Naked Capitalism has a long, thoughtful piece titled Progressively losing by Richard Kline pondering why liberals and progressives are so ineffective. He explores the history of the left, explodes some myths about the right, then basically concludes that liberals and progressives have no fire in the belly.
I would go further than that. Most of them are upper middle class and above, happily burrowed into the state apparatus in one way or another , and thus don’t really want change. But perhaps most importantly, their inherent class biases make it difficult for them to organize in any effective way.
There has been another and more radical trend on the left-liberal end of the spectrum previously. That trend derived from radicalized, Continental European, immigrants, it sourced much of labor activism, and is largely extinct in America as of this date. It is the atrophy of this latter muscle in particular which has rendered progressive finger-wagging impotent.
As Wobblie organizer Big Bill Haywood famously said, “a liberal is the guy who leaves the room when a fight starts.”
One thing we should look to for inspiration is the Populist uprising of the 1890’s. It was mostly Midwest farmers who were getting gouged on crops and losing farms. The first thing they did was form co-ops so they could sell crops at a fair price. They they organized politically and controlled several legislatures, had a couple of governors and a senator.
But they thought surely the Democratic Party would work with them on reforms and got backstabbed for their troubles instead. There’s a lesson there.
Populism is 100% all-American. It requires little explanation and appeals to people across the political spectrum.
However, progressives have accomplished some things. But much more is needed.
Progressives have successfully stamped Big Capital as ‘anti-us’ historically, and they need to return to this. Those active for social reform have to forget about the electoral cycle. They have to forget about what the lunatic Right is doing as much as possible and concentrate on what they themselves are in process of accomplishing. They need a compact reform agenda (yes, bullet points and not more than ten of them). They need a defined activist strategy, no matter how large the difficulties or time horizon appear. They need to build genuinely activist organizations with specific plans to achieve a core set of goals. And they have to reclaim militancy as a word, and deed, of pride. If they do those things, they will make real progress, and moreover they will be ready when the moment comes for breakthrough amongst the wider society.
Susie Madrak in the comments sums up the real problem:
It’s my observation that progressives aren’t radicals because they don’t believe in power-sharing with those they consider beneath them in intellectual power and credentials. (I might have missed it, but I’ll say it if you didn’t: Credentialism is a hard-wired belief system for most progressives.)
Hence, the relentless undermining of any really useful coalition-building: This group’s too extreme, that group’s too working-class (and thus, it’s implied, racist — note the derogatory undertone of the term “Hillary voters”), nativism and isolationism is inherently evil because it’s a tool of the far right, etc. No other group ever quite lives up to their high standards.
So of course, nothing truly meaningful is ever accomplished.
It’s always about economic and social justice. But if your leadership is comprised of people who , all things considered, are doing pretty well, see how far you get.
Liberals and progressives aren’t really interested in dealing with actual working class or rural people. Instead, they assume others should listen and do what they’re told by them, their betters. Good luck with that elitist attitude. And you bet working class and rural whites know when they’re being talked down to and insulted and they resent it. These are the same folks progressives think they’ll organize.
I’ve lived in big cities and currently live in southern Utah. Plenty of people here across the political spectrum are increasingly angry at the government and the direction of the country.They know they’re being screwed but aren’t sure what to do about it yet. Sounds like prime organizing ground to me. But most liberals would be horrified if they actually had to talk as an equal to a redneck wearing a John Deere cap.
As Joe Bageant somewhat apocalyptically said some years ago:
With Micheal Savage and Ann Coulter openly calling for liberals to be put in concentration camps, with the CIA now licensed to secretly detain American citizens indefinitely, and with the current administration effectively legalizing torture, the proper question to ask an NRA member may be, “What kind of assault rifle do you think I can get for three hundred bucks, and how many rounds of ammo does it take to stop a two-hundred-pound born-again Homeland Security zombie from putting me in a camp?” Which would you prefer, 40 million gun-owning Americans on your side or theirs?
One big problem with the left is an elitist attitude that prevents it from organizing those it wants to reach. The other big problem is a belief that big government is basically good and that things can be fixed by them, the technocrats. Such a view precludes the possibility of real change because it doesn’t involve everyone. Not only do you genuinely need the masses on your side, they must have major leadership roles too.
Another problem is, I think, that liberals and progressives mistrust power and are thus leery about wielding it. Conservatives have no such qualms.
PS What I’m really talking about is the Alinsky model. Don’t organize with an agenda about what should be done. Ask the people what they want done, help them start a group, and most importantly, let them run it.