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October 11, 2005

Losing Hearts & Minds or Lack of Political Power

Many progressives, liberals and unionists would probably say that our problems stem from lack of political power. But our lack of power has its roots in something even more important and that is our inability to capture the hearts and minds of the people. Strategy is important, tactics are important but fundamental to all of this is having answers to peoples problems that make sense and are easy to understand.

Recently I had a conversation with a Professor who asked my opinion of what has been happening in the labor movement. I responded by telling him that I think our main problem is that we are coming up with answers to the question 'what do unions need to do to increase membership?' rather than asking the question 'what do workers need in today's economy?'.

Answers to the first question can lead an institution to do many things, even come up with strategies to  increase membership, while at the same time having little or no impact on the daily lives of workers. I think labor unions on both sides of the Change to Win/AFL-CIO split are essentially only looking out for what is in the best interest of their particular institution. To be sure these unionists (on both sides) do believe that what they are doing is ultimately in the best interests of their membership but they are viewing the terrain through the lens of the existing institution.

The second question is much more difficult to grapple with. While the unions in Change to Win have been making a big deal about how bold a move it was to leave the AFL-CIO in reality, major unions have been moving in and out of the AFL-CIO throughout the 50 years of its existence. A move which was truly bold would be one that fundamentally reorients and alters the institution. Such a change could only occur if unions asked "what do workers in today's economy need?"

But it is not only unions which are losing the battle, it is the entire progressive project. An article in today's NY Times highlights the problem:

Liberal Hopes Ebb in Post-Storm Poverty Debate (NY Times-Free)

As Hurricane Katrina put the issue of poverty onto the national agenda, many liberal advocates wondered whether the floods offered a glimmer of opportunity. The issues they most cared about - health care, housing, jobs, race - were suddenly staples of the news, with President Bush pledged to "bold action."

But what looked like a chance to talk up new programs is fast becoming a scramble to save the old ones.

Conservatives have already used the storm for causes of their own, like suspending requirements that federal contractors have affirmative action plans and pay locally prevailing wages. And with federal costs for rebuilding the Gulf Coast estimated at up to $200 billion, Congressional Republican leaders are pushing for spending cuts, with programs like Medicaid and food stamps especially vulnerable.

Once again the conservative agenda wins. It is not only because they have political power but it is also because the progressive agenda is just not capturing the hearts and minds of people. The best progressives have to offer is "saving the old agenda."

And many of us still don't get it:

"We've had a stunning reversal in just a few weeks," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "We've gone from a situation in which we might have a long-overdue debate on deep poverty to the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that low-income people will be asked to bear the costs. I would find it unimaginable if it wasn't actually happening."

The most important clue in this article is the following and hopefully our arrogance doesn't cause us to miss it:

"This is not the time to expand the programs that were failing anyway," said Stuart M. Butler, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group influential on Capitol Hill.

While the right has proposed alternatives including tax-free zones for businesses and school vouchers for students, Mr. Butler said, "the left has just talked up the old paradigm: 'let's expand what's failed before.' "

There is a real sense among people that yesterday's solutions are just not up to today's task which leaves them open to new or different methods of treating what ails. Our problem is that the right wing has not only out-strategized us, but more importantly they are the ones providing a vision, providing alternatives and providing answers.

A typical response from many in the left is epitomized in the following paragraph:

Doubt about the effectiveness of some programs is only one factor shaping the current antipoverty debate. Another is political muscle: poor people do not make campaign contributions. Many do not even vote.

It seems to me this is more of an assumption than fact. The effects of Katrina and Rita affect people across the board. Sure, the experience of the poor was much worse because their lives were endangered, but the economic destruction and the eventual reconstruction affects an entire swath of the population even beyond the state's borders. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not poor people vote in large enough numbers or not(did they ever?), it is whether people are excited and convinced that there are solutions worth fighting for. The right has given new solutions and visions that are exciting more people, the left has only responded with trying to defend old institutions that no longer inspire.

A case in point is when Bush did away with labor and wage protections after Katrina. How many people, even in labor, knew or cared? There is almost a complicit silence that yes maybe it is better that these rules are relaxed. If even the core base which has benefited by these regulations are left uninspired how do we expect the broader population to care? Or maybe prevailing wage laws never affected enough people in Louisiana so defending them never entered people's minds? (We cannot just blame people here, it seems more and more unions themselves are looking out only for their particular union's interest).

