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Thoughts on Progressive Movement Building

“What will it take to create winning arguments and winning majorities for true racial, social and economic justice?  What are the critical elements needed to build and sustain powerful, effective and integrated liberation-minded social movements.

A version of this presentation was given at a panel at the Open Society Institute/New York in September of 2004. Copyright 2004 Urvashi Vaid.

What will it take to create winning arguments and winning majorities for true racial, social and economic justice?  What are the critical elements needed to build and sustain powerful, effective and integrated liberation-minded social movements.

Before we go to the method, what is the goal? In these conservative dominant times, the ideals of redistribution, equity, liberty, human rights that progressives cherish are far from realized. Liberation is not a destination anyone has reached.  Neither is a socially just society. These are our goals.  But progressive politics of the 21st century must be about more than redistribution alone.  As the late poet June Jordan once wrote, “There is difference, and there is power, and who has the power determines the meaning of the difference.”  We live in an era of totalitarianism – a new world order which is reinstating old meanings of race, gender, class, and sexual difference.

The goal of progressive politics must be to contest this authoritarian movement and defeat it – from the local to the global level.

So what forces do we need to deal with as we think about what to do next?

At least five big dynamics in the US shape the work of all who are concerned about economic, racial and social justice: first, plutocracy; second, masculinism or resurgent patriarchy – expressed vividly in the new macho foreign policy of our country; third, structural racism; fourth the danger that fundamentalism poses to religious freedom; and fifth, the lack of political participation by people with progressive ideals.

We are NOT used to seeing the crisis of politics in America today from the lens of the term “plutocracy”  which Kevin Phillips in his fascinating book, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, defines as “government by or in the interest of the rich” (p. xi).  Yet is this not the case today?  The policies of our government have for the past several decades, and are especially blatantly today, been tilted to benefit the rich.  Examples abound, from the dangerous and destructive tax reforms of this Administration–  that benefit extremely wealthy people the most (like the new proposed dividend tax elimination or the estate tax repeal), to the protectionist trade policies that benefit particular industries like steel and big pharma, to energy policies that benefit big nuke, big oil and big energy conglomerates, to global economic policies enforced by the IMF and World Bank that benefit US companies at the expense of all other factors, to the buying of political power that campaign contributions given by rich people.

Paul Wellstone in his book notes “in the first half of 1999 4 out of every 10,000 Americans (.037%) contributed more than $200 to a presidential candidate, [while even fewer] only .022% of all Americans had given $1000 or more.  Yet this small group had spent about 2/3 of a billion dollars in the 1998 mid-term elections.  Another 250 million came from corporations, wealthy individuals and unions as soft money.” (Conscience of a Liberal, p. 145).   Historically, extreme disparities in income and wealth result in “high levels of political corruption and a voter belief in the captivity of government to private interests.  (Phillips, xii).  And we can certainly see that today – from Enron to Arthur Anderson to ImClone to the bail-outs of the terribly managed airline industry – on whose boards and lobbying staffs sit the wives and cronies of some of the political decision-makers  in Congress.

This plutocratic politics is a far cry from democracy – defined as government of, for and by the people.  Yet democratic deficits caused by the control of government policy making processes by the wealthy – such as, the buying and selling of the public interest to private interests, the lack of voice for working class, middle class and poor people, the lack of participation in elections, the problem of whose vote is counted  — are all problems with which social change movements must grapple.

A second reality that social justice activism today faces is a staggering backlash against women and feminism.  Book after new book tries to undermine the premise that women and men are and should be equal – even if they are and always will be different.  Today, feminism is a cynically deployed justification for policies that are regressive at worst and irrelevant to women’s lives at best – so the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan (after years of support for this horrible, misogynist regime) was justified as a war of liberation of women, but the aftermath of the war, funding for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan remains nearly nil, and the resurgence of Taliban activity in the country bodes ill for women’s lives.  (Equality Now).

