The 2008 presidential campaign has already revealed the slim odds that anyone elected to the White House from either party will help bring America back to life, back to its constitution, back to its ideals, back to sanity and back to reasons for enthusiasm and pride in being an American.
The job thus remains a largely non-electoral one, much as it was the first time around and during periodic revivals such as the abolition movement, populist era and the 1960s. The mainstream politics were there, but mainly a reflection of powerful movements that had reached into American hearts and communities and developed a constituency for the politics that followed. As John Adams put it, the American Revolution “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”
It is such a communal revolution that is so strikingly missing from the hearts of America today. It is certainly not to be found in Democratic Party front groups like Move On and the Center for American Progress, but it is also missing from the anti-war effort, the healthcare issue and attempts to control assaults on our civil liberties. There are, to be sure, groups dealing with each of these issues but they function often more like traditional Washington lobbies than as forces of broad inspiration. And they lack either the will or the skill to merge their cause with different but compatible efforts, leaving a battlefield that looks more like a series of information booths at a demonstration rather than a united force for good.
Part of the problem is organizational, part a lack of common symbols, part stems from the absence of a common and clear agenda, and part reflects a vacuum of values that are easily identified and shared.
There also needs to be a far greater consciousness of the degree to which traditional American constitutional standards, political agendas and social values have been destroyed. We need to admit that the First American Republic is over and as we flail about in whatever one wishes to call the interregnum – I sometimes call it an adhocracy – our true task is to design, test and produce America 2.0. What follows are some suggestions for the Beta version of a new America.
The liberal and progressive effort is largely dominated by groups modeled on the classic Washington or state lobby, groups that purport to represent a particular interest but do so in a limited fashion, notably excluding effective mass participation.
These groups compete with one another for funding, achieve that funding through niche rather than holistic programs and have little vested interest in joining diverse coalitions. For example, the development director of one such state group described to me the troubles he faced in fund raising because his organization had joined others in opposition to a tax proposal. Some funders clearly did not like this detour from the group’s stated focus. You don’t need too many experiences like that before you learn to mind your own business. Good for the bottom line; lousy for an effective movement.
There is also the problem that so much funding comes from centrist foundations that use their financial power to tame the groups they support. A covert trade of soul for dollars has increasingly been part of the American liberal story.
Further, the staffs of these groups are part of a professional subculture with its own career rules accompanied by rewards or penalties for observing or ignoring them. While this is no different than any profession, it clearly has an effect on how these groups go about their business, an effect that may be quite at odds with what the organization is supposed to be about.
Finally, unlike the liberal non-profits, corporate lobbying groups are not expected to manufacture pharmaceuticals, run TV stations or drill for oil. They only represent these activities in the political world. Liberal and progressive lobbyists, on the other hand, are expected to carry the whole load, and end up creating the illusion of making something when they are really only marketing it.
Just as our government often reduces the citizen to a mere customer of the state, so such political organizations typically reduce their participants’ role to merely signing something or writing a check.
This is not to say that these organizations are wrong or useless. Especially given the complexities of getting legislation and budgets passed, something of this sort is essential. It is only to say that they should be a far less important part of something that is far greater.
Two ways to deal with this problem come to mind. One is an alternative political party. Of late, the most successful attempt has been the Green Party, but as one of those who helped it get going, I confess to serious sadness over its limitations and effectiveness. These failures include:
– An inability to merge politics with organizing and a grassroots movement along the lines of earlier American socialists and populists. The Greens are not unique with this problem. I have, from time to time, asked candidates who are admirable but unlikely to win what they plan to do when they lose. The question tends to shock or annoy, but it is essential to a successful strategy. For example, a campaign that may only attract 5-10 percent of the vote can easily raise notice for various issues that can expand after the election. It can help build strength in communities that might be hard to reach outside of a campaign. It can, in short, serve not just as a traditional campaign but as an alternative form of organizing and one that does not end with election day.
– An inability to make politics a part of the social culture of one’s supporters. Television and other technological developments have badly damaged politics’ former role as a integral element of community life. Some years back, I tried to address this once in a talk at a conference:
“I rise to interrupt your proceedings – logical, thoughtful, and well constructed though they are – to suggest something oddly subversive: that people only get involved in politics in large numbers when it becomes more than politics, when it is more than a logical, thoughtful and well constructed process, when it is more even than a ideology. They get involved when politics becomes a normal, convivial, exciting and satisfying part of their social existence.”
