The Resurgence of Movement Politics
Editor's Note: This essay was adapted from a speech to the United Steelworkers Union on August 8 in Dawson, Pennsylvania.
Progressives have spent the last four years in a state of shock, unable to believe what's going on in this country, and holding out hope that things will get better by themselves. We watch as poverty rises and job growth declines; corporate profits skyrocket while employee healthcare and retirement benefits get eliminated; CEO pay rises as workers' wages fall. Worse, the core economic issues that should be at the center of America's political debate have been depoliticized, while the issues of personal and religious conviction that should be removed from politics have been most politicized, leaving us with a political debate almost entirely divorced from Americans' day-to-day challenges.
This reality is shocking. But it shouldn't be surprising, because it is thirty years in the making. Conservatives long ago realized what our side is only starting to comprehend: that successful politics starts with successful ideological movements, and that those movements are a prerequisite to any serious partisan gain.
In the context of President Bush nominating John Roberts, a wealthy corporate lawyer, to the Supreme Court, it is important to note that much of this movement began in 1971 with a memo from another wealthy-corporate-lawyer-turned-Supreme-Court-Justice, Lewis Powell. He argued that conservatives needed to ally with corporate interests to manufacture an ideological movement that would justify all of the economic results we progressives are stunned to see today. Powell, corporate interests and major conservative funders ultimately took to heart three very important points:
First, they understood that movements based on ideology and ideas are far more powerful than loyalties to any political party. Though many in the Washington, DC, bubble believe that Americans think of their world in purely partisan terms, it just isn't true. People think of things in terms of their values and their worldview. Even the most politically disengaged citizen has some sort of personal ideology, and that ideology will always be far more powerful than any loyalty to a party label.
Second, conservatives understood that if the goal is seeing a more conservative country, then it doesn't matter whether conservatism comes from Republicans or bought-off Democrats. In their subsequent efforts, that meant conservatives were willing not only to go after liberal Democrats, but also moderate Republicans. It is why, even today, you see right-wing icons like Grover Norquist loudly criticizing Republican turncoats--because conservatives realize that movements are built with carrots and sticks, and that those sticks put other potential defectors on notice that there are consequences to ideological disloyalty.
But these conservatives were not ignorant of partisan concerns, which gets to the final point: They understood that if they built a movement around a conservative ideology, the political benefits would naturally flow almost exclusively to the innately more conservative Republican Party. Get people to believe in a movement that supports destroying the government, destroying the tax base and permitting corporations to do whatever they want regardless of social cost, and you get people to be far more loyal and willing to devote time to the GOP than you would if you spent resources on purely partisan activities.
There are many who are understandably nervous about emulating anything that comes from the right. But progressives must get over our disgust at how the right has applied its odious ideology to these tactics, and use some of these tactics ourselves.
The Democratic Party is caught in a downward spiral and is using its supposed "big tent" as an excuse for its weaknesses. Democratic politicians have always said that "ideological diversity is the Democrats strength," but that refrain is now being shamelessly used as a way to obscure the fact that the Democratic Party is ideologically rudderless. The party often permits and even congratulates those within its ranks who sell out America's middle class, whether it be those who voted for the bankruptcy bill or those who consistently vote for corporate-written trade deals like CAFTA or NAFTA. The party elites--many of whom follow the corporate apologism of business-funded groups within its ranks--still believe they can ascend to power on the public's loyalty to a Democratic Party label, even as that party label is almost completely meaningless to much of the public.
The only solution, then, is for progressives to stop solely focusing on partisan politics, and start focusing on movement politics. On every single issue, we must have a clear position that articulates not just a policy stance, but an overarching progressive ideology. Because without a movement, we have no ability to hold politicians' feet to the fire, no ability to develop credibility with voters and no ability to win elections.