in these lousy times
Since 1989, we have occasionally published
a guide to getting through the crummy era that we are still in.
It seems time for a new, updated edition.
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 for many of our citizens.
Thanks to Citizens United, money has replaced votes as the dominant
political campaign objective. Our creative culture has been reduced
to the likes of Lady Gaga, Desperate Housewives, and the Kardashians.
Remember that Donald Trump, the Bernie Madoff of politics, didn't
invent all this; he has just benefited from it.
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 all
coming. 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 people
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
Go back to mediaeval times
and you'll find something similar. The elite had power but could
only exercise it behind castle walls and moats. After 9/11 when
I was living six blocks from the Capitol I noticed that the protections
officially installed stopped on 2nd St. In effect, the defense
against the war on terror stopped four blocks away from our house..
We were on our own.
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 and devolutionary; liberals
Put national politics on the back
burner. State and local politics
are still a good battlefield, but national politics has been
so completely bought by corporate interests that it won't change
until a lot of other things do first. It's movement time again,
just as it was in the 1950s and 60s. We must create for our era
what the civil rights, peace and environmental activists did
then. Then the politics will respond. Few things scare national
politicians more than people getting organized.
Become an existentialist. Existentialism has been described as the philosophy
that no one can take your shower for you. Weigh 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.
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
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 - and 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.
Be nice to white men. One of the besetting sins of many in the progressive
movement 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 white men have 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 their
victims -- in everything from war to black lung disease to economic
Be frugal. While
both liberals and conservatives spend too much money on the wrong
things as soon as they are in office. 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.
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 lite Republicans who happen to support abortion.
This doesn't mean that everyone joins 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
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 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 less than 10% 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
- Protection of your bank account
- Social Security
- A minimum wage
- Legal alcohol
- Regulation of the stock exchanges
- Right of labor to bargain with employers
- Soil Conservation Service and other early environmental programs
- National parks and monuments such as Death Valley, Blue Ridge,
Everglades, Boulder Dam, Bull Run, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal,
Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton, Cape Cod, Fire Island,
and San Juan Islands just to name a few.
- Tennessee Valley Authority
- Rural electrification
- College education for innumerable veterans
- Housing loans for innumerable veterans
- FHA housing loans
- The bulk of hospital beds in the country
- Unemployment insurance
- Small Business Administration
- National Endowment for the Arts
- Peace Corps
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 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.
- An end to colonial occupation and wars in the Middle Easst
- 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 and public
- Government carried out at the lowest practical level
If you don't like that list, then write
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 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 the environment, 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. 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 only 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 one
brand of several. Boycotts are an especially useful tool in a
society as atomized as ours.
But 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.
Avoid dignifying the despicable by
treating it as debatable. In
rhetoric, analysis and approach, bear in mind that we're often
not dealing with ideology or policy, but with mean people, thugs
and thieves. Stop harping on them. You're only helping to build
their base. Follow Samuel Goldwyn's advice and "don't even
ignore them." The more they become the issue the less important
real issues become.
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 a candidate, the latter
can attract all sorts to join with others who may agree only
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. End the grad school politics
that favors those that collect data, assess and legalize issue
over those who actually do something. 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 themselves 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 latter.
We need local democracy as much as
local lettuce. Progressives are
often afraid to criticize big government because they think it
makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of localization
-- having government carried out at the lowest practical level
-- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson.
We need to rediscover the 1960s spirit of localism, including
things like credit unions, coops, and community organizing.
One of the great failures of liberalism has been its great disinterest in local power.
The closer government is to the people the more they like it
and the more responsive it tends to be. Besides, if you can't
be an effective progressive in the 'hood, then you'll be a pretty
lousy one in Washington
All national legislation with state and local impact should meet the standards
of what the Catholic Church used to call 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
- Revenue sharing
- Giving money instead of orders to public education and other
- Decentralizing government agencies like some of the best existing
ones such at the National Park Service, Coast Guard and US Attorney
- Not making too many decisions at the federal level.
- Supporting the 9th and 10th amendments that clearly limit the
federal government's role
Support the Second Amendment for three
good reasons: it works, gun prohibition
laws don't and you'll make all sorts of new friends. Besides,
when the Second Amendment becomes an issue, progressives lose.
Change the rules as well as the game.
Support 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
but can't even bring the Glass-Steagall Act back.
Support a shorter work week. It sure helped progressive populists in the
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, 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.
Turn public schools back to their communities. It worked
for some 200 years until we decided to turn schools into human
drone detention centers where the young are taught to pass tests
rather than to learn live. And among the subjects driven out
of our schools by the test tyrants: how to become a good citizen.
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
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 it pretends to follow. And its 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.
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
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.
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
- Do capitalists ever ride the public
- Who will run the restaurants in the Marxist utopia?
Mix and match based on the reality
of the situation and not on somebody's
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?
Blame the perps, not the folks they
fool: One danger is to put the
bad guys and those they deceive in the same bag. This adds to
the further alienation of those that sane Americans should be
trying to get back on track. Far better to think of Trump's misguided
fans as being like deceived students at Trump University. Don't
condemn them for their belief; help them learn the truth. Not
unlike, say, the way Ralph Nader got people to know the real
dangers in their cars.
Put economics back in the liberal
agenda. For over two decades,
as liberals got wealthier, their political agenda increasingly
deserted the economic concerns of the less well off. Liberalism
became more of a religion than a movement and doing so helped
to create the Tea Party and the Donald Trumps. This can be changed
by not just revealing the fraud in Trump's plans but by offering
Here are some sample ideas to consider:
· A shared equity program in which
the government becomes an equity partner of folks threatened
with foreclosure. The beauty of this is that not only would it
save people's homes, it ultimately could make the government
money as the economy improved. Or, as Dean Baker has proposed,
allow foreclosed homeowners to stay in their homes as renters
for a court determined amount.
· Offer a real public works program
· Bring back enforcement of anti-trust
laws, once a hallmark of liberal politics.
· Expand the fight for higher
· Create state banks like the
successful one in North Dakota.
· Pass usury law that would ban
credit card and other interest rates over a certain amount. Most
states had usury laws until the 1980s.
· Support neighborhood survival
through credit unions, cooperatives and community courts
· Pass labor laws that give workers
added protections and rights
Put labor unions back on the liberal
agenda. Instead of only liking
labor unions at election time, liberals need to revive the pro-union
positions of their predecessors. And unions could help by creating
AARP-like organizations that would, where formal unionization
isn't working, enlist employees in pro-labor activism while providing
services from credit cards to health benefits.