six months ago, my friend, Bob Wing wrote a missive
to a selected list (as far as I know) arguing that
progressives (the left) should whole heartedly participate
in the electoral process from within the Democrat
Party. He pointedly invited comment; at the time
I reviewed it but waited to see what others had
to say. I like Bob Wing. I not only consider him
to be a friend but also appreciate his political
history, deep thought and progressive intentions.
We have a number of friends in common and both worked
on the 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential Rainbow Coalition
campaign. However, I have serious concerns with
what he is recommending and I have no hesitation
about stating them even in the face of a potential
Mitt Romney presidency.
Bob articulated very well the progressive insurgent Democrat
‘call to arms.’ He is addressing The Split in the
Left ranks in regards to participation with the
Democratic Party and a “social justice electoral
strategy.” Wing’s thoughts and positions will attract
many progressives, young and old, into the 2012
elections. His intent, though, seems to be to invite
us into a more protracted struggle within the Democrat
Party “for the soul of the Party.” My friend represents
the current crest of a moving wave of progressive
activism that has waxed and waned for many, many
years. I will attempt a bit of that here without
repeating Wing’s words for the sake of space. Bob’s
missive can be found at organizingupgrade.com. These words are my effort to engage with my friend and the
progressive community to bring us to a place of
deeper understanding, mutual appreciation, and maybe
collective action. You will get a good sense of
what he said from the topics I address.
is progressive? Progressive-ism needs to be more
clearly defined. It is not about changing – or occupying
– the ‘seats’ of power with different individuals.
The lack of a coherent and straight forward response to Bob’s
words after six months dooms the possibility of
bridging The Split and dampens even more the huge
potential for moving to a place of greater progressive
success electorally and otherwise in the
U.S. at every level. A carefully crafted response
is called for. I will attempt a bit of that here
without repeating Wing’s words for the sake of space
and because I do not know completely where his missive
has already reached. These words are my effort to
engage with my friend and the progressive community
to bring us to a place of deeper understanding,
mutual appreciation, and maybe collective action.
You will get a good sense of what he said from the
topics I address.
First of all, Bob attributes too much coherence and agency
to the “rightwing.” He does not give enough weight
to the splits, disorganization, and serendipity
that are part of the political history on The Right
and The Left. He, like too many of us, is envious
of some supposed rise of power on The Right
and – like folks caught in a Stockholm Syndrome
– wants to copy their strategies and behaviors.
This misguided thinking is a result of a false unconscious
meme at the root of Western Culture: mainly
that ‘individuals make history rather than history
making individuals.’ Some of us attribute consciousness
and agency to cabals on The Right that direct the
sheep-like thinking and responses of large numbers
of people. This false belief fits well with the
capitalist conceptions that overemphasize individualism
and authoritarianism. It ignores the systemic influences
of culture, individual circumstances, natural altruism,
and contemporary conceptual framing. In other words,
that kind of thinking ignores the power of community.
A reframing and deeper analysis of the question of why Republicans
took the House of Representatives in 2010 would
illuminate that it was not because they were better
organized, more loyal to that all-over-the-map
shifting landscape of policies called Republicanism,
nor because of anti-gay rights initiatives on state
ballots, nor because of better grassroots organizing.
Bob, like many others, romanticizes specific past
activists of the Black community and other marginalized
communities. The way that Western culture does History
is through an emphasis on individuals; A Peoples’
History of the United States was a unique,
important, and effective counterview of History.
It detailed the deep currents and flow of US political
thought and activity. There are historical and structural
phenomena in US politics that are cyclical and predictable
regardless of the specific individuals or specific
words are my effort to engage with my friend and
the progressive community to bring us to a place
of deeper understanding, mutual appreciation, and
maybe collective action.
What is progressive? Progressive-ism needs to be more clearly
defined. It is not about changing – or occupying
– the ‘seats’ of power with different individuals.
Personal power needs to be separately considered
from a progressive systemic change. I was happy
to see that Bob recognized Jesse “Jackson’s own
political shortcomings;” that is the beginning of
deeper thinking. After all, how much difference
would it have made if Jesse Jackson had been the
Democrat’s nominee or if he had been elected President
in 1988? Barack Obama’s election forces us to downgrade
our hopes and expectations for this individual achievement.
The systemic change of maintaining a Rainbow Coalition
distinct from the Democrat Party would
have meant much more! The big tragedy of that election
was not Jackson’s loss but was Jackson’s decision
to dismantle the Rainbow probably after a deal to
gain seats on the Democrat National Committee. Those
individual seats have resulted in almost no progressive
gains within that Party. That is why Bob must make
his appeal today.
Another thing…Bob looks at power largely from a Washington
D.C. perspective. This is wrong. Local, state, and
national are all a systemic piece but the place
where fundamental, sustainable change has
always come from is the local. Wing talks about
national to local and local to national. I put a
greater emphasis on local because the state and
national arenas are more corrupted and more rigged
to maintain the status quo. Progressives’
priority must always be the increased empowerment
of the base.
He also is calling for more unity on an operational level
than I think is possible or needed. There needs
to be more mutual understanding, solidarity, values
clarification, and inclusive visioning rather than
the expectation that we are going to move as a coordinated
army. Ugh! I contend that we misperceive The Right
if that is what we think is the source of ‘success’
on that ‘side.’ Bob does not look deeply enough
at why things happened in the past as they did.
He gives too much weight to joint corporate coordinated
action and does not recognize the cultural, systemic,
framing and “world view” underpinnings of why people
and institutions take the actions they do. Deepening
this understanding does change how people
and institutions act without DEAFEATING them or
DOMINATING them. In fact, long term, sustainable
change happens in between election battles not at
election battles. The defeated simply wait for the
next election time to defeat back if there is no
work done reframing and finding common ground between
elections. So the struggle is about the “hearts
and minds of the public” and about the consensus-derived
systemic changes that institutionalize authentic
longings of hearts and minds of community.
is addressing The Split in the Left ranks in regards
to participation with the Democratic Party and a
“social justice electoral strategy.
I think that Bob is right about working together to change
political structures. We must change the way elections
are funded, winner-take-all systems, and the Electoral
College. That work does not require us to join the
Democrat Party. Neither does he analyze the past
failures of progressive Democrats to change
the Democrat Party. Progressive Democrats, Greens,
and other progressives might join together in and
support of such changes. But, my friend is soft
on the Democrat Party member’s and labor member’s
entanglements and efforts to maintain the current
system. Much of the top leadership of the Democrat
Party would consider such changes a threat.
Progressives backing the same candidates together will probably
not happen again – any time soon. We should not
invest too much strategizing, hope, or expectations
in individuals in seats-of-power. And Bob seems
to ignore the futility of focusing on changing
the Democrat Party Platforms; it is largely ignored.
He puts non-electoral organizing – like too many
of us do – on a back burner. Progressive activism
is not just about winning elections is it? What
do you think?
Note: Bob Wing has been involved in social justice
organizing since 1968 with a strong emphasis on
antiracist and antiwar work. He was previously
founding editor of ColorLines.
is the Program Director of Pushback Network.
For Mr. Riles, the following is an explanation of the meaning
of the Swahili term “Nafsi ya Jamii”: