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Monday, December 19, 2011

 
Occupying the Progressive Movement

by David Atkins

Robert Cruickshank wrote a tremendous post yesterday about the future of the progressive movement, that dovetails nicely with my earlier post about the future of liberalism. It's far too long and well-argued to neatly summarize here, but below are a few excerpts:

America was a tinder-dry land of California brush awaiting a spark – and the hot winds were already blowing. But it took the anarchist activists of OWS to actually get things started in the streets. Almost immediately the public conversation around economic policy was changed, as it finally became acceptable for everyone to admit what we already knew: our nation, our households, and our economy had been robbed blind by the wealthy elite, and it was time to do something about it.

The progressive movement hasn’t been the same since. That movement, born around 2003 out of deep anger at the Democratic Party’s enthusiastic embrace of the Bush Administration’s warmongering policies as well as growing unease about the direction of the nation’s economy, had by 2011 started to spin its wheels. The arguments over Obama were, in large part, an argument about the future of the movement.

A lot of work had been done since 2003 to build a functioning left in the United States. It began online, but quickly moved offline. The Dean campaign was one early example. By 2006 the movement was in full flower, with the first national convention (then called “YearlyKos”) held amidst a national political campaign to retake Congress from the Republicans. Progressive activists provided the money and the ground troops to wrest control of both the House and Senate back from the right.

Two years later, the Obama campaign seemed to vindicate the movement. Obama’s campaign style was in the new progressive mold. It was “people-powered.” It challenged the establishment Democratic Party with an inspirational message of hope and change. It perfected the Internet-based organizing strategies the netroots had pioneered. It mobilized the masses and generated higher turnout than had been seen in years.

But by 2009, it became clear that nothing had really changed. Obama immediately brought on board all the old Clinton Administration hands and showed his desire to govern as if the 1990s had never ended. Obama began rapidly abandoning the agenda he championed in 2008 and it became clear to progressives that their hopes for change were going to be dashed. The movement began to sputter. Momentum from 2006 and 2008 wasn’t sustained and as the right became more energized, progressives and Democrats more broadly went down to defeat (with California being an important exception) in 2010.

This was the landscape onto which Occupy Wall Street burst in September and October of 2011. What OWS did was expose the failure of a core assumption of the progressive movement dating back to 2003 – that if the movement focused on winning elections, change would follow. The progressive movement was always more diverse than that, and had interesting cultural forms, intellectual developments, and a clear desire to do mass organizing. But since at least 2004 electoral organizing had been the top focus of the movement.


Robert goes on to argue that Occupy has opened a door progressive activists had failed to open by focusing too much on elections, but that the Occupy approach has its own blind spots as well:

It was time for a correction anyway. What we have learned is that winning elections isn’t on its own enough to produce change. What’s needed is a clear policy agenda and a strong external movement that can help progressives in power implement that agenda – and stop others in power from implementing a bad one. That requires a movement in which electoral organizing is just one piece. In other words, the progressive movement needs to grow not only in numbers but in the diversity of what it does.

That isn’t what drives most Occupiers, however. Occupy is also a rebuke of organized politics. They’re in the streets because they believe it’s the only way change can be produced. What it has revealed is that distrust of government is now rampant on the left as well as the right. To most Occupiers, government is the enemy. And their confrontations with local governments showed this. Even though the vast majority of local electeds in the big cities are sympathetic to the Occupy movement and are no friend to the 1% (with Bloomberg being a notable exception), Occupy’s choice of tactics reflected their belief that anyone in government was either incapable of helping or was determined to break the protest. And Occupy has brought a new group of people into political activism. New voices are popping up online, new leaders are emerging, and they are much less interested in the more incremental changes that the progressive movement had unfortunately become accustomed to accepting.

Occupiers are openly advocating revolutionary change from the streets. But here is where I think the progressive movement’s love affair with OWS should find its limits. Occupy alone won’t produce the changes we need in this country. By focusing on physical occupation of public space, they’ve muddled their early message and have alienated potential allies. On the other hand, they have succeeded in kicking a door open. The public wants action on inequality and wants to go after the 1%. Progressives should walk through the door that Occupy opened – and they should be willing to work with anyone, Occupiers or not, who are interested in providing the leadership that is needed to make lasting change happen.

The goal of progressives should be to build a broader, long-term, mass movement to achieve a democratic economy, an equal society, and a peaceful planet. Taking to the streets is a tactic to help get us toward that goal. But it is those who are best organized who will prevail even if street action leads to major political change.


Click over and read the entirety of Robert's post. It's great food for thought.

The key question is how and around what particular issues and strategies to organize. But then, that's always the problem, isn't it?



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