Chapter 4. The More the Merrier: Building a Broad Front for Real Change
Every revolution that has succeeded has done so on the basis of a broad front. Most every revolutionary movement that has failed has done so because it was ill-equipped, ideologically and organizationally, to attract a broad following. No broad front, no revolution.
What’s a broad front? It is a coalition, or collection of coalitions, of people from the majority of sectors of society. Nicaragua’s long-time dictator, Anastasio Somoza, fell when the Marxist Sandinistas were joined by a conservative Church, land-holding class, and press in revulsion at the tactics of his National Guard. Mao built his movement out of widespread opposition to Japanese occupation and successfully courted prosperous peasants, business people and intellectuals against his opponents in the Kuomintang. The Constitutionalist faction that prevailed in the Mexican Revolution put together a coalition of northern landholders and business people, organized labor, and the anti-clerical left to defeat first the old order then populist threats from Pancho Villa and peasant leader Emiliano Zapata, both of whom failed to build the broad front required for victory. El Salvador’s FMLN inspired broad support when civil war broke out against the rump civilian-military junta that the U.S. supported in 1980. But years of repression, attacks on civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves, and war weariness eroded that support. It took the reorganized FMLN Party sixteen years from the end of the war to gain the presidency, and they are still a minority in the national assembly.
Broad fronts may arise seemingly spontaneously in extraordinary moments of national revolt against the existing regime. They were particularly evident in the anti-colonial struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether communist led or not. But they are generally hard to build and harder to maintain. Besides widespread dissatisfaction with the existing order, they require a vision that can be embraced by broad sectors of society and organized efforts to build bridges. Revolutionary cells committed to narrow visions (“the dictatorship of the proletariat”) and unwilling to reach out to the unconvinced rarely grow. Single-issue non-profits with their eyes on incremental legislative prizes in congressional lobbying rarely build grassroots movements or contribute directly to a wider agenda of social change.
The Next American Revolution will require a vision with broad appeal, one that brings together the radical republican and libertarian strains of American culture usually captured by so-called conservatives with the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of what is usually labeled the left. Suggesting such a vision was the work of Chapter Two. In this chapter we turn to look at how this vision can help us cross the supposed cultural and ideological divides in American politics. Then we look more closely at the sorts of organizational resources available to us and the forms a broad front can take.
Will Those in Favor of a Stronger Federal Government Please Stand Up?
Really, does anyone outside the Beltway genuinely want a stronger federal government? Progressives want it to do things, or do them better. Conservatives want it to defend our liberties and often sound like they want it poking around in our bedrooms. But most Americans, most of the time, would prefer a lot less government. We would like to pay less in taxes for things we don’t want (though we may be willing to pay more for things we do like), and we’d like the tax code simplified radically. We would like the police to leave us alone (though we also want them to protect us), and we’d like them honest and, preferably, locally accountable. We would like a lot less regulation of the sorts of things we do (though we might like more regulation of the things we hate), and we’d like bureaucrats to enjoy much less discretionary power. Above all, we want our representatives to respond to our wants and needs, and we want them to do so without compromises that undermine things we would like to see get done.
For most Americans, for one or many reasons, government is the enemy, the legislation that comes out of the state capitol and Washington is inexplicable, and the burden of abiding by the tax code and the thousands of regulations that govern our work and lives sometimes comes close to being insupportable. Most Americans are small-d democrats. Most have little patience with Washington and less taste for the bureaucratic state. Liberals and progressives have attempted to make the world a better place by asking Washington to devise better laws. Unfortunately, Washington – and its smaller counterparts at the state level – has a way of corrupting the best-intentioned of reforms. Even at its best, it imposes a one-size-fits-all approach on our economic and social problems replete with complex bureaucratic formulas to manage public monies and insure compliance. The result is a bewildered, often outraged public, unable to fathom who or what is served by government attention. Republican elites have done a marvelous job turning this outrage to the service of their political careers and corporate supporters. But most people’s “small government conservatism” has more in common with Tom Paine’s radical republicanism than with the interests of big business. It’s in the interests of the Next American Revolution to mobilize this “conservatism” for radical political change.
