The New Face of Activism

If progressives learn the right lessons from organizing efforts of the past year, they can get back in the game

| July-August 2010

  • The New Face of Activism 1

    Zina Saunders /

  • The New Face of Activism 1

The following is part of   a series of articles on activism in the United States . For more, read Tea Party Crashers and Lessons from the Godfather .

As activists confront the disappointments of the Obama era, a troubling sense of malaise and despair has crept into the progressive movement. This state of mind is arguably even more of an obstacle than policy challenges or specific failures, because it tends to produce either apathy or unstrategic ranting. While we are no doubt in a tough spot, however, despair is not warranted.

In some ways, the scorecard on the Obama administration’s policy agenda is more mixed than critics would like to admit. The economic stimulus package—while smaller and less efficiently targeted than it should have been—represents the greatest investment in antipoverty programs in 40 years. Health care reform represents the largest expansion of the social safety net in decades. The administration also has empowered some agencies with larger budgets, stronger personnel, and greater mandates to enforce critical worker, environmental, and civil rights protections.

But progressive activists do have compelling grounds for disappointment. The administration’s coddling of the financial sector, paired with its failure to respond aggressively enough to the wave of suffering brought about by unemployment and foreclosures, has been morally wrong and politically tone-deaf. The failure to respond sufficiently to the needs of communities of color that are experiencing Depression levels of unemployment and hardship—and the reluctance to even acknowledge that targeted responses are required—has set us back in addressing issues of race. And the number of immigrant deportations during the Obama administration’s first year was actually higher than during the last year of the Bush administration—an appalling fact considering that the administration can’t blame Congress.

The administration’s fetishization of deficit reduction also promises to create major obstacles to the preservation or expansion of needed programs for years to come. But the question before us is why we are in this predicament—and what to do to get out of it. And, honestly, the administration is the least of our troubles.

To be sure, the administration’s strategic errors have contributed to the situation. Factors beyond the administration’s control have played a role, too, such as corporate opposition to any significant reform agenda and the mobilization of the Tea Party, which tapped into populist anger and put progressive forces on the defensive. But it’s too easy to get distracted by the proximate causes of our difficulties and lose sight of the big picture.

7/5/2010 8:35:16 AM

I really appreciate this article. It seems like the immigration reform movement has the people to make something happen, and with the impetus of Arizona Law, now may be the time that change really begins. What I can never grasp is how folks who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants fail to see how the vitality of the country has come from folks like themselves, and how if we don't embrace this new strength, we will start to wither on the vine.

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