Since 1989, we have occasionally published a guide to getting through the crummy era that we are still in. In 2003, we intially noted that the First American Republic was over. Last year for the first time, however, it seemed that our view was no longer radical nor unique; quietly it had become part of mainstream consciousness. To aid our readers get through these tough times, we offer another updated edition of our guide.
Face the facts -The First American Republic is over. The Constitution is being trashed by both major parties. We are incapable of responding to the environmental crisis. Liberals can't tell the difference between being elite and being extinct. We're in the most expensive wars of no purpose in our history. Both major parties have moved steadily to the right over the past thirty years. Both have never been so corrupt. Ethnic prejudice is at an overt level unseen since the days of the civil rights struggles. The economy is still in the pits. Thanks to Citizens United, money has replaced votes as dominant political campaign objective. Our creative culture has been reduced to the likes of Lady Gaga, Desperate Houswives, the Kardashians and Jersey Shore. And Barack Obama has turned out to be the Bernie Madoff of the Democratic Party - successfully conning America's liberals out of their hope and spare change.
Work around it - If a hurricane comes to your neighborhood, you don't just sit around the kitchen table complaining about it; you do things to help your survival. The same is true of the great storm of American disintegration. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time. It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
Find some useful precedents. Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome, for example, has been remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history. The Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade Organization. Umbria has managed not only to survive but keep its culture, a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history's tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.
We don't have to go that far back, though. Consider the novel, 1984. Orwell saw it coming, only his timing was off a bit. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn't live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest, numbering some 100 million, were the proles.
It is amongst the latter that Winston Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras (although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most part, not worth the Party's trouble. .
Orwell's division of labor and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.
As we move towards - and even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Orwell or Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World,', it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were mainly the curse of the elites and rather than those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.
This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today - an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with minimal weapons.
Many years ago some people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and opponents learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces over the town wall during their siege of Siena.
The people who built castles and walled
cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security
seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended
monuments to the vanity of human presumption.
Strange as it may seem, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America's soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of the castle dwellers who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.
Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell's underclass this way:
Make the local about far more than lettuce: Because of this, the role of the local in American life has assumed an enormous yet still largely unrecognized role. It is no longer just about sensible communities, friends or wise buying habits. It is our major bastion against the bastards. Sadly, liberal America become increasingly federocentric, assuming that those speaking of states or local rights are just right wing nuts. This ignores the history of every important progressive movement in America: from the abolitionists, to the populists, labor unions, environmentalists, and the advocates of civil rights. In each case, success was based not on playing the elite's game but through mass decentralized organizing and pressure. Few things scare national politicians more than people getting organized.
Use the word 'progressive" and not 'liberal' - There are still a lot of nice liberals around with whom to make common cause, but the word itself carries too much baggage. Progressives are activists; liberals are a demographic. Progressives emphasize economic change; liberals in recent years have largely ignored it. Progressives convert their opponents; liberals rant about them. Progressives are grassroots; liberals are fedocentric.
Become an existentialist. Existentialism has been described as the philosophy that no one can take your shower for you. Base your words and actions on your conscience, not on polls. We may not be able to change history, but we can always choose how we react to history.
Read about movements that worked, particularly the populists, the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements, the gay and women's rights efforts. And don't forget the Beats. They were the warm-up band for one of the biggest eras of change in our history.
In recent years activists have become quite judgmental about those who don't faithfully follow their own cause. The great organizing efforts were far more electic. For example, from the beginning the Socialist Party was an ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of "reform vs. revolution," the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making "immediate demands" of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of 'building the new society within the shell of the old.'"
By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. And Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history.
Look up and down, not left and right. Consider the purported major achievements of the Obama administration. Each of them - the stimulus, healthcare bill, education changes and foreign policy - has at its core helping the top class of America grab still more of our economic and cultural assets. The healthcare bill was specifically warped to favor private insurance companies. The stimulus gave vastly more attention to Wall Street than to homeowners threatened with foreclosure or the unemployed. Plans to improve train service emphasize high speed rail - i.e. business and not coach class service. And so forth.
