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America’s Future Now: On Building A Progressive Social Movement

The ballyhooed great debate about the future of the progressive movement at the America’s Future Now conference became a largely monolithic affair, with most everyone agreeing that only an independent social movement can bring about transformative change, and that progressives must look inward and organize that themselves. But a fragmented and frustrated movement didn’t come up with any broader vision to present rather than an issue-by-issue display.

Darcy Burner of the Progressive Congress Action Fund, the former Congressional candidate, had little to recommend for the entire progressive project, actually. She said that President Obama “is wrong to think that the corporate answer is the right solution.” She took a swipe at the defenders of the White House by saying “it’s not our job to make the President comfortable, it’s our job to make him do the right thing.” She also tried to make a case that progressives haven’t fully advocated for their positions, with tea party activists out-organizing them in Congress. But she indicted the progressive leadership far more than the rank and file, saying “they think it’s more important to be invited to White House cocktail parties” than strongly fight for their issues. Overall, she emphasized personal agency, adding that “it’s not enough to let one man fix everything.” (particularly when he has his own consensus-building ideas for what constitutes fixing.)

Deepak Bhagarva of the Center for Community Change, who was instrumental in the immigration reform rallies we’ve seen over the last several months, held them up as an example of the kind of mass social movements needed to bring about change. “It takes big, vibrant social movements to get anything real accomplished,” Bhargava said, faulting progressives for failing to capitalize on the economic anxiety brought about by the financial crisis, and citing the outside movements of the 30s and 60s compared to the lack thereof in the 70s and 90s. Bhargava said that the arrow of change has been pointing in the wrong direction for decades, and currently it’s not going far enough in the right direction to counteract that. “The defensiveness of the White House to what progressives have been saying betrays a misunderstanding of the need for independent movements,” he said. “We cannot win policy changes without first winning the argument for why we need them, and we haven’t done that.”

The “debate” closed with a series of small group sessions, where attendees considered how to best bring forward a progressive agenda. Curiously, the conversations seemed to tend toward particular issue silos rather than an overarching vision of progressivism. The tea party movement plugs into all the fears and hopes of their participants, and provides a coherent way to talk about them that focuses on values and principles rather than the preferred policy position. This is not something progressives have yet figured out, to profess a positive vision of what 2030 can look like rather than an issue-by-issue laundry list. Until that vision is heard, I’m not sure a mass movement can take hold. It doesn’t have to be measured in numbers in the street in the 21st century, but it has to be measured by more than incremental, individual policy gains.

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David Dayen

David Dayen