Last week we saw why a new democratic politics is needed. Now, with our
rose-colored glasses still removed, let's look at our ability to create
such a thing.
1. We are endlessly divided into thousands of groups and single-issue
factions. Our organizations are seldom coordinated. When they are, the
coordination is typically single-issue, on-again-off-again, and more on
paper than real.
Our lack of coordination stems from weakness, not from our ability to
go it alone and win. Most progressive activists and groups are
stretched so thin and have so few resources that they can't take time
to coordinate with others, or even to think about what such
coordination might look like and do for them.
The failure to coordinate weakens us still further. Inside the
progressive community, opportunities for mutual gain are routinely
lost. Outside the progressive community, the image of a hodgepodge of
single-issue groups does not inspire wider support. Among other unhappy
effects: while people care about many different issues like racial
justice and the environment and worker rights and a peaceable foreign
policy, single-issue organizations appeal to very narrow
constituencies, or, within individuals, to only parts of their
identity--usually neglecting (often completely omitting) the spiritual,
healing, and redemptive parts of life.
2. Progressives lack a comprehensive, inclusive, positive vision of how
the country should be run. With some justice, we are perceived as
having more grievances than ideas, and the ideas we do have are seen as
a laundry list, not as elements of a common constructive vision, much
less a vision accessible to ordinary people. Ask the average American,
or even a self-identified progressive, what progressives stand for and
you will get no answer or so many different answers that it amounts to
the same thing. This lack of a common positive vision further weakens
progressive appeals. (So-called "conservatives" are good at this. They
have a vision --however fraudulent and mean-spirited --that gives their
followers a way to think about the world: lower taxes, less regulation,
hymns to a "simpler" America without so many dark-skinned people,
punishment of the weaker groups in society, the God-given right to cut
down every last tree and fill every wetland, and so forth. The need for
a rival comprehensive view among those who value truth and reason and
equality is URGENT even though a commitment to truth, reason and
equality complicates the construction of such a vision).
When do progressive organizations flourish?
Progressive organizations thrive when they put forth practical programs
of action that benefit their members or potential members, AND solve
problems in the broader society (even solving problems for capitalists,
on whose well-being the rest of the society unfortunately depends).
Practical programs that benefit members AND benefit the larger society
earn the political respect and social prestige needed to promote their
own interests as those of the general public and to secure support for
their own organization.
Take the case of unions in the postwar period. For decades, unions were
very popular institutions, and much more powerful than at present. Why?
Most fundamentally because they delivered benefits (increased wages,
grievance procedures, etc.) that were of immediate importance to
members and which also helped stabilize demand and mass markets after
the catastrophe of the Great Depression, a feat that the owners of
capital couldn't accomplish on their own. With demand stabilized,
investment in mass production industries followed. This investment
raised productivity, which lowered the real costs of consumer goods for
everyone. By doing something for their members that also clearly helped
the broader society, unions gained respect.
Or take the great modern civil rights movements of African-Americans
and women. At a time when American society was far more deeply racist
and sexist than it is today, these movements ignited massive popular
support for two reasons: because of the clarity of the injustices
against which they spoke, and because remedying those injustices would
bring enormous benefits to the society as a whole: the liberation of
great productive energies that had been stifled by racist or sexist
patterns in the economy and private life. These movements promised not
only justice for their members but a better and more rewarding life for
(Make no mistake. The labor movement and civil rights struggles were
first and finally about simple justice and respect --demands that stood
on their own. These movements were fiercely resisted and they succeeded
by using an essential tactic --disruptive protest --to overcome such
resistance. Nevertheless, political success requires that demands must
be framed in ways that connect their satisfaction to the satisfaction
of broader, and inevitably more mundane, social interests. However
narrow their core issues may be, successful movements usually serve as
agents of a broader and more universally appealing social goal.)
The big problem facing progressives today is that the old mass-
mobilizing projects have run out of steam, but we can't agree on new
Progressive organizations today don't often (if ever) mobilize their
members to action. Let's face it. Members of progressive organizations
don't DO much. (Grass-roots environmentalists are an exception to this
because they are often fighting to maintain their neighborhoods, their
health, and their children's future against some immediate, serious
threat.) Progressives mail in their checks, but the programs of most
progressive organizations don't inspire their membership to take
If this is so, why don't organizations change their programs to make a
broader and stronger appeal?