What About Those Fascists?
The Next American Revolution has few enemies. Few enemies, but powerful ones. Our job is to make friends. The vision sketched in the first chapter can be the basis for attracting friends from both the traditional right and the left. There are real “fascists” out there, but they’re not usually the people on the ground, not the Teabaggers or even the Minutemen on the border. The fascists are the folks in power who have chosen to stir up right-wing populism as a weapon against Democrats and other enemies. The tiny groups of true believers in white supremacy and the prescience of Hitler and the rest of it may make good shock troops for the fascists, but the populist right has as little sympathy with corporate America and our corporate-sponsored politics as the rest of us. It is deeply disturbing to find the white supremacist fringe recruiting from people outraged at the Wall Street bailout, the fake health care reform being cooked up in Washington, and the burden of taxation and regulation in a political system that shows ordinary people little respect. But it would be a deep mistake to lump all those outraged folks into one boat, write them off, or ignore the people at the top who might actually have the ability to build them into something like a fascist movement.
When the Democrats adopted the Bush administration’s banker bailout as its own, they lost a historical opportunity to unite right and left populism in a common repudiation of business as usual. Of course, they had no intention of doing so because, just like the Republicans, they are the party of business as usual, that is to say, of a state largely beholden to Wall Street and dedicated to maintaining an empire in the service of finance capital. But the Next American Revolution will have to build just such an alliance. And that means being perfectly clear where the “fascist threat” really lies.
In the summer of 2009, with Tea-baggers fresh on the news and anti-health care reform rallies surfacing around the country, blogger Sara Robinson took up again the question of the Bush years, “Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?” Robinson and others had steadfastly answered no during the Bush years. But drawing on the analysis of historian Robert Paxton, she was now inclined to say that, though we clearly weren’t “there” yet, “we’ve certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot and are now looking for a space.”
So what are the signs of fascism that Robinson, following Paxton, finds clearly evident? According to Paxton, fascism develops through five stages. First, a mostly rural movement arises in a moment of crisis around a project of nationalist renewal and in repudiation of reigning liberal elites. Fascism, for Paxton is always the product of a democracy in crisis. In the second stage, fascism coalesces around political parties built on “goon squads” dedicated to duking it out with their opponents (and often serving landholders and factory owners against rural and urban labor movements). In the third stage, where we are now, according to Robinson, formal and informal fascist groupings are embraced by leading conservative politicians in a bid to maintain their power. Why are we there now? Because “America’s conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country’s legions [sic] of discontented right wing thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America’s streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals and public officials who won’t do their political or economic bidding.”
Robinson is a self-described “expert on right-wing culture and politics,” so we can expect some exaggeration. So far, the evidence is that most of America’s elites are pretty content with the Democrats, even in power. Despite some rhetorical slaps at Wall Street from the President and a few pointed reminders to big PhRMA and the insurance industry that Congress could do real damage, these players have gotten what they wanted from the Obama administration. So, yes, there are Republicans who have courted, and in the case of Dick Armey, organized populist outrage at the Obama administration and at what passes for health care reform in a Democratic Congress. These folks have been disruptive from time to time, and often irrational, but are they “goon squads?” There are certainly folks out there who aspire to such a role, but mostly they’ve ended up acting solo. Even the Minutemen, if we take seriously David Sirota’s interviews with one fairly typical group, are pretty mainstream, if outraged and confused, citizens.
Contrast Robinson’s read with Jane Hamsher’s willingness to listen to the tea-baggers. Hamsher is founder of the liberal blog Firedoglake and devoted to getting the right Democrats elected to Congress. But that doesn’t stop her from paying close attention to the tea-bagger phenomenon because, among other things, it represents the sort of populist revolt against corporate give-aways that all of us should be part of. As Hamsher notes, the first “tea parties” were organized in 2007 by libertarian Ron Paul and his supporters, and the libertarians made themselves very unpopular with Republican neo-cons during the Bush years, opposing the war, domestic spying, warrantless wiretapping, and the bank bailout. And such libertarians are still important in the movement, despite efforts by Republican neo-cons to take it over. Paul worked closely with Democrat Alan Grayson to craft the bill that allowed Congress (for the first time!) to audit the Federal Reserve Bank; and Firedoglake worked closely with the libertarian Campaign for Liberty to get it passed. That’s the sort of coalition building across the supposed ideological divide that needs to be done.