Feminism – a continuing worldwide movement – despite propagandists’ best efforts to deny its reach – takes the heat for many things it has no control over, and for some things that it is undeniably producing.  For example, although feminists do not control  the economic system, they are blamed for its effects.  So, women’s participation in workforce is widely disparaged and cited by centrist and right wing analysts as a contributing factor to men’s loss of economic ground.  No matter that women’s wages enable most families to be middle class, no matter that were women to “work unpaid in the home” there is no guarantee that men’s wages would be any higher.  Male status has changed in capitalism as technology and globalization have removed manufacturing jobs from the US economy and as jobs have become more menial, and more service oriented – increasingly performed by immigrant labor that will do the “socially menial” work that white domestic citizens will not perform.

Says Richard Goldstein, “Masculinism is what holds the conservative movement together.  It makes brothers of fundamentalists and libertarians despit their deep differences.” (The Attack Queers, p. 75).  Susan Faludi detailed the backlash against feminism and then tried to analyze the sources of the reaction – tracing it to male anxiety and insecurity over their role in the world (Backlash and Stiffed).

In that vein, it is interesting to note the recurring connection between homophobia and sexism, worldwide.  Not only are the societies most hostile to women the ones that are the deeply invested in traditional ideas of masculinity, but these are also the societies that treat GLBT people harshly. The freedom of women is intimately connected to the freedom of gay men. Homophobia is, as Suzanne Pharr so clearly articulated, a weapon of sexism.  But of course, there are many who fear strong, aggressive, powerful women – not just among the Taliban, the Promise Keepers, the Southern Baptists, the Republican Party leadership, but also among the gay conservative media elites who never fail to use their access to mainstream media outlets to bash lesbian leadership.  Sadly they do not see they have more in common with the black lesbian they never think about than they do with the white guys in the White House who they obsess about.

A third broad context for those thinking about social justice strategies in the US is institutionalized and continuing racial inequality in the US.  The “badges and incidences” of slavery that the 13th Amendment so bravely denounced continue to operate.  For some of us, race is a central lens through which to understand America – from our clearly biased criminal justice system, to the racialized structure of economic inequality, to vivid differences in health among black, brown, and white; from the underdevelopment of urban schools and communities, to the uneven development of the US South.   Racial appeals to whites are at the core of Republican gains in the South and Southwest and of the loss of Democratic support among black voters nationwide.  Racial dynamics are at the heart of welfare and poverty reform proposals, of battles over immigration visa quotas, of the environmental degradation that is tolerated and the degradation that is questioned.

Perhaps the most devastating legacy of American racism is the pervasive segregation of people in this country by race.  Were it not for affirmative action – in higher education and employment – the country would be even more racially isolationist.  This truth is borne out in statistics on housing and education, but most clearly it is borne out in innumerable ways through the evidence of our daily lives – in the patterns of socializing at the office, in the friendships we have or don’t have, in the composition of our places of worship, in the nonprofit sector, in who runs the institutions of government, the market and civil society.  Prejudice alone does not explain it, racial separation is structural, fundamental, and reproduces itself because it is more embedded in all systems in American life – its’ very un-conciousness is what makes American apartheid so potent a force to be reckoned with.

Another contextual factor I want to put on the table is the growth of religious fundamentalism in the US and around the world and the concurrent srhinkage of the plurality of religious viewpoints and the danger that fundamentalism poses to religious freedom.  Theologians have consistently noted the way that the US constitution’s dis-establishment of religion – its explicit ban against the idea of a state-sponsored religion—has enabled religious liberty to flourish in this country.  We are a nation of many faiths and belief systems because we are not a theocracy.  So what are we to make of the fact that today, our highest political officers are Christian fundamentalists – who believe the Bible more than they believe in the Constitution?  If the President believes that God speaks to him, and that his particular faith teaches him that it is the one and only way, and that it is his mission to proslytize for his religion – which evangelical christianity teaches, what does this portend for our plural democracy?  (As an aside, when our President also says in Bob Woodward’s fawning book, that the greatest thing about being president is that while people have to try to convince him they are right, he does not have to do that to anyone – are we living in a democracy?)

What should we think of the fact that 46% of Americans say they are evangelical Christians – which means they believe that there is really only one way (theirs), one God (theirs), one interpretation (that of their leaders), one destination (death and then salvation). What does this mean for the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Muslims, the Native Americans, the many other kinds of religions and spiritualities in this country?  What does it mean for the freedom NOT to believe – and the freedom from a state-sponsored religion – which has enabled religion in America to flourish and to peacefully co-exist.  When our current President lets slip his deep belief that he has launched a divinely ordained (holy) war, how does he differentiate himself from other world figures who believe they are waging a religious war against us? Is our security and yours really enhanced by waging religious wars or the framing of wars – which are essentially battles for economic dominion – as wars of faith?