We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of the civil rights movement. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Have noble goals, but look out for yourself: As maritime wisdom puts it: one hand for the ship and one for yourself. You're no good to the cause if you're injured, depressed or fall overboard.
It's the people's economy that matters. Losing jobs while the GDP goes up is not an improving economy. Public policy should first and foremost be aimed at making economic conditions better for ordinary Americans.
Be nice to small business. Few in politics, at either the national or local level, pay much attention to small business. That goes for Republicans, Democrats and Greens. The problem is that small businesses put too little into campaign coffers. But small business is the big job creator, it's the hardest part of the economy to outsource, and its about the only part of the business world that can honestly talk about being in a free market. Further, small business people are important community leaders and useful viral marketers of opinion. Be nice to them and it will pay off.
Remember that diversity includes those you don't like. Both the absolute rights of a libertarian and those rights derived from a liberal government falter on the issue of what to do when presumed rights are in conflict. A good way to deal with this is think of liberty as reciprocal, which is to say that I can't have my liberty unless you have yours. To retain both our liberties, we must engage in constant negotiation rather than a battle to the death over our philosophies. Let's talk more about a democracy in which everyone wins instead of one in which only approximately half do. Instant runoff voting and proportional representation are good approaches for starters.
There has been a stunning increase in class-based arrogance and disparagement by liberals towards large blocs of voters dismissed as red staters, fly-overs, evangelicals, etc. For a species that prides itself on avoiding stereotypes this is a bit hypocritical. Worse, it is terrible politics. Remember, we've always had Christian fundamentalists in this country, but there was a time that we called them New Deal Democrats.
Martin Luther King reminded his aides that among their goals was that the people they were opposing would one day be their friends. One good way to do this: go after to the big guys - the rightwing pols, hypocritical preachers and so forth -but leave the little guys alone.
Build cross-cultural coalitions quietly on issues, not noisily on guilt. One of the best ways to build a cross-cultural coalition is to work on campaigns and projects together and in so doing build cooperation and trust from successful experience rather than on good intentions and nice words. There are far too many noble thoughts about racism even as opportunities for multi-ethnic cooperation pass unnoticed. There particularly is a tendency for white progressives to become involved in symbolic and celebrated multi-cultural issues, while ignoring the potential and necessity of more consistent, more local, and less flashy support of the interests and causes of those still seeking a fair share of America. And one of the most powerful progressive coalitions would be a long overdue black-latino combination.
Create a counterculture. It worked in the 1960s and it work again. You don't have to be a prisoner of the dominant culture. You can help create an alternative, just as the young did in the 1960s, without money or power. And without a counterculture there will be no significant change. The Occupiers are a great start. Take it from there.
Be nice to white men. One of the besetting sins of many in the progressive and liberal movements is that they have made white men the enemy. In fact, no ethnic group in history gave up so much power so quickly and so peacefully. Every social movement of the past 40 years has depended on either the acquiescence or active participation of large numbers of white men. To bash them is both bad politics and bad philosophy, throwing away constituency and logic at the same time. One of the basic reasons for the Democrats' current problems is that they have implicitly treated minorities and women, on the one hand, and white males, on the other, as mutually exclusive groups. This perception has helped to drive white males to the Republicans. While it is obvious that the white male elite has been responsible for most of the horrendous political and ecological policies that have left us in our current situation, it should be equally obvious that most white men have also been among its victims -- in everything from war to black lung disease to economic exploitation.
Be frugal. Both liberals and conservatives spend too much money on the wrong things as soon as they are in office, but liberals get 99% of the rap for it. Here is another case of the left stipulating to a conservative stereotype. Real frugality, at the moment, is an untouched political cause. Progressives need to shuck the assumption that spending money in the name of something is the same as spending money for something. Billions are spent in Washington in the name of good causes; far less actually serves those causes. A number of states have dealt with this problem as it exists in charities by placing a limit on the bureaucratic overhead a non-profit can have and still claim tax-exemption. Progressives should seek a similar standard for government. Few things would change more the popular impression of progressives than if they began to concern themselves with the efficient use of the taxpayers' dollars.
