How a "movement lawyer" is at work on the front lines with North Dakota's Water Protectors.
November 2007 Issue
OK, HERE WE ARE AGAIN, a year out from a Presidential election, and we’re all supposed to be figuring out which of the Democrats has the best chance to win—determined mainly by the standard of raising the most money—and subordinating all our substantive political concerns to the objective of getting him or her elected. This time, I’m not going to acquiesce in the fiction that the Presidential charade has any credibility whatsoever. I’m not paying any attention to the horse race coverage—that mass-mediated positioning in the battle for superficial product differentiation.
The Democratic candidates who are anointed “serious” are like a car with a faulty front-end alignment: Their default setting pulls to the right. They are unshakably locked into a strategy that impels them to give priority to placating those who aren’t inclined to vote for them and then palliate those who are with bromides and doublespeak. When we complain, they smugly say, “Well, you have no choice but to vote for me because the other guy’s worse.” The party has essentially been nominating the same ticket with the same approach since Dukakis.
The last straw for me was the spectacle of all the “serious candidates” falling over one another to link Castro and Chávez with Ahmadinejad, bin Laden, and Kim, thus endorsing the Bush Administration’s view that any government that does anything that ours doesn’t like—including giving its own people’s needs higher priority than those of our corporations—qualifies it as a supporter of terrorism, a rogue state, part of the Axis of Evil, or whatever comic book slogan is operative this week. Then came the supposedly anti-war Obama buttressing his commitment to increase overall American troop strength with a pledge to invade Pakistan. Then came his and HRC’s tiff over the etiquette of publicly declaring a willingness to use nuclear weapons on a case-by-case basis, with both parties treating the issue as purely a matter of foreign policy gamesmanship. And this was during Hiroshima and Nagasaki week, no less!
Each serious candidate has boosters who will tell us that we should be more sophisticated than to take what their candidates say at face value, that their empty, inadequate, or objectionable proposals are the best, most realistic versions of whatever we think we want—from ending the war, to universal national health care and access to quality education, to public investment in rebuilding the Gulf Coast and the rest of the country’s physical and social infrastructure, to worker protection and fighting environmental degradation.
A friend of mine characterizes this as the “we’ll come back for you” politics, the claim that they can’t champion anything you want because they have to conciliate your enemies right now to get elected, but that, once they win, they’ll be able to attend to the progressive agenda they have to reject now in order to win. This worked out so well with the Clinton Presidency, didn’t it? Remember his argument that he had to sign the hideous 1996 welfare reform bill to be able to come back and “fix” it later? Or NAFTA? Or two repressive and racist crime bills that flooded the prisons? Or the privatizing of Sallie Mae, which set the stage for the student debt crisis? Or ending the federal government’s commitment to direct provision of housing for the poor?
This time, the nominal frontrunners have Rube Goldberg health care proposals that protect the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, the chief sources of the health care crisis. They discuss the murderous adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan mainly in bloodless, managerial terms—as a “broken policy” or some other such technician’s euphemism. Not only do their references to the tragic loss of American lives seem pro forma and constructed by focus-group engineers; they also reinscribe the presumption that only American lives count. This is part of what undergirds the broader framework of a foreign policy hinged on cavalier use of military assault and invasion in the first place—what used to be clearly recognized as imperialism. Edwards, who seems somewhat better than the others on Iraq, apparently needs to make up for it—lest what seem like expressions of decency be grounds for accusations of weakness—by being even more bellicose than they regarding Iran. However, all of them have indicated a lusty willingness to attack Iran, Syria, or any other country that can be demonized either for not dancing to our government’s tune or even just because it’s convenient to do so as a prop for some other purpose.
At the end of the primary campaign, one of the “serious candidates” is going to get the nomination and form a ticket with another version of his or her triangulating self. (I still wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be Clinton-Obama, in an all-Oprah ticket, an exercise in massive short-term self-delusion and empty identity politics that will guarantee the White House to whichever combo the GOP puts up.) Maybe by Election Day I’ll be moved or guilted or frightened into voting for that ticket, whatever it is. But I’m just as likely to sit this one out.
And I’m prepared to blow off every liberal who starts whining and hectoring, in that self-important and breathless way they do, about our obligation to protect “choice” or to make sure we can get another Stephen Breyer or Sandra Day O’Connor onto the Supreme Court.
I know that some outraged readers are going to write in, fulminating about how nihilistically ultraleftist I am to criticize the Democrats in this way and how irresponsible The Progressive is to publish the criticism—especially now, when the stakes are so great and it’s so crucially important for the future of the country, the world, the galaxy, the cosmos, that some Democrat—anyone, no matter how worthless—wins the Presidency. (That they make the same cataclysmic claim about every election never seems to dull their self-righteous fervor.) They’ll explain that we have to understand that we can’t get everything we want all at once, that the Democrats can’t go any further than they go, and that a half-hearted promise of part of a stale loaf of bread in some unspecified future is better than no bread at all—especially for those who don’t really need the bread at the moment.