A wide range of domestic policies – from the right to free, public education to the right to life-saving sex education, to the right to learn about science without the bias of dogma to a woman’s right to control her body without state intervention – are all threatened by global fundamentalisms, which are regimes under which many millions of us now live.   Fundamentalism is the ultimate restoration fantasy – it seeks to re-impose the old orders of patriarchal authority, state-authoritarianism, and economic control in the hands of those who will promote its ends. The only hopeful news is that whenever religious fundamentalism becomes fused with a nation-state, it produces a reaction that (hopefully but not necessarily) pushes for pluralism, democracy and an open society.

A final reality we must acknowledge as we contemplate how to build a society which respects differences and whose institutions promote justice is the reality that few of us participate in politics.  This is so strange and ironic and it has hurt the left in this country more than we care to admit.  Alienation from politics is perfectly intelligent response to the political systems alienation fro ordinary people’s lives and concerns.  A plutocracy addresses policies that help the rich and that in increasing intensity is the core purpose of the regime we have been living with from Reagan to Bush to Clinton and Bush II.  But politics is also a process that bends with the participation of people in it.  If 39% of the entire eligible voting base chooses to vote, if less than 25% of young people age 18-24 vote in major national elections, if poor and working class people are ineligible to vote, if 13% of adult black men are disenfranchised from voting by outrageous felony disenfranchisement laws, we have a system that will not produce outcomes that these populations might want.  Political participation in the form of voting is not the be all and end all of organizing for power – but it is a vital tool that we ignore at our peril.

Other forms of participation matter and create impact as well.  For example, you all know of the anti-GLBT ballot measure campaigns that opponents of glbt rights have been promoting for the past decade—you have seen them in this region California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado to name just a few.  The GLBT movement lost many of these measures statewide and has again and again been derailed from its pro-active agenda into fighting these defensive battles, in raising money and doing expensive advertising campaigns against these measures. What we have learned in organizing against these measures is that raising money, buying media, building coalitions, marshalling arguments is just a part of the answer – it is the creation of grassroots, door to door, organizing aimed at voter education and friendly-voter identification that has given us the additional muscle to defeat these measures.  So in Miami Dade County Florida last year, and in four other localities, organizing worked hand in hand with other tools in our kit to defeat the right – in battles many had conceded to them already.

Political participation matters, and it means organizing as much as it means voting.  And organizing is a wonderfully empowering, deeply challenging, often tedious process of building support, educating people at the community level, mobilizing coordinated action for common outcomes.    Participation also means things like voter identification, pooling names on memberships lists to identify the districts in which our members live; reaching them with useful and practical inforamtion about their elected and appointed officials and how they can impact their views on issues of social justice; it means good old fashioned get out the vote drives and neighborhood pot lucks to try to build a common purpose with our neighbors.  IT is this kind of grassroots work that has been missing in much of the politics that progressives have engaged in – we have been more intent on building identity, building community, protesting against unjust policies, defending hard fought gains – to realize that our true power lies in the pro-active creation of a multi-constituency, politically focused voting bloc. And this is a key component of the work ahead for each of us who cares to take it on.

So where do we go from here –  What do we do?

This brief analysis of the changing context suggests that US civil society confronts both challenges and opportunities in its contemporary encounter with democracy and social justice. Civil society in America is at once robust and weak. America’s constitutional and legal framework guarantees freedom of speech and association, but growing economic inequalities lead to clear disparities in whose voice is heard, and which associations thrive. Racial disparities persist in every aspect of American life, affecting African-Americans most significantly, but affecting all people of color, Native Americans and new immigrants too. The emergence of new social movements for justice and equity has also fractured America’s illusion of unity and spawned a conservative backlash. Faith in government has decreased, fed in part by an attack on federalism and state authority by conservatives and aided by a sense of helplessness at the disproportionate impact of money in politics.   Yet at the same time, new constituencies have been mobilized successfully at the local level by community organizers, immigrant advocates, students and faith based activists, and they have begun to achieve significant policy gains. In the early years of a new century, US civil society is both poised and challenged to become a more powerful force for social justice in America.

