When you opened your newspaper on November 4, you could be forgiven for thinking we live in a completely divided country. The blue states were on either coast, plus a couple of states in the middle, and the rest of the country was red.
Many friends of mine — fellow activists and leftists — reacted despairingly to this image. “Who are these people who voted for Bush?” one asked, as if Republican voters must hail from some other species. “How can so many people vote against their own interests?” another friend wondered, hinting that maybe they are all just all stupid.
Emails began circulating that identified the red states as “Dumbfuckistan” and proposed that the two coasts be known as “Coastopia.”
I find myself feeling worried, too, but not so much about the voters. There is another group that has me more concerned.
But before we get to that, let’s consider the wildly inaccurate view of the country that we get from these maps that mark off our states in either blue or red. A more accurate picture would signify each voter with a red or a blue dot, and would reveal the close margins in many states rather than the winner-take-all monochrome approach. In addition, the more accurate picture should have white dots for all those who didn’t vote.
And for the latter group, we should be sure to include not just the registered voters that did not exercise their franchise, but all those who would be eligible to vote if they were to register. The shocking red of the Bush victory would look more like a washed out pinkish-blue if it were thus mixed with the blues (who voted Democrat) and the whites (who demonstrated their alienation from the whole process by not participating in it).
To complicate matters even further, the color of each dot is of questionable significance. Being from a liberal blue state (Massachusetts), I know that too many of the “blue dots” who live around here say all the right things about tolerance, gay marriage, racial harmony, and the war in Iraq, but meanwhile benefit big time from the status quo. They’re worried about Bush because his foreign and domestic policies may ultimately prove too disruptive of the very institutions that ensure for them such safe and comfortable lifestyles.
They want U.S. Empire at home and abroad to proceed along a more polite course — with more crumbs thrown to the chronically marginalized and more multi-lateral support garnered for foreign exploits.
They don’t want to have to step over homeless people on the way to the museum downtown, and they don’t want to be called scumbags by the locals when they take their Paris vacations.
Just as the privileged blue dots have streaks of red in them, so do the working-class blue dots, some of whom voted for Kerry despite the fact they are appalled by his association with abortion and gay marriage.
Blue dots are not the only ones that are confusing. What exactly does it mean to be a red dot? My Chicano friend in El Paso is a Vietnam veteran and works the night shift at the post office. He thinks the point of most U.S. foreign policy in the last 50 years has been to secure profits for U.S. corporations — mostly at the expense of poor people at home and abroad.
He doesn’t see Democrats taking a much different course from the Republicans on that front, but at least the Republicans give voice to values he can relate to when it comes to family and sexuality, etc.
One member of the American Federation of Government Employees, who I met recently at the Jobs with Justice Solidarity School, said that some of his fellow workers in Missouri voted for Bush even though they understood quite well that it would be a vote against their class interests. They were swayed by the Republicans’ politics of fear, and they were willing to sacrifice financial security for security from terrorists.
Is this a “knuckle-dragging redneck,” as some progressives claim? Or is he someone who is honestly evaluating the available information and choosing the path that he thinks will keep his family and his community most safe?
The point is, don’t assume too much about either the red dots or the blue dots, and don’t forget about the millions of white dots. In all three categories, there are abhorrent views and sympathetic ones. There are potential allies and enemies.
Parsing out the pinkish-blue hue that seems to describe our country doesn’t do much to relieve the agony of another four years of Bush, but it should give us some perspective on how we go about organizing.
Which brings me back to the people that I am feeling most worried about right now. It’s not southerners or midwesterners. Rather, it’s the liberal-mainstream folks that came together during the few months leading up to November to defeat Bush — who rallied briefly and then went home — who concern me. And it’s the progressives who are blaming the Bush election on southern and midwestern stupidity — using rigid categories and a blaming mentality as an outlet for their anger.
Let’s start with the people that represent the liberal-mainstream forces, who on the one hand deserve enormous credit for stepping up to try to derail the Bush agenda. Many of these organizers put their own lives on hold and moved out of state to work long hours registering voters, distributing signs, walking door-to-door, and trying to talk to people about the issues. They came together across race, class, gender, and age lines to defeat Bush.
My union sent activists to swing states all over the country and the staff at my local spent most of its time in New Hampshire during the last few weeks of the campaign. When it was all over, the president of my local noted that seeing all the union folks working so closely with all the “young people” from MoveOn was most inspiring, and should give us hope for the future.
So what am I worried about?
These liberal mainstream groups came together too late and too briefly. Unions, environmental and women’s organizations, and MoveOn, etc. aren’t looking for radical social change. They want to see the system we have operate more fairly. But even with this limited agenda, you need more than a few months of organizing together to bring it to fruition. You need to do more than defeat a rabid right-winger to see your policies put into action.You need more of a vision than one that puts a corporate Democrat into office. You need to bring people together years before the election and then for continued work way beyond the election.
