How America can rediscover progressive politics

Sam Smith –A consistent, but little appreciated, theme of this journal has been that having a cultural  identity shouldn’t prevent political coalitions with those of other identities. In fact, if you want real political and economic change, nothing will do it better than bringing together constituencies that don’t normally play well together.

There is a long history of this in America including, for example, the success of the Irish minority in reaching out to others in urban politics and Martin Luther King, who we tend to forget was organizing whites as effectively as he was blacks. This reached a peak with the Poor People’s Campaign. Here are some notes from that multi-ethnic campaign:

King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite. He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us .. In August 1967, he preached:

“One unfortunate thing about [the slogan] Black Power is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context a slogan ‘Power for Poor People’ would be much more appropriate than the slogan ‘Black Power.’”

And the night before his assassination, in his “Promised Land” speech, he reminded the people that being disunited only benefited the rich and powerful:

“You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”

As noted here before, one of the big costs of identity politics is that it has damaged the former liberal  economic influence. Labeling low income, low educated whites – of whom there are twice as many as there are black of all incomes- as racist and displaying  “white privilege” has been a disaster and helped to elect Donald Trump. In fact Franklin Roosevelt got more good economic programs going in his first one hundred days than liberals have done in the past 30 years.

A new book,  The Once and Future Liberals: After Identity Politics, by Mark Lilla, confronts this issue. Here are some excerpts from an interview he did with NPR

Mark Lilla – Rather than saying the personal is the political, it became the political is personal. That is, that my politics and my interest in politics and my commitment in politics does not extend beyond how I understand myself. And so politics becomes an expression of self rather than kind of getting out of one’s personal self and connecting with other people for common purposes and common goals, which is what the feminist movement was doing back in the ’60s and early ’70s.

…There are two basic principles that I think have been consistent for American liberalism ever since the New Deal. One is solidarity and the other is equal protection under the law. And most of the concerns of identity groups can be put under the latter category. And most of the issues that today’s progressives worry about can be put under the rubric of solidarity.

… Imagine that you’re canvassing door to door somewhere in Missouri or Mississippi and you knock on someone’s door and you say, I’m here from the Democratic Party, and I’d like to ask for your vote. But before I do, I have a series of tickets to give you. The first ticket is for your privilege. The second one is for being a racist. And the third one is for being homophobic. I hope to see you on Tuesday.  Now, that is not going to attract to persuade anybody.

… In order to understand America’s history and America’s current social problems, you need to understand identity. That’s absolutely right. However, elections are not seminars. They are not about giving an account of how we got here. They are about persuading people in any way you can without falling into some sort of contradiction or making some moral mistake to convince them that the principles you stand for they should stand for and they will protect them.

Sam Smith – When I think of why I am such an advocate of cross cultural politics, two little experiences come to mind. The first was in 1949, when this then 12 year old boy went to stuff envelopes in a campaign that would end 67 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. Why I remember it is because it was the first time in my theretofore mono-cultural life that I had been in a room working with people who were labor union organizers, Jews and blacks. Hey, I thought, these guys are great, we won the election and thus began a life of political activism.

The other experience came in 1995 when, as part of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Ross Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of America, and followers of black activist Lenora Fulani. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin, and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along. We established two basic rules:

– We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

– We would reach that agreement by consensus.

I was one of the kickoff speakers and said:

“As a simple empirical matter you can say that one of the great characteristics of Americans is not merely opposition to a system of the moment but antipathy towards unnatural systems in general — opposition to all systems that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of humans and the natural blessings of their habitats.

“This, I think, is why we are here today. If nothing else binds us it is an understanding of the damage that heartless, leaderless, mindless systems have done to the specifics of our existence. . .

“Further, in our distaste with the systems suffocating our lives, we are very much in the mainstream. These systems have done half our work for us, they have lost the people’s faith. . .

“We must stake out a position with real programs for real people, with our enthusiasm on our sleeve and our ideology in our pocket, with small words and big hearts, and — most of all — with a clear vision of what a better future might look like. We must tackle what Chesterton called the “huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”. . .

“This then is our task. Let’s embrace it not as sectarians or as prigs but as a happy fellow members of a new mainstream. Not as radicals permanently in exile but as moderates of an age that has not quite arrived. Let’s laugh and make new friends and be gentle with one another. Let’s remember Camus’ dictum that the only sin we are not permitted is despair. . .”

We then broke up at tables that each discussed a different subject areas. Everyone was invited to propose ideas that would then listed on a panel. Each of us had three yellow stickers with our names on them to put up on ideas we liked and if we were the only ones who had selected a proposal we could change our sticker.

We then gathered as a whole and despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert’s Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform “to provide a level playing field in elections;” initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities “consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights.”

So it can happen and it can work. What is needed now is for blacks, latinos, labor unions, women, and others to come together and tell America what our progressive priorities should be. Such a conference would seriously shake the establishment and the results could be the beginning of a new America.

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