For progressives, 2010 was a cruel year. Activists who worked day and night to elect a President with the most progressive stands since FDR are now a target of White House scorn. Barack Obama himself argues that change comes from compromise rather than fighting for ideals, confirming that he will not be the engine of progressive change that many thought. Many will respond to these dramatically dashed expectations by giving up activism and focusing on private matters.
These feelings are understandable. But there is a great world of social change activism outside national and presidential politics, and enormous opportunities in 2011 for bringing positive change to people’s lives. The base supporting greater social and economic justice is still there to be mobilized, and activists can still tap the “Si Se Puede” (“Yes We Can”) spirit to succeed.
Here are some areas where activist energies can pay dividends in 2011.
State Budget Campaigns
While tremendous attention is given to federal tax and budget policies, states face major shortfalls in their upcoming 2011-12 budgets. How money is ultimately allocated depends on progressives’ mobilizing the public for this struggle as effectively as they do for candidate elections.
In California, which faces an over $25 billion deficit, there are great opportunities for grassroots activism to make a difference. Governor Jerry Brown has a history of responding to constituent pressure, and has already made it clear that he wants direction on choosing between tax hikes and service cuts.
Activists can – and must – shape this direction. And given the political stalemate in Washington DC, many Californians who have exclusively focused in the national arena can make an even greater difference by applying their activists talents to this statewide struggle.
Few states do not face major cuts next summer, so activists have opportunities to impact this process throughout the nation. And these are struggles that would have had to be waged regardless of Obama’s tax cut cave-in.
Local Bay Area Politics
San Francisco faces its biggest budget deficit ever next year, as well as a Mayor’s race. Activists can shape both.
A relatively small number of people are actively involved in city budget fights, with most either city or non-profit employees/members with a direct stake in the outcome. This has been sufficient in recent years to secure what were likely the most progressive budgets possible, but this year will require broader activist involvement.
Competitive mayoral races in San Francisco often stimulate activists, and for all the talk about the need for a progressive “interim” Mayor, this pales in importance to the election of a progressive Mayor to a full four-year term in November.
Oakland activists have an extraordinary opportunity to work with Mayor Jean Quan on re-energizing city government after four years of a disengaged Mayor Dellums. Oakland has its own share of budget problems, but Quan appears to be committed to a more open, democratic governing process than the city has ever seen.
This means that Oakland’s Mayor will be far more open to ideas generated by activists and community organizations, which encourages civic engagement. The experience with Dellums, as well as with Obama, shows that it is too soon to reach conclusions about Jean Quan, but so far she appears to fulfilling the vision of a politician who encourages rather marginalizes grassroots activism.
Every city has local campaigns where activists can make a difference. And there’s no better way to cope with obstructionism and presidential surrender in Washington DC than to achieve rewarding local victories.
Activism Without Politicians
During the Bush presidency, activism became more election and politician-centered than ever before. The 2004 and 2008 elections saw activists flying to other states where help was needed, attending phone parties scheduled by MoveOn.org to reach voters in key precincts, and focusing most of their energies on first trying to defeat Bush and then electing a progressive replacement.
The past two years have shown the limit of this strategy. It has also demonstrated the continued power of corporate campaigns such as that successfully conducted by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who recently won what the New York Times described on December 3, 2010 as “a remarkable victory in a 15-year struggle for better pay and working conditions.”
In July, I wrote about an historic breakthrough by the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in the long-running struggle to get overseas garment factories to pay a living wage. Activists also produced major gains in the drive for gay marriage, as polls showing rising support show that – despite tough election losses in California and Maine – implementation is only a matter of time.
Clearly, having a President, Governor, or Mayor on your side opens up more opportunities. But the past two years have seen too many activists remain on the sidelines while assuming President Obama would get his campaign agenda done. And if there is any bright side to Obama’s tragic betrayal of the progressive base that enabled him to defeat Hilary Clinton, it is that activists are unlikely to become over dependent on politicians anytime soon.
Personally, the anger and disappointment I feel toward Barack Obama in no way diminishes my ardor for the exciting work going on in San Francisco’s Uptown Tenderloin neighborhood. Nor does it diminish my faith that most people support greater social and economic fairness, and that activists’ challenge is transforming these feelings into action.
Barack Obama did not adopt (Dolores Huerta used to say “steal”) the UFW’s Si Se Puede (“Yes We Can”) rallying cry until January 2008. Activists must not allow Obama’s betrayals to extinguish this vital spirit, and should enter 2011 recharged, rejuvenated, and ready to rumble.