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A Progressive Agenda; Next Steps (Originally published In Social Policy Magazine, Spring 2019)
By Richard W. Wise
©2019. (All rights reserved)
Donald Trump; What Will We Do Without Him?
There is a high probability that the era of Donald Trump will end in January of 2021. The question is, what will we do without him?
Arguably, Trump is the best thing that has ever happened to the progressive movement. He ended the liberal community's long, deep, sleep and the reluctance, often felt by people, to identify themselves as LIBERAL. The energy and outrage generated by The Donald has energized the left to a degree not seen since the early 1970s.
Community organizers have a credo: "Let your adversary do it." If you apply pressure and push your opponent hard enough, he will react badly and that will energize your people and lead to his defeat. With Trump, you needn't push nor pull, just step out of the way and he will trip over himself. For progressives, Trump is truly a gift that keeps on giving.
The Blue Wave:
After Trump's election, "resistance" organizations sprung up like mushrooms on a cow-pie. With 5,800 chapters organized since 2016, Indivisible is among the most visible. The writers of the Indivisible manifesto were congressional insiders with an insider's understanding of how congress can be influenced. They developed a strategy to block Trump from that limited perspective. It is a strategy, they freely admit, based on the success of the Tea Party and purely defensive. What is the goal of the "resistance"? Surely, not simply to slow the rightward drift of American politics. The goal is to bring about positive social change.
The 2018 election flipped the House. The source of that victory was the massive reaction resulting from Trump's own words and actions. The election also shone a bright light on the increasing left/right polarization. We recognize that the Republicans are a major part of the problem, but with the increasing tribalism, the danger is that the organized resistance will come to see the Democrats, electing any Democrat, as the solution. That is the route toward stasis not social change.
If the Democrat's Wall Street wing has its way and the party continues along the path Hilary Clinton followed in 2016, defeat is the probable result or, at best, a victory that fails to move the progressive agenda forward. Simply supporting democrats is not the solution. We must support the right democrats, those who agree with our agenda, and build an organization to hold them accountable after the election.
Indivisible and other similar groups must decide if they are an adjunct to the Democratic Party or are ready to become an ongoing force for change. A successful attack brings with it the responsibility of putting forth a constructive alternative. In short, the resistance strategy must shift from a purely negative and defensive to a positive and aggressive, but focused agenda. The time is now, the question is how?
Physicists tell us that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Organizational energy, however, is finite. It cannot be sustained indefinitely. Even behavior as outrageous as Trump's eventually becomes normalized. Outrage over Trump has arguably peaked. The energy that has fueled the resistance can only decline.
To maintain a high level of participation, to keep an organization growing, activists must focus on issues that members see as having a specific payoff for them personally. It must win or become irrelevant. Therefore, it must focus on fights it can win. For local groups that means local issues. Why, because they are both immediate and winnable. And, by the way, there is no reason why an achievable local issue cannot also be national. This is the basis for coalition building. Activists must, however, pick their fights carefully.
Stasis is dangerous. To take another analogy from Physics, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. A movementmust keep moving or die. Lack of focus is just as dangerous. We all support health care reform, but what specific reforms are we proposing? An organization must carefully define its issues and focus its efforts on achieving a specific result.
Name a case where significant social change has happened without the concentrated power of large numbers of people? To be effective, organizations must be able to mobilize large numbers and tactically deploy those numbers. Therefore, issues must be developed with an eye to power building.
The Current Situation and How We Got Here:
The 1970s was the decade when the democratic coalition began to come apart. Actually, the first half of the decade was the high tide for progressives. It was Richard Nixon who signed into law many extensions of regulatory policy, created the EPA (1970), OSHA (1970), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1972). Nixon even supported a guaranteed national income for the poor. The current Wall Street wing of the democratic party is sharply to the right of Republicans of the Nixon era.
The decline of one of the bulwarks of the Democratic party, the unions, began in the mid 1970's. 1975-1980 saw a precipitous fall in union membership. This translated into major cutbacks in union financial support for democratic candidates. In search of cash, Bill Clinton started the New Democrats which moved the party toward business in an effort to fill re-election war chests.
