The immigrant rights movement is in a frenzy over a recent piece on Truthout written by some of the young undocumented students pushing for passage of the DREAM Act. In the essay, Jonathan Perez, Jorge Guitierrez, Nancy Meza and Neidi Dominguez Zamorano turn their anger at the DREAM Act’s failure not on the Senators who failed to vote for cloture, or on the Republican Party in general which has backed down on support for immigration reform. No, in the tried and true tradition of circling the wagons and shooting ourselves, the DREAM activists are attacking the mainstream immigrant rights movement.
Let me stop here and clarify that I do not believe unanimity in movements is a good thing. Healthy and vibrant debate, and even dissent, is essential — not only in creating a spectrum of ideological perspectives and thus appealing entry points for all different sorts of people to join the movement, but also because debate and dissent keeps a movement accountable. It’s important that we remember there would have been no Civil Rights legislation but for Malcolm X and the Black Panthers whose relative extremism made Martin Luther King and his adherents seem more reasonable to the powers-that-be. At the same time, Malcolm and the Panthers also pushed King to be more radical — an essential force in keeping the mainstream Civil Rights movement from being dangerously co-opted by the liberal establishment.
That said, there’s a difference between dissent and disrespect. The DREAM activists have crossed the line.
The DREAMers (as they’re called within the immigrant rights field) have a litany of critiques of their mainstream colleagues. Mainstream immigrant rights groups are part of the “non-profit industrial complex” and thus beholden to capitalist structures and foundation interests, instead of challenging them. Mainstream groups are not staffed by undocumented immigrants, yet claim to speak for undocumented communities. And mainstream leaders, the DREAMers claim, are not “putting their bodies and lives on the line” for reform while the young undocumented activists are.
For the record, I think that the direct action on all parts of the immigrant rights movement (DREAMers included) has been largely tame and uninspired, with a few exceptions like the Trail of Dreams, in which four undocumented students walked from Florida to DC to demand reform. The power of direct action in past movements, including the often-correlated Civil Rights movement, wasn’t that it was large or dangerous. It was that the direct action was beautiful, powerful — like a physical metaphor of injustice played out before people’s eyes. If you’re not allowed to eat with white people at a lunch counter, sitting at that lunch counter is a visual illustration of the rights you want and how wrong it is to deny them. For undocumented immigrants who don’t have the right to work or vote or live in America, marching in the streets doesn’t have the same visceral power. In fact, unfortunately, seeing millions of immigrants take to the streets in 2006 was arguably a wake up call to Americans either hostile toward or unsure about immigration reform who all of the sudden realized just how many immigrants we have in our country. Arguably, instead of inspiring compassion, the marches inspired a backlash.
Still, make no mistake about it, everyone on every side of this movement marched and many took arrests. Meanwhile, leaders within the mainstream immigrant rights and grassroots organizations organized strategy sessions over the past four years to explore more aggressive and effective tactics for direct action, studying models from Eastern Europe and Latin America. I am sure that each of these activists — volunteer leaders in these organizations as well as paid staff — would gladly put their lives on the line for this cause in which they believe so deeply, if they only knew what to do and how it would make a difference. The DREAMers weren’t any more sure on this tactical level.
Second, yes, the mainstream groups (including grassroots organizations in the Fair Immigration Reform Movement grouping as well as Washington-based organizations) are for the most part staffed by documented immigrants. In several cases, these staffers are children or grandchildren of immigrants. And in some cases they’re white guys. It’s appropriate to scrutinize this (especially the white guys leading immigrant rights organizations phenomenon). However, the grassroots volunteer leaders of these organizations are undocumented, and the best of these organizations are truly led by these members. What’s more, if we’re going to get into an identity politics breakdown, while the young DREAM Act leaders are mainly those who want to go to college and thereby gain citizenship, the undocumented members of most “mainstream” grassroots immigrant rights groups are low-wage workers who are struggling to make a living and support their families and were not going to be helped, immediately or ever, by a DREAM Act that helps kids on a more elite path.
And yes, the immigrant rights groups being critiqued are 501(c)3s. So are lots of the groups critiquing them. But more importantly, it was these very same 501(c)3s that incubated and trained the DREAM Act students, hosted their meetings and supported their travel, provided media support and in countless other ways encouraged and facilitated the DREAMers’ work. At the same time, many of these 501(c)3s are deeply critical of the limitations on non-profits, the challenges of funding, etc. Still, they are working within the system we have right now to push the boundaries of what’s possible and win change.
In 2007, the first time comprehensive immigration reform failed, I was working for the Center for Community Change (which organizes the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and is now a leader in the national Reform Immigration FOR America campaign). As leaders and staff from grassroots groups were literally in tears about the demise of a path to citizenship, a staff person from another immigrant rights group publicly condemned us “Washington insiders” for “working behind the scenes” and “selling out” the immigrant community. Huh? Do you think that’s how it works? That the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups have all the power and are happily accepting atrocious terms like guestworker programs and harsh border enforcement and deportation rules, working behind the scenes to actually screw over their constituents — the very folks we’ve all worked tirelessly for decades to help? It’s one thing to criticize. It’s another to be naïve. Mainstream immigration groups held meetings with the White House, organized hundreds of thousands of calls into Congress, held demonstrations and a huge rally in Washington, got unprecedented mainstream press endorsements, but still couldn’t pass comprehensive immigration reform. Come to think of it, the DREAMers suggesting the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups are remotely mainstream betrays a deep misunderstanding of these dynamics.
