(Author’s Note: I first wrote this article in December 2010. Upon re-reading it in Feb. 2015, I was pleasantly surprised by how relevant it remains. Thus I have gone through and added a number of references to specific personalities and events, bringing up-to-date for the 2015-16 American election cycle. A few other edits were performed in the hope of cleaner language. No major points where changed.)
(2019 update: Much has changed in American politics, with the emergence of young innovative and stongly progressive elected Democrats, better attitudes from the Democratic leadership, and the realization by up to 60% of poll respondents that Trump and the Repubicans present very serious threats to both American constitutional democracy, and to our very survival because of climate change. I will leave this piece as a museum piece of how I saw American politics just a few years ago; the situation of party grassroots feeling frustrated by party leadership may possibbly occur again, and thus make some of this relevant again to current events.)
The more things change, sometimes the more things stay the same. In both 2010 and 2104, just one month after the mid-term elections, the American Presidential primary season is already ramping up.
Presidential politics are the phase of our governmental system that gets the most attention from the media, and the most attention from the average citizen. Presidential politics is apparently meaningful, it’s definitely exciting, and it allows the average citizen a well-defined role: being a fervent partisan for their favorite candidate in public forums.
These general descriptions apply to conservatives and moderates as well to progressives; yet for progressives, there’s an additional factor. When we’ve had a role in electing a Democratic President in the previous Presidential election and that President appears to turn his back on progressives and the progressive agendas upon taking office – like Carter in 1978, like Clinton in 1994, and like Barak Obama in both 2010 and 2014 – the first instinct of progressives is to threaten to find a primary opponent to run against that incumbent disappointment, and to act, in an emotional and disorganized individual manner, to support any possible alternative candidates to that disappointing incumbent Democrat, whether those candidates are better progressives or not. (In the 2015-16 time frame, Hilary Clinton automatically takes the role of “disappointing incumbent,” as she has been identified with the Presidency since 1992, when she famously supported husband Bill against allegations of immoral behavior, rescuing his campaign and making possible his eventual win in 1992.) If alternative candidates are not readily apparent, we will tend to engage in endless speculation on “drafting” some ideal culture figure whom we believe – whether there is evidence or not – will provide the progressive leadership we’re not seeing from the existing elected Democratic office-holders.
These responses by progressives are indeed natural and understandable. Yet I am here to strongly maintain that this pattern of behavior is part of the reason that progressives are generally powerless and disorganized, and why elected Democratic office-holders continue to run away from the progressive base. We don’t need another un-organized “falling in love for all the wrong reasons” primary campaign in 2012 or 2016 that finishes with less than 20% of the primary voters. We do need a Congress that can pass serious, actually-beneficial-to-ordinary-Americans energy reforms & financial reforms & health care reforms WITHOUT the kind of added pork and business giveaways that Senators like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu specialize in. We do need a progressive political organization that is serious about changing the dysfunctional Democratic party, and that will be working on that goal in 2011, in 2013, in 2015, in 2017 and 2019 and on and on until the job is done.
Instead of continually “falling in love” with Presidential candidate father-figures (or mother- or sister-figures) in an individualistic way, and investing them with high hopes that will almost always be disappointed, I’m here to suggest a number of strategies and tactics that I believe – based on my experience in a number of mainstream and radical grass-roots political campaigns – will eventually pay off in a progressive movement that has real political power in elected offices, and real influence over the Democratic Party (or a successor party that we have created). I’d like to discuss these ideas in a series of subject topics (see below). And for those who are, rightfully, curious about who I am to be making these statements, there’s lots of interesting material at my website, especially the pages on my general political philosophy and the best of my past political advocacy articles and speeches.
GOALS – part 1
So what exactly is our goal, anyway, in our emotional desire to support new candidates against disappointing Democratic Presidents — including Hilary Clinton, with her resume of Presidential wife, Senator, Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic candidate in 2016 as the latest “disappointing Democratic incumbent?’ Is it merely to have the satisfaction of being “pure,” even if our dream candidate gets but 15% or 10% or even less in the primaries? Is it just to “send a message” to the Democratic Party establishment? There are plenty of ways to send that message, assuming the Party leaders are listening (which may be a big, doubtful assumption). And I do understand the need to feel “pure” after engaging in conventional politics – however it may be more helpful to our individual bruised psyches, and to our movement-building, to support mass public “purification” rituals for our fellow progressives, without confusing that need with our serious political work.