During the early 1970's, labor PACs outspent business PACs by a wide margin. In the mid part of the decade, half of all Senate incumbent's campaign funds came from labor. By the end of the decade, union membership was in decline and political contributions had dropped by 30%.
Though out most of the decade of the 70s, I was a community organizer working in the Alinsky tradition. In 1974-75 I involved in an organizing effort in Boston to end the practice of redlining urban neighborhoods. The Boston group successfully sought a statewide regulation requiring disclosure of Savings Banks' mortgage lending patterns and initiated a program to move neighborhood customer deposits into banks that pledged to lend in their neighborhoods.
Boston was part of a coalition made up of 40 urban neighborhood groups known as National People's Action (NPA). NPA mobilized and secured the passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. The passage of this legislation was a major victory for people power, it was also just about the last one.
The success of these People's initiatives brought about a massive reaction from the right. Business was quick to launch a counter attack. There were five hundred corporations with lobbying offices in Washington in 1968. By 1982 that number had grown to twenty-five hundred. Corporate PACs grew from under 300 in the mid 1970s to more than 1200 by 1980.
Carls Walker, a Republican political operative and American Bankers Association chief lobbyist looked on in horror as National People's Action successfully deployed a mass power strategy to pass both the National Disclosure (HMDA) and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) despite aggressive lobbying by banking interests.
Walker took notes. He formed The American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) as an business lobby umbrella group. ACCF embraced grass roots mobilization and adopted the mass power tactics similar to those used by National People's Action to win the CRA fight. Walker concentrated on building organizations that coupled money with organizational tactics, mobilizing its membership to fight legislation perceived as anti-business. ACCF brought business owners to Washington to meet directly with their House and Senate members with devastating effect.
The Wall Street takeover of the Democratic Party began in the Clinton years. Democrats became "New Democrats" to tap into the money stream. Today, the mainstream Democratic party is really little different from the Republican party often supporting a solid big-money centered agenda.
The mainstream party has, thus far, resisted anything like the Sanders agenda. The reason is clear, money. Traditional Democrats are just a beholding to big money interests as Republicans. Obviously, this has affected the Democratic platform. In a new poll (January, 2019), 54% of democrats reject a progressive agenda in favor of a more "moderate" course.
Tilting at Windmills:
As stated, Trump's election set off a massive reaction. Seizing the opportunity, outraged activists mobilized thousands of supporters virtually overnight. Newly minted leaders began organizing against the Trump/Republican agenda. Unfortunately, like Cervantes' confused hero, Don Quixote, these well-meaning, but inexperienced activists, lowered their lances and charged forward attempting to tackle every issue under the sun.
Mass meetings were organized to wrestle with a grab bag of issues; health care, immigration, LGBT, climate change, local elections, gun control, immigration, etcetera, often all at once. As a result, much of the initial energy was dissipated rather than concentrated. People will attend only so many rallies on so many issues, particularly when these actions produce no measurable result.
I personally watched one Northeastern resistance group whittle an initial army of supporters down to platoon size as the group attempted to take on every issue in sight allowing more focused interest groups to peel off member after member. Fortunately, Trump and the Republicans actions proved so outrageous that progressive groups of all stripes rallied at the midterms and boosted the Democrats to a stunning victory.
"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
The defeat of Donald Trump is barely a beginning. Trump's exit will not change the basic trajectory of our politics. As angry as he makes us, it is important to understand that Trump is not a cause, he is merely a personification, luckily, an inept manifestation of an organized movement, funded by big money interests, dedicated to building an American plutocracy.
In the post Citizens United world, many politicians, both republican and democrat, under increasing financial pressure, have been lured by the siren song of the big money. Money power must be counterbalanced by people power to keep our erstwhile allies honest.
Keeping em' honest requires constant vigilance and that in turn requires a strategy that will build and maintain the power of the organization. Progressives must organize and build independent, issue based, community organizations with specific forward-looking agendas and demand that politicians support those agendas.
Hilary's shopworn talking points have little or nothing to say to the working and middle classes. Sanders platform does and recent polling shows that more and more rank and file democrats are open to what our Wall Street brethren call 'radical change.'