What we have to fear are not “legions of discontented right wing thugs” but the transformation of public outrage at the disaster of American politics (what Sirota calls the Uprising) into a violent movement by the likes of Armey, Limbaugh and Beck. That looks like a long way off. No doubt, if the Next American Revolution turns out to be a sectarian affair of the “progressive movement,” we could see some such development. And there is no doubt at all that if we really managed to threaten business as usual on any large scale, violence would be the old order’s great temptation. The point is to short-circuit the fascist path by incorporating as much of America as possible on the common ground that the current constitutional dis-order screws us all.
Chris Hedges also worries about the specter of fascism, but he lays full responsibility for any outcome on the Democrats and their supporters: “The Democrats and their liberal apologists are so oblivious to the profound personal and economic despair sweeping through this country that they think offering unemployed people the right to keep their unemployed children on their nonexistent health care policies is a step forward. They think that passing a jobs bill that will give tax credits to corporations is a rational response to an unemployment rate that is, in real terms, close to 20 percent. They think that making ordinary Americans, one in eight of whom depends on food stamps to eat, fork over trillions in taxpayer dollars to pay for the crimes of Wall Street and war is acceptable. They think that the refusal to save the estimated 2.4 million people who will be forced out of their homes by foreclosure this year is justified by the bloodless language of fiscal austerity. The message is clear. Laws do not apply to the power elite. Our government does not work. And the longer we stand by and do nothing, the longer we refuse to embrace and recognize the legitimate rage of the working class, the faster we will see our anemic democracy die.”
And he quotes an eloquent Cynthia McKinney in the same article, making a similar point with specific reference to the supposed threat of a racist radical right: “It is time for us to stop talking about right and left,” McKinney told me. “The old political paradigm that serves the interests of the people who put us in this predicament will not be the paradigm that gets us out of this. I am a child of the South. Janet Napolitano tells me I need to be afraid of people who are labeled white supremacists but I was raised around white supremacists. I am not afraid of white supremacists. I am concerned about my own government. The Patriot Act did not come from the white supremacists, it came from the White House and Congress. Citizens United did not come from white supremacists, it came from the Supreme Court. Our problem is a problem of governance. I am willing to reach across traditional barriers that have been skillfully constructed by people who benefit from the way the system is organized.”
Let’s be clear. The revolution is not going to be made by college-educated urbanites labeling loggers and hardhats, ranchers and fundamentalists, gun nuts and deer hunters, “fascists”. These are folks we want on our side, not driven into the arms of the real fascists, the politicians and pundits and plutocrats willing to stir up violence and racial hatred in defense of elite rule. Like us, these folks loathe elite rule. They just don’t always know what masters the Glenn Beck’s and Rush Limbaugh’s really serve. The best piece of writing in years in the environment and culture glossy Orion was an article by Rebecca Solnit that deplored the gap maintained on both sides of what we imagine as a cultural divide between college-educated environmentalists and those whose work and culture often make them the real outdoorsmen and women (hence “rednecks”). Solnit deplores the condescension of middle class environmentalists and calls for a new consciousness about all that unites us.
What unites us is opposition to the mis-rule of Washington and New York. Whether you’re being groomed for a place among the elite yourself, expensively educated to join the white collar proletariat, or relegated to building forms for the next cement pour, the odds are, if you’re reading this book with sympathy, you want to end elite rule and replace it with a genuine democracy, responsive to all the people’s needs and feelings. That means, for the college-educated, we are going to have to give up our snide elitism and recognize the real grievances and real intelligence that drive many working class and entrepreneurial Americans into the hands of the right. More important, it means adapting some lessons from experiences here and elsewhere.