Personally, I’ll go on record believing that the entire immigrant rights movement (CIR supporters and DREAMers alike) should not have tried for legislative victory at all this year. The backlash from 2006 and 2007 was too strong and, though perhaps less severe than under the reign of the Minutemen, more widespread thanks to the visibility of the Tea Party and increased audience of Fox News. Somehow, even though over 67% of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform, the anti-immigrant climate was too strong to be overcome. Immigrant groups should have spent the past two years on a longer-term majoritarian strategy to change the mainstream climate, rather than a Hail Mary minority interest strategy to persuade Congress that Latino votes were dependent on reform. Just as the vocal Tea Part has been exerting disproportionate power over the political discussion, the vocal anti-immigrant forces — albeit fringe — drowned out the numerically significant but culturally powerless supporters of justice.
Still, everyone gave it their best shot. Everyone. And, all parsing of tactical and strategic choices aside, perhaps the best thing that can be said for the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups was that they kept fighting, hard though it was, for a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants — maintaining their principles and justice and equality and not giving up on winning for the entire community. The DREAM Act kids, unfortunately, felt held back, and wanted to win the DREAM Act even if it meant pushing aside comprehensive immigration reform. Interestingly, the DREAM Act would have only helped the DREAM kids — while comprehensive immigration reform would have helped the DREAM kids and everyone else. I really admire the courage and boldness of the young DREAM Act leaders — but I wish that, in the aftermath of a collective and hard defeat, they weren’t acting like petulant children.
As many of you who read this site know, since the Movement Vision Lab and I left the Center for Community Change in January 2010, I’ve been contemplating the most strategic role that I can play to advance social change in America.
I believe that significant, transformational social change only happens through significant, transformational mass social movements — the kind we’ve had in American history but don’t have today.
And what’s clear is that, among many movement elements missing in the progressive field today, every major social movement in the history of America or anywhere else in the globe has had a robust program of consciousness raising. Whether it was the 40,000+ paid political educators who traveled the Midwest during the Populist Movement to explain why the economy was failing small farmers. Or the Brookwood Labor College the radicalized workers leading to the union movement in the early 1900s and inspired Civil Rights leaders to create the Highlander Center which played a similar role in that movement. Or the feminist consciousness raising groups organized in living rooms across America in the 1970s.
Progressive social movements by their very nature struggle against the dominant ideology and philosophy of the status quo. In order to build an informed and active mass movement, we not only need alternative ideas and analysis — but alternative ideas and analysis that are delivered in a compelling, accessible and popular way.
With this in mind, I present for your feedback a working concept paper on the Movement Vision Lab’s “Center for Popular Popular Education.” Read it. Share it. And then fill this page with comments — your constructive thoughts on the movement analysis within this proposal and the sets of activities proposed as a response. In the Freirian tradition, popular education (let alone a proposal to do popular education) can’t just be a one-way street!
I’ve posted the entire proposal, including the proposed budget, to be as transparent and participatory as possible in developing this plan. In addition to seeking feedback on the concept, I am currently soliciting funding — so if you’re reading this and have feedback you want to share privately OR would like to provide funding (at any level) please contact me.
A final thanks to the organizations that have already endorsed the Center for Popular Popular Education and expressed enthusiasm to work with us going forward. There’s a great field of groups that already do political education in some form and a great field of groups who want to do more. We’re excited to join the mix!
I just read Kevin Matton’s thoughtful article in The American Prospect arguing that liberals need to “Forget Populism” and focus on winning voters minds, not hearts, by proving our superior expertise and intellect to govern. I really admire Kevin as an historian and public intellectual but I vigorously — dare I say, in populist terms, passionately — have to disagree. Two overarching reactions.
First, populism in America today may be 99% about rhetoric, but rhetoric matters. I don’t want to reduce all predictors of small-p political sentiment to anecdotes about large-p Politics in Washington, but arguably Al Gore and John Kerry fared poorly in their elections because they were perceived (rightly!) to be elitist technocrats to which average Americans had trouble relating. As a reminder that all of life is really just a recapitulation of high school, Gore and Kerry and many Democratic “leaders” today are the math and science geeks. Sarah Palin is head cheerleader. No one likes her for her brains. In high school, as in politics and society more broadly, popularity is not necessarily equated with intelligence.
In the high school power structure, Barack Obama was that rare blend (especially rare for Democrats) of smart kid and popular kid. He’s the basketball team captain who also makes valedictorian and is elected student council president. His intelligence, which appealed to the base of geek-loving Democrats, was always on display alongside his inspiring eloquence, which broadened his, well, popularity. I remember resenting in the Bush-Kerry election how voters were actually polled on who they would rather have a beer with, let alone that they chose Bush. What a stupid question? But like it or not such stupid questions are what “real people” care about and, while incredibly reductionist, are crass ways at trying to get at the unmeasurably quality of charisma.
On the left, we’ve generally abandoned belief in charisma, partly for ideological reasons — a political correctness-based assertion that we’re all leaders in equal portion — partly for practical reasons — that we’ve been hard-pressed for a long time to come up with one prominent progressive charismatic leader, let alone enough to cover the airwaves and opinion pages and be elected to a governing majority nationwide. It’s no wonder that when the charismatic Obama came along we all ignored that he was plainly a centrist in progressive sheepskin and happily pumped our fists in populist “Yes We Can” euphoria. Just because our most recent affair with populism after a long, long dry-spell didn’t turn out as we hoped doesn’t mean we should cede the entire concept to the Right.
