Ilyse Hogue – The Nation, February 28, 2011
For the past two weeks, all eyes have been glued to Madison, Wisconsin. The collective and joyful resistance to Governor Scott Walker’s power-grabbing budget bill has inspired the demoralized progressive base and put the corporate-backed assault on working people front and center in the national conversation.
But while it’s obvious that the right wing is out to break the back of the progressive movement, it’s easy to miss the strategy that guides their selection of specific targets. Their attacks are all carefully aimed at the same critical juncture: institutions that work for people in their daily lives and in the political arena, those that connect people’s personal struggles across the country to the political struggle in Washington. Once we recognize the critical role these progressive service organizations play in building progressive politics, the right’s broader strategy in Wisconsin and elsewhere becomes clear. Scott Walker is a soldier in the same army as James O’ Keefe and Lila Rose, the right-wing video pranksters who tried to smear ACORN and Planned Parenthood.
Indeed, last month’s attack on Planned Parenthood provoked a sickening sense of déjà vu. Seemingly out of nowhere, undercover activists secretly filmed an employee of a major progressive institution making embarrassing statements. The resulting video makes news and inflames the debate around federal funding of the organization’s services. It was the ACORN attack all over again [see Peter Dreier and John Atlas’s “The GOP’s Blame-ACORN Game”].
ACORN was unique as a national organization that served our nation’s poor people. Wrangling with life’s common but critical challenges like mortgages and housing forms, ACORN employees built trust by offering assistance person-to-person, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. They then leveraged that trust to lobby for federal legislation to address the root causes of the crises facing these communities—predatory lending, lack of community investment and stagnant wages.
Planned Parenthood operates over 800 health clinics across the country. These clinics are often the only option for women who need vital services, including contraception, HIV testing or PAP smears to detect and prevent cancer and other life-threatening illness. Three million Americans go to Planned Parenthood every year, and one in five women in the United States will visit a Planned Parenthood clinic in their lifetime. The personal relationships developed at clinics inform Planned Parenthood’s critical and ongoing advocacy for federal support for reproductive health and freedom. As a trusted brand representing women in DC, Planned Parenthood Action Fund has successfully lobbied for greater access to healthcare, better educational resources for family planning and the preservation of a woman’s right to choose.
The nexus of service and advocacy is a powerful place to stand: simultaneously addressing direct needs and advocating for systemic redress of those needs is a winning equation for progressive power. Yet, we have precious few progressive organizations left in that spot at the national level, and the ones we have are under attack precisely because our opposition understands their power.
The biggest setback in this area is the long-term decline in union power. For over one hundred years, unions have cared for their members, cultivated community and engaged in political advocacy to raise living standards for the working people.
But after weathering decades of sustained attacks and public vilification from the right, private-sector union membership is at an all-time low of 6.9 percent. These unions may be facing extinction in the next decade. Meanwhile, too many national institutions on the left have increasingly focused solely on advancing policy positions and winning elections. The result is a huge gap between individual people’s real experiences and the institutions we have designed to protect our rights. Still, more than once, I have heard progressive elites ask why “the people” don’t get that they should be fighting with us.
This elite sentiment goes to the heart of the tremendous opportunities we have lost in the last two years. With ACORN out of the picture, Planned Parenthood on defense and unions fighting for their lives, the decreasing ability of national progressive institutions to help meet people’s real needs in the economic crisis has hurt us badly. Policy prescriptions don’t feed the family dinner tonight, and detailed explanations of who is to blame for the crash don’t put a roof over people’s heads tomorrow—no matter how correct the analysis. Of course, exceptions exist–Van Jones’s Green for All is one attempt to bridge the gap–but these innovations are few and often given short shrift by entrenched interests at the national table.
The historic roots of this gap are clear. My generation was raised in a political climate where the excess of the ’80s had spawned a loathsome and blatant disregard for the plight of poor people. The prevailing notion was that addressing poverty and the slipping state of the working class was the purview of churches and private charities, not government. Government was for cutting services and taxes, a whole generation of freshly minted conservatives asserted.
Liberals understandably fought back by defiantly focusing on our core tenet that government can and should advocate for all its citizens, including those with the least. We concentrated national resources into legislative and electoral fights, believing that by battling the collusion between corporate special interests and party bosses we could move toward greater economic fairness. Often, a focus on service was denigrated by those in the political sphere as playing into the opposition’s hands by implicitly suggesting that private citizens could eradicate the need for government intervention through charitable acts alone.
As a young middle-class adult, my work at the local food bank or homeless shelter was commended. However, I was taught this was charity and completely separate from my political organizing. Each had a place in my life, and each had completely separate stories, peer groups and institutions associated with them.
Even the word “service” is a damaging vestige that artificially separates providers from those seeking assistance. As progressives, we need to project a conviction that all American destinies are linked and thus need to be addressed systemically as well as in the moment. Otherwise, frustration borne from lack of opportunity will continue to be parlayed by the radical right into support for budget cuts and other policies that will only further our nation’s misery.
The progressive vision of a government of, for and by the people is as relevant as ever, but in light of the last few years, we need to re-examine how we get there. Powerful political movements reach deep into culture and society. They compel people to join for work, for play and for mutual aid. Emotional bonds sustain them in times of struggle, and a common vision leads to strategic engagement with the forces shaping their world. Too many progressive elites ask themselves why regular folks don’t support their political fights in Washington (take Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?).
A better question might be: How do we better support those regular folks in their struggles at home?