What should that agenda include? Building a broad-based organization requires supporting specific issues that originate from and directly impact the membership. The agenda should include short as well as long term objectives. Objectives must be achievable, Issues must be winnable. Organizational power is built on success. Activists must ask themselves, what can be done on the local and statewide level that will move our agenda ahead?
On the national level, a February, 2019 Kaiser poll suggests 57% of American citizens support expanded Medicare. A 2018 poll conducted by The Washington Post, found that 52% including three quarters of all Democrats and just over half of independents support single payer health care. Another poll by the Pew Research Group found that a majority of Americans say government has a responsibility to "ensure health care for all." This includes 83% of all those who self-identify or lean towards being Democrats. Properly framed, healthcare reform is a winnable national issue that could energize both democrats and independents during the coming presidential election season.
Climate change is, without question, the overarching issue of our time. The survival of civilization is at stake. We are the first generation to feel its effects and the last that can do anything about it. With the roll out of the Green New Deal proposal we have already been given a preview of the Republican response. Still, the issue is gaining traction and promises to be a centerpiece of the Democratic presidential debate. A generation ago the issue could have been addressed with minimal pain. At this late date, whatever the solutions proposed, the economic pain will be considerable.
In the near term, A Democratic House, a Republican Senate and Trump is unfortunately a recipe for total legislative gridlock on the national level. The next two years promises to be a legislative wasteland. Given that fact, immediate work should, perhaps, focus on winnable local and statewide issues.
Moderates versus progressives: the foment within the Democratic party has already begun as one democrat after another declares their candidacy for president. The possibility of independent and/or third-party candidates will only add to the chaos. We are about to witness a great debate, a battle for the soul of the Democratic party and perhaps for the soul of America. It is much needed and will be exciting, but it is impossible, at this time, to see how it will all shake out.
This discussion began with the assertion that Donald Trump's reign would likely be over in 2020. This will not be easy. Our antiquated Electoral College system works for the Republicans. Despite everything that Trump has done, 41% of the electorate will almost certainly vote to reelect him. It also assumes that the Democrats, themselves, do not self-destruct. Unity or fragmentation. Will the Wall Street and progressive wings of the party reach accommodation? We can only hope that out of this clash of personalities, consensus will emerge, but that is largely out of our hands.
Community groups must not allow themselves to be swept into the vortex. As difficult as it may seem, officially, the organization must wait at the sidelines. It is the Issues not personalities that are most important. Let the politicians sort themselves out. Progressive people's organizations must take the opportunity to build a solid, well defined agenda.
Building organization and winning are two sides of the same coin, part of the same dynamic. Power is required to win and winning is a necessary condition for building power. Unfortunately winning is not sufficient and may, at times, be counterproductive. If an organization's goal is too focused on electing politician A, his election victory may very well mean the end of the organization.
Once reached, the goal, is often the death nell of the organization that fought for it. Why? Because victory creates a vacuum. The more focused the organization is on the candidate, the more dangerous such a victory can be. The election is seen as the solution. "It's over! We won, our candidate will deal with it." Without people power to keep the pressure on, the newly elected official is easily diverted by the siren song of the Washington plutocracy.
Social change is the goal. Building people power through viable community organizations is the method. In the near term, to secure the organization's long-term power, the effort must be focused on issues not personalities and those issues must reflect the will of the people and be winnable. Leaders must keep their eyes on the prize, sift through the political rhetoric and build people power. Progressive organizations must develop a positive, well-defined long term agenda and achievable short-term objectives and demand candidates and elected officials, of whichever wing of whatever party, respond to and support it.
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Richard W. Wise is a writer. He recently settled in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though the decade of the 70s, he was a professional community organizer working in the Alinsky tradition. He directed organizing projects in Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and New Bedford, Massachusetts. Mr. Wise taught Community Organization at Boston University and was a Site Trainer for the New England Training Center for Community Organizers (NETTCO). Richard Wise's novel, Redlined, a thriller and novelized version of a community organizing battle in Boston, is scheduled for publication in October.