How to jump start the progressive movement

Sam Smith, 2010

Define your politics issue by issue, not icon by icon. One reason progressive politics fares so poorly is because we spend too much time on individual campaigns and not enough on issues. While the former tend to drive away the independent, the skeptical and those who don’t like a particular a candidate, the latter can attract all sorts to join with others who may agree on only one issue.

Define your politics by issue by issue, not by ideology. It’s a lot easier to get a cross section of people backing a particular issue than it is for them to buy into your whole philosophy of life. Use the former approach on the streets and save the latter for the bar. You don’t need common ideology if you have common causes.

Use fewer experts from the Ivy League and more from Iowa.

Remember that most minority voters don’t get to even look at a glass ceiling. But many of them run into locked doors every day. Pay much more attention to the latter.

Don’t dis’ those whose votes you need. Convert them with policies that actually help them. Do a good enough job and they’ll forget about abortions and gay marriage.

The red states are not your enemy;
they are an undeveloped market.

Remember that minorities have diversity, too. Just because a black politician talks about hope and change doesn’t mean he’s Martin Luther King. Especially if he’s from Chicago.

Support small business. Nobody else does.

Support labor unions. Nobody else does.

Go after credit card usury. Nobody else does and everyone else would love it

Move economic issues back to the top of the list. Since the 1980s, liberals have forgotten this basic part of their heritage, which brought us things like an end to the depression, Social Security, a minimum wage and Medicare. Besides, economic issues are ones that best cut across geographic, cultural and ethnic lines.

Sing about it. Just about every successful great movement has moved along to the sound of its own music.

Stop harping on Bill O’Reily. You’re only helping to build his base. Follow Samuel Goldwyn’s advice and “don’t even ignore him.” The more he becomes the issue the less important real issues become.

Personal to Chris Matthews and Rachel Madow: A progressive movement can’t be built with endless sarcastic comments about your opponents. It can be built by people understanding and becoming enthusiastic about the policies you support.

No more stimulus packages for grad school liberals. One of the things many people don’t like about traditional liberals is how federally oriented they are. This is due in no small part to an elite class that longs for jobs in Washington. Let them get these jobs on their own. Stop constantly designing stimulus packages for them with new federocentric legislation.

Rediscover subsidiarity: All national legislation with state and local impact should meet the standards of what the Catholic Church used to call the principle of subsidiarity: government power should exercised at the lowest practical level. There lots of ways to do this in federal legislation. Here are a few:

– Revenue sharing

– Giving money instead of orders for public education and other programs.

– Decentralizing government agencies like some of the best existing ones such at the National Park Service, Coast Guard and US Attorney – all highly decentralized and involved with local governments and communities.

– Not making too many decisions at the federal level.

– Supporting the 9th and 10th amendments that clearly limit the federal government’s role but which traditional liberals routinely ignore.

Change the rules as well as the game. Support instant runoff voting, public campaign financing, more states, a larger House of Representatives with mixed proportional and district representation like Germany, state banks, and a constitutional amendment to end corporations’ legal status as “persons.”

Distinguish between good regulation and good jobs for regulators. New laws often favor the latter which is why we keep adding regulators but can’t bring the Glass-Steagall Act back.

Sleep with the devil and your offspring may be crooks.
Stop selling out so cheaply.

Support a shorter work week.
It sure helped progressive populists in the past.

Don’t forget the forgotten. Everyone talks about having a black president, but hardly anyone does anything about the huge number of young black and white males to whom we offer two main futures: incarceration or pain if not death on the battlefield. It is similar with the poor in general. They have not only been deserted by conservatives and centrists but by liberals as well.

Ditch the war on drugs.  It is America’s most unsuccessful and expensive policy this side of foreign wars. ending it will save money, reduce the police state, limit prosecutorial discrimination against the poor, lower the crime rate and attract a lot of young voters who didn’t even known they were progressives.

Don’t be afraid to lead: When your movement is pretty much down to Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich at the national level, you know there’s plenty of room for you. Most great movements have been led by those most hadn’t even heard of a few years earlier. You could be one of them.

Don’t be afraid to follow. One of the most useful techniques in organizing is to support the work of others. A mass movement is built by groups alternately leading and following each other. And one of the best ways to get respect is to give it.

Go local for both your lettuce and your democracy: One of the great failures of liberalism has been its great disinterest in local power. The closer government is to the people the more they like it and the more responsive it tends to be. Besides, if you can’t be an effective progressive in the ‘hood, then you’ll be a pretty lousy one in Washington.

