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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Lessons from the Right on Building a Movement
Jean Hardisty is Executive Director at Political Research Associates, a Somerville-based research center that monitors anti-democratic trends and movements. This essay is an excerpt from Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Beacon Press, 1999).
I do "opposition research." As a field of study it has gotten a bad name. Many people now associate opposition research with the work done by political campaign operatives who dig up dirt to smear their candidate's opponent. But opposition research has a noble history that has little to do with exposing personal dirt. Those who do good opposition research ferret out the valid points in an opponent's arguments in order to refute them better or, where appropriate, to recognize their validity. Unions used it in the 1960s to defend themselves against attacks by owners and anti-union legislators. Civil rights workers used it to disclose the secret misconduct of the FBI and collaborations between local police and white supremacists. Anti-war activists used it to uncover government-sanctioned lies told to the American people during the Vietnam War. At Political Research Associates we use opposition research to deepen the public's understanding of the right and to provide liberals and progressives with an accurate and reliable account of their adversaries' thinking and agenda.
A thorough understanding of the right also provides the opportunity to learn whatever lessons it may have to teach us. To learn from those who are attacking you helps you move beyond a defensive position. Many of the right's tactics--especially stereotyping, scapegoating, lying, and stealth campaigning--are opportunistic and unprincipled and should be abhorrent to progressives. Also, the hierarchical nature of the right's structures and leadership style runs counter to progressive principles. Even if progressives chose to mimic the right, they would not have the same success. The right is sustained and supported by the economic and political power structure, though not always visibly. The pro-capitalist, pro-church, and pro-defense views of the political "establishment" support the status quo and those who prosper as a result (not the progressive movement.)
Since liberals and progressives live in the shadow of the right's current resurgence, a body of literature has emerged that addresses the future of the progressive movement. In addition to books and articles addressing the future of the progressive movement, various sectors of the progressive movement hold conferences every year. These discussions address a number of questions: Why has the right been so successful? What vision unites the progressive movement at this historical moment? Are there fatal contradictions within the existing vision? Should progressives question the basic principles of social justice, such as equality, impartial justice, respect for diversity, self-determination, and the redistribution of power and resources to marginalized and excluded people? What strategies and tactics are most appropriate for the come-from-behind position of progressives at this moment? To whom should we look for leadership in these matters?
A theme common to nearly all those who discuss the state of the progressive movement and its future is our lack of agreement on a vision around which the movement's different groups can coalesce. Progressive analysts blame the absence of such an overarching vision on fragmentation caused by identity politics, or distraction from economic issues caused by cultural studies, or overreaching by the left, or the white, male leadership's inflexibility and closed-mindedness to power-sharing, or the right's successful exploitation of political differences and resentments between groups by race, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or age.
There is, most likely, a certain truth in each argument. Whatever the reason, I believe it is unlikely that in the near future a shared vision will unite progressives, as it did at times in the past. It is also unlikely that progressives will experience major victories, a dramatic turnaround of the right's dominance, or a substantial change in the globalization of the economy and the hegemony of free-market capitalism. Current conditions dictate a period of small victories, achieved as the progressive movement gradually rebuilds.
The work of rebuilding will involve incremental progress toward a long-term goal of radical social change. This step-by-step process first and foremost responds to the reality of the moment. One leader or one party or one cause won't turn this situation around. Rather, all the small victories, all the person-by-person recruiting, all the media campaigns that succeed--issue by issue--in delivering a progressive message will force complexity into the public debate. Progressives must scale down our expectations and must focus on movement rebuilding and practical experimentation, defiant toward, but aware of, the limitations imposed by current historical conditions.
The progressive movement can learn important lessons from the right's success. First, dramatic social change can be achieved through the electoral system. It is not necessarily true, as many progressives have believed, that the electoral system can only deliver minor changes in the status quo. Second, moving into political dominance means recruiting new constituencies or winning to your side opposing and undecided constituencies. Third, movement-building institutionalizes a social movement and prevents the movement from collapsing during periods of electoral set-back. Fourth, multiple strategies (both a national and a state/local focus, both religious and secular organizing, both an electoral and a movement-building focus, both single-issue and broadly-ideological public education) protect the movement from electoral vicissitudes. And fifth, a movement must resonate with the public mood, so that its messages can "hitchhike" on it. While an effective movement helps create that mood, it is difficult to swing completely against the tide of dominant public fears and aspirations.
Ironically, many of the techniques the right has used so successfully have characterized the liberal/left protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As social and economic conditions changed, the right adapted these techniques to support its own reactionary agenda. Such cooptation, like the use of the title "Civil Rights Initiative" for California's anti-affirmative action proposition, is a form of political compliment.
But the right has not only successfully appropriated much of the language and many of the organizing techniques of social change activism, it has courted liberalism's base, debunked liberal solutions, and caricatured liberal ideology. Much of the public now sees a "liberal" as a big-spending, high-taxing, socialist-leaning, government-supporting, bleeding heart. Policy discussions do not even consider socialist solutions. And the right's spokespersons now appear in the mainstream media as just another centrist voice.