And we do have serious political work to do, if we are to prevent our democracy – and even our civilization – from collapsing under the weight of today’s political lies and corruption. Because of our own progressive grassroots weakness, and the unbelievable weakness of President Obama and the Congressional Democrats, our backs are against the wall: we must be able to achieve nearly-impossible goals if we are to have any effect at all. And if we are to save our grandchildren from a future of poverty and un-freedom, we need to have some very important effects on a dysfunctional governmental and economic institutional structure in America.
In my opinion, our progressive and radical political work must be clearly focused on 3 related goals (which are necessary to the ultimate goal of actually having political power). These three goals are: 1) replacing (or changing the behavior of) the approximately 70% of Democratic party office-holders at all levels of government who are basically corporate-owned or otherwise hostile to progressives; 2) reversing the disastrous Citizens United Court ruling (and related subsequent rulings from the Roberts Supreme Court), and otherwise reducing the influence of corporate money and corporate lobbying in American politics, and 3) reforming and changing the American mass media, to reduce their repetition of establishment myths and Republican lies, and allow our progressive truths to be told.
ORGANIZATION – part 1
The American right wing has a number of typical faults or problems that hurt their political efforts: basically their willingness to believe in silly lies that reinforce their fundamental racism and paternalism, and an over-riding hypocrisy that allows them to freely engage in the behaviors they condemn in others. However, we on the progressive side also have some typical faults as well. One of the worst, I will submit, is that part of our idealism and optimism that allows us to believe that we can achieve our goals without having strong organizations, which we ourselves give to and participate in, to press consistently for those goals. We do tend to believe that the “perfect candidate” will solve all our problems, we tend to believe that we will all “be there” when we are needed, without having any structure (besides the Democratic party) to make that happen. We tend to believe that the organizations we do have will continue to function well without our own participation, we tend to believe that “it’s OK” if we ourselves focus solely on our personal lives since “everyone else” will do whatever political work is necessary to change our unsatisfactory situation. .
I’m the historian, yet it’s not perfectly clear to me what’s at the root of these cultural failings on our side. Is it that we haven’t studied history and/or sociology, that we don’t realize how important organization is, for populations to achieve success in human life? Is there some truth to conservative accusations that our “counter-culture” is just too selfish and hedonistic? Is it an excess of anarchistic optimism on our part, that we want to believe so much in the “popular uprising” that we’re unwilling to understand the cultural and political work that has to be done to make such uprisings take place? It’s probably a combination of these and a few more, but whatever it is that’s holding us back, it has to stop – if we progressives are to be actually successful in political life.
GOALS – part 2
Perhaps part of the reason that we modern American progressives don’t do organization that well, is because when we try to do it at a grassroots levels we often “trip over our own idealism:” we are so determined to practice some ideal of perfect democracy, that we tie ourselves in ideological knots and drive away our potential volunteers.
The best example of this is the “Occupation movement” of late 2011: tremendous enthusiasm was generated for progressive criticisms of the establishment, and progressive suggestions for change in the initial phase of the movement. However, the organizers totally embraced a grassroots vision of idealistic democracy, allowing anyone to speak at length at never-ending mass meetings, with ideals of consensus preventing any serious decisions from being made. I don’t want to seem overly critical of the Occupation movement, and I hope that the people who got a chance to speak to thousands, that they otherwise never would have enjoyed, were personally uplifted and rewarded by this experience. This model of an ideal democracy satisfied the need for an alternative idealistic process to the existing big-money, managed-meetings practices that corrupt our local, state and federal democracy; but it must be admitted that this type of “organization” failed completely at generating sustained involvement by people who were not able, because of jobs and families, to give all their time and energy to the Occupation movement, and failed completely at maintaining the original enthusiasm and transferring this feeling to new, more effective movements/organizations. The vision of idealistic democracy in which every person, no matter how personally uninformed and ineffective they may be, had an equal voice, was a major factor in allowing the larger visions of the movement degenerate into simply defending the ideal of occupying public space for the purpose of occupying public space.