Two reasons: (1) recent conditions have made it difficult for
progressives to reach agreement; and (2) most progressives have stopped
looking for really good projects--they have given up on trying to
achieve mass appeal.
Where do mass movements come from?
They appear to spring up spontaneously, but this is deceptive. Mass
movements are created by activists who lay the groundwork for years.
Sometimes the long road of hard work can be reduced by an event that
grabs the attention of a large number of people. The anti-war movement
of the 1960s was an example.
An essential component of EVERY movement is solidarity among its
members. Sometimes this solidarity is "organic" --created by common
race or ethnic background, common neighborhood or friends, common
conditions of work. Sometimes it is created by shared ideology --a
shared view of the world and one's place in it, which allows people to
bridge their differences and work together.
Most often solidarity is supplied by both "organic" forces and by some
general theory, usually elevating the organic to a universal status.
For example, for generations working-class solidarity was fueled by (a)
the fact of a distinctly working-class life marked by people living
near each other, common employment, inter-marriage, shared restrictions
on mobility, and by (b) the view that workers had shared interests as a
class which also happened to be the true universal interests of
Today, however, those "organic" solidarities have been weakened, and
there is no agreement on what the "universal interests" of society
might be. Until recently, where working-class solidarity didn't exist,
there was at least a civic culture rooted in fairly stable face-to-face
communities, relatively stable jobs (located near the home), and an
array of local public goods (schools, libraries), civic associations
(churches, trade unions, PTAs, Kiwanis Clubs), sources of information
(many local newspapers, even a little labor press) and many semi-public
meeting places (sports leagues, taverns).
Such institutions permitted people to practice the arts of democracy --
to talk to neighbors about common concerns, promote and defend
arguments, listen, learn, think, and, to some degree, develop the self-
confidence and common perspectives of democratic citizens.
Local politics, rather than national, remained a key determinant of
local well-being, so local political culture had real meaning and had
direct influence on the quality of life.
But this world is now mostly gone. Today, most people commute several
hours to work. They work in relatively small organizations that are far
more mixed (if no more satisfying) than those of old, and that often
blur the lines between managerial and non-supervisory personnel. When
people get home from work, they don't talk much to their neighbors, and
aren't much involved in local community life. Shopping and watching TV
are their principal leisure activities, usually pursued alone. The
quality of their local neighborhood life seems to be--largely is--
decided somewhere else.
The physical basis of solidarity is gone, and so is the basis for a
shared ideology. No one progressive concern --whether race or class or
gender or the environment --can be elevated to the level of general
interest. Progressives deal with this problem by making lists and
assuring each other of their sincerity about believing in each of these
concerns. But ideology is not about making lists. It is about giving
enough people enough of a common view of things that they are willing
to work with people different from themselves. In this sense,
progressives sorely lack a common ideology.
So, with the physical basis of solidarity gone, and with no issues
grabbing the attention of a mass audience, modern progressives find
themselves in a unique position. There is no obvious basis for
solidarity; no common view of what is universally important --no common
ideology --and there is no external force (Great Depression, Vietnam
War) creating popular mobilization. What to do?
To solve these problems, progressives will need to look squarely at
their own fragmentation and CONSTRUCT ORGANIZATIONS AND PROJECTS
DESIGNED TO OVERCOME IT.
What kinds of organizations? What sorts of projects? Those with some
hope of appealing to a majority, or at least a large plurality.
Progressives have nearly given up trying to appeal to a majority --they
seem to have settled for a dignified life on the edges of society, or a
life of elite "good works." They seem to have made a decision not to
really reach for governance.
Instead, progressives have retreated into denouncing all exercises of
public power ("government is hopeless") or into liberalism--the belief
that power cannot be exercised by ordinary people ("leave it to the
Despite this gloomy assessment, the present moment is bursting with
opportunity for progressive programs --a subject to which we will turn
 These ideas originated with Joel Rogers at University of Wisconsin,
and Joshua Cohen at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This
week we have lifted large sections from an unpublished paper by Joel
Rogers, titled "How Divided Progressives Might Unite" but we have
modified its language, so don't blame Rogers for our debased version of
Descriptor terms: strategies; environmental movement; vision; mass
movements; social change; civic culture; solidarity; ideology;