Unfortunatley, liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution -- having government carried out at the lowest practical level -- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton's and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore's. And conservative columnist William Safire admits that "in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for 'power sharing,' a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of 'bureacracy' were often leveled at centralized authority."
This doesn't mean cutting programs, but making them work better. An enviromentalist who ran a weatherization program told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.
Similarly, a study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family -- well above the poverty level.
All national legislation with state and local impact should meet the standards of what is called the principle of subsidiarity: government power should exercised at the lowest practical level. There lots of ways to do this in federal legislation. Here are a few:
- Revenue sharing
Think Green. A progressive movement that is going to make a difference is going to include a Green Party movement. You can't do it just with a bunch of Republican Lites who happen to support abortion. This doesn't mean that everyone votes for the Green Party, but it means, for example, a powerful green wing within the Democratic Party and an end to the anti-Green Party nastiness by Democratic liberals. Better yet would be to send a message by registering union members and minorities as Greens. They could still vote and give donations the way they wanted to but would send a loud messag to the Democrats.
Rediscover populism. The real divide in this country is not between Democrats and Republicans, blue states and red, conservatives and liberals, faith-based and sectarian, or socialists and capitalists, but between little folk and big shots, between ordinary citizens and their leaders. Both Democrats and Republicans don't want you thinking about this because they both get their money from the latter even while pretending to represent the former.
Don't be too pure. It's okay to be a saint but don't expect many others to follow you into self-deprivation, moral perfection, supererogation or martyrdom. Be happy if someone votes the right way, writes the letter you want or shows up for the meeting. And if you find among them some anti-abortionists who are also against our policy in Afghanistan, don't knock them; put them on a committee. Progressives need a constituency, not disciples. Besides, most people aren't as interested in this stuff as you are. They're more like Oscar Wilde who said he could never become a socialist because he liked to keep his evenings free.
Speak United States. The people we are trying to convince speak United States; it helps to talk the same language. Most Americans don't talk about stimuli, transparency or infrastructure. But you'd never know it listening to typical Democratic politicians. Avoid the language of the corporate executive, pompous academic, hustling preacher, or boring lawyer.
Don't let the right rewrite history. Since only 12% of the country has ever known, as adults, a progressive president , and since the media has generally bought the GOP line on progressive politics, it is important to remember what life would be like if it hadn't been for progressives. For example we would not have
- Regulation of banks and stock brokerage
Get a plan. Many Americans think they know what the Republicans and Democrats stand for. The trouble is that they learned it from the Republicans. This is because Democrats and progressives have been miserably incapable of stating clearly what they are about. This is not - as some have suggested - a matter of better rhetoric or proper branding; it is a matter of having something you believe in and explaining it well to others. The Vichy Democrats in control of the party since Clinton aren't interested in this because it destroys their flexibility to appear to be one thing to their contributors and another thing to their constituents. In the end, to many it appears to many that the GOP stands for all the good things - patriotism, values, family, the economy, security et al - while the Democrats stand for nothing..
Come up with a progressive platform, preferably one that can be written on a single side of a sheet of paper. Here are some samples:
- Economic programs aimed at doing the most for the most and an end to Wall Street bailouts, including instead major direct help for endangered homowners and a single digit limit on credit card rates.
- An end to colonial occupation and wars in foreign lands.
- The restoration of democracy and constitutional government in the U.S.
- Single payer health care
- A safe and clean natural environment
- Electoral reform including instant runoff voting, an end to corporate personhood and public campaign financing.
- Government carried out at the lowest practical level
If you don't like that list, then write your own.
Remember what you have in common with others. Since the sixties there has been a tremendous splintering of progressives into groups specializing in a single issue or around a cluster of single issues. This has produced a high level of expertise on these issues, raised the national consciousness on many of them, and provided a cadre capable of writing and criticizing legislation. The less happy side-effect has been that progressives have forgotten how to work in coalitions with one another and seem incapable of providing a holistic vision of that for which they are striving. They have become specialists and technocrats of change rather than leaders and prophets. And far too many fit G. K. Chesterton's description of liberals: they can't lead; they won't follow, and they refuse to cooperate.
