In my latest column for Salon, I remind us progressives that while we certainly don’t want Republicans to gain power in this election, it’s not exactly like Democrats are universally standing up for progressive ideas and values. An excerpt:
The reality is that, whether it’s because we’re chronically pessimistic or used to being marginalized or uncomfortable losing in the short term to win down the road, the Democratic rank-and-file continue to let our party stray toward the center. While the Tea Party has exacted revenge even against any Republican who dares work in a bipartisan fashion on mainstream legislation, Democrats can barely get their candidates to stop bashing their own party in public let alone vote in support of a liberal agenda.
Read the rest here.
In the latest version of manufactured moral outrage, an anti-choice activist pretended to go to a Planned Parenthood clinic to get an abortion if and only if the baby turned out to be a girl. It’s an incredibly disturbing premise. Thank goodness it’s completely untrue.
There is really no sex-selective abortion crisis in the United States, period. But the illusion of a crisis is enough to whip up the conservative base, captivate cable talkers and put pro-choice activists on the defensive. And apparently, a false crisis is even enough to get legislation proposed in Congress — legislation to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Talk about wasting taxpayer dollars!
This tactic has become one of the more effective and frequent weapons in the Right wing arsenal. Conservatives, who have all but given up on actually being part of the solution for the real disasters America faces, are resorting to a sort of virtual reality game of politics wherein they manufacture disasters designed to cast themselves as the saviors.
I don’t have enough space to list all the examples. Voter fraud. Inflation. Public employee pensions. The fact that unemployment is still far too high in part because of layoffs of public sector workers that conservatives have pushed. Or the idea that marriage equality will lead to marrying goats. Conservatives literally make up these problems or, in the case of public sector unemployment, actively work to make them come true. Mounting government debt? A crisis Republicans obviously played a massive role in creating when George W. Bush was president, only to turn around and paint themselves as the solution to the crisis now that Barack Obama holds the office.
What conservatives understand is that in our 24/7 hyped up, reality TV-like media culture, facts are far less important than fanfare. Voters remember the beginning of the story and lose track by the end, when the crisis is proven utterly false. After all, we’re still talking about Barack Obama’s birth certificate long after the sitting President of the United States of America was embarrassingly forced to produce it. But no matter. Even after that, almost one in three Republican voters still believe that President Obama was born outside of the United States.
It’s very hard to combat such narratives when conservatives render facts irrelevant.
In my debut essay for Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, I explore why the momentum to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seems to pale in comparison to the massive outpouring of grassroots energy against him last winter.
When Scott Walker, freshly elected as governor, dropped his bombshell proposal to revoke the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin’s public employees, protest erupted. Kim Cosier was right in the middle of it all. “It was exhilarating,” says the University of Wisconsin assistant professor of arts education. “We were in the center of the Capitol when the firefighters marched in. I felt more American than I’ve ever felt, standing there, singing the national anthem, like we were finally participating in our own government.”
But just days before Tuesday’s vote, when Wisconsinites will have their chance to boot Walker for good, Cosier is in her office grading papers and preparing for classes. Is she simply too busy now?
“I was busy then, too,” she says, “but I found a way to be involved.”
Something changed between when Democrats and labor rose up and seemed like a surging national force, and now, when the attention of Democrats nationally has been slow to the recall fight and polls show the race is painfully tight and at least one suggests Walker may have a slight lead. What happened?
I go on to make three (I think very interesting) points about why Democrats have faltered a bit in the race — that the opponent to Walker is less-than-ideal, that Democrats nationally don’t grasp the importance of winning marginal fights and that progressives struggle to turn grassroots anger into electoral power.
I hope you’ll read the entire piece here and share it around.
In my latest column for the American Prospect, I explore the relationship between so-called “social movement non-profit organizations” and the on-the-ground social movements they seek to spark and/or support. Here’s an excerpt:
The problem with social-movement organizations is that they can ossify, moving away from their original dynamic energy and settling into a routine that can be risk averse and stagnant. Sadly, many organizations that once grew out of and served movements become little more than mausoleums to those movements, the very existence of the institution a symbolic triumph to the victories of the past rather than an active participant in fights for the future.
What is needed is dynamic, adaptive growth. Doctors tell us that embryonic stem cells are especially valuable because they can morph into other varieties of cells. Put them next to a lung, they become lung cells. Put them next to skin, they become skin cells. They’re classically opportunistic, but not in a bad way—a political consultant might call them “strategic.” And keen strategy is just what is needed at this crucial time for social-movement organizations.
Read the whole essay here — and especially if you are in this mix of organizations and movements, tell me what you think.
For my latest “open mike” essay in Politico’s Arena, I speculate (read: hope) that Obama may not be the un-savvy, spineless non-leader progressives fear but, instead, a cunning con man pulling off the greatest confidence trick in modern politics. For instance:
Now, the notion of a “confidence trick” requires that you gain the faith of your opponent in order to deceive them. While progressives fear Obama is a spineless sucker too rarely caving to the right, it’s not clear that conservatives see him as such. The important question, though, come election time, is what do independent voters think? As they dissect the political game of the last four years, do they cast Obama as the good guy and Republicans as the overbearing brutes who took advantage of him at the table?