Which brings me to my second point. The essence of populism is, as Mattson writes, “the people, yes” — the idea that ordinary Americans have as much (or even more) to contribute to our political, economic and social evolution as do technocratic elites. Frankly, as someone who has seen first hand the deep condescension of many Washington-based progressive advocacy organizations toward “the field”, I think a movement-wide emphasis on populism is a welcome counterweight. The “don’t worry, we’re the experts in DC, we’ll handle the big questions” attitude toward the progressive movement outside Washington is as frustrating to grassroots liberal activists as the same sentiment coming from politicians in Washington irritates voters. Moreover, while conservatives certainly don’t want to help anyone — especially not poor people of color — the pity-filled do-gooder Sally Struthers-eque “thank goodness you have us to help you” attitude exuded by many white liberal activists (most often implied but often explicit) is downright offensive. Why is there no mass grassroots progressive movement rising up on the left like the Tea Party? Our not-so-hidden bias against average people is a big part of the answer. It’s in our attitudes, but it’s also reflected in the way we structure the progressive “movement” such as it is — focusing on Washington, DC think tanks and lobbying arms and spending barely little money and attention on real grassroots organizing.
If the newfound liberal love affair with populism gets progressive activists in general — and progressive organizations in Washington in particular — to spend less time running “the movement” on behalf of the needy ordinary Americans and calling the shots for the paltry grassroots constituencies that we have organized (when they even both to try working with them) and instead focus on building authentic, bottom-up people’s organizations so that an ever-widening base of progressive Americans feel their voices and their values are being heard in progressive organizations and, in turn, reflected in policies being passed in Washington … if “populism” is really a coded critique for the lack of respect for and attention to real grassroots organizing and popular leadership development in the progressive movement… then I say “populism, yes”!
I was on Fox News this morning and, in the wake of the NAACP resolution calling on the Tea Party to denounce its racist extremist elements, the panel debate was about whether or not there are explicit racist elements in the Tea Party. Come on. Of course there are.
The folks denying Obama is a citizen despite a clear birth certificate and birth announcement. The signs that say “we have a lyin’ African in the White House” or “monkey see, monkey do” or my personal favorite, “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?” The fact that overt White Supremacist organizations have called for support of the Tea Party movement and Tea Party candidates, including Rand Paul, have explicitly drawn on White Supremacist groups like Stormfront to raise money for their causes. There is overwhelming and undeniable evidence that very ugly, very vitriolic racists have linked up with the Tea Party.
If you Tea Party folks find this accusation so offensive, I would think you’d be all in favor of the NAACP resolution. Seems to me it’s just calling on the Tea Party affiliates to do exactly what, defensively, you’re doing in reaction to the resolution — distance yourselves from this explicitly hateful wing of your movement. Why not?
So what’s more interesting, I think, than pointing out the obvious existence of explicit racist extremists in the Tea Party is examining whether the Tea Party as a whole, by its very nature, is intentionally, implicitly built on racial resentment. In this regard, the NAACP resolution might be considered tame — it goes to great pains, as many other liberals have, to suggest that only a few folks in the Tea Party are racist but by no means the entire enterprise. I say: Not so fast…
Now, racism is a loaded word. And it tends to (though by no means needs to) connote personal animus. Colloquially, when we call someone a racist, we generally mean that they think themselves and their race inherently superior to another race by virtue of the color of their skin. I’m not going to wade into the question of whether all Tea Party individual members are racist. For full disclosure, the fact of the matter is I think everyone born in America grows up to unconsciously believe that white people are superior to people of color, just as we grow up to believe men are superior to women, straight people are superior to gay people and so on. No, it’s not taught explicitly in schools, but we humans are good at picking up the coded residues of inequality throughout our society. When we see only white men in power, we internalize the idea that only white men should be in power. When most media representations of black folks focus on poverty, drugs and crime, we internalize the idea that black people have a greater inherent tendency toward troubled behavior. This is the way inequality replicates itself — not by a bunch of folks sitting around in a room and deciding, yes, black people should still have higher rates of unemployment and women should earn only $0.76 for a man’s dollar — but because patterns of injustice play out all around us and, like the proverbial fish swimming in water, we don’t notice the bias because it’s all we’ve ever known. We learn to notice race but not racism — so the swimming in bias continues.
Which means, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the President is black…
In this context, racism remains a perfect political trigger point, especially for white Americans. It always has been. From the beginning of American history, the Founders — who were wealthy white landowners — tapped into racial resentment and the (then explicit) sense of racial superiority among poor white folks to get buy in for a political system that for a long time disenfranchised not only black folks in America but un-landed white folks too. The argument that you should support policies that help the white elite and privileged still holds sway today, as working class white folks voice support for tax cuts and slashing of government programs the result of which very explicitly helps the rich and hurts the rest of us (including working class white folks themselves).
