Today's left-leaning activists don't look like yesterday's -- and that's OK.
Fri, Dec 01, 2006 at 02:15 PM
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
[Header = Intro]If I were to claim that political activism has never galvanized more Americans than in recent years, it might sound as though I’d taken leave of my senses. We’ve all read that Americans don’t vote, the young least of all; that every year fewer people read newspapers or watch TV news; that our political impulses are flattened by irony, despair and indifference. By and large, young Americans nowadays don’t demonstrate, don’t disrupt, don’t give up their summers volunteering to mobilize the unmobilized and save the planet. Have they decided to let the world burn, the icebergs melt, the Middle East tear itself apart while they busy themselves with their iPods, Xboxes and Game Boys?
Make no mistake: No one but the congenitally giddy should be confident that present generations are rising to the occasion— the grand occasion that is the fate of the earth. In light of all we’re up against, efforts at rescue and repair have a way of looking paltry. How to assess whether it’s sunup or sundown is no easy matter. But it’s premature, way premature, to conclude that the game is over and that the citizens of a fading republic have decided to let the world twist in the wind. In truth, I don’t know that there are more political activists today than ever before — but I don’t know that there aren’t. And neither does anyone else.
Some skeptics miss the abundant signs of citizen activism because, when they look around, they don’t see replicas of past protests, and so they conclude that everyone is drowning in apathy. This is a case of overrating appearances. You can’t assess the scope or effect of activism by whether it uses a particular set of tactics. Rather, the question is: Are people banding together to build momentum and get results?
Much of today’s activism is either invisible or operates (in the words of a ’60s curse) “inside the system.” It is the spirit of this age that activists would rather vote with their dollars — whether for hybrid cars, fair-labor sneakers or tribal-made goods — than put their bodies on the line. They take initiative with their purchases; they seduce, humiliate and otherwise pressure institutions into change. They promote incentives. They create markets.
NEXT: Collective Action >
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There are other new forms of collective action. Consider, for example, Critical Mass, the campaign to promote bicycle use and conserve energy in our cities. It involves large bike rides which slow down traffic, for a few hours a month. Better known, enough to be demonized by the Republicans, is MoveOn.org, the Internet-based group that organized against the Clinton impeachment fiasco and remains a mobilizing force for progressive volunteers. No violence results from these efforts, but activists get revved up to keep on keeping on.
Now, it’s deeply and grievously true that such projects are limited in their effects — in no small part because constructive action is blocked by a national government that holds science in contempt, pays huge dividends to the perpetrators of climate change, and serves in a thousand ways the forces of corporate business-as-usual. A counterforce, the green economy, has grown rapidly. But it started from barely above scratch and still accounts for only a small fraction of overall production. In the world at large, industries that spew greenhouse gases are expanding faster than the nice green stuff. Still, buying green does more than make the buyers feel good: It demonstrates how much better things could be if governments stopped subsidizing the worst forms of production and got serious about promoting the best. This is why environmentalists and other world-changing activists in growing numbers are turning to the grueling, compromised work of electoral politics.
If they’re any good, activists choose tactics that suit the circumstances in which they find themselves. To confront the present with the tactics of the past is to be hypnotized by the glamour of technique, doped by an anesthetizing nostalgia. It is to be imprisoned in media images — of which the fabled ’60s (when I got my own activist start) surely offer many photogenic displays.
But the objective of political activism is not to be photogenic (or refuse to be). The objective is to win. Toward that end, front-page pictures may be useful, as well as behind-the-scenes approaches that hadn’t yet taken shape in 1968.
The tactics we associate with the ’60s — sit-ins, freedom rides, mass marches, mass boycotts, “counterinstitutions,” psychedelic symbols, a raft of disruptions — made sense in their time for two reasons. First, they were fresh, which excited novices and unsettled opponents. Second, they rested on more or less realistic premises about the balance of political power — in particular, the existence of a predominantly liberal consensus about what was desirable and possible. Those who went out in the streets, risked their bodies, and otherwise confronted power were not only moralists emoting against war and corporate capitalism, they were also strategists. They felt that their tactics were urgent, but they didn’t simply fling those tactics into the wind and hope they would land somewhere fertile — they reasoned about their prospects for effectiveness.
The tactics of the time didn’t always work, but when they did, it was because they ignited the enthusiasm of larger numbers of people than they offended. They applied popular strength at their enemies’ weak points. When the tactics didn’t make sense, it was because they drove away as many potential supporters as they attracted, or more of them.
One of the premium movement targets of the late ’60s was Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, the jellied form of gasoline used in bombs. Antiwarriors boycotted Dow’s Saran Wrap and demonstrated against the company and its recruiters; liberal institutions and shareholders sold their Dow stock. Eventually, a new CEO was persuaded that napalm was indeed an indefensible weapon, and the company got out of the jellied gasoline business. By contrast, in 2003, Greenpeace (on whose board I used to sit) ran a direct action campaign against ExxonMobil, aiming to nudge the company out of its romance with greenhouse gases. Here’s a difference in times and companies: ExxonMobil went to court and beat back Greenpeace’s campaign, and continues to lobby against sane greenhouse gas policies and to bankroll junk science propaganda. As long as oil-regime Republicans run Washington, ExxonMobil has cover.
NEXT: Hopeful sign >
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In the ’60s, practical pressures — namely, the draft — inspired activism. Today, practical pressures have the opposite effect. What with the cost of living and the exigencies of jobs, Americans have less time to spend on public activities of all sorts. The young take longer to graduate college than their parents did. They hold down jobs while taking classes, and even so, they frequently graduate buried in mounds of debt. Even after six years of the Bush regime’s catastrophes, they are not inclined to take to the streets. Perhaps that would seem a luxury, or retro, or futile. If the president can steal an election, what hope do they have?
