Time to get our hands dirty

(8:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Have we become too comfortable, sitting behind our keyboards and silently typing away our anger?  Has the progressive movement embraced the wonderful technology of the internet at the expense of real world activism and organizing?

I’m afraid this might be so.  And it’s time to turn that around. On Bill Moyer’s Journal this past Friday, economist Robert Kuttner brought up a striking fact that is missing from nearly all of the plethora of analyses – ranging from Obamapologist to Obama hater to everything in between – that I’ve seen of this presidency:

ROBERT KUTTNER: The other thing that’s missing, if you compare him with Roosevelt or LBJ or Lincoln, the other thing that’s missing is a social movement. In all of these great periods of transformation, you had social movements doing a complicated dance with the president, where sometimes they were working with him, sometimes they were beating up on him. That certainly describes the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson. It describes the abolitionists and Lincoln. It describes the labor movement and Roosevelt. Where’s the movement?

Cross posted at Big Orange, Opednews, Progressive Electorate, and Congress Matters.

Especially at Daily Kos, the Netroots is stellar at fundraising.  As Casual Wednesday points out, “The Netroots Rock!”

We do an amazing job of raising funds. Remember what we did for Rob Miller in South Carolina. And how about Alan Grayson? Don’t forget, there are 433 other races going on just for the House. How much can you give?

However, for some reason that money does not translate into the change we all desire so much.  I mean, whether you’re a huge fan of Obama and glossy photo diaries or you check Glenn Greenwald’s and Matt Taibbi’s blogs like I do, you’re here and there’s a very good chance you desire significant social and political change in this country.  And for all of our yelling louder and all of our fundraising, that change seems to be eluding us.  I cannot deny that improvements are being made by this Congress and Obama.  However, we are getting piecemeal change instead of fundamental change.

Perhaps the more telling piece of Casual Wednesday’s diary is the next paragraph:

On the other hand, all of your yelling on the blogs will not necessarily translate to votes. If you really care about building solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and in your towns and cities, then go out and volunteer for campaigns. Make calls. Canvass. Use your talents and write letters to the editor. GOTV. Most campaigns would be happy to have the help.

Blogging is great – I’m here doing it right now, after all!  But it is not the end all, be all of politics, even in this modern age.  We need to start translating our online enthusiasm into offline action a lot more effectively, or we will continue to be frustrated.  If nothing else, it can be a very cathartic experience to go out and shout on the street (or talk quietly in a board room or whatever other form your action takes) for what you believe in.

In fact, I believe that part of the reason the stress levels are running so high in the progressive blogosphere is related to this lack of tangible action. In an explanation of why there has not been any kind of large social movement recently, psychologist Bruce E. Levine says (this is a bit of pop psychology, but is an interesting point nonetheless):

The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review study (“Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades”) reported that, in 2004, 25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. (In 1985, 10 percent of Americans reported not having a single confidant.) Sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, describes how social connectedness is disappearing in virtually every aspect of U.S. life. For example, there has been a significant decrease in face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends due to suburbanization, commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other variables created by governmental-corporate policies. And union activities and other formal or informal ways that people give each other the support necessary to resist oppression have also decreased.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that plenty of bloggers go out and canvass and phone bank and do plenty of other wonderful things.  But I’m not talking about taking your own initiative and getting involved with an existing campaign.  The Netroots needs to adjust its overarching approach to politics.  Instead of propping up existing political organizations, we must become our own – we must become able to take ourselves from the computer to the streets without anyone’s help.  Groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have done well to create a kind of independent progressive political structure in electoral politics.  But we still need to rely less on online petitions and online fundraising.

As kos himself mentioned in his book Taking on the System, Ron Paul’s presidential campaign offered a good example of this.  From a relatively small base of online supporters, a campaign was created that ended up being competitive in the Republican primary.  Paul did not win any states, but he came in second or third in 27 states, got 35 delegates to the Republican convention (which means he came in fourth – ahead of both Fred Thompson and Rudy Guiliani), raised almost $35 million, and got over one million votes total.  On the presidential level, this doesn’t translate into victory, but 99% of this came from the grassroots level, which is what makes it impressive.  The Paulites were able to use online tools like Meetup and Yahoo Groups and forums to create real world activism.