The Greens are ideally situated to revive the non-political side of politics. They are local, sensitive to non-political values and concerns and start with humanistic bias towards their work. But traditional politics is so powerful that it influences how even the non-traditional view their efforts.
– The Greens have over-emphasized presidential politics at the cost of missing numerous local opportunities. While this obsession is understandable, it is not a particular smart way to spend your time and money when you’re as small and weak as the Greens – even if it does allow you to bask in the nearly obscene hatred of Democrats for Greens having the gall to act as though they live in a constitutional democracy. After all, the madness of others does not necessarily confirm one’s own course.
– The Greens have been unduly rigid in both their approach and their tone, thus making it easy for others to view them as self-righteous prigs. High on the list of good political traits is being nice to others, welcoming them to your cause, making them feel at home. I have suggested, unsuccessfully, that the Greens make it clear that they are not just a party but a home and a salon des refuse for all those trying to make a better world, especially those young who are uncomfortable with the archaic manifestations of liberalism.
– To loosen this rigidity – real or perceived – the Greens could deliberately welcome part-timers, half-wayers and other stragglers on the true path. When I was invited to my first Green meeting in 1993, my instant reaction was, “But I’m not good enough to be a Green.” The host, John Rensenbrink, replied like a Tammany Hall pro, “That’s all right Sam, there’ll be a libertarian there, too.” Later, I would describe myself as the chair of the Big Mac caucus of the Green Party because, even with my participation in the birthing, I didn’t always feel completely at home.
The rigid image could be altered relatively easily. There could be various subgroups such as, say, the Two Thirds Greens (who still vote Democratic for president or senator but agree to support Greens further down the ticket) or the Backyard Greens (who spend their time tending to the substantial local potential for the party, leaving the presidential fracas to others).
If this seems to dilute the Green cause, consider this from the Socialist’ own history:
“From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views.”
If the Socialists could be that wishy-washy it would seem the Greens might loosen up a bit.
I mention these problems as indicative of what can happen when one pursues the third party route. There is nothing irreversible in any of this. At its best a third party in our grossly unfair electoral system can still be the place where the better of the dominant parties eventually go to steal some new ideas, as was true with the Populists, Socialists and Progressives. Certainly the Green Party is well positioned in this regard; on issues like the war and health care, the Greens are much more typically American than the Democrats.
But a truly broad movement would have to include not just Greens, but Democrats, independents and the politically alienated or apathetic. The Green Party would be an important part of America 2.0 but only a part.
If you step back from the issues involved and consider just organizing skill, a remarkable fact emerges. The groups most effective at organizing large groups of people in America these days are not political at all, but churches.
Even discounting for the carrot of promised salvation, a serious organizer can find much to admire and emulate in the way churches go about their business. This is not a new phenomenon. I once heard a public radio account of how a 1920s labor organizer arriving in Arkansas found only two groups that understood how to organize: black Baptists and the KKK. So he used them both in his efforts.
An Alinsky-trained organizer would understand this but the average liberal or Green would be shocked. What the union activist understood about politics is that it’s not where you come from, but where you’re willing to go that counts. And even the average church is kinder to sinners than your typical political purist these days.
What is the secret of the church approach to organizing, again leaving aside the not insignificant come-on of heaven?
To begin with, at their best, churches are congregations and not merely organizations. Our society has become so bureaucratized that we hardly recognize the difference, but there is a big one. An organization is a carefully constructed pyramid, a congregation is far less clearly defined. One is a bureaucratic system, the other a social one. One is an artificial construct; the other is a voluntary gathering, a swarming in modern terms, around common values and goals.
Finally, organizations pride themselves on adherence to a specific mission; congregations see their role as far more holistic including the spiritual, the political, the therapeutic and caring for those in need even if they are not a part of the group.
Part of the secret of mega-churches, for example, is that they serve as a substitute for both government welfare and normally socially disconnected charities.
But it’s not just a skill of evangelicals. You can find it among Unitarians, at Quaker meeting or in a synagogue – the sense that the group represents not only common faith, but a shared community and an obligation to each other. It was also typical of the old political machines such as in the Chicago’s 24th ward as run by Jacob Arvey. Said a contemporary: “Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there’s already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moment of its tumble.”
