According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists[..] we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party. They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda. In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda. The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era. I think this perspective misreads the American people.I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. They don't think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don't think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs.Of course, the Senator was Senator Obama. After Network Nation's whinefest about how the President has somehow betrayed the progressives who hated him anyways by governing exactly as he said he would, and not the way that he said he wouldn't, it's kind of interesting to go back and see how clearly he delineated the issue way back in 2005. But President Obama was not to first to make this observation. Saul Alinsky said something similar in 1971. Forty years of failure, however, have not deterred America's "left" from its addiction to fail. I've lightly edited this excerpt from Rules for Radicals to update to the current era. Take a look at the original - it's remarkable how little change is needed to turn it from a critique of the Weathermen to a critique of the "progresssives".
As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be - it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.
There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but among the working poor. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default.
Our progressives are impatient with the preliminaries that are essential to purposeful action. Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change, or as I have phrased it elsewhere the demand for revelation rather than revolution. It's the kind of thing we see in play writing; the first act introduces the characters and the plot, in the second act the plot and characters are developed as the play strives to hold the audience's attention. in the final act good and evil have their dramatic confrontation and resolution. The present generation wants to go right into the third act, skipping the first two, in which case there is no play, nothing but confrontation for confrontation's sake - a flare-up and back to darkness. To build a powerful organization takes time. It is tedious, but that's the way the game is played - if you want to play and not just yell, "Kill the umpire."
What is the alternative to working "inside" the system? A mess of rhetorical garbage about "Leadership", "hold them accountable", "bully pulpit", and "shit sandwich". What else? Yelling? Screaming? Silence when the Administration does something right and bellows of betrayal otherwise? Attacking and baiting anyone who dissents? "Draw a line in the sand" is an absurd rallying cry when the other side owns the media. [...][..]
Those who, for whatever combination of reasons, encourage the opposite of reformation, become the unwitting allies of the far political right. Parts of the far left have gone so far in the political circle that they are now all but indistinguishable from the extreme right. It reminds me of the days when Hitler, new on the scene, was excused for his actions by "humanitarians" on the grounds of a paternal rejection and childhood trauma. When there are people who claim that the killing of Osama bin Ladin was criminal or that Grover Norquist is a reasonable ally, then we are dealing with people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask. The masses of people recoil with horror and say, Our way is bad and we were willing to let it change, but certainly not for this murderous madness--no matter how bad things are now, they are better than that." So they begin to turn back. They regress into acceptance of a coming massive repression in the name of "law and order." [...]
The answer I gave the angry progressives seemed to me the only realistic one: "Do one of three things. One, go find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing--but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates." Remember: once you organize people around something as commonly agreed upon as pollution, then an organized people is on the move. From there it's a short and natural step to political pollution, to Pentagon pollution.
It is not enough just to elect your candidates. You must keep the pressure on. Radicals should keep in mind Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to a reform delegation, "Okay, you've convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!" action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.
A final word on our system. The democratic ideal springs from the ideas of liberty, equality, majority rule through free elections, protection of the rights of minorities, and freedom to subscribe to multiple loyalties in matters of religion, economics, and politics rather than to a total loyalty to the state. The spirit of democracy is the idea of importance and worth in the individual, and faith in the kind of world where the individual can achieve as much of his potential as possible.
Great dangers always accompany great opportunities. The possibility of destruction is always implicit in the act of creation. Thus the greatest enemy of individual freedom is the individual himself.
From the beginning the weakness as well as the strength of the democratic ideal has been the people. People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people. One hundred and sixty-five years ago Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene. Citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society predicated on voluntarism.
We are not here concerned with people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions. Reluctant to grow up, or incapable of doing so, they want to remain children and be cared for by others. Those who can, should be encouraged to grow; for the others, the fault lies not in the system but in themselves.
Here we are desperately concerned with the vast mass of our people who, thwarted through lack of interest or opportunity, or both, do not participate in the endless responsibilities of citizenship and are resigned to lives determined by others. To lose your "identity" as a citizen of democracy is but a step from losing your identity as a person. People react to this frustration by not acting at all. The separation of the people from the routine daily functions of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy.
It is a grave situation when a people resign their citizenship or when a resident of a great city, though he may desire to take a hand, lacks the means to participate. That citizen shrinks further into apathy, anonymity, and depersonalization. The result is that he comes to depend on public authority and a state of civil-sclerosis sets in.
From time to time there have been external enemies at our gates; there has always been the enemy within, the hidden and malignant inertia that foreshadows more certain destruction to our life and future than any devastating tragedy than the death of man's faith in himself and in his power to direct his future.
[..] Hang on to one of your most precious part of youth, laughter--don't lose it as many of you seem to have done, you need it. Together we may find some of what we're looking for--laughter, beauty, love, and the chance to create.
Thanks to Booman Tribune commenter for reminding me of the Obama piece. And check out this brilliant explanation of constraints in Conceptual Guerrilla.