Van Jones sees nothing to applaud in the rise of the political right. But the 34-year-old founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, which focuses on reforming the criminal justice system, thinks that progressives response to recent events—gloom and doom interspersed with bouts of anger—is not helpful in envisioning the next step forward. Instead, Jones says, we must acknowledge that when it comes to reaching and organizing people today, the right simply does a better job—sometimes using methods that actually originated on the left.
Here, according to Jones, are a few lessons—historical and contemporary—that progressives need to embrace:
"Starting in 1964, with the collapse of Barry Goldwater's [presidential] campaign, a relatively small number of conservatives got together and took the mailing lists from the Goldwater campaign and essentially reinvented the right. And, from 1964 to 1994, you see a 30-year effort to develop the institutions, the think tanks, the policy ideas, the writers, the political leaders, to seize power.
"Progressives have a history of this kind of planning and foresight. If you look at the pre-civil rights movement in the '40s and '50s, you see people concerned about civil rights at the Highlander Center [an organizing institute in Tennessee] and other places investing a lot of time really thinking through questions of strategy and tactics. At Howard University Law School in the '20s and '30s, for example, people planned step by step how to dismantle segregation and prepared lawyers to do that from the time they were law students. That kind of long-term patience and strategic planning is no longer a feature or function of progressive social change work."
Be Populist, Not Elitist
From the early 1960s to the late 1990s, the left went from a populist movement to an elite movement. The right during the same period put much more money and attention into building up their mass-media capabilities, their grassroots organizations, and their capacity to mobilize people.
"Progressives, on the other hand, put almost all their effort into litigation, lobbying efforts, highly fragmented paper-membership organizations that were basically check-gathering operations, and less and less energy into bottom-up mass organization building."
"While the religious right has had a great deal of success, progressives have failed to invest in a religious left. The best strategy for failure is to decide that our relationship to major institutions of faith, of the government and business is going to be total opposition, opposition to all of them.
"You have to get a toehold somewhere; some parts of the left don't even want to deal with labor. I think the time has come for us to reinvent and reimagine a left politics that is willing to engage much more broadly and use not just radical tactics like protest, but also more mainstream tactics like running people for office and taking responsibility for job creation in our communities.
"The anti-globalization movement's energies, for instance, are not tied to any electoral strategy, any job creation strategy, any strategy that would root it in the lives of normal people."
Support What's Working
"If a progressive organization starts to raise a lot of money and get a lot of attention, the response of other progressives is resentment and undermining, as opposed to celebration and giving more support to what's actually working.
"A left that is not serious prepares to protest; a left that's serious prepares to govern. Telling these long, depressing stories about how bad everything is what I call 'the litany' is not helpful. What's helpful is: Here's what's working. Here's what's doing well. Here's who's been able to overcome this. Here?s who has innovated that. Here's who's able to solve this problem.
"A major barrier to the left reinventing itself and being effective is that we enjoy the cheap unity of critiquing the country and do not take responsibility for inspiring the country."
Court Unlikely Allies
"I think the willingness of conservative forces to establish beachheads in communities of color is telling. It's really, really clear that we have to be able to go into conservative strongholds and organize there as well. What I've found is that working-class white people are not served well by this government either. And a lot of people in the business community are very concerned that the government is not investing properly in everything from public education to environmental cleanup. Those people should be in the left camp."
Anjula Razdan is assistant editor of Utne.