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                                       politics + culture

Sunday, June 17, 2007

the Spirit of '06

My activism didn't come out of the blue.

I've had the privilege, as I came up, to meet with and learn from so many people representing the legacies of the last 70 years of political activism in the United States: whether it was my cousin Mark who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1970s, or my parents who took me door-knocking community organizing in the St. Paul neighborhood where they still live, or my own time in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s...side-by-side with veterans from the US Civil Rights movement. To this day I feel a kindred solidarity with so many activists from the 1980s and 90s for whom the names Jesse Jackson and Paul Wellstone evoke progressive hopes and dreams from what is now a bygone era. When it comes to learning from and having access to those who've come before me, my life has had an embarassment of riches.

What I'd like to do today, however, is do something that was never really explicitly done for me, which is to express, succinctly, some useful lessons learnt by folks in my generation, and put them out there for debate and discussion for those of us, whatever our age, here at this turning point for the next generation of netroots/grassroots activists.


the Reagan/Bush era: 1980-2005

My generation, GenX, has been shaped and haunted by the legacy of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and the conservative depths that United States politics and policy descended to in the 1980s, depths we've only just begun to emerge from with the 2006 elections.

The 26 years (1980-2005) leading up to the national elections of 2006 form, simply put, a dark cloud over US political history, an era of rearguard battles where progressive activists had all we could do to fight to prevent the substantive erosion of almost everything liberals and grassroots activists had achieved in the post-war era.

This era, the era of Reagan and Clinton and Bush, is marked by significant losses at almost all levels: in the media, in the judiciary, on the level of policy, on the level of the national discourse, in State legislatures, in municipal governments, and in the Federal Government of the United States itself. These losses have taken their toll in ways large and small. These battles shaped us and, often, pulled us apart.


Equal Rights and Oil

Take two small examples: two hallmarks of the Carter Administration and liberal activism of the 1970s are the failed effort to pass an Equal Rights Amendment in 1979 and what is still, to this day, the vilified attempt by Jimmy Carter to emphasize conservation, fuel economy and a reduction of U.S. dependence on oil. In both cases, liberals were right on the facts and right on principle. In both cases we failed.

In the case of equal rights, we have now witnessed, with the five justice majority in Ledbetter, a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court antithetical in any meaningful sense of the term to the notion of equal pay for equal work. The Bush appointees, Justices Roberts and Alito formed an unholy alliance with Justices Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas to add a coup de grace to the conservative defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment 28 years earlier and a wake up call to all Americans that, with Justice Kennedy playing for the conservative side, quite literally, the Constitution does not mean what it meant before George W. Bush successfully marshalled Justices Roberts and Alito through the confirmation process.

In the case of conservation and US policy regarding oil, the legacy is clear. We are standing, today, deep in a hole of our own making. We have given global warming, dependence of foreign oil and our reliance on a "car economy" attuned to the whims of the US oil and automotive industries a 26 year head start; it is also no coincidence that our nation has been, in one way or another, at war in the Middle East since 1990. Rather than lead the world in fuel economy and new technologies, the US automotive industry has fallen vastly behind world competition due to a two decade fascination with SUVs and a trend towards ever larger vehicles for the ever larger American posterior. Democrats and Republicans alike have enabled this national dependence and energy profligacy through an alarming lack of national discipline when it comes to oil. The American Conservative movement has, ironically enough, at the end of the day, succeeded in making conservation and independence dirty words.

These two examples bring home my central point: my generation has learned the bitter lesson that while liberals may be right on the facts and right in principle, being right means nothing if we are not politically effective both inside the United States system of government and in American society at large. The lesson of the last 26 years is that being right is simply not enough.


engagement, coalition and party reform

What is called for right now is a massive change in the culture of liberal politics in the United States of America. Whether it is through the efforts of online netroots activists of all ages, or grassroots DFA'ers, or 16-30 year old millienial social networkers, or a revitalized US labor and civil rights movement...that change is already underway. To make sure that this change is fully realized, however, we must first fully understand its key components.

The tactics of the last previous 26 years of progressive activism...a politics of purity (the legacy of 60's idealism), a never-ending series of "back against the wall" actions (the legacy of Reagan's triumphs), and an atomization of our politics into ever smaller constituent groups (a reaction to Clintonian triangulation and a rejection of getting involved in partisan politics)...must be plowed under so that we can grow a new era in US politics.

What is called for right now are three massive parallel movements: engagement, coalition, and party reform.



The first movement, already underway, calls for an across-the-board engagement with the structures of United States Governement from the local to the federal level. We need to build a culture that embraces engagement, embraces policy, and embraces, above all, the value of working in partisan politics. For too long, many liberals have prided themselves in remaining outside of politics, have refused to "get their hands dirty" with partisan politics; that disdain for party politics has yielded exactly what one might expect, a triumph of the party that was willing to dive in over the one that wasn't. We need to reverse that. We need to valorize getting involved in the process; we need to grow a new generation of activists committed to a lifetime's work of writing and shaping the laws of the land at every level of government. We need to get the discussion from the trite "lesser of two evils" debate into the territory of "which office are YOU going to run for?" or "what do you think of this bill?"