The pre-2011 example of American progressives “tripping over their own idealism” that I am most personally aware of, was in our attempts at creating a Green Party (most active from about 1990 to 2004). Generalizing broadly, this represented absolutely wonderful people as individuals, who could not achieve any great success as a group, in part because they were constantly tearing themselves apart in the search for a perfect organizational process, and because their attempts to form a “perfect platform” from the ground up every two years actually became a negative value which turned activists off, because of the endless boring hours that can be sucked up in a never-ending process which culminates in a useless “laundry list” of radical idealisms that does not line up with the major desires of any actual populations of human beings. Furthermore, the people who are most likely to attempt domination of committee meetings insisting on one specific point of ideal platform are seldom the people you really need in a grass-roots campaign, the ones who will get out and knock on doors and make phone calls to sell the campaign message.
It’s counter-factual, unwise and unproductive to dream or expect or insist that progressives are all going to agree on one ideal platform. The American racists and authoritarians and bible-thumpers can easily unite around a few basic proverbs and myths – it’s the same proverbs and myths their grandparents had a hundred years ago, the same ones they’ve followed all their lives.
Progressives are never going to easily unite around one set of slogans, because we are the people of complications. If we could have remained simple, we might still be simplistic conservatives … but we have experienced life in its millions of complicated ways, and we have all had our own paths to reach our own individual progressive understandings, and we are not just one race coming from one religious background. It’s complicated to be us! There is absolutely no reason why progressives coming from Black urban struggles should have the same ideas as progressives coming from the union movement, or progressives coming from intellectual and artistic backgrounds, or Hispanic-American progressives of various national backgrounds. We are not all the same, and it’s silly to expect us to all to agree to the same priorities, the same platforms and ideologies.
We progressives are never going to all have the same ideologies and ultimate priorities; yet if we can keep the list small, we should be able to share the same GOALS that will guide our political work. First of all, we need to gain significant political power to enact fundamental reforms, for the sake of our children.
To gain that significant political power, we need to replace (or change the attitudes of) the approximately 70-80% of Democratic Party office-holders – at all levels!! – who are not serious about fundamental reforms. And to accomplish that, there are two further goals we need to work on: changing/overturning the Citizens United court decision (and later Court decisions aggravating the power of dishonest money in politics), and changing the so-called “mainstream media,” so that they are not constantly repeating conservative myths as truths, and are not constantly belittling or demonizing our progressive truths. Do you remember what they did to Howard Dean? Even if there was an ideal version of, say, a Russ Feingold or an Alan Grayson who led a 2012 primary campaign against Obama, or an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders upholding progressive values in 2016, and progressives were flocking to join, apparently – in the media’s un-real version of our world — it just takes one trumped-up talking point of mainstream media scorn to de-rail the whole thing and keep progressives marginalized. I don’t have a final answer for how we’re going to be able to prevent that … but it has to be a part of our basic goals to at least work on preventing that kind of media nonsense from being more powerful than our democratic voices.
ORGANIZATION – part 2
For progressives to gain significant political power, we have to confront the problem of the Democratic Party. Many of our office-holders can talk a good game: back in the ‘80’s, I had taped Mario Cuomo’s great speech to the 1984 Democratic Convention, and I re-listened to it quite a few times in the bleak years of Reagan and Bush the elder, even as I was transitioning to Green Party work, and it really helped me keep going. Yet the reality was that neither Cuomo nor his party was ever in a position to actually work on realizing any of the grand ideals he pronounced, and they never really tried too hard to get in a position where they could work on fundamental reforms to help realize the grand ideals so many of us share. Because of the mass-media consumerist model of politics (and a lack of real commitment to any ideals higher than just getting re-elected one more time), Democratic party office-holders at all levels thought their greatest need was for campaign funds, and thus they worked much harder for corporate elites who could make big donations than they ever worked for ordinary working class and middle-class Americans.
This was apparent to me back in 1990, and it led me then to seek out the nascent Green Party, and to pledge myself at least 10 years of effort to see if we could create a better political party. Well, it turned into 15 years and for a time I was an elected Green Party official and an official spokesman, and we were able to do some things well … but we weren’t able to make a real dent in the Democratic Party. Our few successes brought forth a backlash among some grassroots Democrats (and nearly all organizational Democrats) blaming us for Republican victories, and what little influence we had earned in the ‘90’s shrank during the right-wing ascendency of the early G. W. Bush years – and in part because of our own green habit of “tripping over our own idealisms.”