And can the progressive base keep its faith? Though President Obama has aggravated many of his liberal supporters by making us fear that he’s blowing the political capital we bet on him, might we also be turned around in the final reveal when we realize he was just playing up a persona in order to run the table in the end?
You can read the full essay here — and please “LIKE” it via the buttons on Politico’s page.
I confess, I’ve been guilty of it too — of expecting or at least just wishing and hoping that President Obama would voluntarily embrace a bold progressive vision for America. There was nothing about his character or resume to suggest he was anything but a pragmatic centrist. Most of the ideas he put out during his candidacy were tepidly liberal at best. And since taking office, from ramping up war engagement to withdrawing the public option in health care reform and more, Obama has tended toward such caution and compromise. But… still… maybe because he was an organizer and self-consciously co-opted the “si, se puede” language of social movements, or maybe just because, frankly, there wasn’t much real leadership or energy on the left to feel hopeful about — I, and many others, followed Obama at precisely the moment when we should have been leading him ourselves.
This struck me while reading a great article by NYU Professor of Sociology Jeff Manza (h/t John Jost for pointing it out to me). The piece, “Liberalism’s Inevitability?” which appeared in the Society journal last year, unpacks the comforting and commonly held assumption that, despite setbacks of conservative backlashes, our nation is marching consistently toward liberal ideals. In fact, Manza argues, the past successes of liberalism may impede on future success rather than facilitate it. Specifically, Manza notes that conservatives have effectively co-opted much of the framing of the left — using, for instance, concepts like “freedom” and “choice” to try and unravel Civil Rights legislation and undermine public schools. In addition, Manza raises very real concerns that liberal programs to alleviate poverty and injustice may not have been as successful as we like to imagine — that the failure of the New Deal and public assistance programs to fix our nation’s deep problems let alone achieve utopia casts a cloud of skepticism on liberal proscriptions in general.
But what I most took away from Manza was the observation that the crisis of liberalism in America may have most to do with the lack of a vibrant, vocal left flank — thus rendering liberalism as the “vital center” of American politics, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once put it. Historically, Manza writes:
In the moments of grand reform, such as the 1930s/40s and again in the 1960s, liberalism could plausibly stand between the forces of conservative traditionalism and the demands of social movements from below (or resurgent left-wing thought from the intelligentsia). In the New Deal era from the 1930s to the late 1940s, the presence of strong unions, a visible Communist and other left organizational presence, and open public debate over the relative virtues of left-wing ideas in the face of a sea of trouble, gave liberalism a powerful source of centrist purpose. Similarly, in the 1960s, the civil rights movement brought pressure from below that emboldened liberals positioned in the center. To be sure, the growing tensions between older liberals and an increasingly militant student left in the late 1960s would eventually tear the Democratic Party apart, but not before some of the most sweeping and important expansions of the public sector took place, spearheaded by liberals.
But now? We can see Manza’s point in the way the Tea Party has exerted profound gravitational force not only on the Republican Party but, arguably, on the President and the Democratic mainstream — as the Tea Party can be given the credit for the fact that we’re debating the federal deficit and spending cuts at all in this moment, rather than spending more money to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
As activist and thinker Amy Dean notes in writing about the need for a labor movement functionally and ideologically independent from the Democratic Party, union activists — like progressive activists in general — that we are “charmed by access”.
We are invited to sit on White House roundtables, or we are impressed that top officials will answer our calls. But what has this gotten us?
Instead, Dean argues, we have to “give up our current illusion of influence” and re-imagine not only the labor movement but the left in general as a strong, independent and, yes, left-wing force for change in America.
For starters, that means some on the left not attacking others on the left when they seem “unreasonable” or “out-there” or “overly anti-corporate” or whatever barb you want to hurl. The Tea Party wasn’t concerned with seeming reasonable or legitimate. It was concerned with building real power and influence. We on the left need to stop expecting so much from the President and instead appreciate the need for a broad progressive ecosystem that includes radical voices, ideas and actions that create the political space to increasingly liberalize the mainstream establishment.
Yeah, I’ve certainly joined the chorus in critiquing President Obama and trying to hold his feet to the fire. But the larger reality is, if radical activist forces and grassroots social movements were ten times larger and more visible, then that fire would be all the larger as well — and Obama’s feet couldn’t avoid it.
I have an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor about lessons that the (supposed) Organizer-in-Chief can learn from teachers organizing in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Here’s an excerpt:
In a 1995 interview, Obama said, “What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate…?” Yes, what if a politician were not to yield to the lowest common denominator in politics but, instead, organize the American people toward a bold and unyielding vision of a better future for everyone. Yes, Mr. President, what if?
I hope you’ll read it, RT it, Facebook it, print it out and attach it to a pigeon, etc.
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.
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