Insanity

Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different response — like Democrats do. I followed some links back to this 2007 article in the Progressive, written by Adolph L. Reed Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania:

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.

Oh, and he doesn’t like Obama, either.

2 thoughts on “Insanity

  1. I like Adolph Reed’s Obama No. I felt the same way as Reed did then (2008). Obama: An empty suit. A cypher. He didn’t think Obama could beat McCain, but then this was published in May, before McCain flamed out by “choosing” the Boreal Narcissus™ [Watertiger] as his running mate and losing any narrative he had before that. The cultish quality of Obama’s campaign really made me nervous and suspect. But Hillary Clinton made me nervous, too, because she’d bring along Bill, a Republican suit, and I was sure weary of that guy. There is seldom anyone for whom I really want to vote. Pols. All of them.

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