So here we are, apparently stuck with today’s dilemma for progressives who seek fundamental reforms in American politics. The Democratic Party office-holders and party establishment will always be tilted to the center and the corporations: they think they need the money, and they think their lobby-demanded sellouts are more credible and legitimate than our grassroots progressivism. You can’t change them working solely from inside the party, they will always be able to claim their sold-out elected official is a “stronger candidate” than your grassroots primary challenger. And until you can build a darn good alternative organization, their “get-out-the-vote” efforts and big-bucks TV ads will overwhelm your efforts. And you can’t change them working solely from outside the party: you’ll always be short of funds, you’ll always be marginalized and challenged by the media in ways they don’t apply to the 2 big parties, you’ll always be severely handicapped by the very nature of our electoral system and “first-past-the-post” vote-counting system, since significant splits in one of the 2 big parties helps the opposite big party – and the 2 big parties know that, and thus will never allow any significant electoral reforms that might allow third parties to exist and prosper.
So, we grassroots progressives can’t beat the sold-out do-nothing Democrats working solely within the party, and we can’t beat the sold-out do-nothing Democrats working solely from outside the party … I don’t know all the details, but clearly the way forward is for grassroots progressives to build a functioning organization which is dedicated to the goal of changing the Democratic party, and which is determined to work BOTH inside the party and outside the party to do that. We must challenge the corporatist/cowardly office-holding incumbents at all levels in primary challenges, and we must be ready to have alternative candidates lined up to run in third-party challenges to the worst of these incumbents, the Mary Landrieus and the Ben Nelsons, in cases where it won’t allow the insane Republicans to hurt our constituency populations.
If we can only get 100,000 people for this new organization, we won’t have any electoral power, and we’ll have to be dedicated for further education, recruitment and organizing for our side. Yet when we begin to get 8 or 10 million voters who are dedicated to changing the elected Democrats (or changing their attitudes) we can begin to play at politics with the big boys … and when we can get to 20 or 30 million voters who will follow the lead of our organization, including being ready to change party registrations from Democratic to other ballot lines on tactical considerations as often as state laws allow, we will begin to have real electoral success for our progressive ideals.
I don’t think we have to start re-inventing the wheel entirely from scratch in building this new organization. There are some organizations on the left that I admire and try to support already; I really like the attitude of, and the advertising campaigns that the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC, also known as Bold Progressives-dot-org) is producing (but they need ten or forty times more supporters than the 650,000-something they had in 2010). Moveon.org has gotten 5 million people through 2010, to come to at least one meeting or sign up at least once on the internet – and that’s tremendous! I believe their organizational model has some very good features, yet I do wish they were at least one or two steps more radical, and more clear on the need to change the existing Democratic party. However, even if the best we could do was to boost their official membership into the tens of millions, and boost their active membership to 10 or 20 percent of that total, that would be a very good start for progressives over our current status. For the portion of our work that is going to take place outside the Democratic party, we must be willing to work with (and/or be prepared to try to take over) any and all existing small leftist parties that have ballot status in any state, whether they’re Green, Socialist, Working Family, Independent or whatever.
I’m also strongly of the belief that any progressive organization we create needs to take advantage of the fact that people are different, not to try to deny it by forcing everyone into the same organizational box. For progressive political work, the basic difference that needs to be accounted for is one of temperament. On one hand there are people who tend to highly value civility; they’re not attracted to loudly raised voices, they generally prefer trying to work within existing institutions. And on the other hand are those who tend to believe strongly that political “evil-doers” need to be confronted, who enjoy demonstrating and picketing and writing angry letters, who are impatient with the long slow work of persuasion. Thus I very much want to see a progressive political organization that is frankly set up with a “moderate caucus” and a “radical caucus,” to allow people to choose the organizational style that better suits their personality; this is especially necessary if the organization is going to be trying to work both within the Democratic Party and outside of it.
