What Happens to the Progressive Movement Now?

All good movements turn into organizations turn into businesses turn into rackets.
—Old organizers’ saying

I don’t think any of us expected to get so far so soon.

Back in 2003, when Bush was southern-frying the Dixie Chicks and the Iraq War was propelling millions into the streets and progressive blogs consisted of a small handful of folks writing in their pajamas under esoteric banners like “Eschaton” or “Orcinus” or “Daily Kos,” anybody who suggested that America might someday return to its liberal Enlightenment roots was right up there on the wack-o-meter with those who dreamed that the country might someday abolish private property and adopt socialist utopianism. Nobody serious thought it was remotely possible. Amongst ourselves, we told each other that ousting the conservative juggernaut would probably be the work of a couple of decades. Or maybe even a whole generation. Or maybe it was a fool’s errand that wasn’t even possible at all any more.

At the same time, we had the sick feeling in our guts that the republic simply didn’t have that much time left. We would probably fail; but we had to try. Fighting back was the only thing that seemed to quell the queasiness, so we fought for all we were worth. In 2004, we organized the country. In 2006, we used the lessons learned to do better—and took back the House. Along the way, we pioneered Internet fund-raising, built or revived an entire infrastructure of liberal organizations, and took our message to every county in the country—some of which hadn’t seen a proud liberal in decades.

And so it came to pass that this fine November morning, we are waking up—to our own unutterable surprise—to find ourselves in power, in undisputed control of two of our government’s three branches. We did it. We actually pulled it off. The country survived President Bush (by the skin of its teeth: that urgency we felt was fully justified); and the permanent one-party rule of the GOP is over. Our fighting spirit, combined with a series of disasters that deeply undercut people’s faith in conservative free-market happy talk and the structural strengths inherent in our system of government, have transformed the political landscape of America. And we did it all in just five years.

Go ahead. We’ve all earned the right to spend a few days basking in this well-earned glow. But the moment will be over soon enough. The very fact that we won has brought us to a fresh moment of reckoning. We are no longer the loyal opposition; we are now the people in charge — and our next act of transformation will be to come to terms with that fact. Our movement is about to morph into something else—and the quality and duration of our leadership will greatly depend on what new form we choose.

The opening quote describes the way this has usually gone down in the past. Time passes; goals shift. Effective movements start out with the goal of creating change. When they succeed, they ossify into organizations, and the goal becomes self-perpetuation. Big, powerful organizations need money to survive, so then the goal becomes finding a workable business model. Invariably, the business devolves into some kind of scheme in which they trade their major asset—power—for money. In other words, a racket. At this point, another movement will usually rise to challenge their corrupt status quo and seize their power for other ends.

That’s what happened to Democrats in the 1970s. We’re in power now in no small part because it happened just that way to the conservatives, too. The bad news is that, some time in the future, this is most likely what awaits us as well. The good news is that we do have some choices here—and between now and the inauguration, we should be talking about how we can structure ourselves to forestall this fate for as long as possible.

From Movement to Community
Recently, I discussed this looming dilemma with a group of friends—one of whom suggested that, rather than repeat the past model of creating a progressive order dominated by a set of big organizations that will inevitably become change-resistant and ultimately corrupt, we might choose to think of this transition as the transformation of the existing progressive movement into a large and diverse “progressive community.”

What does that mean? We came up with a short list of critical distinctions:

Movements are essential for gathering and directing the energy for large-scale change effort. However, that same energy and transformative power also makes them unstable and volatile. Achieving their goals requires members to conform to a set of tightly-coordinated beliefs and behaviors; and they often become ideologically dogmatic and socially exclusive as a result. Furthermore, making a big impact requires people with big visions—and often, big egos and a big appetite for drama to match, which in turn fuels the rise of personality cults and power-hoarding leadership. These inherent instabilities explain why many movements don’t outlast their founders.

Also, as the conservatives learned the hard way, in the heat of battle, it’s easy to lose touch with your own principles. You can justify anything if you’re doing it “for the cause.” So far, our movement has shown tremendous discipline in resisting this impulse, because we understood that our progressive principles were our core source of moral strength in opposing the conservatives. Everybody understood that compromising those principles was a fatal error, because it would make us just like them.