So go beyond your own cause. It works and it helps to undermine stereotypes. Encourage your cause to join worthwhile coalitions even if they seem removed from your own. You'll make new friends and change others' view of you. Gays for guns, women for drug reform, blacks for small business, whatever. . .
Find or build oases of freedom and decency in the desert of globalization and national deterioration - places of sanity or small communities of concerned individuals. These places can be bookclubs, churches, or associations. Remember that the biggest political divide is between the peoples of the world and their leaders.
Be an activist, not a clicktivist. Signing an online petition or writing a check is not enough. Use the Internet, but as a tool for organizing real people working with each other. For one model, study the decentralized congregational approach of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that helped to produce civil rights.
Use boycotts. Find things that are easy to boycott, easy to get the word out about, and for which there are alternatives - such as boycotting just one brand of several. Boycotts are an especially useful tool in a society as atomized as ours.
Don't be afraid of internal debate. The Democrats used to be far more contentious then they are today. There were liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners, civil rights advocates and segregationists, reformists and the corrupt. As a liberal you learned to fight a two front battle - against the Republicans and against the bad guys in your own party.
With Clinton, liberals packed away their views and their vigor and went along with whatever the top guns of the party wanted. One reason this has worked so badly may be that the very contentiousness of the Democrats sent a message to the rest of the country that all sorts of people could feel at home, even if a bit restless, within the party. Everyone knew the Democrats were a crazy conglomerate of America.
Don't be afraid of popular issues. One of the striking differences between old-style liberals and their descendants is that the former had a knack for finding popular issues such as social security, the minimum wage, and day care funding. Too many contemporary progressives feel almost guilty if they get involved in anything that will take less than years of activism to win general support. This is not to say that unpopular causes should be avoided, but simply to suggest that it is okay to leaven the difficult and the controversial with things people already want.
Describe a future worth fighting for. Optimism is deeply ingrained in American culture. Progressives are in a tough spot in this regard, because they tend to bring America the bad news. And America typically kills them for it. We need a lot more skill in motivating people to correct what's wrong without simultaneously casting a pall over their vision of the future. Progressives need not surrender optimism to the conservatives. As Thomas Jefferson said, "My theory has always been that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair." It was the Democrats, after all, who in the runaway election year of 1936 labeled Republicans as "disciples of despair" floundering in a "fountain of fear." Roosevelt himself got considerable mileage from his insupportable assertion that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. And one of the driving characteristics of the sixties was its vibrant, if unrealistic, vision of the future, including the dream of an Age of Aquarius. Today, the Democrats have an excess of whiners, nagging nannies, and contumelious scolds. Did the politics of joy really die with Hubert Humphrey?
Define your politics issue by issue, not icon by icon. One reason progressive politics fares so poorly is because we spend too much time on individual campaigns and not enough on issues. While the former tend to drive away the independent, the skeptical and those who don't like a particular candidate, the latter can attract all sorts to join with others who may agree only one issue.
Define your politics by issue by issue, not by ideology. It's a lot easier to get a cross section of people backing a particular issue than it is for them to buy into your whole philosophy of life. Use the former approach on the streets and save the latter for the bar. You don't need common ideology if you have common causes.
No more stimulus packages for grad school liberals. Use fewer experts from the Ivy League and more from Iowa. For example, in Clinton's first adminstration, one third of the top positions were held by Harvard and/or Yale graduations. End the grad school politics that favors those that collect data, assess and legalize issue over those who actually do something. No more 2,000 pages of legislation. One of the things many people don't like about traditional liberals is how federally oriented they are. This is due in no small part to an elite class that designs jobs for itself in Washington.
Remember that most minority voters don't get to even look at a glass ceiling. But many of them run into locked doors every day. Pay much more attention to the concerns of the latter.
Support the Second Amendment for three good reasons: it works, gun prohibition laws don't, and you'll make all sorts of new friends.
Change the rules as well as the game. Support things like instant runoff voting, public campaign financing, more states, a larger House of Representatives with mixed proportional and district representation like Germany, state banks, and a constitutional amendment to end corporations' legal status as "persons."