I would highlight three areas in which these challenges and opportunities are most pressing: rebuilding a relatively weak, fractured and under-resourced social justice infrastructure; fostering greater connectivity among the enormous multiplicity of organizations, strategies, issues and identities that exist in US civil society; and revitalizing the public sphere by promoting the voice and perspectives of social justice advocates.

1.    Building capacities.

First, key capacities in US civil society are weak or missing – in organizational structures at the state level, in organizational strength and development, in political strategy, in research and policy think tanks, in organizing and mobilization skills, communications and fundraising.  The majority of organizations engaged in social justice work at the local and state levels are small and relatively new. Although capacity building has been supported by the Foundation for some time through a network of regional intermediaries and nonprofit support organizations, they themselves are financially insecure and limited in their ability to meet demand. In addition, there is a particular need to increase support for the field of community organizing, which remains one of the most direct, personally empowering, and locally effective strategies for social change.

Scholars and practitioners of civil society argue that a “key to reinvigorating democracy in the United States can be found in efforts to engage people in politics through their participation in the stable institutions of community life.”[1] Community organizing offers the promise of increasing ordinary people’s engagement in governance and civic life.  A recent study of the impact of community organizing groups released by the Aspen Institute Nonprofit Sector Research Fund found that “community organizations can achieve significant local results, train a significant number of activists, pioneer innovative policy solutions and germinate the seeds of the next grassroots movement.”[2] Unlike strategies such as litigation or policy analysis, organizing does not require a specialized degree or environment to be performed, nor does it require a professional mediator (such as an attorney, lobbyist or legislator). But it does require people with good analytical, strategic planning, and communications skills. Such people are in short supply, and are under-supported and under-remunerated where they do exist.

In a report prepared in 1998[3], Gary Delgado of the Applied Research Center identified four categories of organizations that form the core of the Community Organizing infrastructure.

1.    Local, independent organizations that serve specific constituencies (e.g. Greater Birmingham Ministries, Alabama)

2.    Issue-based networks of organizations that work both independently and in concert on a specific issue (e.g. National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice)

3.    Statewide, regional or national networks of local affiliates which share a common agenda, training center and methodology (e.g. US Action or IAF)

4.    Intermediary support organizations that train, develop and support organizers, leaders and organizations (e.g. Northeast Action or Center for Third World Organizing)

Each of these kinds of organizations requires large-scale and more sustained funding. In addition, leadership that is committed to inclusion and participation, grounded in an intersectional analysis, and that brings fresh views and strategies into social justice movements is critically needed.  Many leaders of social justice organizations came of age in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the ranks of progressive managers and second tier leaders are aging.  At the same time, a vibrant series of student movements exist on campus around issues such as global justice, sweatshops, criminal justice reform and ending racism. A key challenge is to link these organizers with broader social justice movements outside the campus in order to revitalize the pipeline of future movement leaders and root student action in community based activism.

2.    Fostering connectivity.

Key connections in US civil society are weak or missing – horizontally (across different types of organization, sectors and identities), vertically (from the local to the global level), and between different approaches to social justice work (such as base building, media outreach, and policy advocacy).

In the US today, fewer than 30 states have functioning, multi-issue, progressive organizations of any kind.[4] Even among these organizations, size, focus and power vary greatly.  Some statewide groups, like the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, are coalitions of organizations. Others, like the statewide Citizen Action groups that comprise the US Action network, are direct membership organizations. Often the groups are formed around a particular issue (such as health or tax policy) or a particular constituency (African American families in South Carolina, for example, farmers in Kentucky, or congregations in Alabama). Yet these issue or identity based groups are rarely connected to each other in networks. Even when such networks exist, they are weak, under-staffed, and incomplete – involving only a fraction of the constituencies that could potentially be mobilized in support of social justice goals.  However, public opinion polls repeatedly show greater support for policy options that are more progressive than those enacted by legislators.  This suggests that if the right connections are made between media work, public education and traditional base-building activities, a real constituency for social justice policy proposals could be developed, especially at the state level.

