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.
But after weathering decades of attacks and public vilification from the right, private-sector unions see their memberships at an all-time low of 6.9 percent. These unions may be facing extinction in the next decade. Meanwhile, too many national institutions on the left have increasingly focused solely on advancing policy positions and winning elections. The result is a huge gap between individual people’s real experiences and the institutions we have designed to protect our rights. Still, more than once I’ve heard progressive elites ask why “the people” don’t get that they should be fighting with us.
This elite sentiment goes to the heart of the tremendous opportunities we have lost in the past two years. With ACORN out of the picture, Planned Parenthood on defense and unions fighting for their lives, the decreasing ability of national progressive institutions to help meet people’s needs in the economic crisis has hurt us badly. Policy prescriptions don’t feed the family dinner tonight, and detailed explanations of who is to blame for the crash won’t put a roof over people’s heads tomorrow no matter how correct the analysis. Of course, exceptions exist—Van Jones’s Green for All is one attempt to bridge the gap—but these innovations are few and often given short shrift by entrenched interests at the national table.
The historic roots of this gap are clear. My generation was raised in the excess of the ’80s, which spawned a loathsome disregard for the plight of poor people. The prevailing notion was that addressing poverty and the slipping state of the working class was the purview of churches and private charities, not government. Government, a whole generation of freshly minted conservatives asserted, was for cutting services and taxes.
Liberals understandably fought back by defiantly focusing on our core tenet that government can and should advocate for all its citizens, including those with the least. We concentrated national resources into legislative and electoral fights, believing that by battling the collusion between corporate special interests and party bosses we could move toward greater economic fairness. Often, a focus on service was denigrated by progressives in the political sphere as playing into the opposition’s hands by implying that private citizens could eradicate the need for government intervention through charitable acts alone.
As a young middle-class adult, I was commended for my work at the local food bank or homeless shelter. However, I was taught this was charity, separate from my political organizing. Each had a place in my life, and each had separate stories, peer groups and institutions associated with it.
Even the word “service” is a damaging vestige that artificially separates providers from those seeking assistance. As progressives, we need to project a conviction that all American destinies are linked and thus need to be addressed systemically as well as in the moment. Otherwise, frustration born of lack of opportunity will continue to be parlayed by the radical right into support for budget cuts and other policies that will add to people’s misery.
The progressive vision of a government of, by and for the people is as relevant as ever, but in light of the past few years, we need to re-examine how we get there. Powerful movements reach deep into culture and society. They compel people to join for work, for play and for mutual aid. Emotional bonds sustain them in times of struggle, and a common vision leads to strategic engagement with the forces shaping their world. Too many progressives still ask why regular folks don’t support their fights in Washington (see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?).
A better question might be, How do we better support those regular folks in their struggles at home?