Millions of us are asking such questions today, with at least dozens of answers — only some of them compatible with each other. Here is mine.
First, we must do much more than we have done politically, both quantitatively and qualitatively. We must continue to vote and demonstrate, of course, but much much more than that. We must not only increase the time and energy we devote to politics greatly, but also seek out and work together in additional groups. Considering only the decades since 1945, it is woefully obvious that because we fell short in both respects, we are now in very deep trouble. Meaning what?
I begin with “can.” It is easily forgotten that important social change, good or bad, has always been brought about by a minority: everywhere. New Deal liberals up (or down) to radicals) in the U.S.A., our “center/left” — have had an initially effective minority as World War II ended; then, as now, at least ten percent of eligible voters. We always sought a much better society than was achieved; however, since the 1970s we have watched all too much and worked too little, even as the mild reforms earlier achieved were being abandoned or weakened as non-compassionate conservatism and militarism came, once more, to have a free hand.
The predecessors of today’s rightwing began to surface no later than 1947, with union-busting (the Taft-Hartley Act) and the McCarthyism as, unrolling from those same years, preemption as our foreign policy took hold: in the Middle East, Korea, Central America, and Cuba, with any serious questioning not raised until Vietnam.
But what about our beloved JFK? It is important to remember that his popularity was based on a captivating personality, not on either desirable domestic or foreign policies; except for an occasional remark, he did nothing to assist civil rights — that was done by Bobby, after 1964; and JFK presided over both the Bay of Pigs and our first major (and covert) step-up in Vietnam.
The civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s the dramatic and mind-openers for some of what had gone awry in “America!” As they faded in the early 70s, a much smaller number were jolted into attention as the Democrats began to mock the GOP, as the doors were opened wide for Reagan and, as night follows day, for today’s arrogant rightists to waltz into power. And today’s center/left? It consists of hundreds of NGOs and the no-global and antiwar movements whose energy and numbers come predominantly from young people, with very few connections between the many and diverse groups, and with rarely an attempt to make them.
A major weakness of our politics has been that what “can” has meant has been confined almost entirely to voting, demonstrations, readin’ and writin’. All of that is of course necessary but by no means sufficient if we were — or, now, are — to create what we have always needed: a dynamic and always growing center-left, that can produce a national movement to counter the present seemingly omnipotent center-right movement.
In that respect it is worth noting that the only time we even came close to that was with the civil rights and (even more) the anti-Vietnam war movements. The latter was a coalition of about 25 diverse groups at its start and had ten times that many — always bickering — groups when it ended in the 70s. Whatever its achievements or failures, the number of those persistently working in those movements (as distinct from attending demonstrations) was never more than 100,000; the rest of us were “part-time temp” activists.
As one who was part of that, and on the steering committee of the antiwar “Mobe” movement from beginning to end, I can say that never in our meetings did we ever discuss either what would be done after the demo or, more importantly, any long-run plans to build a movement on the foundation provided by the coalition’s many groups.
However, in those same years, and gaining speed in the 1970s, the “movements” of what C. Wright Mills termed “the power elite” were
1) always better organized and financed and growing, aided greatly by a dominantly business and/or rightwing controlled media equally adept selling not only commodities but ideas and politicians,
2) in successfully devising a great surge in campaign financing and in the numbers and effective activities of lobbyists in D.C. and in state capitols and the full commodification of politicians,
3) in achieving an always weaker trade union movement, much assisted by racism and nationalism, galloping consumerism — as workers paid more attention to their credit cards than to their class and, along with all that,
4) by the near total disappearance of what was always a small minority of social critics in the universities, as they in turn became always more dependent upon corporate and governmental money.
So here we are, disgusted and terrified because “our guy” didn’t win. But he wasn’t our guy. He was “just another” politician who wants to be president by any means necessary. (In case you’re wondering, I voted for Kerry, because this was not “just another” election but one about whether the Unholy Family of Bush, Cheney, and Rove would claim their win as a mandate for an even sharper lunge to the right — in domestic and foreign policies. Which they’ve done.
Beginning now, we must and we can work against them to build an enduring and always stronger movement. Their socio-economic domestic and militaristic foreign policies are bound to become always more obviously harmful to always more people, here and abroad. For years the Democrats have been loathe to make substantial criticisms or offer meaningful alternatives in any realm:
Never a mention of universal health care (although we are the only rich nation without it); nor about our failing educational system, our quantitative and qualitative housing emergencies, our associated deepening inequality and rising poverty levels; nor of the extreme dangers of privatizing Social Security as the national and global financial system becomes always more fragile (let alone of the injustices of both Social Security and the roiling bankruptcies of private pensions); virtually no criticism of the obscene structure of our entire tax system, the deteriorating structure of jobs toward low-wage no benefits — and so on, at home. Plus, timidity re: war.
So what we must and can we do is to learn to fight effectively against all of those tendencies, propose constructive alternatives and stave off what threatens to become a series of major disasters. We can do that, however, if and only if we learn to change our ways: Not only must we give more of our time and energy continually but also learn to stop foolish competition among ourselves, learn to cooperate. To cooperate does not mean to agree on everything; it means to probe for what is essential and what is not in working with others. We are all in the same sinking boat; we can renew our arguments only when we are on safe ground.
What is essential? Many things, but here are what seem to me to be the most vital for now: We are the richest country in the world’s history. There is NO reason for anyone’s basic needs not to be met: adequate nutrition, shelter, health care, education, and opportunity for all is not an economic problem but one of political power. We who organize must, for ourselves and others, distinguish between “needs” and “wants.” The late Paul Baran made that distinction as with a sword: “Modern capitalism teaches us to want what we don’t need and not to want what we do.” As we learn and teach that Mother Nature cannot survive much longer as we destroy the flora, fauna, air, and water by our insane ways of life we can and must show that there are comfortable alternatives. At the same time, we must learn and teach the need to do everything possible to avoid wars, all wars, everywhere.
There are no clean hands among nations on any of these scores. But with power goes responsbility, and the U.S. is not only the richest but the most powerful of all nations in history — and the most dangerous.
There are thousands of activist groups in the U.S.A.; we must search them out in our own communities; join them, swell their ranks, be transformed by and transform them; urge each group with which we work — and they are all essential — to itself reach out to join with as many other groups as possible. We can be and have been effective on the local and state levels; we cannot be effective on the national level before we have a national movement.
Time to answer the age-old questions: If not me, who? If not now, when?