(Crossposted from The Field.)
"Never go outside the expertise of your people."
- Saul Alinsky
Poor John Judis: for the New Republic's senior editor, the sky has just fallen. The Stimulus Bill didn't spend enough, he says. Obama, he claims, "is having trouble." Oh, really?
Smackdown at the jump...
"I think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket."
To Judis' credit, he at least understands that the high brow Gospels According to Paul Krugman allegedly on behalf of us plebes (and the NY Timesman's frat boy cheerleader squad in some corners of the blog world) do not constitute a "popular left movement."
So who would be this "left movement" in the United States? Judis mentions three sectors: labor unions, the Campaign for America's Future and MoveOn.org. Judis accuses these groups of "subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician."
And here's where the difference unravels between authentic organizers and armchair activists: Judis seems blissfully unaware that a popular movement needs, um, people behind it, not merely letterheads of organizations.
At present, Barack Obama is far more popular among union members than the leaders of those unions. He is more popular among MoveOn.org members than the organization is. (I don't know why Judis worries about what the Campaign for America's Future does or doesn't do: it has no popular base, but, rather a board of advisors mostly from the celebrity brie-and-chablis left.)
The Random House Dictionary defines "popular" this way:
1. regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general: a popular preacher.
2. regarded with favor, approval, or affection by an acquaintance or acquaintances: He's not very popular with me just now.
3. of, pertaining to, or representing the people, esp. the common people: popular discontent.
4. of the people as a whole, esp. of all citizens of a nation or state qualified to participate in an election: popular suffrage; the popular vote; popular representation.
5. prevailing among the people generally: a popular superstition.
6. suited to or intended for the general masses of people: popular music.
7. adapted to the ordinary intelligence or taste: popular lectures on science.
8. suited to the means of ordinary people; not expensive: popular prices on all tickets.
Judis, in this context, is arguing for an elitist means to what he envisions as a popular end. He's essentially arguing that the unions and MoveOn and any other organizations with popular bases must "go outside the expertise" (and the political will) of their own people.
He bases this argument on a historical analysis of the popular and labor movements that certainly moved President Franklin Roosevelt to the left in the 1930s. So far, so good, but: Judis' problem (shared by some others these days) is that he's deluding himself if he thinks the rank and file laborers and citizens in the United States are at all akin to their counterparts from generations ago.
Prior to, and during, Roosevelt's presidency, the union movement had successfully organized, at the local level, waves of organization, strikes and victories. It had been a period of vast growth for labor and, let's be honest, the Communist Party of America, the Communist Labor Party and others in the socialist or anarchist milieus had devoted considerable and successful efforts to politicize and form cadres among the rank-and-file workers. Unions, then, could speak to pull FDR toward more radical economic policies because when they spoke they truly reflected the aspirations of their members.
Fast forward to 2009, and it's no state secret that labor unions have lost considerable ground in recent decades, both in membership and in the politicization of the rank and file. At the helm of many are mere bureaucrats and functionaries fighting turf wars with each other. The emphasis on organizing that embodied labor unions in the 1920s and 1930s has faded dramatically. And that mirrors what has happened to "the left" in the United States (which I must put in quotation marks because of my experience finding an authentic popular left in other nearby countries where I've labored the past dozen years): MoveOn does many good things, but training organizers and deploying them to politicize the membership is not something it has done particularly well if at all.
The result is that these unions and organizations have letterheads and bits of spectacular terrain (in the Debordian sense) but they and others like them in the US have not been "popular movements" for a long, long time.
The only popular movement that has been constructed in the United States in decades is, in fact, the one that the Obama campaign built over the last two years with its emphasis on training and deploying real organizers. They went out there among the rank and file with the credo of "respect, empower, include," and the results are here today in front of everyone's noses. (And, let's be honest about this point, too. For the various tantrums of teeth-gnashing from some declaring that Organizing for America - the 2009 manifestation of the Obama organization - has somehow fallen short: what other entity on the left in the US has displayed, this year, the convocational power to organize 3,500 house meetings in a matter of a few weeks?)