Divisions based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation continue to create cleavages among civil society groups working for social justice.  The persistence of this fragmentation has invited many critiques and proposals for change – from an end to identity politics to the transformation of single-identity organizing into movement building that starts from the intersection of all forms of human difference.  In addition to identity based barriers, there are others that are caused by histories of tension among leaders and groups, competition for resources, and political differences. The challenge – and the opportunity – is to create and support structures that can connect leaders and organizations at the local (municipal) and statewide levels.

Over the last ten years, devolution has moved key areas of decision-making in the US down to state legislative and executive bodies, at the same time that global or other multilateral bodies have increased their influence over social and economic policy at the state level, with minimal input or oversight from the public. These trends require that US civil society organizes at the local, state and national and global levels in an increasingly interconnected way, an enormously difficult task with little by way of experience or advice to act as a guide. At present, such organizing is disconnected and fragmented vertically as well as horizontally, greatly inhibiting the ability of citizens groups to work for social justice in broad-based alliances and coalitions that achieve mutual gains in different parts of the system. The result is inefficiency at best and redundancy at worst, as organizations work on common or connected problems without coordination, fail to benefit from each others’ experience, duplicate each others’ activities, and act in isolation. This increases the likelihood that social justice outcomes in one location will come at the cost of similar gains elsewhere. The challenge for this portfolio is to find concrete ways of promoting “win-win” solutions between different levels of citizen action by connecting work on US and global civil society (for example, with Lisa Jordan’s work on trade policy). In all these connections, there is a tremendous need for the development of replicable models for coalitions, collaborations or networks.

Fragmentation remains a critical weakness and challenge to the creation of a more powerful progressive movement. Addressing this problem requires organizational forms that are dedicated to building connectivity, not themselves.  It requires leaders who are adept at creating agendas or platforms for action that are inclusive, specific and open; and at creating organizational and leadership networks that enable groups and individuals to meaningfully and productively work together across issue, sector, strategy and ideology.

The coalition model works when there are relationships of trust between organizations and grassroots leaders.  The truth is that there is more trust between people and interaction than progressives give themselves credit for, at the same time that there is less interaction and joint effort than progressives are capable of.  So, for example, United for Peace and Action was able to organize itself after months and months of meetings among representatives of a range of organizations.  A key ingredient to its success has been the long-term credibility that its lead organizers have engendere over years of work for peace; but also the inter-connections and cross-pollination among many groups and activists who are members of the coalition.  The activist and organizational leadership world is not as large as the world of the unorganized.  People know and have worked with each other.  This sometimes creates conflict, and bad history — but it also creates relationship and opportunity.

Network building work is grounded and often place-based, or issue based – not unrooted.  So, progressives can consider building networks at the city and state level around broad platforms of economic justice or civil liberties and rights.  Again there are exciting and successful models that can be emulated, such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or Agenda in LA; or the social services coalitions and others who organize against cutbacks around the country; or the National Campaign for Jobs and Income support which organized welfare rights advocates nationally into an effective effort to impact TANF reauthorization.

But the fact is that network building also needs to be done in a multi-constituency manner.  We need  linkages to be made across issues, across sectors and across strategies.

Imagine the power of statewide networks among organizations that could enable quick communication; rapid mobilization; and collaborative work for common outcomes in key places and in key moments.  What is involved in organizing such networks?  First, a coalition of the willing. Skilled bodies to do the organizing and relationship building. Funding to staff these organizing and maintenance efforts.  The challenge will be to find funding for these networks – because funding is still driven by issue, by people’s sense of urgency around their identity or their particular situation. Incentives to leaders of organizations and communities to try a new way of working. Infrastructure that is mutually reinforcing and collective in its identity.

Technology creates exciting new opportunities for networks to be formed across vast distances and types of issue.  MoveOn.org’s success in organizing is extraordinary – a small (fewer than 20 staff) dedicated internet-based group now reaches millions of subscribers, has proven it can raise hundreds of thousands of letters fo members of Congress, raise millions of dollars, and put bodies on the street.  Other examples of how technology enables organizing can be seen in the work of the Independent Media Center movement to provide progressive perspectives and reporting on major events; in the organizing of the Global Justice Movement against IMF and World Bank policies; and in the efforts of a number of transnational social movements such as the movement to ban land mines; to stop dam construction; and to protect the environment.