In my view, people who don't get involved in politics, especially local politics, don't really have much grounds to complain. The era of complaining is over. The era of engagement has begun.

coalition building

Second, a new generation of liberals and progressives must define a new form of coalition building that will bury, once and for all, the divisive, counter-productive and ineffective politics of purity and atomization that have bedeviled American progressives for the better part of a half-century.

Politics is not about being pure. It is about building coalition. It is not that we don't have ideals or ideology. We all do. Every last one of us. But successful politics in the United States happens only when our political pragmatism is informed by our ideals; history has proven that successful idealists are the ones who build pragmatic coalitions. That is the essential formula. The success of the conservative movement taught us that though ideology may well be the motor that drives a political party, it is pragmatism, patience and coalition building that forge political success.

the politics of purity

Two decades of observation of the generation preceding me has taught me that the single greatest error of the 60s generation was an obsession with political purity that impeded true coalition building and, ultimately, engagement with our government. How the 60s generation moved from an era founded on the diverse and engaged coalitions that built the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the women's rights movement into the atomized, PC, ineffective political world that greeted us at the dawn of the Clinton era...a world that we GenX'ers in no small part contributed to and endorsed...is the true story of the fall from power of liberals in the United States.

Like every movement in American political history, we progressives will only be as strong as the political coalitions we build. And our coalitions will only be as strong as the pragmatism with which they ruthlessly pursue our ideals. Conservatives have had no problem doing both tasks...building coalition and advancing their ideology...liberals, on the other hand, have failed at both. Time and again, history has taught us that ideology without pragmatic coalition equals political failure.

I can think of no better example of this than the amazing number of brilliant American academics of "perfect ideological credentials" who have never even considered running for office despite their training and insight into politics. Paul Wellstone was the exception when he should have been the rule. Paul Wellstone was an engaged idealistic citizen and a relentless coalition builder; the two go together. We could all learn a great deal from his legacy.

Party Reform

Finally, we must reform this party. If there is any lesson that is clear cut to my generation it is this reality: if we cannot live up to the values of good government, of sunshine provisions, of anti-corruption, of fair and clean elections and meaningful campaign finance reform then our movement is not worth a nickel.

The time to make our anti-corruption stance clear is on the front end. If we are to rebuild American faith in government then we must show Americans, once and for all, how good government works. We cannot do this while we are beholden to dinosaur Democrats who think that the gravy train has left the station.

This is a new day. Progresssive politics will mean nothing if it does not mean a clear cut stance for clean government and real reform. In fact, nothing is a greater demobilizer for getting folks involved and broadening our coalition than the perception that the Democratic party is "just another bunch of greedy politicians." We must make reform and good government the pole star of progressive politics or else we will certainly lose our way.


I am excited about politics in 2007. I am excited every time I talk to a local activist or a twenty-something...or sixty-something...citizen who is embarking on a career in public policy or local politics or service in our government.

The scar tissue we activists from previous generations carry around with us must be healed. The time to let go of old battles is now, even as we learn from our shared history. This new day is about looking forward and getting involved. That's what defined our netroots and grassroots-fueled victory in '06...those values, in fact, will be the measure of our generation.

Ironically, our backs are more against the wall now than they ever were in 1980. But we must not allow this predicament to divide us into splintered factions. Our job is to hew to our ideals and to make a pragmatic commitment to the coalitions that will win the day.

There are many who think that Chicago in '07 or Denver in '08 will represent divisive moments for Democrats. They have it all wrong. 2008 will be a decisive moment for Democrats. I am sure this will be true for no other reason than because, just like we did in 2006, we will come together to make it so. We are in a battle for governance of the United States, and it is a battle of such consequence that we must win.

This will not be easy. We must fight to define the election of 2006 every day. That's how politics works; that's democracy. But when we are finished with this task, we can be proud that history may well say that our political movement flew under the banner of the "Spirit of '06."

That's something to shoot for, and to think about.



  • They hit you on marisacat. I generally agree with a lot of your stuff, but it's an interesting point nevertheless.


    I'm a blogger sickened by Kos' "principles" and have gone elsewhere for my political reading. I bookmark your site.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:16 PM  

  • Great post! I notice that you continue to insist that progressives abandon "political purity". I usually, don't expect the politicians I vote for to be perfectly in line with my way of thinking. However, there are issues of our day that I simply can not overlook, such as the American Occupation of Iraq and anti-worker legislation. On both of these issues Hillary Clinton fails miserably. If she wins the nomination I will probably not vote for her.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:59 AM  

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