Look elsewhere: The Obama administration and the Congress are institutions beyond reach, beyond rational, and beyond repair. If they were your parents, you would be visited weekly by a government social worker to make sure they had done you no harm. The major programs of the past few years have made little or no sense. We’re in three insane wars. We had a failed stimulus program based on fiscal Viagra for the banks and abstinence for the poor. And nobody really understands either the Obama healthcare bill or the current debt plan.
The first step to avoiding such dysfunction is to avoid those enveloped in it. At least for now, put your major energy into specific issues and saving or reforming your state or community. The latter are not only more likely to be refuges of sanity or easier to change if they are not, but it is where every great movement – from the abolitionists to environmentalists – built their base. We need more of what Hakim Bey called temporary autonomous zones – and more attention to creating them.
Even Orwell understood the importance of local freedom. Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University described Orwell’s underclass this way: “The Proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group.”.
Forget clicktivism: As Micah White put it in the Guardian: “Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone. Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organizations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonies emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.”
Make real friends and allies: Discover the real people in your community – whether a community of geography or of interest – who are trying to do similar things as you. It is easy for two committees in two churches just a few blocks away to be functioning without either knowing what the other is up to. Find new ways to discover your allies. A regular BYO supper for local activists is one approach. A blog that announces what everyone is doing is another. Gatherings where activists get to share their projects is yet another.
Agree on one thing at a time: Organize one issue at a time and build your alliance around that issue. If a gun-toting, abortion hating nun wants to help you save some open space, put her on the committee. You can worry about the other stuff later.
Support those being bashed – Find ways to honor and celebrate those being bashed by the right: unions, teachers, gays etc. Help defend them when they’re being treated badly. Make local heroes out of those the right wants to suppress.
Build a not-yet-union labor movement – Yes, this is a bad time for unions, but in part because unions have failed to see the potential for creating non-union labor movements, many of which could morph into unions. You don’t need a union to organize workers. The United Farm Workers got started without one. What if, for example, we were to have shopping mall workers’ associations that workers and their supporters could join?
Join the Green Party – I helped get the national Green Party going back in the 1990s. I took a lot of grief for it, but much of what I read from angry Democrats these days sounds like we were talking back then. It’s been a lot of fun being a Green. I can vote for Democrats when I want to, never have to apologize for them, and can help to change politics at the local level. And there’s nothing to stop you becoming a backyard Green – Democratic at the national level, and Green at the state and local level. Just register Green and send a message.
Help organize a peace movement – Now that the dumbest wars in American history are endangering Social Security, Medicare and other social programs, it may be time to retest the theory that no one can get an anti-war movement going.
Create an alternative or counter culture – What is extraordinary about these bad times is that there is so little in the way of alternatives. So few protestors, no beats, no hippies, no bohemians. The first step in change is an alternative culture and value system which the disenchanted can join. And it must be real, and not a corporatized, cleverly branded imitation of rebellion.
Create and support alternative economic systems including employee ownership, co-ops, state banks, and local currency.
Get a symbol or two. The symbols we use define not just a cause or its image but can signal our relationship to it. We need something like the 1960s peace symbol, special hand greetings, and color associated with a better America.
Create an agenda consisting of no more than three to six items that will define the fight for a better land. Things like ending wars, single payer healthcare, and ecological sanity.
Create some music – Music has often been the precursor of change. Even when you can make change you can make music about it. The sound of freedom can precede freedom itself.
Become an existentialist: Existentialism, which has been described as the idea that no one can take your shower for you, is based on the hat trick of passion, integrity and rebellion. It is an understanding that we create ourselves by what we do and say and, in the words of one of their philosophers, that even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. It is not what we believe but how we witness those beliefs that count. Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.
– Put economic issues at the top of the list. Nothing cuts across cultures and ethnicities better than common economic issues. Liberals began losing the game when they gave up priority for them.
– Support issues, not icons. Look at the Republicans. They’re overflowing with minor league presidential candidates, yet are winning on the major issues. Spend more time on what we should be doing and less on who should be doing it.
– Have fun. It’s a great way to get people to join your cause.
– If you wish to win people’s support, argue with them, encourage them, heal them, teach them but don’t insult them. Raise hell against the big guys but don’t abuse the ordinary citizen. Show them the way, not the door. Today’s liberals repeatedly castigate those they should be recruiting.
– Build communities not clubs. Liberalism used to be street theater. Now it’s a private club. You can’t build a movement with a club.
– Stop federalizing everything. There’s no evidence that it works and people don’t like it. Adopt the principle that government should be carried out at the lowest practical level and you’ll be surprised how many new friends you make.
– Teach. They don’t teach civics or history in schools much anymore so it’s up to progressives to do the job, just like civil rights activists did with their freedom schools.
– Encourage reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my liberty if you don’t have yours. So some get their guns; others get abortion. It’s part of the essential nature of being an American: sharing space with those with whom you don’t agree.
– Help small business. Neither of the two major parties do, so you can make a lot of new friends this way.
– Unrig our elections. End campaign bribery by public financing and make it constitutionally clear that corporations are not persons. Press for instant runoff voting.
– Keep it simple. Remember that the media is not comfortable with complexity.
– Give it a name. You know, something like the Dunkin Donuts Party that even the media can understand.
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, homes 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.