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Wrong About the Right | The Nation

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Wrong About the Right

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Clarifying Basic Principles

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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While the focus of progressive movement-building is now on creating large organizations "to scale," yet another of the movement's greatest challenges is being neglected: We are undecided on the larger principles that underlie our work for social justice. Many people don't like to do this "big picture" thinking. They prefer results-oriented activism and practical solutions. And they are correct that larger principles must be tied to people's everyday concerns and identifiable, attainable goals.

But to be successful, mass organizing must be informed by visionary principles as well as nuts-and-bolts techniques. Most bold new policy proposals grow out of the everyday work that activists in submovements do on various issues. These proposals--for example, national healthcare, full rights and services for immigrants, or replacing the racist criminal justice system--are not the polished, poll-tested, slightly left-of-center ones increasingly attractive to Democratic Party centrists. Indeed, they may seem fringe and far out of the mainstream. But they have their roots in real material conditions.

What we lack are the overarching principles to tie these proposals together. In the 1960s and '70s progressives generally agreed that government had a responsibility to defend the weak or temporarily weak, protect individual rights, provide a reasonable standard of living and regulate private enterprise to protect the public from rampant greed and criminal behavior. Battered by the right's relentless assaults on these core principles, progressive movement activists today do not have a coherent vision. Instead, we are driven by a vague sense of what a better society would look like, a recognition of how times have changed and persistent despair as we fight one defensive battle after another.

It is therefore essential that we address several fundamental questions right now: What is the role and responsibility of government? How can the racial imbalance of our movement's leadership be corrected? What role should religion play in public life? How should progressives respond to globalization? And what social issues should we identify as "bottom line"? As principles that respond to these questions emerge, we must not allow political expediency to trump creativity. The voices of people of color, and young people and women of all races must be explicitly sought out. Funding may facilitate this discussion, but it will not in itself produce a dynamic vision. Think tanks alone will not develop these principles, and framing and messaging will not substitute for them. The process of drawing out larger principles must be an organic one: a step-by-step process of slowly creating broad consensus. Here, we can learn from the right's success with active listening.

While the challenges we face are considerable, they are not insurmountable. But we must get moving so that when the tide of public opinion turns in our direction, we are not caught flatfooted, with a movement badly in need of reform and lacking the very basics needed to seize the moment and go forward. The right was ready for the backlash of the late 1970s. We must be ready for the coming backlash against the outrages of the past twenty-five years.

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