Well, in part, they’re right. The Democrats are what they are. We should all know that by now, after two decades of their failing to stand up to the rightwing juggernaut, of presenting themselves as more responsible and steady managers of the country’s slide to the right. By the time the national elections come around, there really are no options other than to vote for their predictably worthless nominee, make an existential statement (or engage in wish-fulfillment, if you think it’s more than that) by voting for a third party candidate, or just not bother. This bleak reality reflects the left’s failure to build any durable extra-electoral force between elections that can bring pressure to bear on the Democratic contenders and debate.
Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to. It’s a mistake to expect any more of them than to be vectors of the political pressures they feel working on them. This is a lesson that progressives have forgotten or failed to learn.
As an illustration, consider the recent contretemps between John Conyers and the pro-impeachment, anti-war activists who attacked him as a sellout for failing to push impeachment over Nancy Pelosi’s and the House Democratic leadership’s opposition. His critics accused him of betraying the spirit of Martin Luther King. But that charge only exposes their unrealistic expectations. Conyers isn’t a movement leader. He’s a Democratic official who wants to get reelected. He’s enmeshed in the same web of personal ties, partisan loyalties and obligations, and diverse interest-group commitments as other pols. It was the impeachment activists’ naive error, and I suspect one resting on a partly racial, wrongheaded shorthand, to have expected him to lead an insurgency. If the pro-impeachment forces had been able to organize a popular movement with militant local to national expressions on a wide scale, Conyers would have had the leverage necessary to press the movement’s case to Pelosi and Democratic leadership, or at least he and the others would have felt real pressure to act more boldly on this issue. Instead, an understandable sense of urgency led them to take a politically self-indulgent, doomed shortcut. The result is much wasted effort, unnecessary enmity, and another demoralizing defeat.
Unfortunately, like the Democrats, our side fails to learn from experience. Despite a mountain range of evidence to the contrary, we—the labor, anti-war, women’s, environmental, and racial justice movements—all continue to craft political strategy based on the assumption that the problem is that the Democrats simply don’t understand what we want and how important those things are to us. They know; they just have different priorities.
That’s why the endless cycle of unofficial hearings and tribunals and rallies and demonstrations and Internet petitions never has any effect on anything. They’re all directed to bearing witness before an officialdom that doesn’t care and feels no compulsion to take our demands into account. To that extent, this form of activism has become little more than a combination of theater—a pageantry of protest—and therapy for the activists.
Then at the apex of every election cycle, after having marched around in the same pointless circle, chanting the same slogans in the interim, we look feverishly to one of the Democrats or some Quixote to do our organizing work for us, magically, all at once.
We need to think about politics in a different way, one that doesn’t assume that the task is to lobby the Democrats or give them good ideas, and correct their misconceptions.
It’s a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn’t vote ourselves into this mess, and we’re not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn’t happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we’ve won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power.
The anti-war movement isn’t coherent or popularly grounded enough to exert the pressure necessary to improve the electoral options; only the labor movement has the capacity to do so, but it doesn’t have the will. None of the other progressive tendencies has the capacity to do anything more than lobby or exhort. Effective lobbying requires being able to deliver or withhold crucial resources, and none but labor has that capacity. Exhortation works only with people who share your larger goals and objectives; other than that it’s useless except as catharsis.
We also need to think more carefully about what our demonstrations and protest marches can and can’t do. Here we could take a lesson from Martin Luther King. His 1962 Albany, Georgia, campaign failed because the local authorities figured out that the success of King’s mass marches depended on meeting brutal resistance from local officials. When they didn’t forcibly stop the marches, the movement fizzled.
Our approach to mass mobilization is like the Albany campaign. Our actions don’t raise public consciousness because they’re treated dismissively, if at all, in the mainstream media. They don’t even connect with the residents of the cities where we hold them because we agree to strict march routes and rally sites that make certain we don’t engage with anyone other than ourselves. And we agree not to disrupt routine daily life more than a homecoming parade would in exchange for having a designated place to gather and talk to ourselves. Even the civil disobedience is carefully choreographed and designed to be minimally disruptive.
Whether or not we admit it, these are features of a politics that is focused mainly inward, on shoring up the spirits of the participants in the actions themselves. They don’t send a message that those in power can’t simply ignore, and they don’t inform, excite, or win over anyone who’s not already on board with the movement’s agenda. It’s telling in this sense that our movement culture has evolved elaborately clever techniques for keeping participants entertained through the stale, all-too-predictable cavalcade of speeches and chants and puppets on stilts.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that people don’t need to engage in rallies and protests. It is self-defeating, however, to collapse the difference between the activities that make us feel good and the work that is necessary to build the movement. There are no shortcuts or magic bullets. And, if we don’t confront that fact and act accordingly, we’ll be back in this same position, but most likely with options a little worse than these, in 2012, and again and again.
Adolph L. Reed Jr. is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.