Why Movements Matter (with Vivien Labaton)

One thing we now know with certainty, more than two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, is that change is an uphill battle. We’re already defending hard-won gains on health care and financial reform (not to mention the fundamental legislation of the New Deal and the Great Society), and any hope for progress on civil liberties and immigration now seems remote. Even urgent action on jobs has been eclipsed by deficit-cutting zeal.


But this sobering period has also seen inspiring moments of push-back — glimmers of hope that signal momentum on several core priorities for social-justice advocates. They could be fleeting, or they could signal a resurgence of the progressive engagement that captivated so many just three years ago. Whether such a revival emerges is up to us.


That’s why the next major project for progressives is not an election. Rather, it is to take a page from the Tea Party and knit what might seem like disparate actions into movement-building — both to create a lasting constituency for change and to rewrite the increasingly hostile public narrative that has come to shape every key policy debate of our time.


The 2010 November elections demonstrated the power of the Tea Party as a serious force in our politics. But this rightward shift also roused many core progressive constituencies, which began to press the Obama administration for concrete results while simultaneously defending against extreme right-wing overreach. On three big issues, we’ve seen signs of life:


Labor. For organized labor, the last six months have been one of the most sustained periods of activism in generations. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate collective-bargaining rights was met by the largest crowds in Madison since the Vietnam War. The protests — at times more than 70,000 strong — began with a strike by public schoolteachers and grew as public and private unions stood together “with magnets in our shoulders,” as one worker said.


In Indiana, protests organized by the AFL-CIO drew more than 10,000 people to the state Capitol where the uproar held off the worst of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ anti-union proposals. In Ohio, thousands more workers protested Gov. John Kasich’s S.B. 5 anti-union bill, which strips Ohio labor unions of many of their collective-bargaining rights. This wasn’t enough to stop the bill from passing, but the recent mobilizations have laid the groundwork for the fall elections, when S.B. 5 is expected to go to voters for a referendum.


This activism has spread to other parts of the country. In Washington state, the Service Employees International Union and the Washington Federation of State Employees drew thousands of protesters to demand that the Legislature close corporate tax loopholes as a way to stave off harsh cuts to public services and layoffs of public employees.


Economic Justice. In March, the grassroots advocacy network National People’s Action brought hundreds of people to a meeting of state attorneys general in Washington, D.C., to pressure for an aggressive national settlement with big banks on mortgage fraud. NPA leaders facing foreclosure shared their stories with a representative of the attorneys general and demanded that banks be prosecuted for their illegal activities. The NPA has organized dozens of actions and events to hold Wall Street accountable this year, along with rallies in state capitals to protest corporate tax breaks.


National People’s Action is just one organization tapping into the outrage over America’s growing economic divide. The group US Uncut, founded in February, organized rallies in dozens of cities to demand that corporate “tax cheats” pay up. And groups like Working America, Center for Community Change, U.S. Action, and many others have worked to mobilize the populist anger over jobs and economic inequality. (Full disclosure: Both the NPA and CCC have received grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies, with which the authors are affiliated.)

Immigration. The 2010 election showed the increasing political clout of Latino voters. In Nevada, Latinos are widely credited for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election, after his opponent made a series of inflammatory statements about immigrants. In Colorado and California, Latino voters surged to the polls to reject the candidacies of anti-immigrant Republicans. In Arizona, a Promise Arizona mobilization of Latino voters, infuriated by the Republicans’ anti-Latino legislation, yielded an increase in voter turnout of 11 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in two congressional districts.


The boycotts in response to Arizona’s brutal (and likely unconstitutional) S.B. 1070 have also made an impact. Immigration activists have credited the backlash against Arizona as a leading reason why Utah — a traditionally conservative state — passed a more commonsense (though still flawed) immigration bill in March. Even Arizona now seems to know it went too far: The Legislature rejected additional anti-immigrant measures earlier this year.



