Change We Can Believe In

As activists confront the disappointments of the Obama era, a troubling sense of malaise and despair has crept into some parts of the progressive movement. This political state of mind is arguably even more of an obstacle to progress than the very large policy challenges or specific failures we face, because it tends to produce either apathy on the one hand or unstrategic ranting on the other. While we are no doubt in a tough spot, despair is not warranted. And, if we learn the right lessons from organizing efforts over the last year, we can recapture the momentum for progressive causes.

In some ways, the scorecard on the Obama administration's policy agenda is more mixed than some progressive critics would like to admit. The economic stimulus package -- while smaller and less efficiently targeted at recovery than it should have been -- represents the greatest investment in anti-poverty programs in 40 years. Four million kids will have access to health insurance as a result of the expansion of the children's health program, and with the right effort we can still achieve comprehensive health reform that would represent the largest expansion of the social safety net in decades. The administration has also empowered some agencies with larger enforcement budgets, stronger personnel, and greater mandates to enforce critical worker, environmental, and civil-rights protections.

But progressive activists have real and compelling grounds for disappointment. The administration's coddling of the financial sector, paired with its failure to respond aggressively enough to the massive wave of suffering brought about by unemployment and foreclosures, has been morally wrong and politically tone-deaf at the same time. The failure to do much to respond directly or in a targeted way to the needs of communities of color that are experiencing depression levels of unemployment and hardship -- and the administration's reluctance to even acknowledge that targeted responses are required -- has set us back in addressing issues of race in the country. And, the number of immigrant deportations during the first year of the Obama administration was actually higher than during the last year of the Bush administration -- a fact that is especially appalling considering that the administration can't blame Congress for that problem. The administration's fetishization of deficit reduction also promises to create major obstacles to the preservation or expansion of needed programs for years to come. But the question before us is why we are in this predicament and what to do to get out of it. And honestly, the administration is the least of our problems.

To be sure, tactical and strategic errors on the part of the administration -- for example, allowing the health-care debate to go on months longer than necessary or failing to confront powerful interests forthrightly -- have contributed to the problem. Factors beyond the administration's direct control played a role, too, such as the massive corporate opposition to any significant reform agenda, the mobilization of the conservative Tea Party movement that successfully tapped into populist anger and put progressive forces on the defensive, a disastrous candidate in the Massachusetts special election, and the rules of the Senate, which make it excruciatingly hard to get anything done. But it's too easy to get distracted by the proximate causes of our difficulties and lose the big picture.

The main lesson we should draw from the last year and from American history is that it takes social movements that exhibit intensity, tenacity, and imagination to get big things done in our country. Abolition, women's suffrage, and the reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society were not won easily, nor were they brought about by a single election. (Much the same can be said of the long rise to power of movement conservatism.) People often complain that President Barack Obama fails to exhibit sufficient passion, and that's true to a point, but no president can generate moral urgency on his own. Most of that passion has to come from below. Lyndon B. Johnson wouldn't have been able to rouse Congress to action in the famous speech where he affirmed that "we shall overcome" unless there had been a civil-rights movement that for decades had made the moral case and forced the country to look in the mirror. Weak political leadership that is easily spooked, powerful entrenched interests on the other side, and a closely divided country are not new problems facing progressives. At our best, we have overcome these obstacles through movements that pursue agendas independent of political parties or individual politicians. These are the movement lessons we need to relearn.


Lessons of the immigrant-rights movement

One place to look for some lessons on our current predicament is the immigrant-rights movement, which today stands as one of the very few parts of the broader progressive movement with the capacity to put hundreds of thousands of people in motion and on the streets. Consider the paradox: Some of the most vulnerable, exploited segments of our society with the most to lose from engaging in public life have the greatest level of capacity for mobilization and movement.

