Monday, December 1, 2008


James Vega, Democratic Strategist - By late 1980's most progressive movements had become increasingly Washington-focused and political campaign- oriented, in contrast to previous eras of independent progressive grass-roots organizing and mobilization. For many younger progressives, working for political candidates and campaigns was actually their sole form of progressive activity. As such, it made sense for them to feel that a victorious campaign naturally ought to deliver a very clear and explicit ideological "payoff" to progressives after the election, one properly proportionate to the effort they invested during the campaign and the degree of their success.

But during past eras of major progressive social movements - the trade union movement of the 1930's and the civil rights movement of the 1960's -- there was a very different perspective.. . . A Democratic President was basically assumed to be a ruthlessly pragmatic centrist who would make all his moves and choices based on a very cold political calculus of what was necessary for his own success and survival. He might have private sympathy for some progressive point of view but there was generally no expectation among social movement progressives that he would "go out on a limb" for progressives out of a personal moral commitment to some social ideal. As a result, the most fundamental assumption of progressive political strategy was always the need to build a completely independent grass roots social movement, one that was powerful enough to make it politically expedient or simply unavoidable for the political system to accede to the movement's demands.

In a widely read 1966 essay, "Non-violent Direct Action", historian and civil-rights activist Howard Zinn clearly expressed this view:

"What the civil rights movement has revealed is that it is necessary for people concerned with liberty, even if they live in an approximately democratic state, to create a political power which resides outside the regular political establishment. While outside, removed from the enticements of office and close to those sources of human distress which created it, this power can use a thousand different devices to persuade and pressure the official structure into recognizing its needs.". . .

The "battle for the President's soul" perspective, in contrast, inevitably has several negative consequences:

1. It inherently makes the President the chief protagonist of social change and reduces the progressive movement's role to that of a supplicant. It makes the progressive movement's success appear to be fundamentally dependent on what the President does or says rather than envisioning the movement as an active and independent force for change.

2. The "battle for the president's soul" perspective leads to a personalization of the disagreement between the President and progressives to an almost soap-opera level of melodrama and triviality. In this perspective, the President is described as "betraying" progressives, or "insulting" them, or "turning his back" on them - all of which are purely and entirely journalistic inventions and not accurate descriptions of the President's actual personal emotions. Conservatives gleefully leap in to this miasma of pseudo-journalistic literary fiction to exploit and hopefully exacerbate a split within the Democratic Party. At the same time, they also trumpet any decisions that displease progressives to their supporters as being "victories" won by conservatism when they are, in fact, actually nothing of the kind. . .

There is a compelling piece of dialog that occurs in the HBO series Band of Brothers which deals with the 101st airborne division in WW II. When the division is ordered into Bastogne, the commanding general says to their leader: "you realize that once you go in there, you're going to be completely surrounded."

The officer replies simply: "we're paratroopers, sir, we're always surrounded". . .

Progressives can master the sense of frustration and loss of control that they are currently feeling by thinking about their situation in much the same way. They can say:

We're progressives - we're always betrayed by opportunists, we're always abandoned by the faint- hearted and we always -- always, always -- fight outnumbered. and yet, although it often takes decades, in the long run, we also always eventually win.

There are many years and even many decades when this faith seems bitterly distant and painfully hard to sustain. This year, however, as in few others, progressives can see the truth of it right before their eyes.


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