Building On Strength: The Remarkable Scope of “Civil Society”
In the early 1990’s, to take one example, an American political scientist, asked to assess the state of civil society in Italy, concluded that there was scarcely any to be found. Virtually all the social organization were tied either to the Catholic Church or to one or another political party – not the sort of independent civil association he was looking for. Not long after, another political scientist, Robert Putnam, made a splash with Making Democracy Work, a book that celebrates Italy’s vibrant civic life while contrasting regions where civic engagement was alive and well with those where citizens mostly kept to themselves. Turns out, both scholars were right. One of the outstandingly “civic” regions in Putnam’s study was Emiglia Romagna, known in Italy as the “buckle” on the country’s “Red belt” — the regions that voted most heavily for the Italian Communist Party. In these regions, the PCI (as the communists were then known) and their chief rival, the now defunct Christian Democrats, were woven into the fabric of people’s lives. They sponsored soccer clubs, neighborhood associations, book clubs, women’s groups – organizations of all sorts. Apartment blocks published their own newspapers. Communist women’s groups made tortelloni for the Sunday morning party meetings. Youth groups sponsored musical events and field trips.
The PCI, which chose the “electoral path” early in the post-World War II period, never wrought its revolution, of course. The United States promised dire consequences if it was so much as included in a coalition government. But it was a powerful force in Italian politics precisely because it knew how to organize its members.
Back in the USA, Republicans have worked ably to mobilize ordinary people’s discontent with government for decades. They succeeded especially well in transforming an unlikely corner of civil society – the evangelical churches – into a powerful political force. Unlikely, because up until the 1970’s, evangelicals were more apt to consider politics a “worldly” pursuit than one central to their lives. In the course of the seventies and eighties, nevertheless, conservative activists transformed this constituency, using their churches to mobilize them first around moral concerns like abortion and gay rights, then in support of Republican politicians.
The Democrats, meanwhile, were busy alienating the one organized constituency they could count on to turn out the vote on election day, the labor movement. Ignored in the push to pass NAFTA, upset at the mess the Clintons made of health care reform, they responded by failing to turn out for the first mid-term election of the Clinton era, leaving the President to face a Republican-controlled Congress. Mobilized once again in election after election, they continued to be ignored in Washington and largely taken for granted in electoral battlegrounds. Weaker than ever, thanks to Clinton’s embrace of globalization, labor lost the power to determine an election at the national level, though concerted labor organizing at the local level has made a difference in many areas.
The lessons here are bigger than the importance of building a “cultural constituency” or keeping the faith with one’s front-line supporters. As the Italian example suggests, building a revolutionary movement means building revolutionary vision into many of the most ordinary institutions of everyday life. Churches, unions, community organizations, neighborhood groups remain as important today for mobilizing people as ever, however significant Internet-based organizing may have become. The reason is simple. These are groups with resources for mobilization. From the face-to-face, living room gathering places of the neighborhood group to the email lists, phone banks, office machinery, and meeting places of union locals, organizational resources are available to be used in existing organizations. They don’t have to be built from scratch or expensively conjured out of contributions. These are also organizations where people meet to talk and to listen. They have leaders who can bring people together, whether to hear a speaker or organize a march. They represent the necessary infrastructure of every social movement and every revolutionary coalition, from the American Civil Rights Movement to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese National Front.
These aren’t organizations that can just be “harnessed” for revolutionary struggle by some movement or party. They have lives of their own, their own ways of doing things and their own particular missions. One of the biggest mistakes of the parties that made up El Salvador’s FMLN, according to some of its leaders looking back from the vantage of the hard-won peace, was their take-over of existing community organizations and unions in the late 1970’s. The take-overs drew fierce repression – many organizations and coalitions disappeared in the next 5 years; the union movement was effectively decapitated. FMLN affiliation, moreover, discredited important organizations in the eyes of more moderate critics of the government and the larger public. And it led to continuing struggles between leaders of civil society and party leaders, weakening the FMLN electorally for years after the end of the war. In the United States, the bitter relations between the Communist Party of the United States and other parties of the left was not just a product of post-WWII anti-communism but more profoundly of the communists’ practice of infiltrating and taking over progressive organizations.