Distinguish between good regulation and good jobs for regulators. New laws often favor the latter which is why we keep adding regulators and regulations but can't even bring the Glass-Steagall Act back.
Support a shorter work week. It sure helped progressive populists in the past.
Don't forget the forgotten. Everyone talks about having a black president, but hardly anyone does anything about the huge number of young black and white males to whom we offer two main futures: incarceration or pain if not death on the battlefield. It is similar with the poor in general. They have not only been deserted by conservatives and centrists but by liberals as well.
Ditch the war on drugs. A great recession is a wonderful time to get rid America's most unsuccessful and expensive policy this side of foreign wars. Ending the war on drugs will save money, reduce the police state, limit prosecutorial discrimination against the poor, lower the crime rate, switch attention to health-based solutions and attract a lot of young voters who didn't even known they were progressives.
Don't be afraid to lead: When your national leadership is pretty much down to Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, you know there's plenty of room for you. Most great movements have been led by those most hadn't even heard of a few years earlier. You could be one of them.
Don't be afraid to follow. One of the most useful techniques in organizing
is to support the work of others. A mass movement is built by
groups alternately leading and following each other. And one
of the best ways to get respect is to give it.
Don't let anal retentives, turf protectors, budget bullies, data druggies, assessocrats ambitious lawyers and CYA bureaucrats kill good ideas. Given the state of contemporary political culture, it would be unlikely that Social Security, Medicare or a minimum wage could be passed today. That's not so much a reflection of our politics as it is of our culture. We have mainly learned how to say no. Progressives need to reintroduce the concept of yes.
Keep in mind the great 1960s saying: Our goal is not to overthrow the system but to make it irrelevant.
The history of our country has involved repeated conflict between the specifics of the soul and institutional abstractions -- between people and places on the one hand and, on the other, a succession of systems desiring to exploit, subjugate or supplant them. We need to oppose not only the bad systems of the moment but unnatural systems in general - all those that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of human beings and the natural assets of their habitats.
The first rule of staying free is to act free. The number of liberals and progressives that follow this rule is sadly small. Everyone these days seems to prefer to talk about balancing rights instead of exercising them. But the rights outlined in the Constitution weren't bargaining chips; they were permanent guarantees.
Don't surrender the Bible to the right. Progressives leave the right's phony theological arguments largely unchallenged. For example, the Ten Commandments doesn't say anything about abortion or gay marriage but sure as hell is down on adultery, stealing (even on Wall Street), bearing false witness (even in political ads) and coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor (even in the name of capitalism). The Bible also doesn't like usury and strongly suggests that the earth is the lord's and not the property of multinational corporations. The ultimate irony of right wingers is that that they are the leading despoilers, usurers, war-mongers, hypocrites, idolaters, and groupies of false prophets - all of whom are frowned upon by the book they pretend to follow. And their opponents, who are more faithful to the words that the conservatives only quote, are often such good Christians that they never say a mumblin' word about it all.
One of the best ways to revive democracy is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.
Value tolerance. It's a word that isn't heard much any more but could ease a lot of our pain. Tolerance is often a necessary waypoint for people on the way to accepting new ideas. It's the trial period before full acceptance. Help people find ways to tolerate things they don't like.
Educate more and scold less. Issues like climate change are complicated for many and hard to grasp, especially since our schools have devoted more time to teaching driving and creating drug free zones than they have to science. Help people understand issues and don't blame them for not dloing so.
Make change from the bottom up - Part of the illusion of mass media is that change can be organized like a TV series. Try it and typically one of two things happen: it fails or it becomes just more political mush. Too many web-based liberal organizations are modeled on corporate lobbying groups. They don't change politics, souls, or history. Despite TV and the Internet, change still comes from the bottom. Build from up there.
Forget the capitalist-socialist conflict obsession. Two questions illustrate the futility:
- Do capitalists ever ride public subways?
Mix and match based on the reality of the situation and not on somebody's theory.
Define America for others. If you don't like the way the right does it, come up with your own description, stories and role models.
If you don't enjoy your cause, how can you expect others to?