Progressive ideas seem to have a broader appeal than Paul’s quasi-libertarian ideology, and progressives seem to have a larger online presence than Paul’s supporters.  Yet during the 2008 campaign Paulites were more successful in organizing independently in order to turn online support into offline activism.  Granted, the Obama campaign was an incredible example of this type of organizing, but this goes back to one of the fundamental problems I’m talking about – we as progressives are now forced to rely on Organizing for America instead of having a group of that size and type that is independent of the president and establishment Democrats.


So what’s the advantage of being independent?
 Why not rely on the people with money and titles in Washington to organize nationally?

Something to notice is that Kuttner said “social movements,” not “political movements.”  A lot of change comes not from organizing to be politically effective, but from creating a massive demand for change from outside the political arena.

On Saturday gjohnsit had a wonderful diary about such a movement, called “The Army of the Amazons.”  The wives of miners rose up in 1921 in Kansas and, since the legislature wouldn’t meet the demands of the people, changed the law without the help of the government:

  A few small marches were held in the coming days, but the Army of the Amazons was mostly over. The marchers had reached 63 mines during that week, most of the mines were shut down for at least a day.

Howat, from jail, said the sending of troops was a “final and conclusive admission of Governor Allen and his industrial court, that the industrial court law, passed for the purpose of bringing about industrial peace by holding the threat of jail over labor, has miserably failed.”

These women, rather than relying on politicians, knew how to create change through their own actions.  In my very humble opinion, the progressive movement must embrace social movements like this in order to be more effective.  Not that we don’t already do this, to a certain extent, but it must become more widespread.  In short, instead of supporting politicians, we must support policies.  I went to a protest of the Afghanistan war escalation a few weeks ago and there were probably only about fifty people there.  That would be fine if I was a small town, but it was downtown Philadelphia!


For those of you who are skeptical of what I’m saying because I’m not a huge fan of Obama’s and I was protesting the escalation and now I’m saying we need more push back against Washington, hear me out.  I am not saying this so that we can have some kind of continual opposition to the president, that would be ridiculous.  Like Robert Kuttner said, social movements need to kind of “dance” with the president.  Martin Luther King met with Lyndon Johnson and supported him when it made sense for civil rights, but he also organized people against government policies and made it possible for Congress and Johnson to create the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We cannot be afraid to get our hands dirty and, yes, possibly piss some people off.  Perhaps RLMiller said this better than I can:

I’m slowly coming to appreciate the virtue of clarity of people that I might have previously labeled extremists, and been frustrated with their extremism.  When the extremism springs from a profound, immoveable, and true principle, it gains moral authority.  The best historical example of this is the abolitionism movement.

The healthcare movement lost 90% of that authority when it lost the insistence on single payer, and the rest of it with the public option.  What’s left of the bill now may be a good thing, as some famous names tell me, or it may be a bad thing, as some other famous names tell me, but it’s no longer about Right and Wrong.

I’m not saying we need to be “extremists” or completely uncompromising in everything we do, yet at some point we must recognize that what we are currently doing is not working.  We do not have as much power as we rightfully should, given our numbers and the huge amount of Americans that don’t necessarily identify as progressive but still agree with us on many issues.  Again, I’m emphasizing the point that we need to be both well organized and independent from existing political structures that have their own interests.

And do not confuse what I am saying with calls for a third party.  I am saying that we must organize independent of any political party or existing political structures.  With respect to health care, maybe this means a real movement for single payer (and not just signing Dennis Kucinich’s petitions…) after the national health care bill is passed.  With respect to climate change, this can already be seen to a certain extent through ongoing civil disobedience, political organizations, and other parts of the movement.  I am saying that I would like this mindset of loyalty to a set of policies rather than a party or politician to take hold, and I would like the progressive movement to act on that mindset.


A friend of mine named Hugh, who is a union organizer, is fond of saying that the only real way to build support for any kind of campaign is going out onto the street and knocking on people’s doors and getting to know people and going to church with them and just generally going out into the community.  I believe that there is a lack of this, at least in an organized way, from the progressive Netroots.