The lessons are important ones. The resources that existing organizations represent for any movement aren’t there to be grabbed. They come only with respectful engagement, drawing where possible on the commitments of members to the cause and building rapport with the unconvinced. Access to such organizations must be cultivated, maintained through hard work and continuing relations of respect, and clarity about just what they can do on behalf of the Next American Revolution. Those relations can be as simple as a single opportunity to speak. But even one such opportunity can lead to deeper engagement, resulting in the best of cases in an organization’s adopting for itself some of the work of the movement. Along the way lie a variety of opportunities: access to a meeting place, mention in a newsletter, announcements sent out to membership, endorsements, joint action on particular events, and so on. Organizations already identified with a social movement – unions, civil rights organizations, peace groups – will expect to hear their concerns echoed in any political movement they support. Others may see involvement as just another part of their on-going commitment to civic action. But effective coalition-building doesn’t take any members’ concerns for granted; it builds on them where possible, acknowledges and respects them even where there is deep disagreement.
The Trouble With Platforms
The Democratic Party embraced the “big umbrella” concept for organizing support in the 1970’s. Up until then the Party had in fact been a big umbrella, embracing Southern segregationists and Northern unionists as well as a wide swathe of liberals and progressives from all walks of life. The Civil Rights Movement challenged that coalition by demanding that Democrats take a stand for democracy in the South, and Southern elites and politicians turned elsewhere as the Democratic leadership went (reluctantly) along with what had become national sentiment. The new umbrella was a platform for every cause Democratic leaders thought they could handle, from racial justice to reproductive rights to gay liberation. The sum of those causes was an unwieldy coalition, though one which often served several important majorities at once: a public supportive of racial justice and broadly behind the expansion of New Deal social programs; supporters of reproductive rights, including some form of a right to a safe abortion; a public newly aroused about the problems of environmental degradation; and a working class still wed to the union movement, even though skeptical, at times, of both union leadership and other parts of the Democratic platform.
But support for such a broad platform proved easy to erode, particularly in targeted campaigns against vulnerable officeholders. More important, the platform tended to limit support for each of its elements – and thus for the party – to those willing to acquiesce in all of them. Parties need platforms, no doubt, and many of us would like to see them live up to their platforms. But a broad movement to bring democracy to America cannot afford a laundry-list platform that would force people to decide how much they had to accept in order to support the central goal. The new campaign spearheaded by law professor Lawrence Lessig has it right: Fix Congress First! The Next American Revolution adds: Remake the political system, then we can talk about real change!
The key to building a broad front is to insist that the only way to make progress on the issues that each of us cares about, and that may in the end divide us, is to remake the political system, to achieve the sort of democracy where popular deliberation, not money, not the courts, not the bureaucracy, not Congressional wheeling and dealing, determines our path. If democratic decision-making really is about honoring the will of the people (and trying to change that will where you disagree), then our issues will get addressed in the course of the Next American Revolution as long as we hold fast to the demand for real democracy.
Building a broad front will be impossible as long as we choose allies only for their sympathy with this or that cause dear to our own hearts. The Next American Revolution has to win the support of a broad spectrum of ordinary Americans. If revolutionaries disdain churches, they abandon one of the most influential and far-reaching institutions in the country. If they don’t think to give talks to the Lions’ Club and the Soroptimists and the Grange and the Rotary, then they’ll neglect to try to reach some of the most active citizens in their communities. If they don’t reach out to members of the local Democratic and Republican party organizations, they will miss an opportunity to pull in some of the most informed dissatisfaction around. If they’re afraid to talk to Harley enthusiasts or hunters or firefighters, they’ll risk missing some surprising encounters and leave evil gossips to make mischief at their expense. Not everybody can reach out to all these constituencies, no doubt. But someone has to, in each locale where the revolution hopes to grow, if the movement is to succeed.
