Thursday, June 17, 2010

The movement and the moment – Part 1, Give Up the Electoral Strategy

I mentioned to some friends this morning that I had just in the last week realized what historical time we are in. They got very excited.

“Tell us,” they said.

I was kind of sheepish, because I felt like my realization was not going to sound like much. I imagined the thud of a flat balloon when I told them, but that wasn’t what happened. They got very excited, and said we need to get together and talk about it more. So I decided to try to write it down, fearing, as I often do, that my ideas will evaporate when I try to commit them to print (or LCD).

It started when I was listening to the election coverage on Wednesday. On Democracy Now! and Letters to Washington, progressives were doing post-mortems on the valiant efforts made by progressives to unseat right-wing or disappointing Democratic congresspeople, all of which had failed. The person who was speaking for the Bill Halter campaign, which had been expected to make a stronger showing against Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, said that they had spent $8 million for a primary challenge. The speaker considered it money well spent. It struck me as a total waste.

“Think of all the social movements that could have been jump-started by that money,” I thought. Now I often have thoughts like that, and I dismiss them as just my bias because I don’t like electoral politics. It’s true. I don’t enjoy it, I’m not well suited to it, and the people who are can always tell immediately that I’m not someone they want to court, so I never end up being asked to do anything that might make me think better of it. But in fact, listening to these people talk about what they’d hoped to accomplish, I realized that it’s not just sour grapes.

So my first realization was this: It’s too early for an electoral strategy.

By the electoral strategy I mean the effort to make large scale social change by electing progressives to national office. Local elections are a totally different ball of wax – I won’t go into that now, but San Francisco is a pretty good example of what a well crafted electoral strategy can do on a local level in a community that is fairly progressive to start with. The national electoral strategy started being thrown around about 10 years ago by people who were frustrated with the inability of progressive movements to do more than criticize. These included groups like MoveOn and Color of Change. They saw in the huge outpourings of opposition to the WTO and IMF/World Bank in 2000 and 2001 a potential for social change that was unrealized, and they concluded that it was because the movements were too negative, our negativism turned people off, we didn’t know what we were for, we were too idealistic and not realistic enough.

They believed turning our energies into getting progressives elected would do two things: It would bring leftists into the political mainstream, force us to moderate our views to reflect the values of left-leaning non-activists (read middle class voters), and require us to become more pragmatic and concrete in our objectives. And in return, it would give us a platform to put progressive solutions on the national agenda, identify those on which there was a broader consensus, and elect smart, savvy, politically appropriate people who could wield real power to help enact those solutions.

The Obama candidacy was part of that strategy, though I don’t think his campaign team was any part of those discussions. He’s an ambitious individualist who took advantage of a political moment, but many of the people who joined his campaign on local and state levels did so for the reasons I just outlined. And there was one good reason to believe that if he won, things might go in that direction: his awareness and invocation of the power of popular movements. He basically said, “I can be the progressive candidate if you can create a progressive movement.” But what he did not say was, “I will use my candidacy to create a progressive moment.” That would be a very different statement, and I think a lot of the progressives who favor an electoral strategy heard that because they wanted to.

Someone mentioned yesterday that Obama has gotten more money than any other candidate from the oil industry (she mis-remembered – the news that came out recently is that he got more money from BP than any other candidate). With this revelation (disseminated, in part, by oil-industry-hating Republicans like Sarah Palin), some people believe they have found the reason why the Obama administration didn’t properly regulate BP’s offshore drilling. But they are wrong. It’s not that I don’t think Obama’s in the oil industry’s pocket. But he didn’t let them do their high-risk drilling without oversight because they gave him campaign contributions. He did it because in his opinion, which is the opinion of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel and the rest of his gurus, we need the oil. And there’s one reason they are not willing to do anything to radically decrease our dependence on oil: Jimmy Carter. Received wisdom is that Carter lost the election because of the energy crisis, because he wanted us to acknowledge there’s a crisis and conserve, rather than expand our sources of oil.

Let’s go back to the Blanche Lincoln race for a minute. The person from the Halter campaign who thought their $8 million was well spent was pointing to the fact that Lincoln surprisingly introduced an amendment to the financial reform bill to stop banks from engaging in the risky credit default swaps business. Indeed, Lincoln presumably did that in order to boost her chances of beating Halter. But look now! Yesterdays’ news?

“Sen. Blanche Lincoln, one of the lawmakers ironing out differences in the House and Senate financial reform bills, has refined her legislative proposal to highlight that big banks can keep their swaps businesses — in separately funded units:
‘Although it appears to water down the proposal, the proposed change would be costly for Wall Street. Banks would have to set aside billions of dollars to protect against losses in these affiliates. The provision doesn’t specify the capital requirements, which would likely be decided by a bank regulator.’” …
[T]he plan doesn’t appear to lessen the risk of major swaps dealers being interconnected.” (Bnet)

Having survived the primary challenge, Lincoln presumably will go back to being Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat from a conservative state.
For much less than $8 million, the people who poured energy into building Halter’s campaign could have built a movement for serious financial reform. With that $8 million, they could have hired thousands of high school and college students all over the country to go door to door, learn organizing, develop themselves as public speakers, do all the things that would make them grassroots leaders for life. And with that movement, they could have gotten not just Blanche Lincoln but most of the Democrats in Congress – maybe even some of the Republicans – to back serious financial reform that would not be watered down because the Congresspeople knew there was a loud, angry, mobilized population ready to punish them for ignoring us. That’s what the people who are pouring money into the Tea Parties know. It’s what anyone who was in Congress during the late stages of the Vietnam War knows.