And, according to Robert Kuttner, this is a reason to worry.

ROBERT KUTTNER:  One way or another, there is going to be a social movement. Because so many people are hurting, and so many people are feeling correctly that Wall Street is getting too much and Main Street is getting too little. And if it’s not a progressive social movement that articulates the frustration and the reform program, you know that the right wing is going to do it. And that, I think, is what ought to be scaring us silly.

Even if many in the tea party movement are bigots, that movement is harnessing a political frustration in this country.  It is emerging across the ideological board, and we as progressives would be wise to take note of it – ideally through the kind of independent social and political movement I described.  In the words of Cassiodorus,

The teabaggers understand the power of obstruction better than the progressives — if anyone in this era is going to take to heart Mario Savio’s famous incantation about how “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious-makes you so sick at heart-that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part,” it will probably be some reactionary fool.

We cannot let that happen.  It is time for progressives and our ilk to really get our hands dirty.  We must go out into our communities and win people over and change things for ourselves.  We can no longer entrust politicians and other leaders to do this for us; we must lead ourselves.


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    • rossl on December 22, 2009 at 02:38

    I realize that I might be wrong – I am, after all, very young.  So, your thoughts?

  1. Do we have to be mean and spiteful to get off our asses?  

    Is it support?  The TB’s know Palin, Beck ect will be with them lockstep as they march.  Do we know we will have our backs at the end of the march?  Who would be waiting for us?

    Maybe our minds are too open.  We can’t seem to coalesce around one or two solid ideas.

    What would we be willing to march for?  For me, TARP (but what specifically), single payer advocates kicked out of congressional meetings and Obama’s refusal to consider that option.

  2. http://www.dailykos.com/story/

    I just posted this entry today, and so far the poll indicates more support than not.  If you’re able, go rec the diary and vote yes in the attached poll.

  3. … and it’s making my head hurt.

    Problem is that we don’t have a base.  In the 60’s, the unions were still alive, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SDS 100,000 strong.  All sorts of community stuff.  There are (at least) two ways to look at this.

    One is to get suicidally depressed and take lots of drugs because we’ll probably never be able to replicate those days.

    The other is to get suicidally depressed and choose martyrdom over drugs, going into the communities and what’s left of unions and other organizations, and start plugging away for a 20-year long haul (though without hope, rendering themselves incapable of effective change).

    I know both have their pull on me.  But your post has gotten me questioning this framework, and indeed, I have noticed a  distinct new stirring of people trying in various ways of how to convert betrayal and outrage into effective organization and action.

    There are fundamental differences between then and now.  Not just the internet narrowly defined, but a worldwide community that is tangibly such.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in Empire and Multitude, have tackled this in there obscure way.  Things have advanced since those were written.

    Is there developing a collective consciousness?

    Can that consciousness transform into worldwide action?

    The empirics say no, why hasn’t it happened yet?  But I’m not so sure.  The small stirrings of action that I’m seeing, the fragility of the social contract.  I don’t know.

    Boots on the ground, as you say in other words, are critical.  But the meaning of “boots on the ground” may be different than we know.  All I see is the fog and darkness, but humanity has burst out of fog and darkness before.

    Per the Stones:

    War, children, it’s just a shot away …

    Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away …

    Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.

  4. Seriously, you two have done a lot more than talk, and we need leaders in the progressive movement to help us organize.  The blog is set up for the very purposes of organizing the left into a real world movement.  The Internet is simply one tool in our arsenal.

    • jim p on December 23, 2009 at 05:59

    Maybe this adds something, though I don’t know what.

    In my case, people don’t want to do what I want to do very often. Organizing isn’t going to happen with me. Although I’m told I’m generous and sympathetic, my default position is ornery, and my inclinations are whimsical. And since I’m always trying to flow, there are frequent changes in short-term plans.

    This kind of mix appeals to folks with a lot of personal self-confidence, but few others. So I’m never going to be a leader of any sort.

    And I’d rather pry my teeth out with a screwdriver than sit in a meeting.

