We have a moment for historic progress… if we PUSH it
12 min read
Photo: Dave Hay
Some say, “but I’m just one person” or “my group is so small,” but remember: Even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building. Everyone can have an impact. – Jim Hightower
As Texas Agriculture Commissioner in the 1980s, I took an active role in a rising grassroots rebellion by hardscrabble farm families that had been pushed to the brink of broke by monopolistic agribusiness powers. Fueled by national agricultural policies written by and for financial profiteers and the exploitative giants of industrial agriculture, bankruptcies, suicides, a rural depression, and desperation were raging across farm country.
On a trip to our nation’s capital during this time, I met briefly with Rep. Tom Foley, an esteemed progressive Democratic leader from Spokane, Washington, and an influential member of the House agriculture committee. I made a hot pitch for him to respond to the prairie fire by pushing for a fundamental restructuring of ag policies to empower family farmers over their corporate predators. Noting that the government’s basic farm bill was coming up for renewal, I argued that this was the chance for Democrats to make a bold stand. Are we going to join with grassroots farmers for real structural change? I pleaded. Or is Congress just going to tinker around the edges of policy again, leaving the same old system in place?
Foley smiled amiably at my earnestness, then set me straight on Washington’s way: “Oh, I expect we’ll just tinker around the edges,” he said, “and not bother the system.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Expecting gutsy, transformative change to be initiated from inside the system is futile, even when well-meaning good guys like Foley have their hands on the throttle. As we’ve seen repeatedly, the inside is tightly locked down by special interest money, and neither party’s leadership wants to endanger its share by directly challenging money’s dominance–no matter how worthy the challenge. Indeed, the greater the need for change, the tighter the system reins in, fending off progressive advances by delaying action, diverting to incremental or token reforms, and demonizing systemic change proponents as radicals with dangerous ideas.
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Our current situation is no different. As a group, today’s Democratic leaders in the White House and Congress are moderate progressives who don’t feel the urgent need for a fundamental overhaul of healthcare, the corrupt campaign finance system, childcare, farm policy, etc. They instinctively recoil from doing the down and dirty work of taking on the corporate powers to produce the depth of progressive change that our country so obviously and desperately needs.
The question is not how far these insiders will push the system, but how far, hard, and persistently we progressive outsiders will push them.
Understandably, such official timorousness is somewhere between frustrating and infuriating to grassroots voters. Come on, we elected Biden to make real change, why doesn’t he just do it? Because taking on the system is not the go-to strategy of any politico who’s been a lifelong product (and defender) of the system. This is nothing new or unexpected, but it is neither immutable nor a valid excuse for civic surrender.
After all, none of America’s most important Big Change presidents started out as such. Lincoln was no emancipator in 1860, FDR didn’t run as a New Dealer in 1932, and LBJ’s congressional record didn’t suggest he would become a civil rights revolutionary in the 1960s. Indeed, over the decades, every major progressive change in policy (social, economic, war, suffrage, environmental, etc.) has come not from a presidential victory, but from tenacious grassroots movements that kept after presidents to incrementally overcome Washington’s ponderous institutionalized inertia.
Now, once again, progressives are being called to do this heavy lifting. As The Lowdown continuously documents, the systemic inequalities of our society have deepened over the past few decades, driven by the steady rise of plutocratic power that imperils our social unity and democratic values. The good news, though, is you: Savvy and gutsy rebels as diverse as America itself have kept organizing and growing on a host of fronts to battle this usurpation. And now–with Trump out, Mitch McConnell hobbled, and grassroots efforts surging–we have a moment for historic, fundamental progress. IF we push it.
Which brings us to Biden. An unremarkable but steady political fixture in Washington for half a century, Good Ol’ Joe’s presidential run offered no uplifting vision to address the perils and possibilities of our times. A cautious establishment centrist who has thrived on Washington inertia, Biden’s great appeal was one real promise: I won’t be Trump. Hallelujah! Indeed, he is competent, basically decent, experienced, and certifiably sane–which is why 81 million voters said, “Good enuf. We’ll take him.”
But can Biden be more?
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
There’s no way for this little box to shout out all of the smart, spirited progressive groups doing great work out there, so consider these as just a start. (For leads on organizing in your state, visit The Forge at forgeorganizing.org.) If you’re already hooked up, tell us what you’re up to! And if not, there’s no better to time get together—and get to work.
Working Families Party. Not your usual third party, the WFP organizes in 11 states (so far) to make “our nation work for the many, not the few.” workingfamilies.org.
