I gave the remarks below at a recent forum celebrating the 10th anniversary of the invaluable New Labor Forum journal. The organizers asked the panelists, including Bill Fletcher, Jr., Juan Gonzalez, Mae Ngai, and Ed Ott to “examine the question of whether or not we are facing a watershed moment in American political history.”
Is This a Watershed Moment?
10th anniversary celebration of New Labor Forum
New York City, March 14, 2008
I’d like to think we’re at a watershed moment in American political history. We have war, economic collapse and the political implosion of the Republican party–and the end of the conservative ascendancy. But who can predict? There’s certainly enough discontent with our current politics, and enough resistance from those who now profit from the status quo, that I can see both fundamental change and the more familiar alternative: unrelieved growth in inequality and ever more degradation of our democracy.
To acknowledge that we can’t predict the future is not to say that we’re powerless to change it. Indeed, I think it’s perfectly rational to think that we could change this country fundamentally for the better, and relatively quickly. I think that demands the statement of a clear alternative to what we presently have.
Much depends not on what the old order does on its own behalf but on how the gathering forces of opposition respond to the system’s crisis. Everyone in this room understands that real change demands organizing and mobilizing by social movements, new and old– and the building of a clear programmatic alternative. After all, the civilizing advances of this nation have come not from pulling a lever in a voting booth but from movements; From the streets not the suites. Real change today will come from progressives building independent capacity. Real change will come from building locally-based political organizations–as many groups are already doing. Real change will come from identifying, training and running progressives for local elected office. And real change will come from developing a coordinating infrastructure to leverage the power of progressives both inside and outside the Democratic party.
One thing we know: Progressives have driven bolder positions against the war, for universal health care, for investment in new energy, for reducing inequality, for a new trade agenda into the current political debate and Presidential election. Yet, what we also know is that the Democratic party is still defined by free-market and free trade ideology and by the assumption that the US is the indispensable superpower–a 21st century Sparta, not Athens.