The Social Movement Romance

Progressives can’t let a love affair with social movements distract them from electoral politics.

Joel Bleifuss

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ignored the protestors flooding the Capitol and signed his anti-union bill on March 11, 2011. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Today, many American progressives, embittered by Obama’s shortcomings and wistful over the unfulfilled promise of Occupy, have come to see social movements” as the principle vehicles for constructive political change. All too often, these movementists focus on street mobilizations at the expense of electoral politics.

'Real- world politics involves confronting or convincing those elements of society with whom we disagree. If progressives cannot do this, we are not a movement at all—we are a dinner party.'

By contrast, the Tea Partiers have no qualms about participating in the electoral process. They know that elections are public contests for power. They nominate and elect candidates who will do their bidding and pass so- called right-to-work laws, voter-suppression initiatives, abortion restrictions and permissive environmental laws that will damn the whole planet.

Of course, progressives can’t simply conjure up a Tea Party of their own. Skeptics of electoral politics argue, correctly, that the American electoral system has never been a level playing field. Yet that is no reason for progressives to shrink from fights on hostile terrain.

Electoral politics can force activists to step outside of their comfortable ideological cocoons and think creatively about crafting persuasive arguments. Attending campaign meetings, going door-to-door, calling strangers on the phone and, yes, supporting candidates who are not perfect all entail abandoning the security of the herd. Real- world politics involves confronting or convincing those elements of society with whom we disagree. If progressives cannot do this, we are not a movement at all — we are a dinner party.

A young organizer, who was previously employed in the nonprofit sector working in social movements, told me, off the record:

Too many people on the Left think that nonpartisan social movements can pressure elected officials to do the right thing.” But how could a social movement build a demonstration larger than the 2011 Madison, Wis., protests against Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill? And yet even a month-long demonstration and occupation of the state capitol couldn’t stop the bill. We need to build a political structure that guarantees our politicians will be directly responsible to grassroots political activists. Leftists who don’t think we need to organize elector- ally, who think that we can change the world without taking power,” are taking the laissez-faire, anti-statist impulses of neoliberalism more seriously than neoliberals.

This lack of focus by social movement partisans is fueled by a progressive foundation establishment that, following nonprofit tax codes, foments social change by distributing dollars to social movement organizations— worker centers being a prime example — on the condition that they refrain from engaging in electoral politics.

Ultimately, progressives must free themselves from their nonprofit shackles and combine organizing, agitprop, mass mobilizations and an electoral strategy, as appropriate. The September In These Times editorial noted that in Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union is, as union president Karen Lewis put it, organizing to change the political landscape in Chicago.” The union intends to do so by recruiting candidates to mount primary challenges against Democratic politicians who have failed to further the interests of the city’s diverse communities.

The choice is not between social movements or electoral organizing. We need both.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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