There’s a must-read post by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money called “Ralph Nader and the Structure of Progressive Change.” It’s not actually about Ralph Nader, but rather, Ralph Nader here is emblematic of why progressives never seem to get a movement going.
What we might call “Goldwater” conservatives, he said, began organizing at a local level in the 1960s. Eventually they took over the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, progressives have responded to the country’s rightward shift by running vanity candidates like Ralph Nader for president every four years. In 2008, progressives changed strategies when Barack Obama seemed to capture their dreams and then were shocked when he turned out to be the centrist he always was. But even in 2008, it was still a simplistic analysis of progressive change offered by his supporters that hadn’t learned much in the previous 8 years.
I oversimplify, sure. But the trajectory of the conservative movement should be teaching us many lessons. Not that we should be crazy extremists. But that party structures are actually not that hard to take over if you really want to do it. Yet progressives seem to almost NEVER talk about localized politics. We complain about education reform but don’t organize to take over school boards. Conservatives outflank us in part because they seem to understand that the presidency is not all-powerful. Perhaps local offices like county clerk and elected judges are as or even more important than the presidency, at least from a long-term perspective. Too many progressives believe in Green Lantern presidencies. Elect Obama in ’08 and he can force through all the changes we want.
No. That’s not how it works.
What Loomis is calling “Green Lantern presidencies” I’ve called the “magic candidate,” which is the syndrome that makes people believe all we have to do to counteract 50 years of relentless wingnut organizing is elect the right guy to be president.
Right now, the Dems appear to have embraced progressive populism more than I’ve seen them do since the 1960s. I don’t think progressive activists can take much credit for this, though. And we won’t know if the Dems really mean it until we get a real majority in both houses, instead of a majority that includes a mess of Blue Dogs. Still, the fact that so many are running on progressive populist themes is heartening. A strong populist progressive movement would reinforce this, if we had one.
But this takes us back to Why Progressives Can’t Organize. I can think of several reasons.
First, we look bad in comparison to the Right because the Right has always had deep-pocket sponsors installing astroturf wherever the grass roots weren’t sprouting. The media-think tank infrastructure, now decades old, that supports movement conservatism is all funded by a relatively small number of family trusts, for the purpose of manipulating public opinion to support whatever will make more money for the trustees. What George Soros has contributed to the Left is not even a drop in the bucket in comparison; more like a drop in Lake Erie.
Second, in spite of the fact that we’re supposed to be the “collectivists” and conservatives the “individualists,” when it comes to organizing it’s the other way around. If you were to tell one hundred conservative citizen-activists to show up on Fifth and Main Street at 9 am Tuesday wearing red, white and blue T-shirts to rally for X, I’d bet you’d get about 8o percent compliance. Do the same thing with progressives, and maybe 20 people would actually follow directions. You’d get at least 30 other people showing up (early or late) with signs and fliers promoting an entirely unrelated cause. And Code Pink members would organize a separate rally two blocks away to grab all the attention.
My irritation with the Occupy “movement” that was never a movement stemmed from my long frustration with leftie vocational demonstrators. Occupy seemed to be the ultimate in vanity demonstrating; truly, rebels without a cause. It was people showing up to vent personal frustration at the system, but with no clue about how to fix the system. And, sorry, standing outside a police station with a megaphone, yelling “F— the police” over and over again, is not “activism.” It’s a tantrum.
On the other hand, I understand some of the Occupy groups that formed around the country last year have morphed into community activist groups focusing on local situations, such as foreclosures, which is great.
This takes us to a complaint about organizing locally. Conservatives get elected to school boards to block teaching evolution, for example, whereas progressives are more focused on national issues. Beginning with takeovers of local Republican party structures, wingnuts eventually owned the entire Party. However, I don’t know what would keep liberals from running for school boards to keep evolution in science class.
It may make a difference that we’ve been playing defense and they’ve been playing offense lo these many years. We’ve been working to preserve Roe v. Wade and other civil rights gains; they’ve been working to strike them down. We’ve been working to preserve the New Deal; they’ve been chipping away at it. But the Right has chipped away so much stuff that we’re going back on offense now. For example, they’ve chipped away at reproductive rights enough that women finally are getting riled up about it. Go, team.
Maybe because they are better at trusting leaders, rightie issues organizations all these years have been better at long games. Even after they don’t get everything they want — and they don’t always, even though it seems otherwise sometimes — they come back in the next election cycle supporting the same candidates and hoping to build on whatever they did get.
Too many progressives don’t do long games. No public option? Kill the bill! Dump Obama!
Finally, there’s been a vacuum in leadership. Too many of the icons of progressivism have been more about grandstanding for the glorious cause than about making realistic progress toward achieving that cause. Ralph Nader is one such person; so is Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich served nine terms in the House with no substantive legislative accomplishments, but he was good at sound bites and introduced a lot of no-chance resolutions to impeach Dick Cheney, and progressives swooned. Why are so many of us so easily distracted by shiny objects?
Who are the real national leaders of progressivism? The only name coming to mind is Barney Frank.
Well, that’ today’s rant. What am I missing?