. Similarly, the first protests against the Vietnam war were called by SDS against the inclinations and advice of the established peace and pacifist leadership. And, I think a similar dynamic sparked the mass movements of the thirties. Young radical organizers created unemployed councils that resisted police eviction efforts and marched demanding jobs and unemployment compensation. Young organizers at the shop level challenged the established union leadership and led strikes that those leaders tended to oppose.
The action that triggers movements doesn't just arise spontaneously out of the anger and discontent of those suffering from injustice. Almost always at the creation are present some number of politically conscious activists and organizers who have been looking for opportunities to organize and mobilize communities in which they are embedded.
I've been thinking that a big difference between now and then is that the young organizers of today (and their numbers are actually legion) seem to be waiting for and are too dependent on leadership from the established organizations that have fielded and trained them. The progressive side has a lot of those organizations (just look at the list of organizations sponsoring the October Second march). But what these organizations are I think inherently unable to initiate the particular forms of action that might now spark ongoing mobilization. In fact, no one can ‘know' what those forms of action should be. Their invention depends on brainstorming, freewheeling talk by people willing to experimentally challenge routine stability.
Brecht wrote a poem whose underlying message seems to me to say something like what I'm getting at:
Don't be afraid to ask, comrade!
Don't be talked into anything.
Check for yourself!
What you do not know yourself
you don't know.
Scrutinize the bill,
it is you who must pay it.
Put your finger on each item,
ask: how did this get there ?
You must take over the leadership.