Dirkster42's rec-listed diary about the Invisibility of the Religious Left got me to thinking about what it would take not only to become more visible, but to be more politically effective. One thing led to another, and I was reminded of a post from earlier this year. What follows is a revised an updated version of that post.
We are entering a political era that I expect will not be for the fainthearted. And we are faced with the most difficult, challenging and probably painful thing any of us can do: And that is to change the way we think, talk and act in our political lives. There is nothing harder than changing ourselves. It is much easier to talk about the way other people need to change, and I think we can all agree that other people are certainly most of the problem. This includes both religious and non-religious lefties across a broad swath of political leftiness.
Therefore, all present company will be excepted from that generalization for purposes of this conversation. (Unless you want to fess up.)
Thinking and talking about change, and being the change we discuss will be especially difficult for those of us who are professionally invested in the status quo -- even the status quo of doing social change. What are we to do when things we have done as political professionals turned out to be wrong? Nevertheless, even as we are troubled by so many things, we need to be able to evaluate our work, and the work of those we work with, to see what is working and what needs to be adjusted, or even fundamentally changed.
But I am not going to be the one to preach this sermon. Fortunately, I have encountered people who have taken the long view for a long time. I was honored to be able to reprint or commission work from several such writers for my 2008 book Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America.
I want to highlight two essays from that book. Both are about the art of organizing for social justice, and I think both take a view that challenges much of what passes for organizing.
A few years ago, Jean Hardisty, a progressive scholar of the Right at Wellesley College; and social justice organizer Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, teamed-up to publish an essay for The Nation, in which they dissented from several major trends on the liberal/left and the Democratic Party. It is one of the single wisest essays on contemporary politics I have read. Titled "Wrong About the Right," the essay debunked what they consider to be wrong lessons taken from the political successes of the Right in recent decades -- and pointed to what they think better lessons might be.
Here are a few excerpts:
Secrets of Their Success
1. Ideological Diversity. There is no monolithic conservative movement but rather a plethora of ideologies successfully harnessed together in a grand coalition. In the 1970s, as the New Right emerged from the discredited old right, a fragile truce was drawn among libertarians, economic conservatives, social conservatives and neoconservatives. Under the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the influential National Review magazine and host of TV's Firing Line, tensions were negotiated and a "fusion politics" emerged that allowed for cooperation across differences. Such a truce is more easily maintained when a movement is winning, as the New Right was under President Ronald Reagan... the fault lines are reappearing.
The implication for progressives is that we ought to tolerate a diversity of views and think strategically about how t align them to common purpose rather than seek a homogeneity we falsely ascribe to conservatives. Conservatives also found that it's not always the most mainstream or moderate voices who win. Likewise, progressives with a more radical vision, while working collaboratively in the larger movement, must not let themselves be sidelined.
2. Ideas, Not Messages. To the extent that conservatives were serious about ideas--and to be sure they were and are -- they started not with "messaging" or "framing," two strategies currently in vogue among progressives, but rather with inquiry into core beliefs about race, government, family, markets and global economic and military domination....
3. Active Listening. ...[the Right's] masterstroke was not that they went off in a room and decided on a few cornerstone values and then aligned their work and campaigns to speak to those values. Their genius was that they first engaged in a practice of active listening and found a core of resentment among large numbers of Americans... They did this at the time when liberals stopped listening... Today, liberals rely heavily on polling -- a shallow kind of listening -- or push ideas at the country without deeply engaging people first.
Organizing is central to any effective strategy for revitalizing the progressive movement.
Organizing, not to be confused with mobilizing, is ultimately what changes people's minds. Whereas mobilizing is about moving people to take certain actions (voting, lobbying policy-makers, coming out to an event or calling your Congress member on an issue pre-selected by someone else), organizing is about developing the skills, confidence and practice among ordinary people to speak out in their own voice.
What ultimately forces change is human beings seeing fellow human beings act from a place of deep conviction.
Marshall Ganz currently teaches organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He has served as the top organizer for the United Farm Workers during the hey day of Cesar Chavez, and he has served as an organizing consultant to pols from Nancy Pelosi to Howard Dean and Barack Obama. His essay titled: "Thoughts on Power, Organization and Leadership," is a hybrid of some of his writing and teaching materials.
No excerpting can really do justice to the essay, which is itself a distillation of a lifetime of political lessons.
But here are a few points for your consideration in light of some of the current battles between despair and what Ganz calls "the delusion of optimism."
Leading social movements requires learning to manage core tensions, tensions at the heart of what theologian Walter Bruggemann calls the "prophetic imagination": a combination of criticality (experience of the world’s pain) with hope (experience of the world’s possibility), avoiding being numbed by despair or deluded by optimism. The deep desire for change must be coupled with the capacity to make change. Structures must be created that create the space within which growth, creativity, and action can flourish, without slipping into the chaos of structurelessness, and leaders must be recruited, trained, and developed on a scale required to build the relationships, sustain the motivation, do the strategizing, and carry out the action required to achieve success.
A social movement tells a new "story." Learning how to tell that story, what I call public narrative, is an important leadership practice.
Public narrative comprises three overlapping kinds of stories: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. A story of self communicates values that call one to action. A story of us communicates values shared by those in action. And a story of now communicates the urgent challenge to those values that requires action now. Participating in a social movement not only often involves a rearticulation of one’s story of self, us, and now, but marks an entry into a world of uncertainty so daunting that access to sources of hope is essential.
Telling one’s story of self is a way to share the values that define the people we are -- not as abstract principle, but as lived experience. We construct stories of self around choice points – moments when we faced a challenge, made a choice, experienced an outcome, and learned something. What is utterly unique about each of is not a combination of the categories (race, gender, class, profession, marital status) that include us, but rather, our journey, our way through life, our personal text from which each of us can teach.
Ganz describes how we structure an articulation of vision, hope and strategy. If we are going to go somewhere difficult together, we have to believe not only that it is desirable, even necessary to do it, but that it is possible to get there (hope). We need to understand the project (the vision) and the broad principles of how it will be achieved (strategy).
In a social movement, the interpretation of the movement’s new experience is a critical leadership function. And, like the story of self, it is built from the choices points – the founding, the choices made, the challenges faced, the outcomes, the lessons it learned.
A story of Now articulates the urgent challenge to the values that we share that demands action now. What choice must we make? What is at risk? And where’s the hope? In a story of now, we are the protagonists and it is our choices that will shape the story’s outcome. We must draw on our "moral sources" to respond. A most powerful articulation of as story of now was Dr. King’s talk often recalled as the "I have a dream" speech, delivered August 23, 1963. People often forget that he preceded the dream with a challenge, white America’s long overdue debt to African Americans. King argued, it was a debt that could no longer be postponed – it was moment possessed of the "fierce urgency of now." If we did not act, the nightmare would grow worse, never to become the dream.
In the story of now, story and strategy overlap because a key element in hope is a strategy – a credible vision of how to get from here to there.
What I take away from these essays is that organizing for politics, religious and otherwise, is necessarily still a primarily a human endeavor: One in which we engage and change one another en route to wider social and political change. How we do that has everything to do with how we develop long term political capacity for ourselves in our own communities. And it is how we do this, that I think will make the greatest difference as we relearn the art and science of organizing in ways appropriate to our time.