I recently saw a group that I support highlight in an email blast an article by John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats.” I scanned the article and found it to be disturbing. It seemed to be a “broad brush” attack on seemingly any progressive who works in any way with Democrats.
As I have written about in past columns, I feel strongly that this is a very self-defeating, losing strategy, and I say this as someone who has been part of groups trying to build an independent, progressive alternative to the Dems and Reps for 38 years, including up to the present. I’m currently the chair of a local Green Party group, the Essex/Passaic Counties Green Party in northern NJ.
The article is a very sharp attack on “the liberal elite [who] own the Progressive Movement,” and there’s undoubtedly truth to a good bit of what Stauber puts forward as far as the “rich elite” using their wealth to try to manipulate and direct progressive activism and groups. It is also true that there are some who work for groups that are close to the Democratic Party who are essentially careerists, out for job security and a nice big salary above anything else.
This isn’t exactly news. The rich and powerful for centuries, millennia really, have been about either suppressing or coopting mass movements, or potential mass movements, that could threaten their wealth and power. And the same with personal corruption.
Is what has been happening over the last decade or so, which is the period Stauber is writing about, much different? It doesn’t seem like it to me. What is different, of course, is the obscene amount of wealth and power held by the 1%, with economic inequality being at levels not seen since the 1920’s, but I don’t see how that quantitative difference changes the fundamental reality of them continuing to use both repression (more a Republican approach) and cooptation (more a Democratic approach) to try to maintain this unjust status quo.
But Stauber’s article is more than this. Stauber is about “naming names” of those he regards as essentially traitors to progressive causes, tools of the 1%, people and groups not to be trusted in any way.
His one-sided approach reminded me of a conversation I had with a militant anti-capitalist friend many years ago, around the time I had decided that I needed to change my life, make my major focus of work the climate crisis. In a discussion with him about my decision to do so, he argued that I would be more effective if I focused on building a stronger anti-capitalist Left movement to overturn the system. I didn’t agree, and the years since have confirmed my decision. I thought then, and I still do, that given how imminent the climate crisis was, how close to climate tipping points we were (and are, worse now), and given the historic weaknesses of and the difficulty in uniting the anti-capitalist Left, the most important task not just for me but for others was to do all we could to build a strong, independent climate movement to try to avoid catastrophic, worldwide climate disruption. That had to be priority #1.
How does this relate to Stauber’s article?
Stauber is about separating those who support Democrats in any way from those who, apparently, have nothing to do with Democrats. He briefly criticizes the group 350.org, for example, and links to an article by an anonymous “The Insider” writer who does everything she/he can to paint it as “a manipulated charade, funded and run with loads of money from pro-Obama Democrats through non-transparent organizations like the Tides Foundation.” It is a ridiculous, off-the-deep-end article. Do Stauber and “The Insider” think that Barack Obama was glad to have over 1250 people arrested at the White House, glad that they were planning to demonstrate at his re-election headquarters, glad that they are continuing to lead visible demonstrations on this issue, glad that Bill McKibben has more than once written in a very pointed and critical way of Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy and weak action on climate?
If Bill McKibben voted for Obama (I really don’t know) would this mean that he is a tool of the 1%? Of course not. What it means more than anything else is that the U.S. electoral set-up has so far been very effective in marginalizing any electoral challenge to the corporate-dominated, winner-take-all, two-party system. The Green Party, for example, the most effective, national, electoral progressive party in the U.S., almost 30 years after it began forming, managed to garner less than ½ million of about 120 million votes cast in the 2012 Presidential election.
There are lots and lots of progressives who are not careerists, who are dedicated organizers, who are not getting rich or close to it, who voted for Obama or who, as in my case, are glad Obama won even if they didn’t vote for him. Similarly, there are lots of people on the Left who have absolutely no illusions about the nature of the two-party system who appreciate that to build a mass movement for fundamental change you need to work with Democrats, independents and even some Republicans.
Militant, ideologically-grounded, anti-Democratic Party anti-capitalists, even if they were all brought together somehow, aren’t anywhere close to being the mass movement for progressive change that is so desperately needed.
There’s another thing that Stauber’s article caused me to reflect on. That’s the fact that there are people like him who are very quick to judgmentally and often-harshly criticize other committed progressives who, for honest reasons, disagree with them on strategy and tactics. It’s like they’ve learned nothing from the decades of the Left being in the political wilderness in the US when it comes to us being a recognized political force by the US American people.
Where does this narrowness and sectarianism come from? Well, in all honesty, it’s really the flip side of what Stauber criticizes in his over-the-top way, the selling out, the opportunism of some who appreciate how corrupt and brutal the existing system of capitalism is but who are willing to “forget” that for personal advancement or individual gain.
It’s the flip side because neither approach will ever get us to the Great Harmony, the Beloved Community, a New and Loving Society.
Revolutionary change doesn’t come about because of a small group of ideologically-driven, 80-hours-of-work-a-week political activists. There is a need for committed organizers who work hard and who have learned from the experiences of past successful and unsuccessful efforts for positive social change. But ultimately, as a famous Chinese revolutionary once said, “the masses make history,” masses who come together and learn about how to work together for the common good.
How can “the masses” ever trust those who say they are about a qualitatively different kind of society if they see internal bickering and sectarian attacks, people not able to work together in a constructively critical way?
Truly, how we interact with one another now, how we demonstrate maturity when we have differences, is key, absolutely key, to us having any hope of amassing the political strength to win. And given the reality of the U.S. electoral system and the failure of efforts to build a truly mass “third party” alternative, there’s no question in my mind that what we need right now is more like a “third force,” an alliance that brings together Greens and other independents with progressive Democrats and some Republicans. We’ll never do this, not even close, if we’re looking for ways to separate people who are in agreement on a great deal as far as the direction of change but who have differences over some of the details of how to get there.
It’s as true as it has always been: in unity there is strength.
Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.