How the Left Is Revitalizing Itself
If all the solidarity was taking place only between the LGBT and civil rights movements, that would be reason enough to applaud, but it is not limited to that. The Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace came together in a Democracy Initiative last year to press for the successful reform of the Senate filibuster rule. That good beginning has led to coordinated work against voter-suppression laws and to limit the role of money in politics by groups that had little to do with one another until recently.
Not long ago, a significant segment of the environmental movement was anti-immigration on population-control grounds. While the nativist forces in the Sierra Club were defeated, there has until recently been little common ground expressed between the green and immigrant-rights movements. Yet in the current push for immigration reform, a number of environmental leaders and their organizations have spoken out.
Phil Radford, who recently stepped down as executive director of Greenpeace, wrote on the Huffington Post: “Undocumented workers are among the most vulnerable workers in our society, from their exposure to toxic pesticides and chemicals in agricultural work and manufacturing, to their isolation in pollution-choked neighborhoods caring for vulnerable families and children. Every human being deserves the dignity and right to stand up to polluters in the workplace and at home without fear of being deported and taken from their families.”
And Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “immigrants, by definition, are full of hope. They’ve come to a new place determined to make a new life, risking much for opportunity. They’re confident that new kinds of prosperity are possible. The future beckons them, and so changes of the kind we’ll need to deal with climate change are easier to conceive.”
These encouraging connections are not just taking place among organizations and movements; there are other gaps being bridged as well—for instance, the new Gettysburg Project, which brings together Anna Burger, the former SEIU secretary-treasurer, and many movement leaders with scholars like Marshall Ganz, Lani Guinier and Archon Fung.
At the state level, where less fragmentation exists among activist groups than is seen with their national counterparts, there’s even more evidence of cross-issue collaboration. The story in New York City, where the trail blazed by the Working Families Party and the Progressive Caucus has led to the expansion of paid sick leave and an end to stop-and-frisk in the early days of the de Blasio administration, has been well told of late, but it is far from the only one. As George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, points out, in Minnesota alone, this kind of solidarity—in conjunction with a state government in which both legislative chambers and the governor’s office are Democratic—has already achieved notable advances in voting rights, marriage equality, revenue, housing and ex-offender reforms.
In some places, the roots of cross-issue collaboration are deep. In 1992, PCUN, the union for Oregon’s farm, nursery and reforestation workers, and its largest Latino organizations voted to take part in the 120-mile Walk for Love and Justice to oppose Measure 9, a statewide anti-gay ballot initiative. “We knew that they were attacking the LGBT community first, and we [Latinos] were next in line,” recalls PCUN president Ramón Ramírez.
A few years later, when Oregon’s immigrant community faced an anti-immigrant, Proposition 187–style ballot measure, Ramírez approached LGBT leaders, who had defeated two ballot measures by that point. “They were generous in sharing their strategies and resources. They really came through for us,” Ramírez says, “and we defeated that ballot measure, learning along the way what it took to build the infrastructure and the base that would win the day for us.”
In the years since, the two communities have stood together on many statewide battles: PCUN, the voter education group Voz Hispana and the youth organizing project LUS published Spanish-language materials against an anti-gay ballot measure in 2000; and when anti-immigrant activists placed two local measures on the ballot in Columbia County, the statewide LGBT group Basic Rights Oregon devoted full-time staff, volunteers and substantial resources to the successful campaign against them.
Collaborations like these, which give the lie to the oft-repeated critique that progressive groups are too bound up in their own narrow issues—their own “identities,” it is often said, though mostly by white men who think everyone has an identity but them—do not happen by accident. On a national level, the comprehensive view of progressive infrastructure taken by Democracy Alliance founder Rob Stein was one big contributing factor. Stein had closely studied the right and admired not only the sums contributed by conservative donors and the focus with which they operated, but also the way their networks fostered connection and collaboration among donors, organizations, intellectuals and allies in government. An array of nationally supported, state-focused progressive groups—ProgressNow, America Votes, State Voices and others—are proving the value of close collaboration.
The mutual support between African-American and LGBT groups is the harvest of dialogues sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Arcus Foundation going back to 2008, when it was still a struggle to have same-sex marriage embraced as a progressive issue. Another big factor in recent progressive successes is the Rockwood Institute, a progressive leadership development group based in Oakland. Over the last ten years, hundreds of activists from labor, economic-justice, civil-rights, women’s and environmental organizations and philanthropy have gone through Rockwood’s training seminars and built closer relationships, both personal and professional, that have led to the kinds of organic connections and collaborative actions detailed above.
These relatively new alliances are off to a very good start, but they will be tested in the months and years to come—when there’s a new battle royal over abortion rights or a new window of opportunity on climate change, for example, and immigrant-rights or environmental groups are asked to return the solidarity by mobilizing their own members and raising their own voices. And longstanding tensions, such as between some labor unions and environmental groups over the impact of climate action on jobs, will not disappear overnight just because the leaders in both sectors break bread.
The challenges include considerations of time and money and clashes of interests, but they also touch on deep-seated attitudes. When Ilyse Hogue, a longtime activist with MoveOn.org and other organizations, was thinking about becoming executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America last year, she told me she was surprised by the “lukewarm reception” she received when consulting a number of progressive male colleagues about taking the position. “The concern was summed up by one person—who I admire greatly as a champion of progressive values—when he said, ‘But you are so talented! Why would you want to relegate yourself to those issues?’ Variations on this theme were echoed through other conversations, both before and after I made my decision to accept the job.
“I was floored,” Hogue continues. “In a country where access to abortion and contraception is under constant attack, and there’s also minimal to no assistance or job security for working mothers, any failure to recognize that our reproductive and economic destinies are inextricably linked not only misses the boat in authentically appealing to people’s daily experience, but also in potentially bringing together powerful movements [around] a true progressive agenda.”
Many social-justice groups believe they got where they are only by sticking to their mandates and not straying from what they—and particularly their boards, which are often more cautious than CEOs—view as their mission. And there is something to be said for taking a position only in areas where it can be backed up by real expertise: Would a campaign-finance group have much to contribute to a debate over waiting periods for abortion, or vice versa?
In the hyperpolarized environment of Washington, increasingly mirrored at the state level, there remains some common ground to be found in strange-bedfellow alliances around longtime “wedge” issues like crime and civil liberties. Civil-rights groups work with evangelical Christians focused on redemption and conservative governors focused on saving money to promote prisoner re-entry programs and alternatives to incarceration. Military leaders and human-rights advocates speak out against torture, and Grover Norquist joins the ACLU in criticizing NSA surveillance. There is much to be gained from these collaborations, but they will rarely be transformative; nor will they be available for the biggest fights, on the core issues of economic justice, environmental protection, and war and peace. In those fights, for now, progressives will need to keep forging a narrative of interdependency, acting together as often as they can.
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