Friday, January 8, 2010

The need for not just left-wing activism but smart left-wing activism

Harold Meyerson has a good column today on the lack of a left-wing movement in the United States today and the impact that has on Democratic politics. Long story short, history shows that if you want progressive reforms you need a left-wing movement to push Democratic politicians.

I  obviously think that Meyerson's analysis is correct and it's a belief that drives my own approach to politics. Through my professional experiences as a younger man working in politics and policy it became increasingly obvious that most politicians won't move on an issue unless they feel sufficient public pressure to do so. Without activists working through and with a larger movement politicians will simply pay lip service to many of the harder issues within the economic and social justice spheres. Changing the status quo requires pressure from the left and I try to use my blog and other avenues to give voice to left-wing interests in the hopes of contributing to the needed left-wing din. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in what I advocate for but it does mean that I understand there is strategic value in staking out a position and holding firm to it; even if at the end of the day I'll take a little less and be happy to have made some incremental change.

Where we see some firction in left-blogistan of late is where people don't seem to be willing to think strategically about their activism or see the bigger picture of left-wing activism. We're seeing activists (and I suppose they've always existed) who are quite literal in their demands - their demands are not strategic but transparent. They are not engaging in the process but rather opening with their position and refusing to discuss anything less. Anyone who's been involved in even the most rudimentary negotiations understands how unwise this tactic is if one hopes to achieve any of their stated goals.

On issue after issue we arive at a point where the hardliners refuse to understand when that days battle has ended and begin under-cutting their own allies who have the temerity to take a small win and regroup to fight another day. There seems to be a belief amongst the hard-liners that centuries worth of economic and social justice can be won in one grand ideological battle if only everyone shared their deep commitment and held absolutely firm, accepting no compromise. It's all a bit Trostkyist at times.

We on the left need to be far more strategic than the present day neo-conservatives and the Norquist led anti-tax jihadists. We need to recognize the small victories when they are there and claim them. We need to leave our movement in the condition to fight another day. As we can see from the Norquist tax movement a fealty to ideology may result in a few short term gains but ultimately your movement enters a stage of rigormortis, unable to move and adapt to changing circumstances and reality. The entire edifice eventually falls in upon itself. 

I'm not calling for moderation of our guiding principals, I'm calling for strategic thought and occasional moderation of demands in order to preserve the greater cause. A pragmatic activism, if such a thing can ever exist.


redstateblues said...

Excellent post!

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

What distinguishes movement politics from legislative politics, in my view, is purpose, rather than legislative tactics.

Legislative politics is about getting legislation enacted. If you want to get legislation enacted, compromise is a big part of the total plan. A hardliner who wants to get legislation enacted is an ineffective legislative politics activists, not a movement politician.

Movement politics is about changing people's beliefs out in the polity, really not just changing their view on a specific thing, but changing their worldview on a collection of related issues. Movement politicians may get involved in legislative politics for visibility's sake, but they aren't even trying to win -- any win is just dumb luck (e.g. inclusion of sex in the anti-discrimination laws when the opponents of the laws proposed it as a poison pill but it passed anyway).

Movement politics are won when more people are won over to a set of beliefs in polls, focus groups and the "great discussion". This is an area where the blogosphere has immense potential by articulating a consistent message at odds with conventional wisdom and getting more and more people to take it seriously. Eventually, movement politics can give rise to legislative action, but it takes time. Many look like lost causes to start with, but mostly because they start with different assumptions about how fixed people views on policy are.