EYES RIGHT!: Reflections on the November 8th Elections
What makes this moment so difficult is not just the growing strength of the right wing. It is the weakness of progressive forces and the near absence of an alternative popular strategy.
The election results must be our wake-up call. It is time to design a strategy equal to the crisis in the country. That strategy must include: message, program, and organizing.
The economy is getting better, but not fast enough for people to feel secure. People are working harder and making less. The poor fall farther and farther behind. The social fabric is worn and torn, and hope for real community is diminished. Those of us who care about building a better society must reach out to repair that fabric and to build the majorities necessary to move city councils, legislatures and the public at large.
We need to organize in the arenas in which our opposition fights and on a scale that matches our problems. Building on local bases, we need to develop city, state, regional, and national organizing for real power. This cannot mean paper coalitions that look good but produce little. Contesting for power means having the ability to mobilize our strength and focus on our opposition’s weakness.
Who Benefits And Who Pays
We need to sharpen our attack and expose the opposition. The key is to focus on who benefits and who pays; who is serving the interests of the people, and who is serving the special interests? Gingrich and company came to power with the message that they represent the people against the government and special interests of the Congress. If this perception is allowed to stand, we will lose not just in the next election, but for years to come. We must shift the perception to reality.
Some activists have taken to saying that there is no real difference between this administration and that of the Republicans. The Republicans would certainly disagree. And all too soon the differences will become tragically apparent. But we must clarify and sharpen those differences now, as we fight for the economic and personal security people want.
We need to send the message that says to our communities and to the American people: “We are on your side. We are fighting for you. Together with you, we are fighting against those special interests that would rob you of the American dream.” This is economic and social populism. This Administration represents the best opportunity in more than a decade to provide for the concerns of the average American. Looking forward, with the people, we will fight to establish that genuine contract and real security. We will fight for the interests of the people against the privileged elites.
What We Do
Many now complain about politicians. We certainly must hold them accountable, force them to engage their communities and explain or defend what they do. But building a better society and healthier communities is not just about what they do. It is also about what we do. It is up to us to organize – for every day and election day.
Our fates are tied to the outcome of elections; will there be the funding, will there be the access, will there be a process that lets our voice be heard? If we do not have our army to mobilize, we will suffer the consequences of others’ policies foisted upon us.
Currently, most organizing in the country does not actually involve people. Many of our organizations have only a direct-mail base and many of our political campaigns focus on media strategies. Have we lost the ability to turn people out? Have the people lost the expectation of needing to fight for change? We must (re)build this apparatus.
Do we have rapid response mechanisms? Will a certain percent of members be willing to respond when urgent action is needed? Write a letter, make a call – can we contact them to get such a response?
Do we have precinct organizers? Are we implementing motor voter laws to expand registration? Do we know how to target our efforts and identify new allies?
Are we working with crucial groups – religious institutions, unions, civic associations? Can we begin training now that helps us and others engage and organize? Do we have a strategy for organizing that goes beyond the next demonstration? Our organizations need two-year plans as well as short-term (and longer term) strategies.
Lessons from the Right
We can take a lesson from the right wing. In The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead, direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie outlined what the right wing did starting in 1964, when Goldwater lost his bid for the presidency, through 1980, when Reagan won. Their strategy had four key elements.
- 1. Go back to the grassroots. Identify issues that people care about, recruit new leadership, train and mobilize them. (Their issues were race, women, and guns – just as they are now, though the details have changed.)
- 2. Work through major institutions (in their case, the fundamentalist church).
- 3. Use the latest technology (then direct-mail, now talk radio and the computer networks).
4. Tie EVERY aspect to elections.
We must do no less.
We must tie the message to the program to the organizing and tie it all to the elections. This is the work you carry out every day in our communities. You are part of what is most hopeful about our future possibilities. We will need all of that hope and hard work to turn this tide around and make the vision of a better society a reality for our neighborhoods and our country as a whole.