Both types of temperament are necessary to us, we are going to need both the patient persuasion within the Democratic Party and the occasional loud confrontation with the corporatist elements that are trying to defeat us; why not set ourselves up to take advantage of both impulses? I do see these “caucuses” as being loosely enough organized that a person can work with the moderates on one issue, and with the radicals on another, if they so choose; and for the minority of us who can always see the advantages and disadvantages of both paths, and/or for those who are ambitious to be recognized, there will be a “leadership caucus” that requires working explicitly with both the larger caucuses.
This type of organization can be very difficult to lead, and very threatening to leaders who are not secure in their democratic values; yet I strongly believe that part of the change and evolution we progressives need to undergo in order to succeed is to be able to build an organization that recognizes and honors our varying temperaments, an organization that is able to deal with members’ needs and messages that are necessarily mixed, and is able to deal with wings of a movement that are almost always moving at different speeds or for differing priorities.
Anarchism and voluntarism may be very nice impulses … but several decades of pursuing them, individualistically and without serious organization, on the progressive left have left us without power, and with little hope of ever gaining any. Unlike our opponents on the right and our so-called allies in the centrist Democratic power, we do not wish power for its own sake, or for our own selfish opportunism: we need to gain a share of political power in America to enact fundamental reforms, to secure the blessings of liberty and (relative) prosperity for our children and grandchildren.
To do that, we need to be far more organized than we already are. If you’re not comfortable with me saying that, take it from a much better writer and leader than myself, author Bill McKibben of 350.org. “[The COP 16 Climate Summit Meeting here in Cancun is] just like a family reunion aboard the Titanic. We can’t keep doing this… It’s on who has the power. And at the moment, that power rests in the hands of the fossil fuel industry and their allies in governments around the world. And until we build some independent outside movement power to push back, then we’re going to get scraps from the table, at the very best.” (And the source I took that quote from has another nice long essay on the need for organization from another well-known progressive leader, Ronnie Cummins.) And in my opinion, it would be very helpful if that organization had a clear commitment to the goal of changing the personnel and/or the attitudes of the existing Democratic Party in America.
I’ve done the voluntarist, no-funds grassroots organizing thing in several campaigns now. In my experience, it’s easy to get up emotions on the left for playing in Presidential politics. Nearly everyone is very interested in Presidential hopefuls and possibilities, most everyone has clear opinions on their favorite candidates and their non-favored candidates. And as soon as you start talking about state-level or local politics, the energy and interest drop right off. It’s easy to find 10 people excited about drafting some ideal cultural figure as a Presidential hopeful; it’s practically impossible to find 10 people interested in a serious primary campaign against some local Democratic city officeholder or state legislator who happens to be a completely sold-out pig. The people who are ten feet outside that district aren’t interested at all, and even the people in the district would usually rather play ineffectively at Presidential politics than get serious about the real work that needs to be done in that district.
On the optimistic side, I have also done the “take-my-small-business-all-over-the-country” thing for many years, and I am optimistic that the cultural majority is on the progressive side. Unfortunately it seems that 80% or more of the culturally progressive majority in America is not currently interested in progressive politics: some of them are young jerky guys totally absorbed in their video games, many of them have an unnecessary pessimism over “politics can’t work” or “the establishment will always crush us,” many are just too busy/distracted with their personal lives, others are emotionally tied to supporting centrist Democrats. But we do have hundreds of millions of culturally progressive Americans we can talk to and try to convince to take part in the work that is needed to make America the better land we all know it can ideally be. And even if we are only successful with a minority of those culturally progressive Americans, we can get tens of millions of people working in organizations like – or even better than! – boldprogressives-dot-org and moveon-dot-org.
So if you’re not already a member of one of those two groups, go join up right now, and send them some money. If you think you’re the only progressive in your area, focus on one local Democratic officeholder who very much needs to be challenged in a primary election, and do what you can to start organizing that campaign – you might be surprised at the allies you will find. I’m always ready to help start a new more radical organization if people think that’s needed, and I have some credentials as a democratic leader. But please, please, please … do something to help save this country from itself, and do something more focused, more long-term and more organized than just sitting with your computer and crying about Obama or Hilary Clinton, and fantasizing about some ideal Presidential candidate who will magically enact all our progressive values without any serious effort or work on our part. You owe it to yourself, you owe it to our children and grandchildren.