But over the years, it’s become less acceptable to be overtly racist. So code words became the norm. In the 60s it was “state’s rights”. In the 80s and 90s it was “personal responsibility”. And as much as I consider myself a proud American, I’m afraid to say that the code word today is “patriotism”. It avoids being explicitly racist while very clearly harkening back to a time when not only all our political leaders were white (and male) but where black folks were enslaved. And it has a very scary, violence-threatening edge — see, for instance, the campaign video by the thankfully-defeated Alabama Tea Party candidate Rick Barber calling on “good patriots” to “gather your armies”.
No, Tea Party folks protest — this is all about fiscal responsibility and the deficit. Then where were you during George W. Bush’s presidency when he took the nation from a record surplus to a record deficit and created the economic mess we’re in? Why didn’t you question his competence? Or his citizenship? In February 2009, a poll revealed that the deficit ranked sixth on a list of concerns voters have nationally, behind ending the war in Iraq and fixing our broken health care system. The deficit is nothing but a seemingly non-partisan, non-racialized shill. The Tea Party has no problem with deficit spending to finance wars and tax breaks for the rich and big business. But it does have a problem with government spending that is presumably helping poor people and people of color. Never mind that Obama’s policies help even more working white folks. Conservatives and the Tea Party are tarnishing the idea of government spending — and, by extension, government in general — by implying that government helps black people and immigrants but hurts white people, while big business helps whites. Facts and forty years of economic and social history otherwise be damned!
Now we’re in a financial crisis and everyone is feeling the pinch. Our natural human inclination and political necessity is to find someone to blame. If you’re a working class white person in this situation, you have two options. First, you can blame the super-rich (mostly) white elite who have rigged our economic and political system for their sole gain over the last 40 years and stuffed their pockets while your real income and quality of life has declined. But frankly, that would mean rejecting the myth that’s been propelling you all these years — that if you worked hard enough, you too could be Bill Gates — and instead accepting the unfortunate fact that, in America, extreme wealth is much more often a product of inherited position and pre-existing status than hard work. Because that’s how the existing elite have written the rules of our economy. But that’s a hard pill to swallow. So let’s blame people of color and immigrants. You’re in the sinking ship that is the American economy and a convenient solution is simply shoving some people overboard. You’re not struggling to make ends meet because the economy is fundamentally unfair and rigged against you and most of the rest of us. No! You’re struggling because black folks and immigrants are cheating and loafing off government and getting a free ride. Which makes me wonder if you’ve visited an inner-city housing project or immigrant farmworker camp and seen just how un-cushy some folks have it…
Conservative elites and big business have for some time intentionally triggered the racial resentment option instead of — gasp! — exposing their own protection and perpetuation of extreme economic inequality and thus risking all their power and fortune. Luckily for them, just when the economy as we know it was teetering at the precipice of public confidence — when we finally saw the horrors that deregulation and run amuck Wall Street greed create — America elected its first black president. It was a perfectly convenient way for the super-rich elite to, again, fan the flames of racial resentment as the scapegoat for our economic mess to avoid the blame being placed where it really belongs. This is why poor people were blamed for bad loans, not lenders. And this is why the Tea Party is questioning Obama’s fundamental competence and contending he wants to help black Americans but not whites.
How else can you explain the fact that the Tea Party supposedly grew out of public anger about the big bank bailouts but is now opposing financial sector reforms that would hold big banks accountable and make the financial sector work for average investors again? I do not think most of the Tea Party leaderships’ agenda is about explicitly perpetuating racism and racial insensitivity. But I do think the Tea Party is intentionally fanning flames of racial resentment to distract attention from the real problems — and real solutions — that would put big business and big banks in check and actually help all working Americans, including white folks.
So, do I agree with the NAACP resolution? Absolutely. With two caveats. First, it’s pretty safe for the NAACP to indeed play to its base with this (still relatively tame and incontrovertible) resolution. But what I’d really like to see are white liberal organizations take the same level of responsibility to call out racism in the Tea Party as well as throughout the political and social sphere — left and right, by the way — and be strong advocates for racial justice. There are a few examples of white groups and leaders doing this but nearly enough. Second, I do think that the NAACP is clearly drawing on the Tea Party’s current publicity to activate NAACP membership and generate attention and energy for the organization’s efforts at revitalization. That’s understandable, but it’s emblematic of a general trend on the left right now to jealously ogle at the seemingly vast and energetic Tea Party on the right while bemoaning the ossified, stale, centralized organizations on the left that are vestiges of vibrant movements of the past but lack that character today. This is exemplified in the debate as to whether the left right now is disappointed and dejected, in part by the rise of the Tea Party at the same time as the failure to pass truly progressive legislation in the context of Obama’s centrist approach to policy and power. Much more could be said on this (stay tuned) but suffice it to say I think the left should pay less attention to the Tea Party minority and more attention to the vast majority of Americans who are hurting in this economy and desperate for real solutions, the kind of bold and transformative solutions that frankly neither political party is putting out. Let’s build a vast and vibrant new movement around our agenda, not merely on the back of Obama’s election or, now, in reaction to the Tea Party.
I just re-read Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. It’s strikingly relevant for movement building today. I suggest you read it. But in case you can’t, here are my top take-aways from the book, as always, in 800 words…
1. There is a formula for movement building.
Goodwyn argues there are four, sequential stages: “(1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority… ‘the movement forming’; (2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people—‘the movement recruiting’; (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis—‘the movement educating’; and (4) the creation of an institutional means by which new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way—‘the movement politicized’”.