Showing Up for Racial Justice. SURJ works to “shift culture” and the “underlying [racist] beliefs folks have about people and the world.” showingupforracialjustice.org.
350.org is “an international movement of ordinary people working to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy for all.” 350.org.
For inspiring (and fun) conversations and libations with some of our favorite grassroots rebels, tune in to Happy Hour at the Chat & Chew Café — now on Free Speech TV! Details here.
Possibly. He has launched his presidency as a standard-issue establishment Democrat, with a sprinkling of moves suggesting that he at least wants to appear open to some aggressive progressivism. His cabinet, for example, is overwhelmingly made up of corporate-approved, warmed-over centrists out of the Clinton-Obama mold, including Wall Street financier Gina Raimondo (Commerce) and corporate lobbyist Tom Vilsack (Ag). Yet, give him credit for a few bright lights whose experiences and perceptions are more grassroots, most notably Rep. Debra Haaland, the Native American activist from New Mexico who could be a genuine progressive change agent as interior secretary.
Also, we can take some encouragement from Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal to fight the economic crisis created by the pandemic. It’s properly focused on workers, Main Street, and public services, instead of subsidizing corporate giants and the rich. And he has rightly proclaimed that government must “go big” to meet the huge national need, proudly suggesting that this move is FDR-ish.
In fact, though, Biden has also let his old-style calculated Democratic conservatism creep into the plan, for it would arbitrarily cut off unemployment benefits just six months from enactment, even if joblessness is still rampant. As the New York Times points out, you don’t fight a fire with a stopwatch; firefighters keep at it till the fire is out.
Quietly slipping such a pull-your-punches proviso into one of his most ballyhooed policies reveals why we not only must stay on watch (seriously, don’t even blink!), but must also be willing to get in the face of this “friendly” administration. After all, its political instinct, finely honed over decades of inside-the-beltway posturing, is to look FDR-ish without actually doing FDR.
Split asunder by reality
Biden’s inaugural address was a good, heartfelt appeal to the lofty ideal of the “United” States of America, a promise to “be a president for all Americans,” a plea for unity and healing of the raw political divide that so furiously rends our society.
The problem–and the reason that his ardent rhetorical appeal cannot heal what ails us– is that America is not simply split asunder by political party, ideology, or perceptions, but by reality. The chorus of politicos, pundits, and corporate honchos cooing that “we’re all in this together” is not a balm but an irritant, because it just ain’t so, and the diverse majority of ordinary Americans knows it–not from Fox News or MSNBC but from personal experience.
You don’t have to be Bernie Sanders to see the gash of inequality in wealth, health care, education, economic opportunities, political influence … and general treatment by the system. For increasing numbers of the middle class and the poor, inequalities slap them in the face every day, while the moneyed elites have not merely ignored their pain, but blithely added to it. So– big surprise–an increasingly explosive social rebellion is afoot.
The ruling establishment (from corporate chieftains to top leaders of both major parties) is treating this embedded inequality as a “Trump Problem,” and, well, he’s gone, so … back to normal! The elites have circled their limousines around a national call for everyone to just calm down and unify. “Unity is the path forward,” Biden intoned in his inaugural address.
But “unify” is an action verb, so just repeating the word like a voodoo incantation won’t do the job. Also, although the establishment’s idea of normal may be less chaotic than Trump’s megalomaniacal abnormal, its vision of a corporate social order is much more sweeping and threatening to our people’s desire for an America rooted in the pursuit of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all. To unify the great diversity of Americans requires nothing less than a big, tangible recommitment to those progressive democratic ideals.
It’s good to see Biden and team moving quickly to sever some of the binds Trump put us in, while also goosing up various social programs and budgets. But we’re in a much deeper, darker, downward- spiraling, anti-democratic hole than that, and we need this government to do no less than advance a new social contract to empower workaday people over corporate and elitist interests. That means unabashedly expanding and intensifying our demands on Biden to make him bigger than he presently can imagine being.
Of course, establishment Democrats, aghast that we’d be so rude, insist that progressives hush up and not complicate Biden’s sincere push to find common ground with Mitch McConnell to, as Biden says, “Get things done.” Hogwash! A McConnell compromise means not doing what has to be done. Our responsibility is not to appease McConnell, but to stand up for America’s majority and core principles. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote in January, “It is not apostasy to demand results from your leaders, elected by your support, on the issues that you care about. Nor is it apostasy to call them out if they are too eager to compromise away any real chance at substantive change.”