We do not get progressive legislation because we have progressives in Congress. We get progressive legislation because we have a progressive climate in the country. If we can create a progressive moment, many people in Congress who are not currently progressives will suddenly become more progressive.

Last week, I heard two examples of this on the radio. One was a guy who wrote a book on the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He mentioned that FDR campaigned against the Hoover Dam –supported by his rival, Herbert Hoover - and all such “big spending” infrastructure projects. Right – that’s FDR, the father of the TVA, the CCC, and all those other big government stimulus projects we love to love.

The other was someone who was talking about the more familiar story of Lyndon Johnson’s flip-flop on civil rights. He mentioned that Johnson, when he was Majority Leader of the Senate, used his position to stop the implementation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He was a Texas Dem himself, and politically very beholden to the Dixiecrats. But, says the History Learning Site, “By January 1964, public opinion had started to change - 68% now supported a meaningful civil rights act. President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in July of that year.”

In the current right-wing climate, a few more progressives in Congress will be just like the ones we have now – admirable, ineffective tokens. We in Oakland/Berkeley have had progressive representation for a long time. We had Ron Dellums, now we have Barbara Lee, who (usually) Speaks For Me. It’s very nice to feel like I have a voice, but it’s not that helpful when my “voice” is drowned out 96% of the time. Take Dennis Kucinich, probably the most high-profile progressive in Congress. What did he get for his noble effort to hold up health care in pursuit of a public option? Zero, zilch, nada. A lesson in just how irrelevant the progressive voice is right now.

We often say that there is no progressive movement, which is true, in the sense that there’s not a single progressive political party like the Communist or Socialist Party of the thirties or even the Progressive Parties of the teens or the late forties. But there are a number of progressive movements capable of turning out impressive numbers of people to do impressive things for short times, and I think if you combined all the people who are doing progressive things in their communities for extended periods of time, that would be an impressive number too. What we do not have, and are not close to having, is a progressive moment. And I maintain that without the moment, the movements are not going to get very far.

Coming Soon: Part 2 - The moment are we in, and how to move toward the moment we need.


  1. Thanks for this, Kate, I'm on tenterhooks waiting for Part II.

    I am reminded of an article from The New Yorker of 24 July 2000, about the (then) recent election of Vincente Fox to Mexico's presidency. The article includes this: Repeatedly, his answers to an assortment of questions about national politics came back to the need for building coalitions, not only in order to win elections but to govern effectively. "No single party in Mexico can govern, represent, or lead the entire country today," he said. "The PRI is already a minority in Congress. The PRD has an electoral ceiling of twenty percent, as the left does in general all over the world. With that scenario, 'us' has to be a consensus, as it is in Chile, Italy, or Spain. We need alliances."

    Fox's assertion that the left worldwide has "an electoral ceiling of twenty percent" is one that struck me deeply enough to remember it for nearly a decade now. I don't know where he pulled that number from, whether it might be credibly challenged, whether a more credible number might be fifteen or twenty-five or thirty percent ... but that progressives are not likely to realize an agenda by pursuing a purely electoral strategy, as you suggest here, seems congruent with the general character of Fox's assertion. It's only by building 'cover' for and pressure on politicians beholden to mixed and moderate-leaning constituencies (who are unlikely to ever be outnumbered by legislators playing for the progressive left team) that progressive agendas can succeed in a democracy.

    (Thanks to Google and The New Yorker's digital edition for rescuing a deeply impressed memory from inexactness and inability to cite: "Enter Harpo," by Alma Guillermopreieto, The New Yorker, 24 July 2000.)

  2. Since I play hard on the electoral side of movement building, it may surprise you to know that I mostly agree with this.

    In particular this: We do not get progressive legislation because we have progressives in Congress. We get progressive legislation because we have a progressive climate in the country. If we can create a progressive moment, many people in Congress who are not currently progressives will suddenly become more progressive.

    A lot of very good, very uncoordinated work has gone into creating the prerequisites for a more progressive social climate; demographic change is undoubtedly tipping the scales in our direction. But we do need to form larger coalitions, to do all the long slow stuff that comes out of listening to people who are different.

    And we need some more imaginative grassroots tactics, especially when we try to go for scale. Small groups manage imagination, but we are boring on the occasions when we go big.

    Still, more of that will make the electoral aspects more meaningful -- and little else will. Or so I think.