As a country and as a people, we have decisions to make- the very same decisions faced by those who came before us: Are we prepared to surrender ourselves to the purposes and rule of arrogant government and corporate alliances, or are we willing to undertake the very hard work necessary to challenge power that has grown beyond conscience and duty to the people? In troubled times, hope is an elusive, fragile thing, but it may yet be rekindled by commitment to country through grassroots social movements.
The American people are becoming hopeless in the face of the nation’s current tailspin and, yes, the reasons to despair are innumerable: Republicans and Democrats remain anemic in the face of unfettered corporate power, civil and constitutional rights are eroding at a geometric rate, investigative journalists and whistleblowers are under unprecedented attack, income inequality is at its worst, and the U.S. remains in a state of perpetual war abroad. Stir into this repellent mixture a political system erected to convince the American people of their own political impotency and designed to exclude those who would challenge the status quo, and- viola- the perfect recipe for apathy. Yet, even in spite of such seemingly overwhelming odds, hope may still be kept alive and change undertaken through understanding of our insidious conditioning to indifference by government/corporate conspiracy and through the organization of committed, coordinated grassroots social movements. The American people must awaken and mobilize to restore the republic, immediately, or resign themselves to an ever-decreasing voice in their own governing.
By now, it should be obvious that no political messiah is coming to save this country-our solutions are not going to come through electoral politics or the voting booth. As evidenced by our most recent midterm election- one of the most expensive in history- politicians are becoming increasingly beholden to their corporate benefactors and less so their constituency. The Supreme Court rulings “Citizens United” and “McCutcheon vs. FEC”, removing any cap on private or corporate campaign donations, guarantees the escalating indenture of our elected officials by corporations and special interest groups. Perhaps the greatest recent example of the need for grassroots social movements to apply pressure and counter this trend is the election of Barack Obama, once heralded by millions of Americans as the charismatic, progressive culmination of their hopes and dreams. Today, with 26 months remaining in his presidency, Obama has sadly disappointed, continuing and even dramatically expanding some of the worst programs of his predecessor. The Guardian’s Gary Younge offers his thoughts regarding Obama’s ineffectiveness: “He sits at the center of a system that is openly gerrymandered and in which you have to pay to play. He might have done better, but there was insufficient pressure from below. His tenure proves just how little progressive change is possible through the ballot box in the absence of social movements. It is not about him. But it is through his presidency that these aspirations have been filtered.”
Simply electing the “best” candidate is not enough- the solution must involve organization designed to produce mass pressure and drive promised reform. Make no mistake, however, driving necessary social involvement will not be an easy undertaking, for several reasons.
First, the youth, long considered one of the most important elements of any social movement, have become accustomed to, and consequently passive, in the face of injustice. College campuses, historically lightning rods of civil disobedience and social movement, are now hives of future worker bees increasingly preoccupied with grades, graduation and good job. Reluctant to give voice to government/corporate criticism, lest it taint their prospects for ever-more competitive employment or lead to ostracism by potential networking peers, they remain silent witness. The very reasonable worries of the youth about the practicalities of life- food, shelter, career- notwithstanding, such fears are not exclusive to this time and economy. In one of his most overlooked sermons, “On Being a Good Neighbor,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to these same concerns when he told congregants why they must cast aside their own personally vested interests in their march for civil rights: “We so often ask, ‘What will happen to my job, my prestige, or my status if I take a stand on this issue? Will my home be bombed, will my life be threatened, or will I be jailed?’ The good man always reverses the question. Albert Schweitzer did not ask, ‘What will happen to my prestige and security as a university professor and to my status as a Bach organist, if I work with the people of Africa?’ but rather asked, ‘What will happen to these millions of people who have been wounded by the forces of injustice, if I do not go to them?’” For any social movement to initiate, gather momentum and become formidable, the youth must be convinced of the importance of becoming more than just spectators in America’s political process. They must be made to understand the enormous power they wield in bringing about change.
Another deterrent to organization/action is unrealistic timelines and discouragement by routine disappointment. In today’s hustle-bustle, “I want it now” society, instant gratification and results are expected. Meaningful change, however, is accomplished neither overnight, nor without overcoming the often-overwhelming obstacles set forth by those who benefit from a current system and oppose change. Therefore, while those within a social movement wish to see their vision implemented in their respective country or community during their lifetime, this is often not the case. For example, many American abolitionists did not live to see wrongly enslaved Africans emancipated. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated before he could see his dream of an India free from British rule. Martin Luther King Jr. was also struck down by an assassin as he attempted to organize a Poor People’s Movement to lift the voices of every poor and working class American. Students who peacefully protested in China’s Tiananmen Square along with millions of other Chinese citizens may never bear witness to the birth of a democracy in their country. Understanding and accepting the life cycle of a social movement is essential to its success, as protest and demonstration exist not only to correct/bring attention to present conditions, but to ensure fairness, freedom and peace for future generations, as well. It must be understood that every meaningful effort put forth today is just as essential, necessary and heroic as that put forth on the day when a cause comes to fruition.
Disillusionment is yet another impediment to social movement, and while it is often a product of the inability of the current political order to produce meaningful reform, it is just as often a result of our own inability to recognize and celebrate progress when it occurs. Even as the country continues to disappoint both economically and politically, there are still magnificent examples of the triumphs of social activism coming to fruition within the past few years. Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recently observed on “Moyers and Company:” “Bill, if you and I were chatting here 30 years ago and we would say, you said to me, you know, ‘I think that the United States, people of our country are going to overcome the deep racism in this country and elect an African American,’ you said that 30 years ago, people would say, ‘Bill, you’re crazy. That’ll never happen.’” But, it did. Likewise, as recently as ten years ago, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage. President George W. Bush and politicians swept to victory in 2004 supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. Today, the proposition of an amendment barring gays and lesbians from marrying would be considered political suicide. Further, civil libertarians once virtually alone in their condemnation of constitutional erosion during both Bush and Obama’s presidencies now enjoy the support and understanding of the American people, assisted through revelations by brave activists/whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, William Binney, Thomas Drake, and Chelsea Manning, among others. We must take at least a small amount of time to “drink in” the sweet satisfaction that comes from victory during a bitter, often prolonged fight. And we must honor those who have made particular effort and sacrifice over the course of those battles.
History offers a wonderful collection of “powers that be” and their “social conscience” without whom reform might not have occurred. Would President Lincoln be heralded “the great emancipator” without the great efforts, conscience and pressure of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists? Would President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have issued executive order 8802 banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II without the insistence of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders? Would General Motors and other large corporations have implemented the costly safety measures we now enjoy without the demands of Ralph Nader and likeminded consumer advocacy groups? Would Presidents Kennedy and Johnson have made civil and voting rights an integral priority of their administrations without the demands of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin and the commitment of the civil rights movement? The examples are as numerous as they are impressive. Were these groups or individuals so very different than we who enjoy the benefit of their work? Were they any less fearful for their families, careers or reputation?
What are we prepared to do?
This article first appeared on Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States website.