Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Beyond "more Democrats" and even "better Democrats"

This is a tough one for me, but important. Having spent the last 15 years or so trying to get progressives to master the skills of pushing for change through the electoral system -- something we'd largely neglected for decades -- it's quite a shift to begin to imagine that the cutting edge of progress in the next period will require something else.

But it is worth imagining, because it might be true. With the improbable election of Obama, the marginalization and regionalization of the Republican Party, and nominal Democratic control of the elected federal government, any more gains in those arenas will be relatively small increments. So those of us who think what we need is more than incremental change need to figure out how to even get traction for our demands.

Chris Bowers of Open Left, who is a smart elections wonk among other talents, spelled some of this out the other day:

Surely we must maintain our efforts on the political front, but the leading edge of progressive change is coming in other areas. Things like the network neutral Internet, increasing immigration, increasing acceptance of the LGBT community, and shifting religious identification are making the country more progressive than any single or combination of political campaigns over the past two decades.

The best we can hope for from electoral politics is two-fold. First, in the short term (the next three to seven years) we can do a bit better, but not much, on the electoral and legislative fronts. Second, in the long-term, we can make sure that the federal government does not [get] in the way of the long-term engines of progressive change. Whatever immigration reform is passed, it can't reduce the number of people coming into this country. Whatever media reform is passed, the network neutral Internet must be preserved at all costs. And, nearly as importantly, the Employee Free Choice Act needs to be passed someday.

Given that the era of "more Democrats" has ended, progressive activists who are interested in sweeping change would probably be best off refocusing not primarily to "better Democrats," but to culturally progressive feedback loops like immigration, net neutrality, and the Employee Free Choice Act. That is where policy can further the leading edges of progressive change, and that is where we need to be.

I like his notion of "culturally progressive feedback loops." And I can think of two more that are worth cultivating.

For one, we need to do everything in our power to enable young people to get college educations and to experience some efficacy through the practice of collective action while in the diploma game. It's not impossible. The Obama era is going to primetime for what's known as "service learning" for college students. Let's get ourselves into those courses.

When Bowers refers to "shifting religious identification" I think he's referring to the growth of the religiously unaffiliated category in the population. But I think (and the recent Pew study agrees) that what is happening is not so much people leaving religion as people moving around between different loci of spiritual search and practice. In particular, younger folks are rejecting what they think of as censorious narrow-mindedness and bigotry, especially against gays. Progressive religious people should be a welcomed part of the wider progressive groundswell. Their activism within their own religious communities, especially on such issues as peace, anti-torture, environment and sustainability, creates links to folks who are too often untouched by overtly "political" activism. At the very least, religious progressives deprive the rightwing of its uncontested claim to have "God on their side." That's worth something while religion continues to hold some claim to moral authority.


Kay Dennison said...

Excellent post!!!!

libhom said...

I think a lot of people are leaving religion, and it is about time.

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