The “platform” of the movement must be the essence of simplicity. We must demand that the current system be replaced with one that ensures a democratic hearing for our concerns and our proposals, with representatives who truly represent the public interest as expressed by their constituents in democratic assemblies, and with institutions that allow people at the most local level possible to decide the issues that directly affect their lives and those of their neighbors. We must demand a constitution (or rather constitutions, because the states, too, must be remade) that reflects these values.
Building a Broad Front from the Ground Up
Back when it was becoming apparent that the Bush administration was determined to wage war on Iraq, a friend of ours who worked at Peace Action, an older peace organization in Washington, D.C., was charged with going through their Rolodex and contacting peace organizations across the country to try to forge a coalition against the war. The result was United for Peace and Justice, one of two leading forces in generating mass demonstrations against the coming war and in opposition to the war itself once it was launched. UFPJ was less successful organizing groups outside the peace movement to mobilize against the war. Some labor organizations, a lot of fringe lefty parties, and an assortment of other organizations joined forces with the peace movement from time to time, particularly when there was hope that war really could be avoided, despite the Democrats’ capitulation to Bush administration demands. But UFPJ made no real effort to teach local organizations how to do what it had done; and local peace groups were rarely able to reach out to civic groups, local unions and others who might have built a broad-based movement against the war. As a consequence, they had and have little to no clout in Congress, no way to hurt congressional Democrats who consistently vote for war funding or to frighten congressional Republicans who stood by the administration at every turn.
Into this gap stepped MoveOn.org, an upstart organization dedicated to the proposition that the internet could revolutionize political organizing. For a time, MoveOn did just that. Prior to the crucial vote that the administration forced upon Congress to give itself a green light for war, in September 2002, MoveOn organized a massive lobbying campaign. Following weekend demonstrations organized by UFPJ and the rival International ANSWER Coalition, hundreds of citizens from across the country stayed on for quick trainings, then conferences with Congress people and their staffs to try to persuade them to vote against the administration’s plans. (We learned, among other things, that many Democrats professed to think that the administration wasn’t serious about war, though their seriousness was clear to the rest of us.) That Friday, MoveOn encouraged voters around the country to jam the boards of Congress with calls in opposition to the war. And jam the phones we did.
But no more than UFPJ was MoveOn interested in local grassroots organizing. Thus, for all its success, it never succeeded in pressuring Congressional Democrats to block funding for Bush’s adventurism. And once Democrats were in power, in 2006, on a wave of public sentiment against the war, MoveOn shifted to a campaign designed to shore up the Democratic majority rather than force that majority to do something about the war.
The real potential of the Internet as an organizational tool would not come until the unsuccessful Dean campaign in the Democratic primaries of 2004 and, more spectacularly and successfully, the Obama campaign in 2008. Obama’s team used social networking, email, and an interactive web site to target potential voters, give supporters a sense of inclusion in the campaign, and build a grassroots network of activists. Characteristically, however, Internet organizing ended up targeting the committed or those most likely to vote Obama. Broad swaths of the public, including those who never visit the Internet, were systematically cut out, thanks to sophisticated efforts to conserve resources and address mainly those most likely to vote Obama. As a campaign strategy in a race before a neatly divided public, this makes perfect sense. As a tactic for organizing the unorganized and bringing together Americans with diverse life experiences and points of view, it would be an abject failure.
The key to putting together a broad front for real change in Washington is grassroots organizing. It provides a potent antidote to the parties’ efforts to ignore the electorate between elections, a leverage point for pressuring sitting officials, and the possibility of democratic decision making at the grassroots level. But too many grassroots campaigns suffer from a tendency they share with Internet organizing: they speak mainly to the chorus, to those already sympathetic to their views and to people like themselves. Most politics is tribal. Doctors talk to doctors, nurses talk to nurses (and their families and their neighbors), members of the local political machine talk to one another. The trick is not just to reach each of these “tribes” but to connect them, to cross over and create something bigger than a collection of tribes. It is no accident that the great spreaders of heresy in the Middle Ages were traveling merchants and wandering monks, nor that what linked the Mau Mau rebels against British colonial rule in Kenya with their village and urban supporters were taxi drivers. Such individuals, in the terms used by network sociologists, are nodes in chains of communication. They are connected to many people, in many walks of life and locales, and can connect those people in common cause. An organizer is someone who plays this role as a movement gets off the ground. The Next American Revolution will need lots of organizers.