The genius of the Populists was that the autonomous institution formed (1) and into which masses were recruited (2) was not overtly a political group or organizing group but an alternative, economic self-survival formation. Rural farmers suffering under the crop lien system (where they sold rights to their crop to get seeds and tools but then the selling value of the crop wasn’t high enough to cover the debt due to intentional deflation) were drawn en masse to farming cooperatives that collectivized costs. Practical needs got people in the door; politics were cultivated.
2. Mass political education is critical (and possible).
Once the farming cooperatives got members in the door, they weren’t just asked to write letters to Members of Congress. The Populist Movement (in the form of the Farmer’s Alliance) had 40,000 traveling lecturers educating Alliance members about the prevailing systems of economic power and privilege in America. Think about that: 40,000 traveling lecturers! And we complain that we can’t educate the masses because we don’t have our own TV station. The Populists didn’t let a lack of mass media stop them from mass education.
Goodwyn articulates political education as the primary goal of any social movement, far above particular issue demands: “Towering over all other tasks is the need to find a way to overcome deeply ingrained patterns of deference permeating the entire social order.” In the case of Populism, the movement wasn’t about farm loan policy or hard money currency or any of the issues of the day—“the meaning of the agrarian revolt was its cultural assertion as a people’s movement of mass democratic aspiration.” That’s as good a test for any to apply to our movement aspirations going forward, instead of making the central point about the particular issue or group being organized.
3. Things have become steadily worse since 1896.
Williams Jennings Bryan, representing a more accommodationist branch of the Populists that co-opted the movement, won the Populist and Democratic parties’ nomination for President in 1896, delivering a significant blow to the movement. When Bryan then lost to McKinley, it was the final knockout. “The economic, political, and moral authority that ‘concentrated capital’ was able to mobilize in 1896 generated a cultural momentum that gathered in intensity until it created new political guidelines for the entire society in twentieth-century America… They have remained substantially unquestioned since.”
Goodwyn elaborates, “The American populace was induced to accept as its enduring leadership a corporate elite whose influence was to permeate every state legislature of the land, and the national Congress as well. A new style of democratic politics had become institutionalized, and its cultural boundaries were so adequately fortified that the new forms gradually described the Democratic Party of opposition as well as the Republican party of power.” Déjà vu, anyone?
Radical populism faded into “progressivism” and eventually “liberalism”—the “sophisticated despair, grounded in the belief that hierarchical American society could, perhaps, be marginally ‘humanized’ but could not be fundamentally democratized.” Arguably, even 60s and 70s movements’ aims to add marginalized communities to the ranks of the privileged elite rather than abolish caste and elitism altogether reflects this persistent reality. This history also suggests the inverse is true; if we want to bring about radical
4. The solution is “self-generating creativity” to challenge hegemony.
Goodwyn defines the “ultimate cultural victory” in movements and politics “being not merely to win an argument but to remove the subject from the agenda of future contention.” To change the rules of the game. Goodwyn argues that the corporate elite did this effectively and, so far, indelibly in 1896. Goodwyn accuses left-leaning political thought since, especially socialism, of “dull dogmatism” that preferenced ideological rigidity over democratic authenticity (not to mention democratic values) and, thus, a “capacity for self-generating creativity”. In other words, to be both legitimate and effective at challenging the anti-democratic elite status quo, movements must embrace participatory democracy (see, e.g., “Five Lessons on Participatory Decisionmaking” http://movementvision.org/books-in-brief/particiaptory-decisionmaking/). Goodwyn argues that, in movements, people must generate their own democratic culture “in order to challenge the received hierarchical culture.”
The era of the Populist Movement is one in which corruption in the credit markets led to widespread disempowerment and disaffection, in which mass movements rose up to educate and aggregate the power of these communities, yet the consolidated power and cultural influence of corporate America closed the door on any significant prospect of change. Parts of this history feel eerily familiar today, but hopefully learning from the past, we can write a different ending this time. Just to boggle your mind again with the scale of things, in 1896 at the start of its decline the Populist Movement had over 2 million members (at a time when the 1890 Census estimated between 62-75 million Americans total). By that measure, we should have a movement of at least 8 million now — but why stop there? Many millions more feel the need for change. We just need to give them a practical and inspiring outlet.
Apparently, the original video I created to introduce the Movement Vision Lab is taking off on You Tube — having something to do with its adoption by the management science crowd. Hmmmm… But reminded me to dig it back up and post it here, for your entertainment.
Please send it to activists (or management consultants) you know!
Our nation and our world are on a dangerous, downward spiral toward greed, violence and isolation, where a small few reap increasingly extreme benefits at the expense of the vast majority. At the core of my soul, I believe that everyday people possess the passion and the wisdom to turn us around, to tell a different story about the future we want, to unite together and struggle together to make our shared dream come true. I believe that the vast majority of people—in the United States and around the globe—want a peaceful and fair and equitable and compassionate world, but have been told it’s not possible. Anything is possible. Change is possible. Together, we have changed our world for the better before. We will do it again.
There are many things that the forces for positive change are doing right, but without question we are going through a collective rude awakening. We’d been told that if we built the right think tanks and organizations in Washington and elected a Democrat president, the promised land of transformation would be right around the corner. But it was a mirage. Stalled health care reform, the failure to reign in big banks, polluter-friendly cap-and-trade legislation, broken promises on immigration and war, and a mobilized Right wing that continues to capture public attention… We still have a long, hard journey ahead of us.