As long as progressives spend their energy defending 20th century institutions and unionists ask themselves how to strengthen their institutions we will be one step behind. That doesn't mean we throw away our principles and the moral foundation of our project but that we reorient them towards a 21st century economy.

October 11, 2005 in Current Affairs, Economy and Unions, Labor Movement Debates, Politics and Unions | Permalink


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I disagree. We fight for and defend these programs because they are good and have good material results for the mass of the poor. We are good and we fight to defend programs which bring good into the world. To cede more ground is defeatist.

We just have to understand that the "debate" that happens on TV, in the newspapers, radio and all other mass media is simply the sound of one hand clapping. It is, in the words of Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle:

"[the media spectacle's] means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory."

Therefore the project of progressives is to develop a counter cultural media and educate people to simultaneously divorce themselves (as much as possible) from the media spectacle AND develop an informed critical eye of the spectacle so as to read between lines. Understanding what is omitted or maligned from within the media torrent reveals what the ruling classes fear the most - namely, a socialist working class consciousness.

Posted by: ReasonInRevolt | Jul 10, 2006 4:55:35 PM

I tend to agree in some capacity. However, when as one said poverty was cut in half between the 60 and 70s, it just goes to show what kind of world we live in today as compared to those painful times.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 23, 2005 1:01:52 AM

Recognizing that current institutions no longer “work” doesn’t mean they never worked nor does it mean we have to give up our “values” when deciding on what to do about it. Similarly it doesn’t mean that at a base level the problems we are dealing with are any different than, as you mention, previous generations faced. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as the saying goes.

Has the left really been lazy and scared? There are many mainstream and grassroots voices defending the old order. If we just look at labor unions, hundreds of millions are spent each year propagating and promoting an institutional regime based on a post ww2 economy. And people are just not excited and oft-times critical of these old solutions.
You put forward an excellent suggestion that folks making this argument need to explore:
“(a) what economic conditions have changed, (b) why these new conditions no longer dovetail with "old" institutions, and most prominently (c) what you have in mind to replace them.”

The problem is that these questions are being tackled but mostly from the right since it is sacrilege among progressives to even question some of this stuff. A progressive take on these questions was attempted but leaves much to be desired check out:

Working in America: A Blue Print for a New Labor Market

Posted by: Mathias | Oct 14, 2005 11:38:46 PM

It's not clear exactly what you are getting at here. After all, the wonderful social Darwinist right-wing vision that people are allegedly so excited about is even older than ours. The truth is people are not that excited about it. On issue after issue, from economics to social policy to foreign policy, most people line up with the center-left in this country.

I read a lot of these "institutions are outmoded" or "ignore economic realities" arguments. Usually they lack much content into (a) what economic conditions have changed, (b) why these new conditions no longer dovetail with "old" institutions, and most prominently (c) what you have in mind to replace them.

Sometimes I feel like I've stumbled into Tech Central Station here. Much of what passes for social thought these days is simply conservative propaganda that the left is either too lazy, too stupid, or too scared to demolish.

Like the idea that institutions get "outmoded" just because they are "old." Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But it seems to me that the problems we are fighting today are largely the same ones that our parents were fighting in the 1960s, our grandparents were fighting on the 1930s, and our great-grandparents were fighting in the 1890s. You know, economic and social inequality? "Free-market" capitalism run amok? Even "globalization" was something our forebears were facing back then (yes, in the 1890s).

It's not what you don't know that kills you, it's what you think you know that just ain't so.

Are you really arguing, for example, that Great Society programs as a whole really failed to do anything about poverty? Then please explain why US poverty was cut in half between 1962 and 1973, but has if anything risen since then. As a whole, the Great Society worked. We had a War on Poverty, and we were winning it, until conservatives declared unilateral disarmament. Why isn't that a vision worth defending? And if you're not going to defend it, then what do you propose to replace it with? Conservative economic, social, and foreign policy is an unmitigated disaster.

Maybe we fail to inspire because too many of us don't defend or even seem to believe in the "old" values anymore.

Posted by: Tom Geraghty | Oct 14, 2005 5:59:58 AM

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