Rather than settle for incremental changes (and, as Foley told me 40 years ago, “not bother the system”), our moral duty in 2021 is to embrace the spirit of Rep. John Lewis, the feisty progressive icon whose death-bed plea last year was for us to “redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
For people seeking to have real impact in de-corporatizing our workplaces, politics, markets, media, governments, policies, and so forth, consider linking up with one of the many spirited, aggressive, somewhat ragtag groups working at the ground level across the country. They’re not the brand-name, well-funded, progressive institutions on a first-name basis with DC’s power brokers, but savvy, grassroots democracy fighters who unabashedly confront the power structure. Working in America’s unfashionable zip codes, they use front-porch conversations and bullhorn organizing to rally the people themselves to make the change they want.
Here are two such groups, both organizing right now and pressuring Democratic leaders–from Biden on down–to suck it up and be democrats:
People’s Action: This multiracial network is one of our largest, most effective “good-trouble” organizers.
Headquartered in Chicago, with 40 membership groups in 30 states from coast to coast, People’s Action is working at the community level to build progressive grassroots power. Brought together by PA, local democratic activists are taking on the giants (Amazon to Uber, Citigroup to Tyson Foods) to advance “the boldest possible agenda” for working-class and poor people.
Of particular significance, People’s Action carries its progressive populist organizing into the vast area of America that mass media and most Democratic strategists dismiss and disrespect as “Trump Country.” Rather than assuming that rural America’s farmlands and small towns are mono-color, mono-cultural bigoted bastions, People’s Action organizers see both the rich diversity and the economic pain in these regions, and they do something all-too-rare in politics: They listen to those people.
“Deep canvassing,” as PA calls it, is not just hit-the-door-and-run, “how-ya-gonna-vote” polling, but actual lengthy conversations conducted on the front porch (and, during Covid time, the phone) with hundreds of thousands of rural people to exchange stories and relate to their real-life (as opposed to Fox News-defined) concerns. As In These Times reports, this approach lets the individual “emerge a bit from the haze of caricature” and talk about teaming up to do something about the moneyed interests that are really abusing them. George Goehl, PA’s national director gets it right when he says, “We must see listening as an essential political strategy and a way to create the future we all want.”
Poor People’s Campaign: Joe Biden, spoke passionately, as a person of faith, of his belief that the 2020 presidential election was a call to heal the soul of our nation.
Quickly picking up on that thought, a Goldsboro, NC minister added some earthly substance: “The way to heal the soul of the nation is to pass policies that heal the body of the nation. It’s the just thing to do. That’s how we as a nation can together move forward.”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is bringing a powerful moral imperative to creating a transformative progressive movement. “Somebody in every age,” he says, “has to challenge this country to be true to its moral foundation,” adding pointedly, “we’ve got to challenge Democrats and Republicans.” He and his co-leader, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, are doing just that through a series of high visibility issue protests under the banner of a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign.
The campaign builds on Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1968 movement of the same name that called for a revolution of values, asserting that the poor and near poor must no longer be treated as throw-away commodities, but as “a new and unsettling force” to produce a more cohesive, creative, and satisfying democratic society. Unfortunately, King’s assassination, coinciding with the nation’s almost total political turn to the Vietnam War, set that agenda aside. But its validity never faded, and a host of upstart groups today–mostly the young and people of color–have pushed it to the front burner again.
The particular contribution of the mobilizing headed by the Revs. Barber and Theoharis is not only its deep ethical focus, but also its strategic emphasis on connecting poor and working-class people (as well as a broad range of other progressive forces) to unify against “the politics of division [that] always benefit wealthy elites.” To defeat the relentless greed and crushing anti-democratic force of corporate interests, Barber preaches, “You have to stand up and say that systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism are interlocking injustices.”
When people who are fighting on so many progressive fronts begin to connect with a common moral vision, historic movements can grow, broaden, and deepen into a social force that can transform the corporate and governmental structures creating those injustices.
Our country, our future, our job
If we want a country in which all of us really are “in it together,” we have to build it ourselves. No one else–certainly not those who already hold wealth and power–will deliver it for us. The good news is that achieving this is not a start-from-scratch job. Other knowledgeable, talented, determined groups like People’s Action and the Poor People’s Campaign are also on the move and are welcoming newcomers who want to learn, take part in, and advance this historic egalitarian possibility. This month’s “Do Something” box directs you to a few more of these can-do national and regional groups worthy of your time and involvement, and there are many others, including local groups challenging the corporate system right where you live.
So, throw in where you can–and go with groups that want you, not just your financial donations. To create a “Together Society,” we have to do it together!