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Wrong About the Right | The Nation

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Wrong About the Right

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Learning From Our Own History

About the Author

Deepak Bhargava
Deepak Bhargava is Director of the Campaign for Community Change.
Jean Hardisty
Jean Hardisty is the founder and president emerita of Political Research Associates, a Boston-based research center.

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Historically, left and liberal agendas--the New Deal, civil rights laws, the Great Society, women's advancement--have made progress when mass movements have forced change. To be sure, the ideas of John Maynard Keynes were crucial in legitimizing and pointing the way to a new form of capitalism and FDR was the right leader for the times, but the New Deal wasn't won by economic experts. It was won by ordinary people who organized to create a sense of crisis and a mandate for change.

While there is no formula for a social movement, we know that successful ones share some things in common. First, people become mobilized around issues they hold dear; at some level they share a powerful vision about what is wrong with society and how it must be improved; and they engage in lots of diverse activities not under any one leader's direct control. The resulting political motion and its effect lead to a change in attitudes, practices and public policy.

Our current infatuation with the strategies and structures of the right has led some progressives to call for a more streamlined, hierarchical movement, but this is not how we've won in the past. Progressive movements have been successful when they have not had a top-down organizational structure. Also, this analysis fails to appreciate the comprehensiveness of the right's movement-building style. And it does not reflect progressive democratic principles. Consider, for example, the civil rights movement. Despite the popular perception of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s singular importance, the movement had many sectors under many leaders, with different ideologies and different priorities--people like Septima Clark, Ella Baker and Bob Moses, all of whom believed in the centrality of developing ordinary people as agents of change rather than in charismatic leadership or coalitions of elites. The same could be said of the women's movement and the environmental movement. Progressive movements certainly need a generally agreed-upon critique of society and vision for change, as well as mechanisms for coordination. But letting a thousand flowers bloom can prove a strength, so long as power does not collect around the most "achievable" social change as opposed to the most just social change.

Race and Social Change

A movement must have a dynamic leading edge before its positions become majority positions. Many of the progressive gains in American history were not majority agendas--ending slavery, civil rights, disability rights, AIDS advocacy and farmworker boycotts succeeded as struggles led by minorities. In some cases they were struggles led by people who weren't even enfranchised. How is that possible?

Often, deeply felt issues raised by groups whose numbers are in the minority have the power to convert, while issues that theoretically should be in everyone's interest never take hold. A necessary (though not sufficient) condition for an issue to attain broad majoritarian support is vibrant, well-organized submovements. Many of our submovements, such as the women's, environmental, LGBT and civil rights submovements, are demoralized, underfunded and increasingly influenced by their own more conservative wings. Further, the progressive movement's tendency to downplay racial issues and concerns consistently blocks our process of building from submovements' success to an effective broad progressive movement. For instance, even though African-Americans have been the core of progressive politics, it is often African-Americans who have been taken for granted and neglected by the progressive movement, which is too often white dominated and focused on issues of concern to white activists. As long as the movement fails to become more inclusive and democratic, it will continue to limp along without access to the wisdom and insight of the most vital part of its base. Race today is not simply a matter of black and white: Many other groups and movements of immigrants--Latinos, Asian/Pacific Island-Americans, Arab-Americans and Native Americans--must also have a full seat at the table. Conservatives are avidly courting these groups. When people of color look for allies to advance their issues, there is no reason to assume they will support the larger progressive movement when their issues receive only lip service and they are not widely represented in the movement's leadership and decision-making structures.

This is not only about "credibility" or "diversity." It is actually about effectiveness. The whiteness of our leadership has played out, for example, in a tendency to write off large parts of the country--including the South, the Southwest and the High Plains--which has proved politically disastrous. Further, a predominantly white leadership tends to neglect issues like immigrant rights and criminal justice because they are not pressing concerns of the "majority" of voters. The perception that an issue can't galvanize a wide majority or appeal to at least 51 percent of the electorate can sink the issue in the current climate of poll-driven strategizing. Certainly the progressive movement needs to pursue programs that knit together diverse constituencies, but even very broad issues such as healthcare or the environment will look different when they reflect the concerns of all communities.

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