The Case for Democratizing the Progressive Movement

What ails the progressive movement?

After more than a year with a Democratic president, a 77-seat House majority, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority, many liberals are disheartened by the dearth of progressive legislative accomplishments. Aside from a watered-down stimulus package that has stemmed but not reversed job losses, progressives have little to show for their yeoman efforts on behalf of Democrats in the last election.

Record, taxpayer-funded bonuses for bailed out Wall Street high-rollers; no financial reform; no labor law reform; a pathetic “jobs bill”; an unchecked flood of foreclosures; an escalation of war; no progress on climate change; a health reform bill with no public option (as of this writing) that asks middle-class families to shoulder the cost burden and infringes on reproductive rights. You would think the progressives who elected President Obama would be marching in the streets in protest.

But our streets are empty. The only voices heard are the paranoid rants and slurs of Tea Party activists, egged on by the conservative media, coddled by the Republican establishment and backed by corporate-laundered money.

Perhaps most troubling is the pervasive sense that a rare opportunity has been squandered. With the wind at our backs from the brilliant Obama campaign, progressives were the ones who were supposed to lead change from the grassroots. Now, there appears to be only traces of the movement that Obama and his team built.

As they come to terms with the limited ability of elected leaders to advance change, and the muted response of the progressive community, many commentators are trying to diagnose the problems of America’s progressive movement. Some debate whether progressives as a group are too depressed or too privileged to stand up and fight, or whether it is because our more authentic community organizing efforts lack a big picture agenda. Others are calling for Constitutional amendments to challenge corporate power.

What nearly every observer seems to miss is that the lack of democratic decision-making within major progressive movement organizations – e.g., Organizing for America (OFA), – gives regular members little motivation to participate. This democratic deficit stifles the development of a robust social movement.

Consider the situation from your average citizen’s perspective. He signs up as a “member,” and receives a constant stream of emails telling him to call Congress, donate, phone bank, volunteer. He is told what to say and how to say it. If he shows up to an organization meeting, he has no genuine voice or vote on the organization’s goals, priorities, messages, or tactics. He is not encouraged to shape an agenda and strategy with his peers, nor is he empowered to share authority over the organization’s decisions. In fact, all important decisions have already been made at the highest levels by Washington, D.C.-based staff and consultants, and the messages communicated to the minions from the top down. Our hypothetical citizen is merely a foot soldier at the bottom of the hierarchy.

OFA is a particularly deep disappointment. Rather than transforming into a grassroots network of community groups pursuing a progressive agenda, OFA became a tool of the Administration, shackled by its placement under the control of the Democratic National Committee. OFA’s messages are consistently muddled. It claims to pursue President Obama’s agenda (his campaign agenda?), but mirrors the policy retreats and reversals that Obama finds politically expedient. How many members received emails asking them to call for “health reform” even as Obama was abandoning the public option? Its tactics are largely ineffective, because it is more accountable to the Democratic politicians who stand in the way of change than to its 13 million members.

The media have consistently confused OFA’s permanent field campaign with the “community organizing” it is supposed to promote. Although it has some of the trappings of community organizing, OFA lacks the primary characteristic of an authentic community group: a commitment to its members’ empowerment. Nevertheless, there is tremendous potential within OFA if it would right its course. As an organization that has attracted such a broad and diverse number of progressive followers, a fundamental organizational change could engage these members in a more authentic and effective way. The same is true to a different degree for Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America appear to do a better job being democratic, but their local groups seem to lack resources or any formal influence over the their national policy efforts.

Under current structures, regular progressives can do little to influence the operation of the so-called “grassroots” organizations that claim to represent their interests. But we do have the power to make our voices heard.

- We can contact the leadership and staff of OFA and other progressive groups and urge them to democratize and decentralize.
- We can call for OFA to be taken out of the DNC and turned into an independent organization governed by its members at the community level.
- We can advocate taking control of other progressive movement organizations out of the hands of D.C. insiders and place it into the hands of individual members.
- We can call for the redirection of our donations into local organizing.
- We can spread this message on blogs, in our social networks, in progressive media, and at local meetings on political issues.

I'm hoping to spread this message at a new blog called Democratize the Progressive Movement, where I will post stories that make the case for this change, foster discussion, and highlight local stories about democratic, community-based, progressive organizing. The goal is to promote a vision of a network of independent local chapters of OFA and similar progressive groups in which volunteers have a binding vote about goals, strategies, and tactics. National organization offices would provide coordination and support, but would take their cues from members making democratic decisions within community chapters, rather than the upside-down system now in place.

Skeptics who do not believe a democratic and decentralized progressive movement will be effective should consider other examples of what has worked. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement – all involved democratic local organizing. Even the local Tea Party groups have genuine grassroots compositions. They may be fanatics and they may be far from taking over Congress, but they are effectively controlling the national dialogue. And they continue to outhustle and outmaneuver us, just as they did at the health care town hall meetings last summer.

All of these movements demonstrate the enduring strength of the democratic process. This should not be difficult for us to appreciate. Democracy – along with values of individual liberty, equal opportunity, and social justice – is a core principle for progressives. We know that the power to collectively chart our own course and determine our destiny provides us with the fullest form of self-expression as citizens and human beings, and is the cornerstone of the American ethos. It is also the missing ingredient that can revive and sustain an effective progressive movement.

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