What if we were to use secular congregations as one basis for building America 2.0? What if we were to form these congregations just as many churches started: in somebody’s living room, around a table or a fireplace? What if we stopped seeking so hard for a structural or ideological solution and developed instead thousands of small congregations of those sharing both national and local, political and personal concerns?
Another aspect of churches is that they have preachers. While churches do have bureaucracies, these tend to be less important than the typical modern corporate or government bureaucracy thanks to personal leadership.
Some may regard this as highly undemocratic, but the fact is that churches tend to be more stable politically than many political organizations. In choosing a minister, the congregation gives its common interests and values a face and not merely an organization or a mission statement. The democracy comes from whether you show up on Sunday, fall away or move on to another church.
When I think back over all the political organizations with which I have been involved, far and away the most impressive in its work, the most emotional in the attachment it attracted and the most moving in its memories was the civil rights movement.
I strongly suspect that a major reason for this was that the movement – consciously and unconsciously – used the church as a model.
This went beyond the large number of ministers involved in the cause or the regular use of churches as meeting places. It affected the language, the music and the rhythm of the movement. And it was a movement in which you recalled its leaders as easily as its organizations. The power lay in that special relationship between a congregation of common believers working with someone they trusted for as long as that trust lasted.
To be sure, liberalism has some of the ritualistic characteristics of a church, but it is more that of a closed sect or a cult than of a welcoming congregation and it lacks the communal network, hospitality and sense of mutual obligation. There are a few contemporary models of secular prachers – Ralph Nader and Cindy Sheehan come to mind – but they are rare just as the sort of spirit, symbolized by rows of people holding hands in common accord and common voice is also rare today.
At that early 1993 Green meeting, we ended standing in a circle and I found myself holding hands with the pony-tailed mayor of Cordova, Alaska feeling a hope I have seldom felt since.
It can happen again, these secular congregations led by prophetic voices, but you don’t get them with a grant proposal or some new carefully contrived structure. You have to do it, believe in it, find others who agree, and settle on a place to make it happen.
I recently visited the Clearwater Festival with my family. Over 90 performers were there on the Hudson River bank – ranging from Blues and Funk to Cajun and Zydeco. And with the revival music was a clear message of reviving the earth.
I was prepared to be bored, like going to one more political antique show. Instead, I found myself in a place of magic, surrounded by happy, decent and lively people. I felt good about America as I watched a woman singing “Union Maid” and clogging between the verses – as I rediscovered the almost forgotten notion of activism and joy bound together.
You don’t find it much in modern politics. There’s a stiffness, an artificiality and the assignment of potential activists to a passive seat in the audience. A few elite performers instead of large numbers of unskilled voices. A message rather than conversation. Watching Live Earth on TV rather than wandering around the Clearwater Festival.
Symbols are more than marketing or PR. The symbols we use define not just a cause or its image but signal our relationship to it. Among the missing:
– Even with a broadly despised war, there is no simple icon like the 1960s peace symbol.
– There is no hand greeting like the “V” sign or a special hand clasp.
– There is no color associated with supporters of a new America.
– There is a stunning silence. The disappearance of easily recalled tunes in popular music has taken sound away from our collective lips, leaving a silence that “like a cancer grows.”
– There is a lack of art of literature that clearly reflects the collapse of the First American Republic, or our present political purgatory – what Eric Budon of the Animals has called “the endarkenment.”
We are in a terrible moment of our history yet we have left its iconization to the same forces that caused all the trouble in the first place. As we start to think about America 2.0, retrieving control of our symbols should be near the top of the list.
One has to go back to the Great Society to find a time when Democrats knew what they were doing and how to describe it. The Greens have an agenda, but it is complex and undifferentiated. Meanwhile, the GOP has happily gone about oversimplifying life to God and gays, abortion and Al Qaeda, and the left still can’t figure out why it’s losing.
Quick: describe the progressive agenda in a few sentences.
If we can’t do it, how the hell is the media and the public meant to know?
The point here is not to define the list, but to argue the need for one. It might be both broad as:
– Changing our foreign policy so fewer people want to kill us for it
– Adding morality to our commercial affairs and restoring economic progress to all Americans, not just for those at the top
– Providing single payer healthcare
– Saving the planet from further ecological destruction
And it might be as specific as:
– Instant runoff voting
– Ending credit card usury
– Shifting public budgets from cars and planes to buses, bicycles and trains
I might not even agree with these lists tomorrow, but it only took 70 words and you already have a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from, which is more than you can say of the major Democratic presidential candidates.
