For the past two weeks, all eyes have been glued on Madison, Wisconsin. The collective and joyful resistance to Governor Scott Walker’s power-grabbing budget bill has inspired the demoralized progressive base and put the corporate-backed assault on working people front and center in the national conversation.
But although it’s obvious that the right- wingers are out to break the back of the progressive movement, it’s easy to miss the strategy that guides their selection of specific targets. Their attacks are all carefully aimed at the same critical juncture: institutions that work for people in their daily lives and in the political arena, those that connect people’s personal struggles around the country to the political struggle in Washington. Once we recognize the crucial role these progressive service organizations play in building progressive politics, the right’s broader strategy in Wisconsin and elsewhere becomes clear. Scott Walker is a soldier in the same army as James O’ Keefe and Lila Rose, the right-wing video pranksters who smeared ACORN and tried to smear Planned Parenthood.
Indeed, the recent attack on Planned Parenthood provoked a sickening sense of déjà vu. Seemingly out of nowhere, undercover activists secretly film an employee of a major progressive institution making embarrassing statements. The resulting video makes news and inflames the debate around federal funding of the organization’s services. It was the ACORN attack all over again.
ACORN was unique as an organization that served our nation’s poor people. Wrangling with life’s common challenges like mortgages and housing forms, ACORN employees built trust by offering help person to person, neighborhood by neighborhood. They then leveraged that trust to lobby for federal legislation to address the root causes of the crises facing these people—predatory lending, lack of community investment and stagnant wages.
Planned Parenthood operates more than 800 health clinics nationwide. These clinics are often the only option for women who need vital services, including contraception, HIV testing and Pap smears to detect and prevent cancer and other life-threatening illness. Every year 3 million Americans go to Planned Parenthood, and one in five women will visit a Planned Parenthood clinic in her lifetime. The personal relationships developed at clinics inform Planned Parenthood’s ongoing advocacy for federal support for reproductive health and freedom. As a trusted name representing women’s interests in Washington, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund has lobbied successfully for greater access to healthcare, better family planning education and the preservation of a woman’s right to choose.
The nexus of service and advocacy is a powerful place to stand: simultaneously addressing direct needs and advocating for systemic redress of those needs is a winning equation for progressives. Yet we have precious few progressive organizations left in that spot at the national level, and the ones we do have are under attack precisely because our opponents understand their power.
The biggest setback in this area is the long-term decline in union power. For more than 100 years, unions have cared for their members, cultivated community and engaged in political advocacy to raise living standards for working people.