Turn public schools back to their communities.
It worked for some 200 years until we decided to turn them into human drone development and detention centers where the young are taught to pass tests rather than to learn things.

Try to do the most for the most. If your politics clearly helps the most, then they won’t mind so much when you also help smaller groups within our society. But if you help minorities while ignoring the majority you’re in trouble. Remember, everyone wants to be in show business.

Don’t let anal retentives, turf protectors, budget bullies, ambitious lawyers and CYA bureaucrats kill good ideas. Given the state of contemporary political culture, it would be unlikely that Social Security, Medicare or a minimum wage could be passed today. That’s not so much a reflection of our politics as it is of our culture. We have mainly learned how to say no. Progressives need to reintroduce the concept of yes.

Keep in mind the great 1960s saying: Our goal is not to overthrow the system but to make it irrelevant.

The history of our country has involved repeated conflict between the specifics of the soul and institutional abstractions — between people and places on the one hand and, on the other, a succession of systems desiring to exploit, subjugate or supplant them. We need to oppose not only the bad systems of the moment but unnatural systems in general – all those that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of human beings and the natural assets of their habitats.

The first rule of staying free is to act free. The number of liberals and progressives that follow this rule is sadly small. Everyone these days seems to prefer to talk about balancing rights instead of exercising them. But the rights outlined in the Constitution weren’t bargaining chips; they were permanent guarantees.

Don’t surrender the Bible to the right. Progressives leave the right’s phony theological arguments largely unchallenged, but even an atheist can point out that the Ten Commandments doesn’t say anything about abortion or gay marriage yet sure as hell is down on adultery, stealing (even on Wall Street), bearing false witness (even in political ads) and coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor (even in the name of capitalism). The Bible also doesn’t like usury and strongly suggests that the earth is the lord’s and not the property of multinational corporations. The ultimate irony of right wingers is that that they are comprised in no small part of despoilers, usurers, war-mongers, hypocrites, idolaters and groupies of false prophets – all of whom are frowned upon by the book it pretends to follow. And its opponents, who are more faithful to the words that the conservatives only quote, are often such good Christians that they never say a mumblin’ word about it all.

One of the best ways to revive democracy
is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.

Use the word ‘progressive” and not ‘liberal.’ There are still a lot of nice liberals around with whom to make common cause, but the word itself carries too much baggage. Progressives are activists; liberals are a demographic. Progressives emphasize economic change; liberals in recent years have largely ignored it. Progressives convert their opponents; liberals rant about them. Progressives are grassroots; liberals are federocentric.

Encourage citizens to practice reciprocal liberty. No, we don’t all agree on how things should be done, but we can all understand that we can’t have our liberty unless others do as well. Both right and left spend far too much time trying to stop others from doing things their way. The trick is how as many as possible can do things their way as long as it doesn’t hurt others.

Value tolerance. It’s a word that isn’t heard much any more but could ease a lot of our pain. Tolerance is often a necessary waypoint for people on the way to accepting new ideas. It’s the trial period before full acceptance.

Create an alternative culture – Part of the misery of today’s America is that there are too many people unhappy with the system who have live their misery alone. Part of the beauty of the 1960s was in varied alternative communities. Put down your Ipod and join with others who agree with you.

Educate more and scold less. Issues like climate change are complicated for many and hard to grasp, especially since our schools have devoted more time to teaching driving and creating drug free zones than they have to science. Help people understand issues and don’t blame them for not.

Make change from the bottom up – Part of the illusion of mass media is that change can be organized like a TV series. Try it and typically one of two things happen: it fails or it becomes just more political mush. Too many web-based liberal organizations are simply more lobbying groups. They don’t change politics, souls, or history. Despite TV and the Internet, change still comes from the bottom. Build from up there.

Be tough on leaders, not on followers. Those with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make little distinction between people who merely accept the values of their culture and those who market and manipulate them. It helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and often speak in their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic but it certainly is a human one.

Forget the capitalist-socialist conflict obsession. Two questions help understand the futility:

– Do capitalists ever ride the public subway?

– Who will run the restaurants in the Marxist utopia?

Mix and match based on the reality of the situation and not on somebody’s theory. And learn about co-ops, credit unions and community banks.

Define America. If you don’t like the way the right does it, come up with your own description, stories and role models.

Speak United States. Most Americans don’t talk about stimuli, transparency or infrastructure. But you’d never know it listening to typical Democratic politicians. Avoid the language of the corporate executive, pompous academic, hustling preacher, or boring lawyer. Have fun. If you don’t enjoy your cause, how can you expect others to?

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