    The reality is most meetings for most people are about things other than the purpose of the meeting. Its about socializing and mating, its about status in the tribe, its about hobbyhorses, its about self expression (see 1st part of sentence.) So I end up at some point saying “look, the way this plays out, we’ve got to skip A, move onto B, then integrate C, notice D can’t be handled until X is finished, and resolve E.” Because I settled all the social stuff outside the meeting, I can do this. It’s the purpose of the meeting I’m engaging.

    You can see why people can find me annoying.

    And then one of the alpha-people with a measure of charisma will say, “Well, gosh, I think we need to hear how everyone feels about whether we should skip A.” There’s 40 of us, and we have the room for another 30 minutes. And they think everyone should give their opinion just now on this one topic. Of course, a quarter of the room will nod instant agreement because something definite was proposed, another 12 have personal loyalty reasons to go along with the quarter, 3 or 4 will see a chance to grab center stage, and by that time the remainder have snapped to the trend. And the 3 or 4 who don’t agree look like insensitive, anti-democratic dicks if they insist on moving ahead with the bloody obvious.

    So 30 minutes later the next group is coming into the room. We’ll finish talking about how we feel about “skip A” next week. But not everyone can show up then. Meanwhile I’ve been watching and listening, making bets. “Alex is making a display for Brett, Brett’s trying to compete with Dana for Alex’s approval, and Bobby’s making lots of little movements, preparing to challenge Alex’s alpha-play, so he’ll make a big move in about… now.” (I usually win these bets.)

    None of that’s bad, all of it is natural and fine. In fact, indispensable to a full life, plus there ain’t nothing we can do about it.

    But it would be better if the social element were just done at another occasion. And then leave ourselves free to get down to business. That’s one reason real enterprises, (read: objective things to be done within a set time) succeed. Because the socializing themes are temporarily suspended somewhat.

    Failing a business-like atmosphere, you have to depend on a dominant, charismatic person who knows what they are doing if you are going to have leaders. And leaders, for the most part, are fucked. I mean they can be fine and wonderful humans, but their own world starts leaking into the task considerations fairly early on in the process. Then you get challengers, factions, and the usual disintegrative routine.

    The right wing doesn’t have this problem because they don’t care if their leaders, values, or ideas, are screwed-up. That just gives them permission to be screwed-up themselves, so they ready to sign up for a billion years.

    I don’t know where to go from there. But hopefully I’ve given something a tenth as useful as this essay for considering our overall situation.

    • RUKind on December 23, 2009 at 06:35

    Here are some primary issues:



    Pharma costs


    Pre-natal health care

    Substance abuse (watch this one post-war)


    Schools – the physical plants and equipment


    Text books



    Climate change

    Clean air

    Clean water

    Clean food

    Renewable energy












    Drug laws

    Lack of freedoms

    The slow, inexorable disappearance of the American Dream

    We’re chasing all of those all over the place all the time. I computers there a “race” conditions. In PC apps it’s an infinite loop that has no exit. In the big iron, it’s a queue of tasks that is so large that each task gets such a small slice of attention/processing time that no one task ever runs to completion. That’s where we are now.

    We need to prioritize our targets, unite behind the effort whether it’s our pet effort or not, and start showing our muscle. Money, media, new media and feet on the streets will be what makes this go. How, when and where you spend also apeaks loudly.

    We need to get focused on one or two issues at a time and it needs to be a bottom up democratic rising to make this happen.

    I vote for the quickest and easiest one to be steamrollered through next, followed by the third easiest. And we keep on winnng until we believe in ourselves and our individual and collective ability to effect change that will make our lives better and not the rich.

    Pick one, any one, Let’s just get going.

  5. I mean really.

    We used to be out in the streets. Now we’re sitting on our duffs typing to each other.

  6. …bloggery represents the formation of a colossal and unprecedented wave of democracy, but the wave will dissipate rather than crash resoundingly unless we find ways to translate our growing shared consciousness into effective action.

    I would propose that anyone who for whom this message resonates might start by finding local activist groups that meet weekly or monthly, like Progressive Democrats of America, and join in.


    They would never have let us have this technology if they had realized the extent to which it would undress them.

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