Now that the election results are in, we can all go back to thinking about what U.S. citizens (and non-citizen residents like me) can do about the sad state of affairs in this country. Gara LaMarche’s and Deepak Bhargava’s recent Nation piece The Road Ahead for Progressives: Back to Basics captures the overall picture quite well, in my opinion.
While LaMarche and Bhargava acknowledge Obama’s tactical errors and mistakes in judgment, they don’t wallow in self-pity, as the left tends to in moments like these. “As for the left,” they write,
we need to be less dependent on the president—who has no magic wand—and move past the language of betrayal in which we are too often mired. For all the supposed preparation progressives did for a return to political power, we haven’t figured out how to relate constructively to an actual government, with all its responsibilities and broader constituent obligations. If progressives cannot “own” landmark achievements like healthcare and financial reform, how on earth can we expect anyone else to?
The key strategic task, according to LaMarche and Bhargava (and I completely agree), is movement building:
The Obama campaign, the immigrant rights movement and the Tea Party—arguably the three biggest national movements of recent years—have several things in common: a clear national program and vision, deep investment in local organizing and especially on recruiting new people to the cause, and the use of new media and technology to keep people connected and active. We will need to dramatically strengthen organizing efforts to build public will in the years ahead.
[. . . This will involve] dramatically strengthening movement capacity in communities of color and relationships among communities of color; thinking seriously about how to engage white working-class communities; and developing new initiatives (perhaps centered on the jobs crisis) that [...] keep both universalism and targeting to disadvantaged communities at the forefront.
And one of the planks around which a progressive vision can be made more palatable, even exciting, for these communities — perhaps the single most important immediate need right now — would be a “persuasive long-term vision for how to create good jobs that would address the fundamental moral and political questions that will grip the country for the next few years.”
Whatever happened to “green jobs”? Who’s working on this, and where are (or aren’t) they in Washington? How can the climate change (and justice) movement be threaded, through and through, with a concern for work and economic prosperity? That doesn’t mean growing the GDP; it just means developing – and popularizing – policies that would work on both fronts at once.
Watching the election results being batted around by MSNBC’s liberal pundits last night (alternating with the other channels), I couldn’t help being struck by the smugness of “our” side. (Rachel Maddow just a little less so than the others.) It’s their job, I know – as they’ve defined it for themselves – to take on Fox and to blow just as hard in the opposite direction. But where are the voices that would reach out beyond their own constituency to build a larger movement? Bill Moyers used to try real hard. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert (in his own weird way) are testing out some new creative methods, and, for all the quirkiness of that event in Washington last weekend, ought to be followed up on. Stewart’s at his best when he’s being smart (like in his interview with Obama last week) and when his people do the work to deconstruct the news media (like the “back of the bus” clips a few minutes into the video here) — which they do extremely well. He loses his credibility a little (except with the youth, I guess, which is part of his market) when he succumbs to bathroom jokes and other juvenalia.
But I don’t think there’s a lot to hope for in the big media. I think it’s in the ethnic media, the arts (from Hollywood and MTV on down), and in creative approaches to community building (including those using digital social media) where we can work toward articulating a common vision that would bring together progressives and environmentalists, immigration and anti-poverty activists, people looking for work (and not just organized labor), small business owners, and religious folks — to name just a few of the constituencies that ought to be part of any such movement.
Narrative matters in all of that. For instance, why not reclaim “the spirit” by putting forward a vision of the world as broken and in need of healing? Why not reclaim “the family” and “the community” by repeatedly pointing out how sound economic policy can be good for both, while simultaneously noting the wide diversity of family and community arrangements that make up this country? Why not neuter arguments against taxes with arguments against selfishness and greed? Why not articulate what it means to be a good citizen, locally, nationally, globally?
There are people working on all those things, I know. But I get tired of the despair and blame I hear too often from colleagues on the left. Feeling let down is the result of expecting more than was realistic. I’ll concede that I also thought, or at least hoped, that Obama would be more like FDR. But he isn’t. And there still remains plenty of work to be done.