The Two Lefts, and a Tidal Wave of Change

Andrew Lehman

Being a left or progressive organizer is not about making things happen, but about appraising conditions. The goal is to be in the right place at the right time, with the right tools and allies –  – strengthened by robust contact lists, a powerful message and a unique presentation. 

It's time the old Left began using Obama's youth tools. In terms of process, the old Left has become conservative.

Watching and listening to the changing of the times, one becomes a specialist in currents and waves. Sitting on the beach, you see a wave and run into the water to position yourself and let it carry you toward your goal. But rarely are waves so big that you can see them from far away. Usually, you need to linger waist-deep in the surf. 

Today, however, we can observe a tidal wave of change –  – the slow-motion toppling of our hierarchical society –  – approach. To catch this wave requires an understanding of society’s shift away from male-centric systems of control and the profound effect that new communication technologies are having upon this changing seascape. 

Until recently, the Left’s actions have had only limited effect on the well-organized and highly monetized Right. The Right’s organizing strategy, exemplified by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, can be characterized by its belief that the ends justify the means.

The Right has pursued victory by putting money and resources into one-to-many communications –  – especially TV –  – to drive home their message. But the Left has discovered many-to-many communications: the Web, social networking and cell-phone technologies, all of which encourage transparency, diversity and horizontal communication. 

To articulate a political vision that society can embrace, the Left must speak the language of youth. Youth talk tech. For youth, it’s not even tech –  – it’s just their lives. Text messaging is life. Instant messaging is life. Social networking and Twitter are life. These youthful tools are collapsing the ancient scaffolding erected to keep power in the hands of the few.

The nature of these tools is congruent with the fundamental message of the Left: that we are in this all together. And so we are at the beginning of a convergence of message and means, a congruence of the Left’s vision and the tools it uses to make that vision widely understood and accepted. People crave this congruence.

At an astonishing speed, the new horizontal communication tools are changing society. This change is occurring without most self-identified Leftists” even being involved, because the traditional Left is focused on issues, not process. Most Leftists don’t even have a social networking page. Most Leftists don’t text message. Most Leftists are over 50.

The new Left, built on the new tools, is deeply involved in process. Members of this new Left are Obama supporters. They are the young activists organizing through the Web, using the new technologies to horizontally and transparently spread principles through ancient, one-to-many, winning-obsessed political structures.

Progressive organizers and activists can use the new tech tools to urge spontaneous targeted actions. The Obama campaign integrated these tools with community organizing, gathering and motivating people to work their own neighborhood door to door. It created a hybrid that will become the political organizing paradigm for years to come. 

Going forward, the impetus for organizing political change will emerge from regular citizens using the new communication tools to accomplish specific goals. Charismatic leaders will cease to perform the function that they have in the past. With such leaders removed from the equation, countless waves of change will compete and create unique actions, forming brief ad hoc social networking alliances and achieving very specific goals. The usual activist interventions, like feet-in-the street events planned by established coalitions, will continue to decline in influence.

It’s time the old Left began using Obama’s youth tools. In terms of process, the old Left has become conservative. The Obama Democrats, by using powerful democratizing youth tools, have in effect become the Left. 

In a way similar to how Gorbachev was the transition to the break-up of the Soviet Union, Obama will be the transitional leader making possible the arrival of the new wave: highly integrated citizen involvement, organized anarchy, a global community of peers. 

[Editor’s note: This article is drawn from postings on Andrew Lehman’s website, www​.neote​ny​.org.]

Andrew Lehman, a member of In These Times’ Board of Directors and Board of Editors, is a co-director of the Peace, Justice and Environment Project (PJEP​.org), which serves more than 1000 organizations nationwide. He owns and operates an Evanston, Il.-based Web development firm specializing in applications that encourage networking between grassroots organizations.

Lehman writes about biological evolution and social transformation at www​.neote​ny​.org.

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