Sep 04, 2009
The difference between parties and
movements is simple: Parties are loyal to their own power regardless of
policy agenda; movements are loyal to their own policy agenda
regardless of which party champions it. This is one of the few enduring
political axioms, and it explains why the organizations purporting to
lead an American progressive "movement" have yet to build a real
movement, much less a successful one.
Though the 2006 and 2008 elections were
billed as progressive movement successes, the story behind them
highlights a longer-term failure. During those contests, most leaders
of Washington's major labor, environmental, anti-war and anti-poverty
groups spent millions of dollars on a party endeavor-specifically, on
electing a Democratic president and Democratic Congress. In the
process, many groups subverted their own movement agendas in the name
of electoral unity.
The effort involved a sleight of hand.
These groups begged their grass-roots members-janitors, soccer moms,
veterans and other "regular folks"-to cough up small-dollar
contributions in return for the promise of movement pressure on both
parties' politicians. Simultaneously, these groups went to dot-com and
Wall Street millionaires asking them to chip in big checks in exchange
for advocacy that did not offend those fat cats' Democratic politician
friends (or those millionaires' economic privilege).
This wasn't totally dishonest. Many groups
sincerely believed that Democratic Party promotion was key to
progressive movement causes. And anyway, during the Bush era, many of
those causes automatically helped Democrats by indicting Republicans.
But after the 2008 election, the strategy's bankruptcy is undeniable.
As we now see, union dues underwrote
Democratic leaders who today obstruct serious labor law reform and
ignore past promises to fix NAFTA. Green groups' resources helped elect
a government that pretends sham "cap and trade" bills represent
environmental progress. Health care groups promising to push a
single-payer system got a president not only dropping his own
single-payer promises, but also backing off a "public option" to
compete with private insurance. And anti-war funding delivered a
Congress that refuses to stop financing the Iraq mess, and an
administration preparing to escalate the Afghanistan conflict.
Of course, frustrated progressives might
be able to forgive the groups that promised different results, had
these postelection failures prompted course corrections.
For example, had the left's pre-eminent
groups responded to Democrats' health care capitulations by immediately
announcing campaigns against these Democrats, progressives could feel
confident that these groups were back to prioritizing a movement
agenda. Likewise, had the big anti-war organizations reacted to Obama's
Afghanistan escalation plans with promises of electoral retribution, we
would know those organizations were steadfastly loyal to their anti-war
But that hasn't happened. Despite the
president's health care retreat, most major progressive groups continue
to cheer him on, afraid to lose their White House access and, thus,
their Beltway status. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that
Moveon.org has "yet to take a clear position on Afghanistan" while
VoteVets' leader all but genuflected to Obama, saying, "People do not want to take on the
In this vacuum, movement building has been
left to underfunded (but stunningly successful) projects like
Firedoglake.com, Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign
Committee and local organizations. And that's the lesson: True
grass-roots movements that deliver concrete legislative results are not
steered by marble-columned institutions, wealthy benefactors or
celebrity politicians-and they are rarely ever run from Washington.
They are almost always far-flung efforts by those organized around
real-world results-those who don't care about party conventions,
congressional cocktail parties or White House soirees they were never
invited to in the first place.
Only when enough progressives realize that truism will any movement-and any change-finally commence.
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