3.    Revitalizing the public sphere

Third, civil society as the public sphere has withered away, leaving few opportunities for progressive groups to make their voices heard. The emergence of conservatism can, on one level, be seen as a sign of the health of American democracy. The plurality and diversity of civil society in the US is what gives this country its energy, and what reinforces the value of its commitment to political freedom.  But the transformation of narrow viewpoints into orthodoxy is the antithesis of democracy, and must be constantly questioned and challenged. When, as now, advocates for peace and social justice find themselves attacked as “un-American” as the space for alternative ideas, progressive policy options and dissenting views shrinks, policy options become less diverse and less inclusive, and the health of democracy suffers. This is why work on revitalizing the “public sphere” is so important.

The notion of the public interest lies beneath all notions of democratic accountability.  Public interest organizations that produce research and data that can be used to hold government and private sector entities accountable are increasingly important. As the Enron scandal reminds us, “the American system of democracy, built on free enterprise, depends upon the existence and nurturing of private and public watchdogs.”[5] Yet independent media and other watchdog organizations are not currently supported by the Civil Society program, and are weak in their capacities. The voices of advocates for low income, socially marginalized or politically disenfranchised groups remain audible only in specialized outlets on the Internet or in a handful of journals.  Strengthening US civil society therefore requires us to augment the diversity and pluralism of voices in the public sphere by improving the media capacity of civil society organizations that work for social justice and strengthening public interest watchdogs.

Neither progressives nor GLBT people can succeed without better, attractive and winning messages.  This is a vexing task.  The challenge of distilling a digestible, sound-bite sized message out of a very wide ranging progressive agenda is tough and will always be imperfect.  One of the critical weaknesses of the progressive infrastructure lies in the disconnection between policy ideas generated by the research and policy think tanks of the left and their reach out into the general public.  Without attention to the overall framework or to the moral vision that progressives offer American society, the particulars of a policy agenda are less effective.

Broad messages that are needed in this moment must address three critical areas – economic freedom, the balance between liberty and security, and the tension within this country over race and ethnicity.

A key message of progressivism has always been a belief that prosperity can be shared –through systems that deliver education, health care, jobs, training, housing and other forms of social needs to a wider array of people.  An inclusive and positive economic message that counters the market fundamentalism of the day with clear and bold new ideas for revamping our jobs base in a time where the labor force in the US is being replaced by a labor force in China or other developing countries. Our economic platform has yet to articulate a coherent defense of the public sector — hard to do at a time when a concerted war on government has been underway by the right since the New Deal.  But the progressive economic message must also reflect the reality that socialist ideals that many progressives cherished can only be achieved in a context of promoting and generating a more socially responsible capitalism. I recognize that this formulation is anathema to many progressives, but it is the truth.  Progressive economic appeals must center on how much more valuable, sustainable and profitable capitalism can be, when it is bounded by a lean and muscular regulatory framework that at once enables competition, but restrains corruption.

Another aspect of the public sphere is the arena of culture and the reality of building on the cultural changes that have been achieved.

Social movements in America have thus far won more culturally ( and legally) than they have politically.  So, for example, on GLBT issues a wide range of opinion indicators reveal that the country continues to move toward support for full GLBT equality.  On issues like employment nondiscrimination, anti-violence, equal treatment of GLBT service-members, recognition of domestic partners’ rights in certain situations (hospital visits, access to bereavement leave, access to health insurance, etc), growing majorities favor GLBT equality.  Yet, these cultural opinions and attitudes are not yet expressed as public policy inmost parts of the country.   Even on tougher, more divisive issues, like same-sex marriage recognition, national polls reveal that more people are moving toward tolerance.  Worldwide the movement for cultural integration of sexual difference is even more rapid in Europe, in Australia, in South Africa than it is in the US.

This pattern extends to issues like support for and belief in women’s equality, cultural respect and recognition of African Americans, an understanding that immigration has made this country both diverse and strong.  Yet each of these cultural gains and the movements that achieved them is the target of a backlash campaign.  What should progressives make of the existence of cultural progress and cultural backlash?