And yet, the coalition-building that happened around the election — inspiring as it was for a time — was short-lived. Many of the organizers are now back in their cubicles working on their single issue. Perhaps they will rally again 3 years and 8 months from now, and maybe they’ll have better luck next time. But imagine instead that they continued working together for the next four years and on into the future.
We might actually see a liberal shift in the framing of national debates. We might have millions of liberal minded unionists, environmentalists, and anti-war-leaning Americans learning something about each other and creating a presence on the national scene.
Clearly, such an outcome would not cure what ails this country, but it might ease the punishment our government inflicts at home and abroad, and it would create some room for progressives pursuing a more radical agenda.
And what about the progressives? This is the second group that has me worried. Assuming that people who don’t agree with you are stupid has never been a good starting place for organizing, and it never will be.
In a November 3, 2004, article in The Nation, Katha Pollitt wonders if “Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, ‘safety’ through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway President.”
Why assume the worst about the U.S. voter when a) the red block represents only about a third of the electorate, and b) polls offer a very different profile? In a recent ZNet article (November 29, 2004), Noam Chomsky analyzes data collected by Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), and makes the case that:
A large majority of the public believe that the US should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court, sign the Kyoto protocols, allow the UN to take the lead in international crises, and rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in the “war on terror.”
Similar majorities believe the US should resort to force only if there is “strong evidence that the country is in imminent danger of being attacked,” thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus on “pre-emptive war” and adopting a rather conventional interpretation of the UN Charter. ? Turning to other areas, overwhelming majorities of the public favor expansion of domestic programs: primarily health care (80%), but also aid to education and Social Security.
According to these polls, Pollitt’s despair about her fellow citizens, shared by many progressives, is not warranted. We live in a country where the Right is stronger, better funded, and more strategic than we are. Bush won because the conservatives out-organized the liberals, and the progressives are still struggling to take our significant strands of influence (as evidenced in the CCFR and PIPA polls) and knit them into something that could actually be a power base.
How can we do this?
a) Be strategic across movement lines.
In Boston, which is where I live and am involved in activism, the mostly white, middle-class anti-war movement worked closely with communities of color to elect a progressive Latino city councilor, Felix Arroyo, in 2003.The victory inspired some to look at what progressives might accomplish if they analyzed the local electoral arena and mapped out conceivable wins over the next five years. Unity around the Arroyo campaign provided an impetus for more long-term strategic thinking — all the more important if it happens across sectors of the movement that don’t normally plan together.
Meanwhile, making important local, national, and international connections, members of the mostly African American District 7 have proposed to the regional anti-war coalition, United for Justice with Peace, that we find a way to work together on a campaign to Fund the Dream.
Drawing on Martin Luther King’s critique of the triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism, Fund the Dream seeks to shift federal spending away from the military and corporate tax breaks, and toward meeting human needs. As a first step towards developing this campaign, which will have both local and national targets, more than a dozen grassroots groups plan to meet for a two and a half day workshop on institutional racism. Giving adequate attention to ensuring a shared analysis and language is key to developing a campaign that fully addresses the cross-movement concerns of militarism, racism, and materialism.
There are other examples of cross-movement strategizing in Boston and elsewhere, too, I am sure. But they need more attention. When thinking about how to spend your limited energy for social change work, consider finding the outlets that are doing the most to build relationships and be strategic with other movements.
b) Build a left.
We have more capacity than we know. We have organizations with deep roots in their communities. We have talented, dedicated, and experienced activists — but too many of them are locked into the pockets of their reform issue or their non-profit job. We need people to continue the good work they are doing, but we should figure out how to support that work and advance it by creating a larger movement for people to grow into.
As one long-time community organizer said, getting together with other left activists to talk about how we can bend our organizing towards building a left is the only antidote to burnout that he knows. Why else put so much energy into trying to chip away at the inhumanity of U.S. policies? Why bother unless the chips are adding up to something strong enough to actually challenge the institutions that make these policies?
During the last few years in Boston, three grassroots organizations, City Life/Vida Urbana, Alternatives for the Community and the Environment, and the Chinese Progressive Association, have worked together on the Radical Organizers’ Conference (ROC). Springing from the desire of progressive activists to connect their daily work to something larger, ROC has organized dozens of study groups and convened two conferences to discuss ways that fighting for reforms could lead to radical social change. It is one of the most hopeful efforts I have witnessed.
c) Keep organizing!
Everywhere I look, it seems progressives are continuing their work with renewed energy. But despair based on the divided nation theory could still affect our work. We won’t win if we are tempted to simply write off sizeable chunks of the population.
Write off some, by all means. I’m an organizer and a realist; I know perfectly well that there are times when it’s not worth continuing a conversation. Make yourself a scale of 1-10, 10 being the people whose views make your stomach turn. Make a personal choice about where it’s best for you to draw the line. Maybe you’ll avoid all 9s and 10s.Maybe you can only talk to 6s and belows. But don’t lock yourself in among the 1s and 2s. Right now, it’s pink-ish, light blue-ish hues make up the country. We can work with that.