Millions of Americans are eager, even desperate, for a political movement that truly challenges the power of Wall Street and the Pentagon. But accommodation has been habit-forming for many left-leaning organizations, which are increasingly taking their cues from the party establishment: deferring to top Democrats in Washington, staying away from robust progressive populism, and making excuses for the Democratic embrace of corporate power and perpetual war.
It’s true that many left-of-center groups are becoming more sophisticated in their use of digital platforms for messaging, fundraising and other work. But it’s also true that President Obama’s transactional approach has had demoralizing effects on his base. Even the best resources—mobilized by unions, environmental groups, feminist organizations and the like—can do only so much when many voters and former volunteers are inclined to stay home. A month before the 2010 election, Obama strategist David Axelrod noted that “almost the entire Republican margin is based on the enthusiasm gap.” A similar gap made retaking the House a long shot this year.
For people fed up with bait-and-switch pitches from Democrats who talk progressive to get elected but then govern otherwise, the Occupy movement has been a compelling and energizing counterforce. Its often-implicit message: protesting is hip and astute, while electioneering is uncool and clueless. Yet protesters’ demands, routinely focused on government action and inaction, underscore how much state power really matters.
To escape this self-defeating trap, progressives must build a grassroots power base that can do more than illuminate the nonstop horror shows of the status quo. To posit a choice between developing strong social movements and strong electoral capacity is akin to choosing between arms and legs. If we want to move the country in a progressive direction, the politics of denunciation must work in sync with the politics of organizing—which must include solid electoral work.
Movements that take to the streets can proceed in creative tension with election campaigns, each one augmenting the other. But even if protests flourish, progressive groups expand and left media outlets thrive, the power to impose government accountability is apt to remain elusive. That power is contingent on organizing, reaching the public and building muscle to exercise leverage over what government officials do—and who they are. Even electing better candidates won’t accomplish much unless the base is organized and functional enough to keep them accountable.
Politicians like to envision social movements as tributaries flowing into their election campaigns. But a healthy ecology of progressive politics would mean the flow goes mostly in the other direction. Election campaigns should be subsets of social movements, not the other way around. Vital initiatives to break the cycles of capitulation and lack of accountability will come from the grassroots.