The New Face of Activism

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Zina Saunders /

The following is part of a series of articles on activism in the United States. For more, readTea Party Crashers andLessons 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.

The main lesson we should draw from the past year and from American history is that it takes social movements that are intense, tenacious, and imaginative to get big things done in our country. Abolition, women’s suffrage, and the reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society were not won easily, nor were they brought about by a single election. (The same can be said of the long rise to power of movement conservatism.)

People often complain that President Barack Obama fails to exhibit sufficient passion, and that’s true to a point. But no president can generate moral urgency on his own. Most of that passion has to come from below. Lyndon B. Johnson wouldn’t have been able to rouse Congress in the famous speech in which he affirmed that “we shall overcome” unless there had been a civil rights movement that for decades had made the moral case and forced the country to look in the mirror.

Weak political leadership, powerful entrenched interests, and a closely divided country are not new challenges. If we learn the right lessons from organizing efforts of the past year, we can recapture momentum for progressive causes.

One place to look for lessons is the immigrant rights movement, which today stands as one of the few parts of the broader progressive movement with the capacity to put hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. Consider the paradox: Some of the most vulnerable segments of our society with the most to lose from engaging in public life have the greatest capacity for mobilization and movement.

The story of the movement goes back decades, but its recent origins lie in the efforts of committed people during the late 1990s to put on the table an issue–the condition of millions of undocumented people living in fear and experiencing extreme exploitation in the workplace–that was, at the time, unspeakable in polite discourse in Washington. Had the issue been left to politicians, no one would have made the demand for a path to citizenship under the conditions prevailing at that time.

Through immigrant service and community organizations, churches, hometown and ethnic associations, and ethnic media, immigrants had built a rich infrastructure that could be tapped for mobilization. This infrastructure gradually has won allies–in evangelical churches, among white progressives, among cops and sheriffs, and among the women’s, civil rights, and labor movements–but it began by consolidating power and vision among those with the most at stake.

In 2006 this growing but still disparate movement united in response to punitive legislation sponsored by Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin that would have criminalized immigrants and anyone who tried to help them–sending not only undocumented immigrants but also priests, teachers, and social workers to jail. Marches involving millions of people–possibly the largest marches in American history–put people on the move not just in Los Angeles and Chicago but also in places like Lexington, Kentucky, and Boise, Idaho. This show of power stopped the legislation and put reform on the national agenda.

Every action begets a reaction, however, and a nativist countermovement rallied to bring down reform legislation in 2007, spawned anti-immigrant policies at all levels of government, and generated a wave of hate in the media. Immigrants mobilized again, resulting in 2 million new Hispanic voters in 2008 and a clear repudiation of those who used prejudice for political gain, with 20 of 22 anti-immigrant congressional candidates in swing districts losing to pro-immigrant candidates.

The movement then prepared for a legislative campaign and built an infrastructure of field operations, communications capacity, and policy development, anticipating that the president would keep his promise to move legislation in his first year. As it became clear that the president and Congress were putting immigration reform on the back burner while the administration pursued policies that still ripped families apart, immigrant leaders prepared to go back into movement mode.

In the early part of 2010, tens of thousands of people rallied in Washington, D.C.; undocumented students walked from Florida to D.C. on a “trail of dreams”; and thousands of new people were brought into the fight through movement-building training. The movement has not disowned legislative tactics or a campaign sensibility, but it’s clear that the underlying power to unstick the issue in Congress depends on the ability to unleash people power on a substantial scale.

Persistent, patient, and unafraid, the strategic vision of the immigrant rights movement resembles in ways the vision and advantage of the conservative movement, both today and in the past. The lessons of the immigrant rights movement and of the right–if we understand them correctly–can provide a blueprint for the broader progressive movement.

First, we know that strategies relying on insider influence are incapable of delivering large-scale change. Dynamics in D.C. reflect the underlying social forces in the country–the extent to which certain ideas and constituencies are seen to be on the move and winning others to their side. Access to powerful people is not power, and it is not a recipe for social change.