Unfortunately, it’s going to be much too easy to relax those standards as our opposition wanes, and our group identity no longer depends highlighting the sharp contrasts between us and the conservatives. And things could devolve very quickly once the infighting starts over who’s going to actually wield our newly won power. (Don’t be too surprised if those fights start breaking out within a matter of days.)

It’s not uncommon for movements to fall prey to the old Zen principle, “What you resist, persists.” We’re all familiar with lefties whose battles against The Man eventually left them every bit as authoritarian and paranoid as the power structures they worked to overthrow. The eternal tendency to become that which we most despise makes permanent opposition an inherently unsound way to organize a group for the long haul.

Communities have a different purpose, and different internal dynamics—and this model may be better suited to the new environment we find ourselves in now. Like organizations, they’re built to last. But where organizations are founded to achieve goals that they too often outlive, communities are living, renewable, organic entities that are held together by a workable social contract, a common cultural identity, complex social and family structures, dependable bonds of trust, and a strong set of shared values. They’re about inclusion, not exclusion; and exist for mutual support and survival, not status. They are an end unto themselves, not in opposition to anyone. And they can endure for centuries, if not millennia.

A good community is a creative shared space in which we can work out practical ways to live out our values in every area of life, and plan together for our common future. Communities are more about people and the environment than they are about money. They perpetuate themselves by raising and educating children, looking after their elders, and caring for the sick and disabled. They create spaces and rituals where they can share in celebrations and life passages together. They support artists and businesses, and make collective decisions about security, investment, and infrastructure. The flexibility of the community’s boundaries and agenda allow it to take a more holistic view that transcends the narrow organizational preoccupations of power and money. The community provides a larger context in which organizations can form, re-form, and disband as they’re needed to get the work done; and stands ready to hold those organizations accountable against corruption and entrenchment.

Street Prophets’ Pastor Dan Schultz, who was also part of this conversation, blogged his take on this idea:

Communities…are focused on persons and the relationships they manifest. Movements succeed when they accomplish their objectives, but communities succeed when they nurture the members they have – and when they expand their circle. Movements are short- (or at least limited-) term and transactional, communities play the long game and are transformative.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that communities are particularly better than movements. We need both.

Nor am I going to pretend that I’ve always been some sort of communitarian advocate. I have happily rejected the idea of creating a bipartisan political consensus as a false and unjust community, for example.

I’ve always been in this thing for the community, and willing to put up with the movement for its sake. My patience with that movement has always had its ebbs and flows. Now, in the midst of a high-stakes presidential election where everybody is tense and grumpy and throwing sharp elbows at their political opponents and one another, it’s definitely ebbing. It took some time to put a finger on that change, and that’s what’s had me gobsmacked.

Still, I wouldn’t say that it’s time to reject the progressive political movement as such…But the context of all our struggles—emotional, spiritual and political—is the community, [to quote Paul] “striving side by side with one mind.”

The abstract community of progressives that I am trying to bring into reality along with many others has also been pushed to the side for too long. Too many of my friends and colleagues seem to have forgotten that we are seeking more than a political win in November. At heart, we are looking for a new way of doing business, perhaps even a new way of being…Now that I am reminded of my priorities, it’s much easier to keep my eyes on the prize and do the work I am called to do.

What America wants, more than anything else right now, is to recover its larger sense of itself as a national community. (Fortunately, we elected ourselves a community organizer to help us do just that.) Yesterday, we gathered together to overwrite the old conservative fiction that “you’re on your own” with a new message that “we’re all in this together.” The best kind of leadership leads by example; and reinvesting our formidable energies into the task of building a vibrant national progressive community will be an act of leadership that reminds the whole country how it’s done.

How do we do this? What will it look like? That’s the stuff of a long conversation that can be had on these pages, across the blogosphere, and everywhere else progressives gather. The most important thing to bear in mind right now is that the organizations and institutions we’re about to build are not the end-all and be-all of who we are. They are simply tools that express the shared ideals and goals of a large and diverse progressive community.

The first rule of navigating the transition ahead is this: Every decision we make, from here on out, needs to be made with the deeply-held values and the long-term viability of that community front and center in our minds. Our time in power will last exactly as long as we do that. And our season will end the day we allow anything else to come before those priorities.

H/T to Dave Neiwert, Nicole Sawaya, Rev. Dan Schultz, and Jesse Wendel

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