Sunday, December 5, 2010

Stop Complaining and Start Organizing!

The level of vitriol being directed against President Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party has reached a fever pitch recently. An apparent willingness to cave on tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, the possible endorsement of recommendations to mess with social security and/or Medicare, and a general feeling that the White House has not taken the Left seriously have resulted in an enraged group of progressives, especially among the national blogging community. It has even led to vicious infighting between those who think that Obama is a "lost cause" and those who think that he has produced important achievements that lead to a better world. And while I certainly have been disappointed with the apparent failure of Democrats on a number of issues, I think it's extremely important to put this disappointment in perspective.

My basic thesis is this: simply complaining about the President or the Democratic Party without organizing people to fight for progressive values is worse than meaningless: it is destructive to a progressive vision of the world. Of course there is the usual reason for thinking this: putting Republicans in power over Democrats would result in a far, far worse reality that not only would result in vastly more suffering and economic disparity but would further stack the deck against progressives. Remember that Republicans in power don't just pass a couple laws to benefit their rich friends: they actively utilize every level of government to make it more difficult for the working class to organize against the powerful.

But I think even being aware of these considerations, many people feel that it's important to send a message to Democrats that we are tired of them caving in, of adopting the Right-wing narrative on issues, and of sometimes not even bothering to address the concerns of progressives. The belief, I take it, is that complaining about the Democratic Party, or declaring that you're not going to vote for them, or doing whatever else it is that expresses your anger, will "punish" them and show them just how important it is for them to take progressives seriously. Unfortunately, however, I don't think this approach has any chance of working.

Why not? Because, as we have seen over and over, Democrats rarely take the right message away from losses in popularity or losses in elections. However much noise progressives make about Democrats losing because they ran away from the base, there will be twice as much noise from the Right and the Church of Conventional Wisdom (i.e. the traditional media) that argues that Democrats lost because they weren't conservative enough. Progressives, as is often the case, think that the Democratic Party (or the media, or whomever) should listen to us because we're right. Unfortunately, however, the reality is that a great many politicians and establishment figures do not really care if you're correct: they primarily care if you are powerful (*I should note that I do believe that people value the truth and strive for it in the right circumstances: however, this urge is often overwhelmed by other aspects of our psychology).

With this in mind, I believe that the only real way to "send a message" is for progressives to actually organize and to gain power. This means, at a minimum, connecting people with shared values and improving lines of communication among these people. It is extremely important, in my opinion, to organize independently of the Democratic Party with a group that has specific progressive aims. Does "working independently" mean opposing Democrats? Not really. It means approaching issues with a calculus that determines what best furthers that group's values. It means having the ability to work with Democrats when that supports one's aims: and having the ability to work for other things if Democrats are not supporting those aims. In my opinion, in today's world, this will 99% of the time mean that a progressive organization will end up supporting a Democrat in an election where only a Democrat or Republican can win, since Republicans do serious harm to our country. Working for Democrats during elections is often important; however, it also carries with it the difficulty of "sending the wrong message." But working for a Democrat on behalf of a progressive organization, Pro-Vote for example, sends a clear message. That politician will know exactly why the organization is being supportive.

In many ways, I think the often vicious and destructive debate about whether Obama is doing his best in a environment stacked against him or selling out is a distraction. No matter where Obama falls in the spectrum between those two extremes, what we should be doing is the same: we should be organizing and building power for the causes we believe in. There are ample opportunities to do so in St. Louis. Missouri Jobs with Justice (along with other groups) used the ballot process to take the minimum wage increase directly to voters and won. Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) are directly taking on the big banks that are still screwing people over even after being bailed out by our government. If you're interested in elections for political candidates, then you could work for Pro-Vote. Or, for something more low-key, there's a lunch for progressives the first Wednesday of every month. And, of course, you could always start your own endeavor. Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, have huge amounts of time or only a little, there are an indefinite number of ways to build progressive power that are probably a better use of time than arguing about whether the Democratic Party is "good" or "bad."

Debates about whether Democrats are corrupt or redeemable are interesting. However, they are often extremely destructive among people who largely share the same values (but disagree about the facts, or about the best way to achieve certain ends). And, ultimately, I think that arguing about these issues is ultimately a much less effective use of time than trying to get out and actually organize people with progressive values. Once the Left actually gains some power (the ability to move people or money), the other problems will be easier to address. The power to help Democrats win or lose the next election is not real power. Real power is the ability to achieve positive policy goals. And this is what we should always be keeping in our mind as internal debates on the Left continue to pull people apart who should be working together.


  1. Thanks Adam for this very, very important post. We need to accept responsibility for the CHANGE we still want.

  2. This actually, sounds like what the Tea-baggers where doing with the Republicans.

    We develop a Progressive group, and this could split the Democratic party.

    (Republican vs Tea-baggers)

    (Democrats vs Progressives)

    I think that the outcome eventually, will be:

    Tea-baggers vs Progressives

  3. Well, I'm not really talking about intentionally trying to split the Democratic Party. Splitting, when it comes to voting, means losing, and I don't think we can afford to lose to Republicans.

  4. Besides Pelosi, Dems don't have any fighters. We just have people who run away from the "liberal" label. Obama has let me down so many times this year, I really wish we went with Clinton. I almost wonder if we would have been better off electing Romney (repub from a very liberal state). Sure he was a rich Republican, but at least we know what we would be getting. Wouldn't that be better than a guy we want to believe in, but seems to always let you down?


  5. No, that really wouldn't be better, in any way. We wouldn't have had any healthcare reform. We wouldn't have had any financial reform. They'd probably have cut social security by now. Obama has flaws, but he's orders of magnitude better than any Republican.