Still, activists face a steep climb. The Obama administration is already deporting significantly more immigrants per year than the Bush administration did, while 37 states introduced anti-immigrant legislation in 2010. But groups such as the Campaign for Community Change are pushing back: They recently launched the campaign Change Takes Courage, directly challenging President Obama to keep several of his promises on immigration and urging him to keep immigrant families together. The effort is a public rebuke of Obama’s policy stance from organizations that have supported him on other issues.


These issues — labor, economic justice, and immigration reform — are just three areas where galvanized activists are pressing for change. What’s notable is that each of these movements has gained momentum without significant White House leadership. In fact, Democrats are the target of many of these initiatives, as frustrated progressives press the White House for change. What this tells us is that social-justice advocates need to take their cues from the communities they purport to represent, and need to insist that elected officials do the same.


As inspiring as it was to watch the protests unfold in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, the extent to which those protests portend something larger remains to be seen. We could be witnessing a resurgent progressive citizens’ movement, or we may be watching the final chapters in the decades-long assault on organized labor by the right wing. The story is still being written.


Our responsibility is to embrace this energy and nurture the growing activism into a lasting constituency for change. While it is tempting to divert much of our time, money, and effort into electoral and legislative battles, however important, we must seize these opportunities by building more formidable and lasting movement capacity. What does this mean?


Nationally, it means supporting key institutions that are advocating for change. Social-justice advocates need to be able to exert power to press their agenda for change, and that means being able to mobilize many and diverse voices — including those of activists involved in other progressive causes — in support of a progressive policy agenda. It also means renewed focus and engagement in critical state-based fights with national implications, such as those over S.B. 1070 in Arizona and collective bargaining in Wisconsin. On issues such as immigration, state and local activism may prove far more essential than national advocacy. And it surely means supporting the leaders who emerge from these fights — a task particularly critical to building an enduring base of social-justice advocates. Leaders play a catalytic role in organizations and the broader movements of which those organizations are a part. A deep, intergenerational bench of leadership drawn from and rooted in the communities affected by the issues at stake is necessary to educate and engage people in support of a social-justice agenda.


We now know all too well that even elections touted as paradigm-shifting will not bring progressive change without a passionate and engaged constituency to fight for it. We need to build that lasting movement for change.


In our emphasis on movement-building, some may say we’re ignoring the importance of developing the progressive message. But we’re tired of circular debates about message versus movement: It’s a false choice. In fact, movement-building is a vital path to changing the political narrative. Too often, debates unfold without the voices of those most affected informing them. To win the message wars and, more important, to make the strongest case possible for change, we need to put those voices front and center.


Even before the midterm elections, the public debate on such key social-justice issues as Social Security and Medicare was framed almost entirely within the context of the deficit. The president, in his recent speech on the budget, finally weighed in with a strong defense of the social safety net. But the next two to six years cannot simply be an exercise in waiting for Obama. Today’s policy discussions are shaped by politicians, pundits, and well-fueled right-wing think tanks. What if those discussions were framed instead by those suffering severe economic pain due to unemployment, underemployment, foreclosures, and a loss of hard-earned benefits? Sadly, as we’ve learned in recent years, we can’t assume that anyone else will speak up for them.


We urgently need more ways for voices from the ground to be heard. Some progressive organizations and movements understand this. National People’s Action featured an 80-year-old grandmother and an unemployed former factory worker as spokespeople for its financial-reform campaign. Health-care reform advocates showcased the stories of those with pre-existing conditions as part of the drive for health-care reform.


We don’t have time to spare. The country is approaching a tipping point where extreme income inequality becomes the new normal, where 10 million undocumented immigrants languish forever in a rights-less limbo, and where workers’ rights gained over decades of struggle are gone forever. Environmental-justice advocate Van Jones often reminds us that President Obama did not create the movement that elected him — the movement created him. Ordinary people, not the president, were the heroes of the 2008 story. From Wisconsin to Washington, we’re remembering that story and telling it anew. Only we can write the next, gripping chapters.