Time and again in the immigrant rights movement, mobilizations on the outside have altered the fundamental dynamics in Washington. The pro-immigrant marches in 2006 stopped legislation that at the time seemed inevitable. And the nativist countermobilization in 2007 shattered support for reform in the Republican Party and defeated more legislation. Little of what happened in D.C. in this period can be understood without reference to these movement dynamics.

Second, “call your congressperson” campaigns full of paid ads and Astroturf fail to light up people’s imagination or tap their deepest energies. This is a hard lesson to teach. The prevailing orthodoxy in Washington and among progressive organizations is transactional; it’s always about the next cosponsor for a piece of legislation or the next issue campaign, all involving organizations being asked to generate calls to Congress.

The Tea Party movement didn’t focus on legislative mechanics, nor did it focus on traditional legislative campaign methods–it changed the debate by engaging people around a set of ideas and values and mobilized their intensity in dramatic fashion. The transactional approach needs to be replaced with a movement sensibility that is connected to the heart and the spirit, one that is ongoing and owned by the people involved.

Third, reform movements have to be grounded in and speak to the real experience of the people who are mobilized. Advocates and politicians too often blur issues, couching ideas in poll-tested blather that takes the moral force out of arguments for reform. This mushy rhetoric prevents stories of suffering and struggle–which motivate and compel people in the middle to take a side–from coming through clearly.

The health care debate suffered from the reluctance of some advocates to clearly make the case for what the legislation would accomplish–mainly, providing insurance to roughly 30 million people and offering protections against preda­tory insurance companies. Fearing that forthright emphasis on easily understood moral principles couldn’t win in the court of public opinion, we got lost in a morass of arguments about reducing deficits and bending the cost curve.

Fourth, the standard vocabulary of advocacy campaigns has to change. The traditional approach starts by emphasizing support among “swing” voters, fieldwork in swing districts, and advocacy by “unusual voices” such as moderate Republicans or business leaders. This approach is a recipe for trouble without first consolidating broad support from the base. The inten­sity of energy from a base, while usually not sufficient in itself, opens up the possibility for genuine alliances with other social forces and the middle, ultimately leading to majority support.

Consider the way in which the Tea Party was first written off as a fringe phenomenon and now has shaped national dialogue. And how the immigrant rights movement has put on the national table an issue that was literally taboo 10 years ago–and developed a powerful coalition of supporters.

Finally, it’s essential to remember that electoral politics are not an end but a means to achieving an agenda. Confusion about the relationship between progressive movements and the Democratic Party is rampant and disabling. Here we could learn a lesson from the Tea Baggers–they are clear that the Republican Party might at times be a vehicle to achieve their ends, but the ends are what matter. And their independent sensibility has resulted in greater influence on the national debate. Electoral outcomes alone do not produce policy gains: Richard Nixon, a Republican, proposed a guaranteed annual income for the poor; Democrat Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it.

There are signs that the progressive movement’s energy is reemerging. Populist efforts from the left to target the banks are attracting more attention and participants. The Health Care for America Now campaign saved health care reform legislation from death time and time again (by, for example, turning out more people to those infamous town halls than the Tea Partiers did, media mythology notwithstanding). And, of course, patience is wearing thin in the immigrant rights movement, leading to a recommitment to mass action.

Social movements don’t always win the change they seek on the schedule they hope for. When they do succeed, however, it’s because they clarify what’s at stake, force people and politicians to choose sides, develop leaders, make moral arguments with clarity and passion, and generate the kind of mass pressure that is required to break through a sclerotic political system rigged in favor of powerful interests.

The president rode to the White House on the coattails of a set of movements–against Bush, war, and climate change; for youth and immigrants–that developed over the course of a decade in response to the excesses of conservatism. The task at hand for progressives in this decade is to build movements that are courageous, imaginative, and soulful enough to con­tinue the energy. Not only to hold the line against reaction, but to create a more positive, affirmative agenda of our own.

Deepak Bhargava is executive director of the Center for Community Change. Excerpted from The American Prospect (May 2010), a staff favorite for its smart political coverage and the 2010 Utne Independent Press Award winner for political

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