The Failure of ‘Progressive Organizations’

By way of ScienceBlogling Sharon Astyk, I came across this piece that argues that much of political paralysis the U.S. suffers from is due to a dearth of effective community organizations:

The key to understanding the power of citizens’ organizations is that representative democracy doesn’t respond to the will of individuals; it responds to pressure exerted by groups. Those who organize to put pressure on the system generally get at least some of what they want, and the longer and harder they push, the more of it they get. Those who don’t organize, by their lack of organization, make themselves irrelevant to the political process.

You know this perfectly well, dear reader. Odds are you’ve grumbled about the influence of pressure groups in Washington DC, or your state’s capitol, or city hall, or wherever. You may even support a pressure group or two yourself with the occasional donation. The obvious question, then, is why the torrent of vocal dissatisfaction with the political status quo these days or so hasn’t resulted in another round of citizens’ organizations rising from the grassroots, as the Abolitionists and the Grange and the Progressives and the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement and so many others did in their time, to influence the political process by turning popular dissatisfaction into a force for change. If it takes a pressure group to have a voice in American politics, why not organize a pressure group to give voice to those who consider themselves voiceless? For that matter, instead of griping about the lack of a viable third party, why not start one, instead of waiting for some political equivalent of Wal-Mart to package one in plastic and display it enticingly on a convenient shelf?

I’m not sure I entirely agree. We do need better organizations–that was certainly the case with Swifthack (‘Climategate’) and the Stupak-Mills amendment:

Which brings me to what I think a major, and mostly unmentioned source of the failure in Swifthack: professional environmental groups.
Where were they?
They, as have the pro-choice organizations in the healthcare debate (i.e., Stupak-Mills), have gone completely AWOL.

But I’m not sure the conditions are conducive for new mass movements. The women who would be today’s suffragettes are working–and providing a critical second income. We have many progressive organizations, but these professional organizations are largely inept. Many of these organizations need to go under (e.g., NARAL). Others have to radically change how they do politics–instead of alerting people to the presence of a problem, they have to figure out how to campaign to solve it.
Most people don’t have the time to be semi-pro activists, and, in the current economic climate, they also don’t have the money. The following applies to the Democratic and to many of the progressive organizations: “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be that other fucking guy.”
Chris Hayes describes the causes of this phenomenon:

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right?
Michels’s answer was what he called “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.” In order for any kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party conventions and delegate votes. “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors,” he wrote, “of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

I’m pretty convinced we need new progressive organizations–at best, many of them have outlived their purpose. They certainly aren’t redeemable.

This entry was posted in Progressives. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Failure of ‘Progressive Organizations’

  1. SwiftHaxxor says:

    I can see the world would be just perfect if you were supreme ruler.
    On the other hand, if they’d give me that DeLorean I could go back in time, visit your mother and straighten this whole mess right out.

  2. tlen says:

    amen swifthaxxor,
    the writer of the blog rant is a loon. most of the country is not progressive, pro-abortion, climate change alarmists such as mike. get over yourself mike, even dear leader obama toned down the progressive rhetoric after he won.

  3. Cathy M. says:

    A point you might have overlooked is the new legislation that stops many good social progress groups from being ABLE to lobby and advocate — if they are 501(c)3-types, they are prevented from supporting any political cause – ie: rallying for legislation or a legislature. So, many political activists have a choice: they can work for an organization that is trying to do good in the community, or one that is lobbying — but not both! While I applaud the new rules, because they prevent donors money going into political pockets, it does hamstring a lot of progressive groups!

  4. goodbye usa says:

    If #1 & #2 are typical it would seem that most of the country are nasty blinkered narcissists.

  5. david says:

    You are right of course, and those idiots in 1 and 2 are just idiots.
    So, suppose one starts a progressive organization. It’s necessary, so says max Lerner in America as a Civilization. Traditional organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Civitan, Lion, Jaycee are part of democracy, especially the elective part. “You have to run strong in those sons-of-bitches,” says an old pol.
    So you get your org started, you find a place to meet, you have meetings, what do you do? I’m thinking you want to influence persons in power and you find that if you have no media presence you have little influence over them.
    There’s the rub, the media.
    Gandhi had a very good press secretary, a reporter, and they worked closely together.
    Roiling rant against media, journalism, and reporters could be added here.
    Why progressives do not join traditional community orgs could be inserted here.
    How academic progressives are the most naive with no understanding of persons working as salesmen, or persons working in retail for examples, and why they are doomed to fail to organize well from the start could be inserted here. Idiots 1 and 2 if inserted in this context would be in an insignificant way blindly self-lovingly correct.
    My god, the violence of it all. Church ladies with fine cars huffing against the ACLU, the American Taliban thumping Bibles in the schools, fog thinkers bouncing off walls, tea baggers pursing their lips you betcha. Whew, the mind boggles. I see them thru the media, journalists, reporters.
    Yes, some new organizations for progressives would be nice.