For one, cultural gains need to be defended and preserved in a conscious and thoughtful manner by social justice movements – there is nothing permanent about their achievement.  Today the bulwark against erosion of cultural space lies in two sources:  progressive religion and the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, association, press and religion.  The work ahead requires progressives to really target these arenas as inviolable lines of defense.  It will not be easy.  Worldwide, and in the US, religious fundamentalism is ascendant. Similarly, worldwide and in the US, demands for security and safety are trumping commitments to liberty:  with many advocates from the latter side now arguing vehemently for the erosion of the very guarantees that have crated America’s wealth and power.

4. Building Political Power

The broad realm of social change organizations suffer from a deficit of political power.  This is so because the social justice sectors of US civil society have at best bifurcated their political and cultural activities, and at worst ignored politics completely. So for example, the critical work of social movements in America has been in activities such as:  the construction of empowered people, the pursuit of recognition and respect, the creation of communities and institutions that will compensate in some way for the absence of government support for the community, and with the creation of spaces in which the community can exist with some measure of freedom.  Think about the civil rights movement, the GLBT movement, the women’s liberation movement, the immigrant rights movement.  Each has created community, worked for social and cultural integration and understanding, and pursued a political agenda that is fairly narrow:  getting “our own” elected. Even other, more traditional, social movements in this country, like Labor, and progressive religion, have been engaged in a more internally directed projects – organizing more union members, as opposed to organizing all supporters of unions into a political bloc.

Such a strategy might be characterized as the pursuit of democracy without politics.

  • Democracy without politics exists when the nonprofit sector comprises about 11% of all employment in this country, it has the political clout of a flea when it comes to advocacy for the preservation of urgent social services.
  • Democracy without politics exists when there are more than ____(1.5?) million nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS in this country, even though a significant proportion of  these could be ideologically categorized as liberal, and even more would be organized around the realization of a more equitable and just society ideological spectrum – there is no mechanism that enables these groups to translate their reach into political power.
  • Democracy without politics exists when So  at a point where 13% of the country is African American, a growing percentage Latino/a, at least 5% of the electorate is GLBT, 51% of the electorate nationally voted for the more liberal candidate – but despite the apparent electoral advantage, each community loses significant economic, political and even cultural ground.

How, then, can progressive political ideas succeed?  Through organizing and political participation.

1.    Work state by state to do the following:
a.    Create solidarity.  build multi-issue, multi-constituency statewide organizations, conferences  and leadership networks among organizational leaders;
b.    Train grassroots leaders in politics.  Provide nonpartisan training and opportunities for progressive organizational leaders and volunteers to learn how to engage the political process in their state – how to get involved in parties, how to run for office, how to press for action from public officials and hold them accountable
c.     Build constituencies that are linked in their objectives. Build electoral base among statewide constituencies out of the following sectors in key states – labor, immigrants, religious progressives of all faiths, GLBT people, enlightened business leaders, public officials,  women, young people, latinos, African Americans, Asians and Native Americans and other people of color.  This means practical things like databases that are shared, projects that are not just single issue or if so that build toward something bigger than an issue based win.
d.     Network and harvest the purveyors of policy ideas in the state: this means linking single issue and small think tanks with each other to leverage their assets and capacities, reaching in to universities and other institutional resources that collect data and do policy analysis to secure the best information and ideas about policy options for the state
e.    Engage opponents of progressive ideas – do not cede the debate to them on any issue.  Debate is a good thing, through debate options are created.  Fighting back is a good thing as well. And we must fight back against the right in order to secure a more just world.


[1] Mark Warren, Dry Bones Rattling, p. 15.  See also, Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, supra chapter 8 on the power of grassroots activism as a form of civic engagement.

[2]What Makes Community Organizing Succeed?  Comparing Church and Neighborhood Based Organizations,” Snapshots: Research Highlights form the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund, Aspen Institute, No. 21, Jan/Feb 2002, quoting study author Heidi J. Swarts, p. 3.

[3] Gary Delgado, Whatever It Takes: Community Organizing Responds to a Changing Political Environment, (Report to the Ford Foundation, June 1998), pp.3-4.

[4] State Strategies Fund grant proposal, 2002.

[5] Grantee correspondence of Gene Kimmelman with Becky Lentz, 2/28/02.

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