We face many obstacles to moving forward, but from my perspective, four of the most significant are of our own creation.
1. For at least the last three decades since the demobilization of the 60s and 70s social movements, we have focused on building organizations rather than social movements. We don’t have movement leaders trained in popular education and mass mobilization, who come from and are building the democratic leadership of people from communities directly affected by injustice. We have non-profit leaders, who went to non-profit management school to learn grantwriting and strategic planning and are mostly white and upper-middle class. Everything from foundation funding to management consultants to the progressive media reinforces the emphasis on organizations over mass movements.
2. We are suffering from an absence of credible, radical ideas. This is in part because elite, non-profit leaders are not from the base they “represent” and assume that their base couldn’t stomach anything radical. This is reinforced by political leaders and talking heads who tell us that the American people won’t stomach radical ideas, either. How could they when we haven’t given them any? We have failed to articulate a comprehensive, compelling alternative vision to capture the public imagination—not to mention, our own.
3. We lack the scale needed for transformative change. At the peak of the Populist Movement, hundreds of thousands joined the ranks of the National Farmers Alliance. The movement had 40,000 lecturers and popular educators alone! Recently, 100,000 Thais demonstrated against their country’s military-backed Prime Minister (in a country of only 67 million people). But we will never get to the scale we need simply by building larger non-profits or community organizing groups—mathematically, there isn’t enough funding to grow existing organizations (and thus, their bases) by even ten-fold, let alone 10,000-fold. We don’t need to throw away what we have, but we have to do something different.
4. We also lack independent, cross-issue thinkers and agitators who are not beholden to a particular organization or political party or funder but, rather, are free to act in the interest of a larger, shared agenda, not primarily in the spirit of institution building but broad-based movement building.
Based on this analysis, my plan is to spend the next six-to-nine months as a movement strategist learning about and experimenting in relation to three questions:
First, how do radical ideas become possible? I’m interested in where transformative ideas come from and building stronger connections between thinkers in academia and the organizing-world, but even then, there are certain very good ideas you can’t even mention at a meeting of progressive activists without being shut down because “that’s not practical.” Today, if you talked about a 70% confiscatory income tax for the super-rich, you would be laughed out of the room and branded a fringe radical, even by progressives. Forty years ago, 90% top bracket income tax was not only the norm, it was the law. What changed? And what do we have to do as activists, thinkers, cultural creators, to get radical ideas back on the table—of our own political imaginations and for the public in general?
Second, how do we support and spark the conditions for real, bottom-up democratic mass people’s movements? Social movements occupy a somewhat venerated position in the social change sphere (we love, for instance, to call anything that moves a movement…) but as noted above, we seem addicted to creating institutional structures and D.C.-driven concessions that kill any possibility of movement. Organizations, including Washington-based organizations, have their place, but only as part of a spectrum that includes robust, decentralized movement formations led by everyday people, focused not so much on winning specific legislation but on larger, cultural and political transformations. The frustrating thing about movements is we can’t just start them, like flipping a switch. My sense is it’s more like laying the right kindling so that, when a match strikes, we can fan the flames. How do we build on what we have now and lay the groundwork for that eventual bonfire? There is much we can learn, not only from movements in our nation’s past but from Brazil, India, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Third, how can we bridge the space between radical intellectual thought and mass communication? Can you use You Tube for political education? Can Twitter be a tool for movement coordination? And assuming that it is important that we have more voices in the mainstream media expressing radical ideas (without being loony fringe nuts), how do we support and amplify those voices and build accessibility to mainstream media? I also want to examine the media sphere and what strategic role I and others can play.
Someone once told me a story about Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, talking to a group of Democrats at a conference. He said something like, “It takes 51% to win change. You know the problem you Democrats have? You assume that you start with 0% of the country and try to give something to this group, something to that group, and hope you end up above 51%. You know what we do? We assume 100% of the country is with us and hope we don’t alienate too many people and end up above 51%.”
The truth is that our opposition presumes hegemony. The Right wing fundamentally believes (or at the very least acts convincingly as though it believes) that it represents the majority of Americans. “The Moral Majority” was neither a politically nor psychologically insignificant choice of organizational names. Do we think we’re that powerful? What would we do differently if we thought we were—or could be? How would we talk about and spread our ideas? How would we energize the desperate and hopeful majority?
That’s what I’m planning to work on. What do you think?
Get ready to applaud, folks. I’ve a new section of the Movement Vision Lab in which, when I read a book that I think is useful for grassroots organizing and movement building, I’m going to not exactly summarize the book so much as summarize what (I think) are the most important lessons to be learned from it. In 800 words or less (while still hopefully using full sentences…).
The first book I’m tackling is one of my favorites, Freedom Is An Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by UC Irvine professor Francesca Polletta. I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Francesca a few weeks ago and trading ideas and experiences of social movement building. A total geek treat for me. And an excuse to go back and re-read her exquisite and enjoyable book about participatory decisionmaking in American social movements and organizing. Here are my top take-aways. I suggest reading through the end, which really packs a wallop…
1. Participatory democracy is a strategic leadership model
There is a false dichotomy out there that collective decisionmaking is an ideological choice but an ultimately impractical, unstrategic one. But participatory decisionmaking is also strategic for four reasons:
First, participatory decisionmaking builds trust among leaders/members. This becomes really valuable when putting your bodies on the line together in direct action or when dealing quickly with surprise crises.
