Friday, December 01, 2006

Thinking about leaders

Last night I joined another politically experienced friend in talking with some local young leftist organizers. At their request, we discussed the meaning of the recent election. We chewed through some important truisms: the November results really are the first major change in the political environment since 9/11; we are about to see how a Democratic Party controlling the House of Representative without depending on a block of conservative Southern members will behave; the seniority system in Congress, combined with long standing gerrymandering of voters of color, means that members of the Congressional Black Congress and the Progressive Caucus will chair many important committees; their generation shows a notable progressive bent at the polls. And we acknowledged that, though new opportunities have opened up, it is still hard to envision how the leftist ideas they struggle for will enter the public dialogue.

My friend observed:

"What's missing is a leader in mainstream politics who has the star power to inspire a movement. Then people around him can advance new, progressive ideas. That's how the movements around Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson functioned. Their charisma enabled people within their movements to push the envelope of what could be considered possible. That's what it takes to carry a progressive movement to scale. That kind of leader doesn't even have to be entirely on board with everything people in his movement want to push for. But it is very hard to grow a widespread, mainstream movement without a leader figure to make the space."

He added that Barack Obama comes the closest to such a figure today -- not because Obama is so clearly progressive himself, but because his identity and life history make him a figure whose very prominence suggests that alternate visions might be possible for this country.

Much later one of the young women (the young organizers were mostly women) commented: "I understand why we might hope a leader figure will emerge. But I don't like thinking that way. Besides the leader figure is always so gendered...."

She's right of course. Her question took me back to concerns I've often felt in California political campaigns. What makes my home a "blue" Democratic state is that there is a possible coalition that makes a voting majority that is loosely liberal -- but only if all parts of it hold together. That coalition needs to attract African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, new citizens, the unionized working class (especially white union member households), white women, gays of all colors and economic means, and people of progressive convictions. That is, the winning Democratic coalition is a hell of a mixed bag.

And therein lies the problem that begs for recognized mainstream leadership: on contentious issues such as many of our initiative measures, there are very few spokespeople who can speak across all those communities with moral and intellectual authority. We don't all listen to the same "leaders" and we don't always credit others' leaders.

The only campaign I've ever been part of that seemed to bridge all those gulfs was the 2003 effort (in the middle of the circus that was the gubernatorial recall) to defeat Prop. 54, a ban on the state collecting racial information. Who did opponents find who could speak to all across chasms of race and class interest? Focus group investigations suggested that "the man" was former Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop. Voters listened to an eccentric-appearing old white man with a beard and voted the thing down.

I don't know quite what the Prop. 54 story implies except perhaps that it illustrates how strongly all of us wish for some authority to validate our views. Progressives cannot ignore how strong the impulse to seek authority can be, at the same time we try to help people learn to do their own thinking.
Meanwhile, half way round the world, a friend writes from Lebanon, having just come from the huge demonstrations in Beirut by Shia parties and their many allies for a more representative government:

"it is kind of sad for the country to be in need of two strong men: [Christian leader Michel] Aoun and [Hezbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, but really really I see no way out without them. We are in deep shit."

There it is again.

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