Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Gathering Swarm by Todd Gitlin

Another sociologist has continued to lend his voice to the public. Todd Gitlin contributes, A Gathering Swarm, to Mother Jones in which he gives us his take on the rejuvenated energy from the political left. After the despair and depression (which can defuse the fire and stunt the growth of a movement) that followed the election, Gitlin's article is a welcome reprieve from doomsday prophecies. He puts the recent leftist movement in a more positive, yet realistic, perspective.
The rising was, in an immediate sense, kindled by George W. Bush. The same Republican juggernaut that shocked (but did not awe) most of the world in the course of a disastrous war succeeded in convincing many millions of Americans, at least for a while, that politics was not a specialized enthusiasm or a peculiar hobby but a necessity -- and not a necessity for somebody else but a necessity for them.

In this, Bush accomplished something remarkable: He coaxed the two divergent strands of the left, or liberalism, or progressivism, or whatever you want to call it, into the same insurgent republic and opened up the prospect of a historic resurrection. He convinced old-school Democratic wheelhorses and newly inspired activists, old pros and young amateurs, union faithful and vote mobbers, that if they did not hang together they would most assuredly hang separately.

Call these two forces the machine and the movement. Since the 1960s, the enfeebled Democratic machine and the marginal movement left had encountered each other -- if at all -- with acrid suspicion. They cracked apart 40 years ago, when college students who distrusted power went south to join blacks in overturning white supremacy while Chicago's Mayor Daley, a believer in power if nothing else, led his white, working-class base in fighting against Martin Luther King, and, later, against those same students as they revolted against the war in Vietnam. Because the Democratic Party didn't manage to amalgamate old and new politics -- cut to footage of Mayor Daley's gleeful cops smashing away at long-haired demonstrators -- it was crushed by the law-and-order alliance of old Republicans and resentful segregationists.

We're back to alliances. It seems some leftists, not unlike many conservatives, are so staunchly rooted in their convictions there is no room for alliances, or alternatives that make compromises. It's revolution or nothing. But inspite of ourselves, we made alliances out of necessity - of course with others on the left.

Gitlin asks:
What is the future of this sort of hybrid politics? If the rising of 2004 was the best that the American left-of-center could put up against George Bush's radical provocation, what to conclude from the eventual defeat? That September 11 unleashed an invincible force in favor of Bush? That it was a near-miraculous feat to make such a race even close? That the gay marriage initiatives that the right got on the ballot and passed in 11 states boosted their mobilization more than any equivalent ploy, had there been any, could have helped the left? That the left doesn't think about wedge issues the way Republicans do, but it's time to start? That the right's lock on the old Confederacy, the prairie, and the mountains is insuperable unless the Democrats nominate a candidate with a twang?

While he won't give any definitive answers to these questions, he points us in the direction he thinks the answers may lie.
In the tangle and promise ahead, much will depend on activist networks like MoveOn and America Coming Together, but also on lesser-known movement-party hybrids like Wellstone Action. A national effort to train political candidates, teach activists how to campaign, and turn out the vote, Wellstone Action is driven by the fierce desire to harness movement spirit to organizational force. Its director of education and advocacy, Pam Costain, knew Paul Wellstone for 30 years, starting as his student at Carleton College. She spoke to me of "the Wellstone triangle: base-building, electoral politics, and public policy. You have to work at the intersection." Wellstone Action trained 7,000 citizen-activists in 21 states in 2004.

The article is definitely worth reading, especially if you are still blue[/red] over the election. I read it while working out, and it energized me to stay on the elliptical machine a lot longer.


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