If you are the kind of person who’s concerned with the fate of the world, and looks toward political activism as an effective agency to transform the nature of power, then I imagine that over the years you’ve been asked by someone sometime to join the Party. Or maybe the movement. Or the committee. Or team. Or leadership collective.
And you haven’t.
You’ve chosen to let others take the lead, sit through the boring planning meetings, write up minutes, proposals and reports, or even run for office. You’ve limited your involvement to attending rallies and marches, signing online petitions, maybe making the occasional contribution supporting a progressive candidate or a few worthy nonprofits.
I’d like to suggest that it’s time to give yourself a kick in the pants.
The New Year is upon us. But this is no ordinary appeal to your conscience, or to your heart rate or your waistline, to adopt new habits in 2015. Much has changed as we enter the year 2015, and much is at stake.
The new situation on the ground is characterized by a number of factors. A Democratic President sits in the White House looking over at both houses of Congress controlled not just by Republicans, but by a particularly rabid, right-wing and totally corporate GOP that got into office through gerrymandering, voter suppression, out-of-sight secret campaign funding and, frankly, an uninspiring national Democratic Party electoral strategy.
In the fourth quarter of his tenure, President Obama is not totally a lame duck, but his options are limited. He is restricted to exercising the veto, issuing executive orders, speaking out from his bully pulpit, and just possibly achieving some bipartisan successes on relatively uncontroversial issues. An unprecedented level of citizen activism will be required to push him to do the right thing – on the environment, foreign policy, issues of war and peace, the budget, GOP cutbacks, police killings, appointments and any number of other matters.
But looming ahead is the 2016 general election. The math points to a strong potential for a Democrat to be elected to the presidency – but it has to be the right Democrat, with a progressive platform Democrats are enthusiastic about defending in all 50 states, to win popular support and victory. The chances for a Democratic recovery in the Senate are also strong: Many of the Republicans up for election in 2016 are vulnerable, especially if the GOP continues to do nothing but obstruct, and to push for unpopular corporate giveaways that they were essentially bought off as candidates to promote.
The amazing rise of popular activism over the last year or so is an encouraging sign, especially as much of it is linked to the organized labor movement and to faith and community groups. The fights for $15 an hour, for immigrant rights with a path toward citizenship, the pushback to protect reproductive rights, the global movement for the environment, the massive response to police killings, as well as other struggles, all point to a people enraged and awakened to the vital necessity of creating a better world.
A Cautionary Object Lesson
The Occupy movement may serve as a cautionary object lesson. Taking off like wildfire, in great part owing to social media, it changed the conversation in America in the few months that it lasted, with countless repercussions beyond our borders as well. Its clean, clear demarcation between the 1% and the rest of us entered the global language. Although Occupy’s energy was spent by the fall of 2012, partly from burnout and partly from repression, what voter going to the polls that November could suffer from any confusion about which percentile Mitt Romney belonged to?!
Occupy was so constitutionally and obsessively opposed to hierarchy in any form, and so resistant to decision-making or even to producing a program of demands, that it was incapable of sustained life
And yet, Occupy was so constitutionally and obsessively opposed to hierarchy in any form, and so resistant to decision-making or even to producing a program of demands, that it was incapable of sustained life. People came, saw, and went away bewildered, asking, Now what? The missing pieces included leadership, follow-up, organization and collective discipline.
Our movement needs not just good politics, a sharp class analysis, a clear-eyed understanding of our country’s strands of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, and the commitment to work in broad coalition with other like-minded (though not always identically-minded) groups. We also need accountability and responsibility, and this is where the organized party, or some other formation which has earned your respect and commitment, comes in. You are going to need other people in this massive, transformative struggle which may well turn a historical corner sooner than we think; and other people are also depending on you.
What does it mean to be an activist, or even a party member, in the digital age? We are not talking any more only about face-to-face meetings in living rooms or union halls or party headquarters. The rise of new social media has assumed different forms, which are evolving every day. There’s no question that massive demonstrations and other actions have been summoned within a few hours’ notice, or even less. There’s also no doubt that the instant images and texts tweeted and emailed worldwide have a galvanizing effect on the collective mind. We absolutely cannot be dismissive of these new modalities.
A Deeper Participation
And yet, there is something irreplaceable, I believe, in the push and pull, the tug and stretch, that comes from hammering out a position, a statement, a list of demands, a strategy. If you want to be the subject in this discourse, and not merely the receiver of information, then you have to have developed over time the sense and level of trust in your comrades so that you will be heard, listened to, able to contribute meaningfully, and be effective. Those are precisely the participatory features that are generally absent from broad swaths of our political culture.
It is of course impossible to be meeting face-to-face all the time. But we are still very far from the point of bypassing physical connectedness. And as we all know, communication takes place on many other levels than just verbal – it’s visual and gestural and tonal as well, nuances the social media often miss.
Join the Party to get involved on a deeper level, to be part of the decision-making process, and not just an observer or nameless participant.
Within a few months of making my own party choice and commitment, I happened upon the remarkable book The Wall by John Hersey, a long but gripping novelized account of the path toward bringing together the coalition of disparate organizations that successfully mounted the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis in the spring of 1943.
A character named Rapaport makes this powerful statement (please excuse the sexism of the 1950 writing):
A man who chooses a career in politics will fail if he believes that his party or his doctrine is perfect, for he is certain to be disillusioned; he will also fail if he sees the flaws and spends all his energy trying to correct them, for he is certain in that case to be cast out. He can only succeed if he learns to doubt his faith and to fight for it none the less.
I read this as a brief against blind “true believer” loyalty. Maybe, hopefully, those days are over, when we sacrifice our identity and integrity to the higher wisdom of those who supposedly know better and know all. We need provocative questions and we need to reanalyze our work at every stage of struggle, as we seek out new answers to the problems we didn’t anticipate yesterday. At the same time we need a home where people are flawed and sometimes uncertain, but where you are safe and where you have trusted and beloved comrades. In short, where you belong.
Eric A. Gordon