How to devise such a list on a mass basis is an interesting problem worth discussion and consideration. During the last presidential campaign I suggested a major conference of progressive organizations to devise a short agenda but with so many groups looking so inwardly at their own roles and budgets, this may prove impossible.
Another way would be a common polling system on progressive web sites and blogs or surveys by standard polling organizations.
Whatever the system, a brief, clear and strong consensus is essential and long overdue.
Just as progressive goals are lost in the mush, the same could be said of values. In fact, there may be less consensus possible than one might imagine. How do you get the Manhattan liberal to worry about and respect the drought-stricken Montana farmer? How do you get well-off gays to concern themselves with the urban poor? How do you get women’s groups to recognize the degree to which non-college educated young men are the ones really in the rear these days? How do you blend the liberal, the populist, the civil libertarian and the green?
One thing is for certain: we don’t know because we haven’t tried. One way to start is to commence talking about it, finding common ground, testing who we really are and what we have in common.
A few questions to start the discussion:
– Can urban progressives find common ground with non-urban Americans?
– Why have the values of populism and civil liberties become less important among liberal agenda?
– How do we form debates so the door is open to gather supporters and not chase them away?
– Why isn’t community – including local control – more important to the progressive movement of the day?
– How do we foster the idea of reciprocal liberty – I can’t be free unless you have your freedom – rather than having freedom defined by purists on either the left or the right?
Ten years ago in my book, The Great American Political Repair Manual, I outlined some values that I thought were central to what I called a cooperative commonwealth, such as:
– We seek to be good stewards of our earth, good citizens of our country, good members of our communities, and good neighbors of those who share these places with us.
– We reject the immoderate tone of current politics, its appeal to hate and fear, its scorn for democracy, its preference for conflict over resolution, its servility to money and to those who possess it, and its deep indifference to the problems of ordinary Americans.
– We seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions.
– We should tread gently upon the earth and leave it in better condition than we found it.
– The physical and cultural variety of human beings is a gift and not a threat. We are glad that the world includes many who are different from ourselves by nature, principle, inclination or faith.
– We must protect the right of others to disagree with us so we shall be free to speak our own minds.
– Our national economic goal is the self-sufficiency, well-being and stability of our communities and those living in them.
– Ecological principles should determine economic policies and not vice versa.
– The first source of expertise is the wisdom of the people.
– Individuals possess fundamental rights that are inalienable and not contingent on responsibilities assigned by the state. These rights are to be restrained only by a due concern for the health, safety, and liberty of others and are not to be made subservient to the arbitrary and capricious dictates of the government.
– Citizens should participate as directly as possible in our democracy
– The media should inform citizens and provide a means by which citizens may address government rather than serving as a vehicle by which members of the government and elites tell citizens what to think.
– Power should be devolved to the lowest practical level.
-The Bill of Rights and other constitutional provisions have deep permanence and are not to be manipulated or abridged for political gain.
– Politics dependent on corporate financing and lobbyist influence is corrupt, anti-democratic and unacceptable.
– Simplicity, conservation and recycling should be central to our economy, our politics and our lives.
– Individual privacy is paramount and not to be subservient to the needs of the state.
– Individual rights are manifestly superior to any granted corporations.
– Our elected officials are servants and representatives, not rulers.
– We need more community more than we need more things.
– We are citizens and not merely taxpayers.
– We own our government and are not merely its consumers.
Change it, rewrite it, scrap it, but put something down that explains to us and others what it is we value.
GETTING DOWN TO IT
One thing is certain: the major political parties, their lobbying groups and think tanks are not going to be of much help. These groups will subvert any new dream and drag it back to the establishment’s agenda much as the Democratic Party and groups like Move On have done with health care or the Brookings Institution has done with smart growth.
And just concentrating on necessities – such as ending the Iraq War or stopping Bush’s assaults on the Constitution – won’t lead to a new America either, essential as these issues may be. We must learn to distinguish between survival and creation and give each its due. These days we seriously shortchange the latter.
Finally, we must remember that change does not require a license. It traditionally has come from the unanointed, the unprotected and the unexpected. We need to create thousands of secular congregations, charettes for a new America and communities of hope and invention – and then bring our discoveries to others so they can share.
In the end, the only solution to a failed America is a new America. And there’s nobody who can do it but us.