Ta-Nehisi Coates went after liberals the other day for being too whiny. Those who complain about the compromises and capitulations of Obama—”Team Commie,” as he calls them—have only themselves to blame. They haven’t done the hard work of organizing citizens to put pressure on the pols in Washington, particularly conservative Democrats resisting Obama’s jobs program.
I was a little puzzled by this post. Its hectoring tone (“being taken seriously involves actual work”) sounds a lot like the one Obama uses when he attacks “griping and groaning” liberals—a tone ably skewered by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates in a New York Times op-ed, which I wrote about in an earlier post.
It’s also not clear who exactly Coates is talking about here. Most of the liberals and leftists I know who criticize Obama spend their lives working to elect more progressive politicians, not only in Congress but throughout the country. They know full well that if things are going to change, it’s not going to come from Obama or the Democratic Party but from social movements and grassroots activism.
If he’s at all uncertain about this, Coates might want to speak to some of my union friends in New Haven, who’ve spent the better part of a year organizing a slate of progressives to take over the Board of Aldermen from crappy incumbents. I realize this is a far cry from the aerial heights of DC, but if you want to put pressure on the top, you have to have people turning the screws at the bottom.
Here’s how you build that infrastructure of change (I’m just talking about the electoral path; as any activist knows, there are lots of other equally important paths). First you get a progressive Board of Aldermen in New Haven. Then you get a lock on the state legislature in Connecticut. From there you take it to the state congressional delegation, until finally you’ve kicked the shit out of Joe Lieberman and got two fairly liberal senators in Congress—or at least two senators who feel themselves beholden to your power. And you do that in every state. It doesn’t always work, of course—Lieberman’s still in the Senate—but that’s how it’s done.
Coates gets the principle: “People who talk of primarying Obama need to pick smaller targets–and thus elicit bigger results.” He just happens to believe he’s the only one who does.
Not a day goes by that I don’t get 100 emails or FB posts, linking me to yet another story of on-the-ground activism: sometimes the activism is electoral, sometimes it’s legislative (phone banks to call your congressman, buses to Washington to meet with a senator, that kind of thing), sometimes it’s more raucous: workers occupying state legislatures in protest of some bill, citizens marching on banks, longshoremen shutting down ports, and so on. This is just the stuff of daily conversation among progressives, the Talk of the Town of the left.
Could there be more of this? Absolutely. But that Coates doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t speak, about even these stories is telling. Of not just failure on his part, though it is that. I mean, seriously, the dude is a journalist. How hard is it, before he picks up a pen, to pick up a phone and ask someone in the labor movement or a grassroots organization what they’re doing?
But Coates’s silence is also indicative of a bigger problem confronting the left: the shroud of media indifference under which it labors. Most of the stories that come across my transom are never reported in the New York Times or magazines like the Atlantic where Coates works. Not because activists haven’t tried to get the media’s attention but because Coates’s colleagues simply don’t care about them, and if they do care, probably don’t like them very much. Far more interesting to talk about the Tea Party and right-wing activism than to talk about activism on the left.
If each of us is going to put our shoulder to the wheel, why doesn’t Coates start with himself? Not with a harangue about how we fail to realize that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen because “Martin Luther King was a really nice guy.” (The one orbit of the political universe where you can be sure the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are properly understood is on the left.) But by challenging his colleagues at his magazine to report more on these stories, and by challenging himself to do the same. I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?
Media silence and indifference is just one of many constraints the left faces when it tries to change things. I hope to say more about those constraints in a later post. Some of them are obvious: the money power on the right; the barriers against union organizing, about which I’ve written; the corporate funding base for non-profits that is hostile to campaigns for economic democracy; the obstacles to voter registration and turnout (Coates blithely recommends more voter-registration, seemingly unaware of the right’s massive campaign to make voting nearly impossible for a great many citizens). Some of them are less obvious.
But anyone who knows anything about organizing knows, first, that it’s far more difficult than anyone who’s never organized realizes, and, second, that anyone who’s never organized—i.e., most people—hasn’t a clue as to just how hard it is.
And here we come to the final irony of this discussion. As Coates admits, his post was inspired by a series of posts from Matt Yglesias, who has spent the last however many months explaining to the rest of us that presidents are not all-powerful; they confront a ginormous apparatus of resistance in Congress, the courts, the states, and elsewhere.
Yet somehow, in the view of Yglesias and Coates, the left has a virtually Jacobin capacity to change the world: if we will it, it will be. This is how Yglesias puts it, in a statement Coates quotes approvingly:
If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing.
Think about that last sentence: if justice and equality are not happening, it’s not because liberals and progressives face all sorts of roadblocks to making it happen; it’s that they’re simply not doing their job. They’re talking to each other on the interwebs instead of getting out there and doing the hard work.
Reading these two, you get a rather remarkable picture of the political universe. If Obama makes a call to a conservative Democratic senator from Delaware, it’ll go nowhere. But if little old Mrs. Murdle from Wilmington, quietly getting by on her Social Security, makes a call to her senator, mountains will move.
(I’m not being facetious here; Yglesias really does recommend calling your elected official as one of the two key things you can do to make change; the other is to argue with moderates and conservatives and apolitical folks who don’t support progressive policies. For the record, I’ve been doing both for years, probably for almost as long as Yglesias has been alive. But the fact that I and my comrades are supposedly not doing these things is “the most underrated prop of conservative dominance in the United States.” )
Of course, it’s not enough for Mrs Murdle—or me—to call my congresswoman or senator; at a minimum, I have to do it with thousands of other men and women. Not just in the 11th congressional district in New York where I live but in at least 217 other congressional districts throughout the country and in at least 26 states (or 31 if you now accept the filibuster-proof requirement that seems to be de rigueur in the Senate).
Effective citizen action, in other words, has to be, at a minimum, concerted. And guess what: all those veto points against presidential action that Yglesias and his ilk love to cite apply ten thousand times more to social movements and concerted citizen action. Not by accident—and not because we’re apathetic or clueless—but by design.
Remember the Federalist Papers you read in college? It wasn’t the presidency that Madison and Hamilton wanted to constrain (quite the opposite, in fact.) It was the Congress, especially the House, and behind the Congress the people acting in their collective capacity. That’s what the American system was set up primarily to check. As Madison put in Federalist 10, a large republic is better than a small one because
you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other….communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
So that’s the basic institutional design. And again, it affects ordinary citizens far more than it does presidents.
I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s just difficult. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that writers who show such tender regard for the constraints facing a president should be a little more sensitive to the constraints facing progressives. And perhaps be more attentive to those constraints in their writing and avoid issuing injunctions that we just need to work harder.
The most remarkable feature about American politics is not, as many critics throughout the years have had it, that more change doesn’t happen here; it’s that any change happens at all. I mean, think about it: The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend. That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations.
Failure is the American activist’s daily bread; always has been. And if you think, Messrs. Coates and Yglesias, that’s due to a lack of will or hard work on the left, I suggest you think again.
Update (9/18, 9:30 am)
Re failure and American activism, I forgot (failed?) to mention the single best book on that theme: Eve Weinbaum’s To Move A Mountain. Check it out.