The story of the movement goes back decades, but its recent origins lie in efforts during the late 1990s by committed people to put an issue on the table that was at the time unspeakable in polite discourse in Washington -- the condition of millions of undocumented people living in fear and experiencing extreme exploitation at the workplace. Had the issue been left to politicians, political consultants, or pollsters, no one would have made the demand for a path to citizenship under the conditions prevailing at that time. Through immigrant service organizations, community organizations, churches, hometown and ethnic associations, and ethnic media, immigrants had built a rich associational infrastructure that could be tapped for mobilization and political power. This infrastructure has gradually won allies to its side -- in evangelical churches, among white progressives, among cops and sheriffs, and among the women's, civil-rights, and labor movements -- but it began by consolidating power and vision among those with the most at stake.

In 2006, this growing movement- -- -with many disparate parts and factions- -- united in response to punitive legislation sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner that would have criminalized immigrants and anyone who tried to help them -- sending not only undocumented immigrants but priests, teachers, and social workers to jail. Marches involving millions of people -- possibly the largest in American history -- put people on the move not just in Los Angeles and Chicago but also in places like Lexington, Kentucky, and Boise, Idaho. This show of power stopped the punitive legislation in 2006 and put reform legislation on the national agenda. But every action begets a reaction, and a nativist countermovement brought down reform legislation in 2007, spawned a wave of anti-immigrant policies at all levels of government, and generated a wave of hate in the media. In response to the setbacks of 2007, immigrants mobilized again, resulting in 2 million new Hispanic voters in 2008 and a clear repudiation of those who used prejudice for political gain, with 20 of 22 congressional candidates in swing districts opposing immigrants going down to defeat against pro-immigrant candidates. John McCain, historically a supporter of reform, lost Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida in part because the demagoguery of his party had angered and energized Hispanic voters.

The movement then prepared for a legislative campaign by building an unprecedented infrastructure of field operations, communications capacity, and policy development, anticipating that the president would keep his promise to move legislation in his first year. As it has become clear that the president and Congress have put immigration reform on the backburner while the administration pursues enforcement policies that continue to rip families apart, immigrant leaders are preparing to go back into movement mode. A broad coalition is planning a major national mobilization in Washington, D.C., on March 21 with tens of thousands of people; undocumented students are walking from Florida to D.C. on a "trail of dreams" to tell their story and "come out"; thousands of new people have been brought into the fight through movement-building training; and plans are underway for major escalation in the spring. Democrats as well as Republicans, not only Congress but also the president, will feel the heat. The movement has not disowned legislative tactics or a campaign sensibility, but it's clear that our underlying power to unstick the issue in Congress depends on our ability to unleash people power on a substantial scale.

Persistent, patient, and unafraid, the strategic vision of the immigrant-rights movement resembles in some ways the vision and advantage of the conservative movement, both today and in the past. The lessons of the immigrant-rights movement and of the right -- if we understand it correctly -- provide a kind of blueprint for the broader progressive movement.


Going Forward

First, we know that strategies relying on insider influence are incapable of delivering large-scale change. Dynamics in D.C. reflect the state of underlying social forces in the country -- the extent to which certain ideas and constituencies are seen to be on the move, exhibiting intensity, and winning others to their side. The seductive nature of access to powerful people cannot be overstated, but access is not power, and it is not a recipe for social change. Time and time again in the immigrant-rights movement, mobilizations on the outside have altered the fundamental dynamics in D.C. -- the pro-immigrant marches in 2006 stopped bad legislation that at the time seemed inevitable, for example, and put good legislation on the table. And a nativist counter-mobilization in 2007 shattered support for reform in the Republican Party, which is only now beginning to be haltingly restored, and defeated legislation. Little of what happened in D.C. in this period can be understood without reference to these movement dynamics.

Second, "call your congressman" campaigns full of paid ads and Astroturf fail to light up people's imagination or tap their deepest energies. These are hard lessons to teach. The prevailing orthodoxy in Washington and among progressive organizations is transactional -- it is always about the next co-sponsor for a piece of legislation or the next issue campaign, of which there are now dozens, all involving organizations being asked to generate calls to Congress. The Tea Party movement did not focus on legislative mechanics nor did it focus on the traditional legislative campaign methods -- it changed the debate in the country by engaging people around a set of ideas and values that cross-cut a number of specific bills and mobilized their intensity in dramatic fashion. The transactional approach to campaigns now dominant among progressives needs to be replaced with a movement sensibility that is connected to the heart and the spirit, that is ongoing and owned by the people involved.

