According to polls, the response of the U.S. public is not only to pan the Republicans for the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis, but also — shocking though this is to the Democratic politicians — to blame the Dems as well. That’s important to all of us who watch for signs of declining institutional legitimacy.
For decades politicians have been suffering eroding public confidence, and vast numbers of people don’t bother to turn out for election day. Many agree with a bumper sticker you may have seen: “Why vote — it only encourages them?”
For a radical, the problem is that declining legitimacy alone does not make a revolutionary situation. It’s not so hard for people to hold two contradictory views at the same time. Many will say, on the one hand, that “Washington is broken,” only to turn around and add, “If we put the right person in the Oval Office there’s hope.”
What resolves this contradiction for a critical mass of people is finding another place besides electoral politics to put their hope. On some level everyone values hope and knows there’s no lasting change without it. Hopeless protest is desperate and easily turns self-destructive. Hopeful protest can be thoughtful, attractive to others and build toward victories that generate still more hope.
Hope comes from a sense of power
When I look around at the people I know who have hope for change, I see two things. One is that they don’t deny the despair that also lives within their psyche. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, sometimes acknowledged the despair that he carried, and I owe him for the courage to uncover the despair within me. When I faced a cancer that was killing me, for instance, I had to recognize that an unconscious despair was taking control of my body.
The second thing I notice about folks with hope is that they have a sense of their own power. They may appear to be “ordinary people,” but they know they have a skill or gift that allows them, with others, to do extraordinary things. They may recognize that they’re victims of one or another form of oppression, but victimhood isn’t their identity; they identify with their power instead. What strengthens a sense of power is to join with others who feel it and aim for changes that can be celebrated as victories.
Campaigns for modest changes can be scorned as “reformist” — and sometimes they are reformist, in the sense of strengthening the viability of the status quo. Sometimes, however, the reforms contribute to a process of transformation. The differences between these two kinds of campaigns — reformist and transformative — are important for those who yearn for a living revolution. As we decide how to use the opportunities created by the current crisis of U.S. government, thinking through these two paths may help.
The French writer André Gorz made a breakthrough in his book Strategy for Labor by naming what makes a victory a step toward revolution rather than a reinforcement of the oppressive status quo. Gorz said the key is whether the reform includes some degree of power shift.
Let’s picture a campaign aiming to get the state to subsidize food co-ops in low income areas that can’t support a profitable supermarket. The legislature might resist including such a subsidy in the budget, and let’s say campaigners turn to a bit of direct action. They win, force the subsidy and enjoy the improvement in poor people’s lives. However, Gorz would point out that a subsidy gained can easily be lost in the next budget because there’s no institutionalized change in distribution of power. The 1 percent continues to control the spending priorities of the state and much prefer to subsidize oil companies rather than food co-ops.
It’s not easy to create revolutionary reforms, but that’s partly because so many activists who are fascinated with structure and strategy have drifted into Democratic Party circles — because the Democrats, up until now, seem to be “where the action is.” As the electoral governance system continues to unravel, some of those activists may become available to help the rest of us push for revolutionary reforms.
The co-optation party
Ever since the so-called “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s, U.S. liberals and progressives have for the most part been on the defensive. They didn’t learn the lesson from either the LGBT movement or Gandhi that the best defense is an offense, and the result has been losing ground to the right wing even while a majority of Americans continue to support progressive values. The strategy of the 1 percent has been to overwhelm progressive forces with multiple and wide-ranging assaults to divide us as we try to defend schools or libraries or unions or food stamps or houses being foreclosed.
One reason we’ve accepted division is the belief that there is one political force in the country that actually defends all these things — the Democratic Party. That belief is, however, being battered by the growing realization that the 1 percent owns both parties, assigning each of them a different role: the Republicans for repression and the Democrats for co-optation.
It would be a mistake, though, for cynics to go to the opposite extreme and believe that Democratic elected officials are irrelevant to making strides through our campaigns. Daniel Hunter’s new book Strategy and Soul shows, page after page, how a campaign can relate to Democratic elected officials without at the same time strengthening the politicians’ power.
That’s a dance many of us need to learn, because the Democratic Party will remain extremely important no matter how many alternatives are built. Indeed, the party will change itself to remain relevant, just as it did when it shed the segregationist South in the 1960s to retain its co-optative capacity in the liberal North and West.
As I watched that transition, I learned a lesson that illuminates the Dems’ behavior in every decade. The civil rights movement generated such fierce energy for racial justice that the Democrats, who held both the White House and Congress at the time, had to respond even at the price of giving up their hold on the formerly “Solid South.” When the civil rights movement evolved it added economic demands, and the party responded with the War on Poverty.
At the time I agreed with the disgust expressed by civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin. He said, “This is the first time the U.S. ever went to war with a BB gun!” The projected federal spending was absurdly small — true — but I missed the subtext. The money was to be raised not by taxing the 1 percent, who had benefited all those years by keeping African Americans in poverty, but by taxing the largely white working class.
Given the inherited white racism that the U.S. population suffers from, it was completely understandable that there would be a white working class backlash to what was perceived as grand programs to help the black poor.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a middle class white progressive complain about racism among white working class people, while at the same time supporting the Democratic Party that stimulated that racism while protecting the rich from having to make a payment toward racial justice.
The art of revolution
The art of working for revolution in the present includes absorbing the lessons of the past so we know who we’re dealing with. Today, we see governmental legitimacy declining, which opens new opportunities. Because the body politic suffers from a deficit of hope, campaigning for achievable goals becomes more important, to stimulate a transition from the old hope in government to the new hope in social movements. After all, we don’t want history to create a revolutionary situation when all we have is a hopeless people.
As we show through our accomplishments that grassroots social movement campaigns are the better source of hope, we’ll encounter the Democratic Party and its mission of co-optation. We need to become wise about how to handle that relationship, neither ignoring the Democrats nor falling into their arms.
That brings me to my strategic hunch: If we invent revolutionary reforms to work for, the questions that the reforms raise will help to clarify our relationships with elected officials and especially with their constituencies. That clarification will stimulate the development of our vision — which in many respects still needs work. It will also accelerate the shift from hope in the two parties that run the empire to hope in the social movements that see beyond it.
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