My nephew and I recently had a long conversation about the Occupy Movement. A junior in college, my nephew has participated in Occupy protests in several cities, and we agreed that Occupy succeeded at shifting this country’s political dialogue toward a focus on inequality. If this country continues to progress along the arc of social justice, someday its history books will comment favorably on the Occupy Movement.
I’m impressed by the raw talent, passionate idealism, and progressive patriotism that so many members of this movement clearly possess. As I’ve written elsewhere, consider the negative criticisms of these citizens: they’re clueless, aimless, homeless, spoiled, lazy, crazy, and so on. Yet too many critics overlooked the obvious. These protesters put together a national and global movement—tear gas in Oakland, arrests in Chicago, tents in D.C., riot in Rome, peaceful demonstrations worldwide—in their spare time in one month. That is talent.
My fear is that this talent ultimately will fail to effect lasting change unless combined with pragmatic and sustained engagement with the messy world of power politics.
While talking to my nephew, I advanced the argument that every political progressive in this country needed to engage substantially with civic life and the political process at the local level. Change will come, I argued, when more progressives are visible leaders in their local communities, holding political offices at the local and state levels, and spending their resources locally to help their communities.
My nephew, it is fair to say, doubted the validity of my argument. Our current political system disgusts him and his fellow activists. He sees our system as irreparably corrupted by arrogance, ambition, and money. He believes that Occupy will succeed when it builds, using various Internet tools, a large network that can stage million-person rallies and marches or trigger massive strikes.
I sympathize with this argument because many of our leaders and institutions have failed to fulfill their obligations. Chris Hedges, in his book Death of the Liberal Class, argues, “Liberals conceded too much to the power elite. The tragedy of the liberal class and the institutions it controls is that it succumbed to opportunism and finally to fear. It abrogated its moral role. It did not defy corporate abuse when it had the chance.” This critique contains some truth.
So what is a good progressive to do? The answer is simple: expend more time on civic and political engagement.
First, if you have not already done so, organize at the local level. Meet in private living rooms with fifteen or twenty like-minded peers and decide on collective actions your group will take in your community. A group I belong to—the Jacksonville Progressives—supports a local homeless shelter but also tries to encourage local economic development.
Second, engage with the local political process. Attend the meetings and speaking events of the local parties. Support the candidates who align with progressive principles. Run your own candidates.
Third, participate in civic discourse every week. Write columns, opinion letters, or constituent letters. Call your elected representatives frequently. Cooperate with local non-profit organizations and county-level political party organizations, or create your own. Attend the meetings of local government and advance progressive policy solutions.
Sylvia Nasar’s book Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius offers a welcome reminder that poverty, unemployment, and inequality are not unalterable facts of nature and that progress is possible. Commenting on the conservative, liberal, and radical economic thinkers of the past few centuries, Nasar observes, “Convinced that economic circumstances were open to human intervention yet skeptical of utopian schemes and ‘artificial societies’ imposed by radical elites, they devoted themselves to fashioning an ‘engine of analysis’ . . . that they could use to understand how the modern world worked and how humanity’s material condition—on which its moral, emotional, intellectual, and creative condition depended—could be improved.”
Progress happens when people build political and economic structures that create the right conditions for change. Progressive reformers have led this country to a better state in previous decades, and they will do so again. May it happen during this decade.
Change and Progress
Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen. Visit his "Change and Progress" blog to read more of his work.