In response, the progressive defense of social programs has been sincere, even impassioned, but ultimately ineffective. As the right has used stereotyping and scapegoating to attack low-income people, progressives have been unable to mount an effective counterattack. As a result, the right has picked off programs like public housing, welfare, and legal aid, one by one. Progressives have been unable to convince the country that it is losing the only recourse to social justice now available.
A center/left coalition that had defended and expanded New Deal social programs was split apart in the 1980s by the right's promotion of "traditional values" as a wedge to divide those with common economic interests, especially in the South. Now the right has caricatured members of that coalition as obsessed with "political correctness" and derided feminists as "feminazis." Further, many (though not all) of the sectors that make up the broad base now known as the progressive movement have diminished in both numbers and left activism over the last 15 years.
Widespread acceptance of the right's caricatures, and the use of their language even by some progressives, illustrates how far the progressive movement has fallen. Liberalism has become a scapegoat for an economic reordering in which the average person has less and the wealthy and the corporate sector have more. Liberalism's constituents--low-income people, workers, immigrants, welfare recipients, women--have become scattered and confused, at times seemingly unsure of their own interests. For many people, politics has become a matter of "cutting an individual deal," rather than identifying with a movement.
Progressives lack a ready response. Using a marginalized group as a scapegoat is not an option for us. For progressives, the villains are racism, an unjust economic system, sexism, homophobia, and foot-dragging, miserly federal programs--an analysis obvious to us, but not to the general public. Without the cooperation of the media and without a public receptive to this message, we could not effectively rebut the right. The result has been the spread of the right's disinformation, loss of popular support for liberalism, and electoral defeat.
Progressives must face this bleak picture of our current political context head-on. In order to craft an effective response, we need an accurate understanding of existing conditions. Although the situation is not hopeless, only clear-headed thinking based on reality, not denial, is a firm grounding for political recovery. We must examine the vision--the goals and principles--on which we have based our movements, identify the weaknesses exposed by the right's success, and identify strategies to move forward.
Some are tempted to believe that progressives could simply emulate the right's strategies and enjoy similar political success. But even if we could or would, the country has moved deliberately and cruelly to the right, creating an environment in which progressive messages are nearly shut out. As we continue to sort out what went wrong, we must press forward with the search for new solutions to the social problems we face. This search must include a wide spectrum of progressives: front-line activists, researchers, theorists, the spiritually-motivated, the electorally-inclined, and especially those whose voices have too often been marginalized within the progressive movement and who live with double and triple forms of oppression, such as low-income women or gay Black men. The time is right for this rebuilding.
We can rebuild the progressive movement only within an accurate reading of reality, one that acknowledges the current grim picture of right-wing dominance. Bold, brash responses to that dominance are entirely appropriate. In-your-face organizing and larger-than-life political plans are all part of movement-building. But we must understand bold, brash actions, or "magic bullet" thinking in the context of a realistic assessment of current conditions. They cannot substitute for the small-scale, everyday work of careful, thoughtful movement-building.
This movement-building may involve a process of "falling back," engaging in self-examination that results in confronting the movement's problems. Leadership that proposes to skip this step should be rejected. Indeed, "step-by-step" might be an appropriate motto for the progressive movement as we enter the 21st Century.
Hardisty's extensive bibliography is awvailable from Peacework
on request: 617/661-6130 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Postscript from Jean Hardisty, September 2000
Since I wrote Mobilizing Resentment in 1999, progressives have launched a number of campaigns to challenge both the right and the Clinton Administration, primarily on the issues of globalization, prisoner's rights and the prison industrial complex, police brutality, and institutional racism. At the same time, a number of liberal foundations and individual funders now recognize how under-resourced the progressive movement is when compared with the funding available to the right and have begun to respond.
This is a refreshing opening after two decades of primarily defensive organizing, when both national and state politics have been dominated by the highly organized and strategy-minded right. It feels as if there may be light at the end of the long tunnel of reactionary politics. But precisely because we now see new excitement in the progressive movement, we must pay close attention to exactly how the movement's rebirth occurs. Observing the right's success, we have seen the importance of networking and coordination, but the progressive movement is divided and networking is minimal. As the movement grows stronger, attracts more attention, and draws new recruits, we must pull together and learn how better to listen to each other. We also need to listen to the fears and anxieties of average people and develop progressive responses to them. And movement organizing needs constantly to provide opportunities for new leadership and fresh visions to emerge from youth, especially from young people of color, and from those who are most oppressed and marginalized.
Of course, in a George W. Bush Administration, coupled with the continued Republican control of Congress, progressives would face a period of greater threat to democracy and increased attack from the right. But even that dire outcome will not stop the slow rebuilding and rethinking that is now underway within the progressive movement.