Meanwhile, the institutions of power have adapted to past modes of protest; politicians and policemen ban rallies in New York City’s Central Park by claiming that they are trying to protect the grass, designate “official protest areas” a mile away from the target, and haul protesters to jail until the event — a political convention, a campaign speech, a gathering of state — is over. Partly as a result, many dispirited young people succumb to an immense and growing attachment to the motley forms of popular culture. Others settle for measures that cost nothing and mean about as much; they practice “slacktivism,” defined by Wikipedia as do-little activities, including “signing Internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands with political messages on them, and taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day.”
But here is a hopeful sign: The largest and fastest-growing bloc of progressives is a wave of new-style activists, the so-called netroots, applying themselves to election campaigns. They helped make Howard Dean a force two years ago; they cost pro-war senator Joe Lieberman a win in his recent Democratic primary. Frightened at their incipient loss of opinion-shaping hegemony, mainstream political commentators have called the Internet protesters wild-eyed left-wingers, even “blogofascists.” Some things don’t change — they applied similar labels to those who took to the streets 40 years ago.
Such alarms miss the point. The online activists of MoveOn, Daily Kos, and many similar aggregations are not meant to tear down the American house. They are surely angry — who shouldn’t be angry at Bush’s ruinations? — but they are informed, and most of all, they are alert to the indispensability of political power if the disastrous Bush years are to be overcome.
NEXT: Sustainable path >
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Today’s activists have transcended the interest-group politics of the ’70s and ’80s, but not under the banner of the radical rhetoric of the ’60s. In truth, the anticapitalist verbiage of that time was more theatrical than substantial—it was rarely matched by action that actually threatened private ownership of the means of production—and today’s activists have dispensed with rhetoric almost entirely. (Who are the eloquent speakers, the Kings and Kennedys, of this generation?)
Today’s activists are not radical: They don’t think that overthrowing the main social institutions is either plausible or desirable. They doubt the merits of a sweeping transformation beyond liberal capitalism, and have no interest in beating their heads against walls. We don’t even know yet how effective they are — they haven’t yet elected many officials. But while they steer clear of utopian hopes, they are deeply dedicated to moving the country onto a sustainable path.
The most sophisticated assessment of Internet activists that I have seen comes from Scott Winship, a Harvard graduate student in social policy who is also the managing editor of Democratic Strategist, an online magazine. According to Winship, in 2004, 1.6 million Internet-savvy, left-of-center activists attended campaign rallies, donated money to campaigns, knocked on doors, and worked phone banks. That number is considerably larger than any single liberal interest group — the Sierra Club, for example, has 750,000 members, while the National Resources Defense Council has 1.2 million.
Now, 1.6 million is less than the sum of liberal interest groups, and it is only about one-seventh the number of union members in the U.S. And certainly none of the environmental, pro-choice, gay-rights or other groups should be counted out as contributors to activist currents. Many activists work many fronts. But what the 1.6 million (and that number has surely grown since 2004) has in common is not any single issue. It is that, every two years, they focus on elections, in which, like it or not, politicians take power.
What’s striking about electoral-minded netroots activists is that, for the most part, they don’t define themselves as protestors. They don’t see themselves as doomed to occupy the margins of politics, deploring liberal capitalism, while the right continues to run away with the big stakes — the laws, executive orders, court decisions, and wars. They want leverage and influence. They recognize that the strength of the pseudoconservative right, over recent decades, has stemmed from its ability to channel movement energies into an apparatus that can achieve political power and then hold it responsible. They want to do the same.
I do not mean to say that the new activists are indifferent to principle or naïve about the normal pressures of politics. They care passionately about the environment, health care, abortion, globalization, affirmative action, Iraq, American safety, a rational foreign policy, and many other matters. But they are more than an assemblage of issue activists. They are not just liberal, they are partisan—not because they think the Democratic Party is a band of saints, not because they are ignorant of the power of big money in both parties, not because they are indiscriminately impressed by the quality of Democratic politicians, but because they are realistic about how to get results in a political system rigged for two dominant parties. They know that in politics, you fight in alliance with the people you have, not the people you wish you had.
In fact, for the electoral-minded activists of the center-left, realism is a badge of honor. They have seen how their parents’ grand idealism declined into Baby Boomer self-obsession, and wonder if there was really ever any difference. They saw how Ralph Nader’s purity crusade culminated in the fiasco of Bush’s ascendancy to the White House. They care about defeating Republicans because they know that as long as George W. Bush is president and his allies run Congress, they stand no chance at all of approximating their desires, let alone realizing them. They understand deeply the concept of necessary conditions—that retaking the White House is the necessary condition for a live and decent politics. And this meant that they have been compelled, no matter how reluctantly, to think of themselves as Democrats.
The new activists don’t fit the Central Casting imagery of an activist movement. They aren’t especially partial to beads or sandals. They sport no more tattoos than anyone else. They do not long for counterculture. Their rhetoric may be angry, but they doubt that a transcapitalist system makes sense. Their very normality is one of their strengths; they cannot be easily stigmatized.
It makes sense to call the Democratic netroots a movement, because in 2004 and since, they moved—they acted, they mobilized. They are energetic, experimental, feeling their way, full of verve. They have learned one of the crucial lessons of our time: that even if they aren’t interested in politics, politics is interested in them.
Story by Todd Gitlin. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.