Second, participatory decisionmaking leads to better decisions. The word “crowdsourcing” wasn’t in vogue when Polletta wrote this, but she might use it now. Many minds are better than one and that’s often how the best innovations arise.
Third, it develops leaders. Especially for leaders locked out of most decisionmaking in their lives and, thus, whose perspectives have been systematically devalued, participatory democracy helps leaders value their own opinions, while also developing new skills to voice those opinions.
Fourth, participatory democracy is “prefigurative”. (Good word, right?) We should aspire to effect political change without reproducing the structures we oppose, thereby also modeling the alternatives we wish to bring about more broadly.
2. Participatory decisionmaking need not be unwieldy.
In the movements Polletta studied, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t that everyone had to agree on every single decision nor that everyone’s opinion was weighed exactly equally. The point was not unanimity but discourse, so everyone felt bought into the final decision, even if it wasn’t their personal preference.
Also, Polletta writes, “Equality has sometimes been interpreted as prohibiting any differences in skills or talents.” Wrong. The point is to not be overly deferential to traditional hierarchies of expertise but to recognize each person’s unique contributions and honor “differences in skills and educational background, not by denying them, but by reasoning and learning together on the basis of mutual respect.” Still, some people may have more valuable insights on a given topic and that is okay.
The pitfall, Polletta warns, is if groups use participatory democracy to avoid hard decisions. Then it really can drag on…
3. It ain’t just for white folks with too much free time…
Sometime in the late 60s, civil rights activists who had been big participatory democrats (particularly within SNCC) turned against the practice. It became seen as a while elite, process-heavy luxury while the shift toward a more black power-oriented politics and incorporation of military metaphor into militancy favored centralization and hierarchy. Polletta notes that this disregards the fact that, historically, it was Ella Baker, James Lawson and Miles Horton who introduced collective decisionmaking to civil rights circles.
4. We need more popular education.
If we’re going to meaningfully involve grassroots leaders in the decisions that shape our political work, then we need meaningful political education—not just training to bring folks up to speed on the particular issue we’re working on, but more broadly, to help them be deeper-thinking, analytical leaders.
I was most struck by the connection between popular education and participatory decision-making Polletta unearthed. In the 1930s, Ella Baker and Miles Horton (among others) trained at Brookwood Labor College, a popular education school that sought to “serve American labor with trained, responsible, literally educated men and women from the ranks of the workers.” The participatory pedagogy of Brookwood (informed by John Dewey) shaped Horton’s approach at the Highlander Institute, also a landmark of political education. But this is noticeably a seriously lacking piece of our infrastructure today…
5. We are uncomfortable with participatory decisionmaking…
…or we should be, anyway. The idea of real, democratic decisionmaking in our movement (or movement-aspiring) organizations challenges implicit hierarchies within our own organizing, in which we “assume that leaders know their followers’ interests better than the followers themselves do.” And as much as we rhetorically claim otherwise, let’s face it—there’s a lot of professional organizers empowering themselves to agitate on behalf of their leaders rather than the patient work of helping leaders agitate for themselves.
Polletta notes that people’s understanding of what is or isn’t democratic in the context of decisionmaking is based on personal history—largely with family and culture. Quite honestly, professional organizers have a choice to exploit the life experiences of poor people and people of color living in (and sometimes replicating) very undemocratic structures by manufacturing processes that are slightly more democratic, and thus attractive, but not fully participatory. I have no doubt that organizers who rush through process in the name of expedience have the best of intentions. But it is seriously time for us to consider whether our ends justify our means.
In the category of “duh” but still incredibly valuable for being said — and well-said at that — is Rich Benjamin’s recent article on AlterNet “White Racial Resentment Bubbles Under the Surface of the Tea Party Movement.” Benjamin cooly reveals that underneath their anti-tax, anti-elite, intensely nationalist, pseudo-populist anger is good ol’ fashioned racism. Anti-tax code phrases like, “You should keep your own money!” really mean, “You shouldn’t have to give your money to those good-for-nothing poor people of color and immigrants.” The complaint about “government death panels” manufactures fear that the politically correct, liberal government will keep minorities alive at the expense of elderly whites (and by extension all white folks, who will hopefully someday become old).
Even the colonial imagery with which the Tea Partiers have slathered themselves harkens back to white-dominated, segregation America.
David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has suggested that, perhaps instead of the stupid, politically wimpy spending freeze, progressives propose national legislation stating that tax revenues flowing from and federal spending flowing to each and every state in the union break even by government mandate. No more shall the angry white people in “pure” states like Idaho be able to complain about tax hikes on those “diverse” and “pluralist” hell holes like California and New York that pay for Idaho’s roads and schools and health care. No more welfare for white states! If the milky tea set resents our nation’s move toward inclusion and cultural richness, along with things like (gulp!) equal treatment of women and progress toward racial justice and celebration of the American values of openness that invited immigrants here in the first place, then let them retreat into their own economic enclaves and see how well they fare alone. Forget red, white and blue. Just red and white from now on.
(Fortunately, corporate oligarchy knows no color or nation and I’m sure that Wal-Mart and chicken processing plants will be happy to continue to exploit an all-white workforce just as they have the white, black and brown working class. But luckily, the white radical separatist Anti-merica won’t have to contend with unions or any of those pesky groups trying to keep corporate power in check.)