Third, reform movements have to be grounded in and speak to the real experience and story of the people affected and mobilized. Advocates and many politicians too often blur issues and make them nearly incomprehensible, not by using technical jargon but rather by couching ideas in poll-tested blather that takes the moral force out of the argument for reforms. This mushy rhetoric prevents the stories of suffering and struggle -- which are what motivate and compel people in the middle to take a side -- from coming through clearly. The health-care debate suffered from the reluctance of some advocates to clearly make the case for what the legislation actually would accomplish -- mainly, providing insurance to over 30 million people and offering protections against predatory insurance companies. Wrongly fearing that forthright emphasis of those moral and easily understood principles couldn't win in the court of public opinion, we got lost in a morass of arguments about reducing deficits and bending the cost curve.

Fourth, the standard vocabulary of advocacy campaigns has to change. The traditional approach starts by emphasizing support among "swing" voters, fieldwork in swing districts, and advocacy by "unusual voices" such as moderate Republicans or business leaders. This approach is a recipe for trouble without first consolidating deep and broad support and leadership from the base. The intensity of movement and energy from the base, while usually not sufficient in itself, opens up the possibility for genuine alliances with other social forces and the middle, ultimately leading to majority support. Consider the way in which the Tea Party movement was first written off as a fringe phenomenon -- and has now shaped the national dialogue. Or how the immigrant-rights movement has put an issue on the national table that was literally taboo 10 years ago -- and developed a powerful coalition of supporters, which includes the National Association of Evangelicals as well as business leaders and police officers across the country.

Finally, it's essential to remember that electoral politics is not an end but a means to be deployed to achieve an agenda. Confusion about the relationship between progressive movements and the Democratic Party is rampant and disabling. Here we could learn a lesson from the Tea Baggers -- they are crystal clear that the Republican Party may at times be a vehicle to achieve their ends, but the ends are what matter. Their independent sensibility has resulted in much greater influence on the course of the national debate, and Republican politicians are now embracing their radical rhetoric and agenda. It is important to remember that electoral outcomes alone do not produce policy gains: Richard Nixon, a Republican president, proposed a guaranteed annual income for the poor, while Democratic President Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it.

There is increasing dissatisfaction with the transactional campaign modalities among progressives, and encouraging signs that movement energy is re-emerging. Populist efforts from the left to target the banks -- such as the "showdown in Chicago" in which National People's Action and other allies crashed the American Bankers Association convention in October -- are attracting more attention and participants. The Health Care for America Now campaign, which has saved health-care reform legislation from death by political hackery time and time again (by, for example, turning out more people to the infamous August town halls than the Tea Partiers did, media mythology notwithstanding), has ratcheted up the intensity of its fight with the insurance industry, deployed a much broader range of tactics, and started to have more fun while closing in on victory. And, of course, patience is wearing thin in the immigrant movement with the games that politicians are playing, leading to a recommitment to mass action.

Social movements don't always win the change they seek on the schedule they hope for. However, when they do ultimately succeed, it's because they clarify what's at stake, force people and politicians to choose sides, develop leaders, make moral arguments with clarity and passion and generate the kind of mass pressure that is required to break through a sclerotic political system rigged in favor of powerful interests. The president rode to the White House on the coattails of a set of movements (anti-Bush, anti-war, youth, immigrant, climate-change) that developed over the course of a decade in response to the excesses of conservatism. The task at hand for progressives in this decade is to build movements that are courageous, imaginative, and soulful enough to continue the energy not only to hold the line against reaction but to create a more positive, affirmative agenda of our own.


The "Organizing Now" series of articles was produced in conjunction with Demos as part of a year-long joint project titled "The Way Forward," which will include further articles, Web features, and conferences on the hope for progress in the current political climate.