We will talk more about organizing in the next chapter. The important point here is that successful organizers make significant efforts to break out of their own circles of acquaintance and interest and class and culture. That’s because a movement with clout draws on as broad a spectrum of the population as possible. Party organization, no matter how big the tent the party may wish to provide, tends to harden around electoral contests. That’s why the Italian Communists, for all their skills in holding people’s loyalties, faced an uphill battle growing broad enough to actually gain power. And parties are for gaining power, not disciplining it, as the formidable Internet-stoked Obama machine shows. That’s why party organizational growth in this country, sometimes so spectacular during the campaign season, proves so ephemeral when it comes to holding elected officials to account. Movements can be more supple, even in the electoral realm, if they commit to keeping “their” candidates to their promises.
Broad-based movements can organize directly, in people’s home or workplaces. But they gain the greatest leverage organizing through existing organizations, as we’ve already argued. Those organizations come in an assortment of flavors. At the base lie the membership organizations, not just unions but co-ops and community organizations of all sorts. These are groups that reach ordinary people in various walks of life. Unions have been the shock troops of the Democratic Party for years, providing both volunteers and resources to fill large gaps in the party’s paltry organizing machine in election after election. When the unions lose heart, the party loses elections. Worker-owned co-ops are much fewer in number and size, though the sector is bigger than most people think. And here, too, workplace concerns can be mobilized around demands for change that challenge the power of corporations over American economic life.
Most of the most familiar community organizations appeal to the middle classes, business people and professionals with a commitment to their communities. All of them are relatively democratic in structure but focused on a relatively narrow sense of mission. That means that they may be actively resistant to involvement in an expressly political movement. At the same time, they can provide both resources and venue for spreading the movement message. They have buildings, hold meetings, sometimes invite speakers on topics of current interest, and often raise funds for worthy causes. Smaller groups enjoy the patronage of larger ones and are also venues where activists can spread the word. In many communities across the country, for example, there are “interfaith community services” that join a number of churches – and sometimes Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious organization – in promoting one or more community service – low-income housing, a senior center, a chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an immigrant rights group, a food bank or homeless shelter. Both the congregations that support such efforts and the activists that run them are potentially important to any effort to mobilize a community.
Most communities today also feature an activist NGO or “community foundation” that has taken on the task of raising money for community services and running some of them. They may be single-focused, like a drug awareness program, or multi-tasking, promoting community development, daycare centers, employment, and a host of other causes. Very quickly these become professional service organizations, with a decently paid staff, a professional grant-writer, and professional director. They are anything but democratic, being run by a self-perpetuating board of directors and, often, by an autocratic director under the benign permission of the board, but they can be important links with community activists and source of funding for all sorts of community activities.
Under the radar and not in the phone book are a plethora of informal groups – neighborhood associations with or without formal charter, local peace and justice groups, special purpose groups like watershed associations, gardening clubs, local conservation groups, and book clubs and discussion groups. In these settings, people may stick to a narrow agenda and avoid political discussions of all sorts; but they are more likely be the venue where passing remarks can spark a lively debate or draw new people into local political activism. After all, these are the people who are already active in their communities, and informal organizational settings gives people the level of comfort they sometimes need to talk about their frustrations with the system and their hopes for change.
Organizing a movement for real change in this country (or any other) thus depends on both attitude and action. By attitude, I mean a willingness to overcome the prejudices the media and the parties and, yes, the movements (left and right) have used to divide us, engage people of all sorts, tap into the real sources of their anger and frustration with our government, whatever their overt politics, and bring them along on a broad agenda of change. By action, I mean a conscious effort to take advantage of the immense array of organizational settings where people can be reached and educated and recruited to a movement for real change. So far, though, we have just considered what the attitudinal and organizational resources for a broad-based revolutionary movement might be. In the next chapter, we look at organizational strategies that have worked and that hold the promise for real (that is, revolutionary) change.