Ah, the poor white people… If only they could be free. Benjamin astutely notes that the “individual rights” mantle to which the Tea Partyists desperately grasp is a manipulation of the identity-based rights assertions they have so long resented.
“Tea Partiers will bend your ear about “freedom from government” or their “Hunters’ and Fishers’ Bill of Rights.” This white-inflected rights-based outlook champions individual and neighborhood “freedoms,” withdrawn from the common nation, preoccupied by private interest, poised to behave according to private caprice. Tea Partiers contrive the right to live, make money, own property, zone neighborhoods, or protest taxes at will, without regard to the common good, a troublesome offshoot of rights-based agitprop.”
In her brilliant and still important book Mobilizing Resentment, Jean Hardisty details the work of Right wing leaders for decades to gin up the specific, race-based resentment that continues to percolate through the ranks of conservatism. But, Hardisty also contends, there are other forms of resentment mass America — right, left and middle — are experiencing. The Right wing has chosen strategically to fan and mobilize racial resentment, to fuel an us-versus-them narrative that conveniently obscures the real destruction caused by elite Right wing and conservative economic power. But if we listen to where people are at — including the misguided but ultimately hurting like the rest of us Tea Party followers — there are other deep and palpable resentments we could mobilize instead.
I offer the following list of alternative resentments stewing in the American public at large, to be tapped instead of racial resentment and hopefully toward more constructive (including racially unifying) ends:
1. Wall Street resentment. Obvious, but apparently not as obvious as we think. Recent polling suggest that the American public, across party lines, are more pissed off at Wall Street bankers than Obama, Congress, pretty much any other aspect of our political or economic structure. But the fact that, despite things like the Showdown in Chicago and other mobilizations of average Americans against outsized corporate power, the anti-government sentiments of the Tea Party still capture public attention says something about (a) the corporate Right’s keen interest in diverting attention from itself and (b) the rest of our failure to sufficiently and creatively gin up and channel anti-corporate anger ourselves.
2. Resentment at the sale of our democracy to the highest bidder. Even those who have swallowed the lie that government by-the-people-and-for-the-people is somehow inherently opposed to the people’s best interest should be offended by the recent Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate influence in elections. As if it wasn’t bad enough that K Street owned Congress and the White House through back door channels. Now we’ve blown open the front door, too. The fact that, in case after case, politicians act against the public interest in favor of corporate interests — not because government doesn’t work but because Right wing and corporate elites have broken government — is pitchfork worthy indeed.
3. Ol’ fashioned class resentment. Not that we need to eat the rich or anything, but in an era of rampant economic crisis affecting the working class and middle class and even swaths of the upper-middle class as well, the fact that the super-rich are still super-rich and big business bonuses may be down but are certainly not out should put all our panties in a bunch. That Marx was onto something. At least with his analysis… That is not to say (as many Marxists do) that race has nothing to do with it, that everything reduces to class. Our American stratification of class is deeply racialized as is the way we experience and manifest class divides. But whereas once whites might have naively have pretended that their small, white sloop was better than the sinking dingy of poor people of color, now that we’re all in a bottomless, drowning boat, it should be more obvious to us than ever that our common fate — and common interest — stretches across race.
4. Rejection of stale nationalism. I recently observed some focus groups in which white working class and middle class folks were presented with optimistic messages about the economy that often began with something like, “America is the greatest nation in the world…” They objected. Not just to the non-reality of the statement today. It was as though they resented being lied to, being told all their lives that if they kept their heads down and worked hard and didn’t make trouble, in our great nation, they too could become great. Instead, they vastly preferred a narrative that said, in effect, “Our economy isn’t working for anyone on either side of our border and it’s time we fix it for everyone.” For generations, we have been told that our self interest is most wisely linked with the self interest, narrowly construed, of the American nation-state. The super-capitalists didn’t buy that. They linked their interests with globalization, money beyond borders, profit and exploitation that knew no bounds. Yet we kept our heads down, worked hard, didn’t make trouble — and now look what happened. If we continue to appeal to nationalism as our salvation, not only will we fail to build the global identity and political vision that is truly needed for our and the globe’s progress, but we will play directly into the hands of (now-global) economic elites who want us out of their internationalist hair.
5. General resentment of elitism. Americans are quite united in their opposition to elitism, they simply disagree about where to place the label. The conservative base resents liberal elites. The progressive base resents the corporate elite. The working poor resent the intellectual elite. The religious evangelicals resent the Church-based elite. Can’t we all just get along? The underlying premise of resentment of elites is the deeply condescending idea that we are not as qualified as “our superiors” to make decisions for ourselves, our communities or our nations — decisions about our economy, legislation, our spiritual guidance, etc., etc., etc. Jeff Sharlett captures this well in The Family, the idea that Right wing Christian elites are driven by their sense that their elite power is driven by their God-given superiority and duty to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Wherever it manifests itself, we should all be offended by such an insulting and belittling concept of power. But of course, if we continually fail to align across narrowly construed and misleading ideological interests and instead fight among ourselves, perhaps we the people are as incapable of wielding power as the various elites claim…
Ultimately, resentment must be channeled into hope to be politically meaningful. Resentment gets us all the room. Hope gets us on our feet and out the door to do something about it. But getting in the room together is a good place to start — especially if we can find a way to get more of us in the room together, united across race not divided by it.
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