Judis cites Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long's impact on FDR because his Share Our Wealth organization "had organized 27,000 clubs across the country." Now, when it comes to Governor Long, I'm much more in the T. Harry Williams camp than of Robert Penn Warren: Warts and all, there was much more good than bad to Long and his efforts, and they indeed do merit serious study and application.
But let's remember: Long organized that movement with state power at his command. He deployed the resources of oil-rich Louisiana to organize the populace both inside and outside the state borders with the personal goal of running for and becoming the president of the United States. Obama is the first United States politician since then that has achieved anything like that on that scale. He in fact surpassed Long at it.
(And just out of curiosity: If the Huey Long model is the new black, where is Judis' praise for Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, who is using pretty much exactly that model to organize inside and outside of Venezuela? Right down to the appropriation of oil profits, the redistribution of wealth, the incendiary language of class warfare, and the pushing of the hemisphere to the left (pulling the "center" in Washington more that way), Chávez is in fact accomplishing some of what Judis urges. But I'm guessing that Judis, if he were to write about Chávez today, would use the same sneering terms that columnists used against Huey Long in his day. I'll go even further to suggest that had Judis been writing in the 1930s, he'd be sneering at Long and his movement, too. Long is convenient to him now only because he's dead.)
If following in Huey Long's footsteps is what needs to be done today, why aren't the Judises and Krugmans calling on, say, Montana's populist Governor Brian Schweitzer to do the same? My guess is that Schweitzer would respond by schooling them Alinsky style: Because the popular bases do not want to be adversarial at this point in history toward their popular president. The bases - particularly in the working class - just aren't lined up in the Judis-Krugman constellation of constant complaint. And lord knows that the B-list bloggers that are in that milieu have zero connection to the working class or the work of organizing it on a local level. They seem to consider the real work of grassroots community organizing to be beneath them, a waste of a college degree.
Back to the American labor unions of today: Contrary to what the armchair quarterbacks urge on them, I think they're playing their cards very well right now. The one thing that could bring about their resurrection is the Employee Free Choice Act. That - and not a few billion more dollars in the Stimulus Bill - is what would open the door to successful union organizing in workplaces across the fruited plain. That would correspondingly raise wages and improve working conditions in America (stimulating the economy, too). That's their priority this year. And that's the smart move.
If and when the Employee Free Choice Act - supported by the President - becomes law, it will send the unions back to the very bases with which they grew in the ‘20s and ‘30s: training a new generation of organizers and sending them onto shop floors and offices everywhere to persuade the workers to form and join unions. That law would be a kind of stimulus for the labor movement, too, because it would give each union a mission - something to do! - in lieu of the internecine bureaucratic combat that so dominates the days and nights of so many of its leaders today.
But Judis prefers, it seems, that unions should have spent their limited political capital on incrementally making the Stimulus Bill bigger, adversarial to the popular president, in a way that would only alienate their own members from the union leadership. (And, really, with the rise of union daughter Hilda Solis as Labor Secretary, and the signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, I don't think the unions or their members can be called unhappy at all with the early trajectory of the Obama presidency.)
In sum, those that imagine, like Judis, themselves as the house intellectuals of a 1930s-style American left pulling the president their way are delusional. They represent nothing and no one. They have no "popular movement" to move, because they haven't rolled up their sleeves to organize one on the local level. They're merely sitting around the house or the cubicle typing into their keypads like children playing World of Warcraft. They've invented a fictional avatar ("the movement") and move it around on their imaginary battlefield.
Meanwhile, others are out here in the real world organizing: knocking on doors, making phone calls, collaborating across racial, generational and class divides, engaging in the art of face-to-face persuasion. These are the fathers and mothers of the coming authentic popular movements in the United States. But you can bet that when they succeed, the Judises and the Krugmans and the others in that masturbatory frat house will be coming around trying to claim paternity. And we'll out-organize them then, too.