  6. Anonsters says:

    Lengthy comment warning!
    The problem, of course, is that liberals are fractured in a way that righties are not, and that no doubt owes in some part to the substantive beliefs of liberals v. righties. This is all territory that’s been well-worked over before, of course.
    Given our 2-party system, the two parties have to be organized to compete w/ each other. If you’re an organization advocating for a change, you’re going to be motivated largely by substantive policy. “Party discipline” doesn’t make much sense in that context. What matters is what’s right (i.e., what those affiliated w/ the organization perceive or judge to be right). Merely winning is good enough for the political parties, because that’s exactly what they’re for. It’s not good enough for an advocacy organization, because it turns out that the “good” legitimately can be the enemy of the “best.”
    Consider: I’ve been researching and thinking a lot lately about pre-Civil War antislavery movements. One solution was so-called “colonization,” in which slaves were emancipated and shipped off to Liberia in Africa. Another approach (and there were more than just these two, of course) was more radical: immediate emancipation, accompanied by new laws to protect the civil rights of the newly emancipated. Both were offered as ways to end slavery (although some (many? it’s not clear) colonizationists had other motives, like ridding America of its free black population, etc.; there are lots of different motivations at work for all the different antislavery groups, so I’ve simplified the picture of course; nevertheless, my point remains). Thankfully, we’re far enough away from it now to see that colonization was a truly terrible idea. But a lot of people took it seriously then. Colonization, although achieving the same goal of ending slavery, was an enemy of “the perfect,” emancipation and protection of civil rights. Just winning would not have been good enough.
    Perhaps you’ll think that my example presupposes a certain definition of the issues that is not necessary. If we define the issue in antislavery as “ending slavery, and integrating the emancipated slaves into American political, social, and economic life,” colonization would not even register as a legitimate alternative. But how you define the issues is a part of advocacy, and different groups will have different ways of conceptualizing the issues.
    Given all that, we can begin to understand the barrenness of the organizational landscape. The technological context alone has worked significant changes in our politics. Both parties maintaining centralized, sophisticated databases, which track all kinds of details about donors, party members, voters in general? Campaigns in which, the national political environment can by itself displace local concerns? Party discipline begins to appear necessary if winning is more important to you than what it is you win, and I think our political parties just do care more about winning. The election cycle is nonstop, even if election campaigns (strictly speaking) are not. In a sense, they (at least feel like they) have to care more about winning itself; otherwise, they’ll spend so much time worrying about shaping the prize (i.e., “governing”) that they fall behind in the competition to stay ahead. The process of politics then becomes such a powerful lever that it assimilates the outcomes, the ideas, to its own requirements, relentlessly and remorselessly. Why, then, would groups of people feel like they can produce better outcomes through organizing? Consider the effects of gerrymandering. Only a slim number of seats in each legislative election is ever available for flipping thanks to redistricting, and redistricting is a routine part of politics today. And no group or organization can generate the amount of money necessary to alter the calculus of process v. substance. Groups can, of course, affect the results of campaigns and elections, but the effects are ad hoc, isolated in time and importance. The process grinds on.
    Notice, also, that most of the examples of organized movements are fairly dated, with the exception of the 20th century Civil Rights movement. I would argue, and historians have argued, that you can’t understand that phase of the Civil Rights movement in isolation from what came before it. There are links between each phase of civil rights organizing, stretching all the way back (at least) to the 1810s. The Civil Rights movement is a several hundred year old enterprise in this country. To take the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in isolation, as a model of how to go about organizing today, is to misunderstand the complex, extraordinarily rich history on which that phase of the movement was built.
    Nonetheless, as I see it (which doesn’t mean much, I cheerfully admit), the source of the problem is the way our political process operates today, but I really don’t have any suggestions, either. We can’t go back to some prior way of doing politics, because the world has moved on. And the very manner in which politics operates severely constrains what organizations can accomplish.
    The only positive idea I do have is that perhaps organizations should focus less on the machinations of Washington, D.C., and concentrate more on persuading the people themselves. That, and that alone, is the one constant across all the different historical movements, and we see it routinely today, as well. When enough people become convinced of something, the process necessarily must accommodate itself to them, because winning is what matters. Perhaps there are other ways to succeed in today’s political environment, but the one guaranteed way is to convince enough people. (And 30-second television or radio ads that focus on what politicans have or haven’t done or said is a pathetic attempt to inform people about what your cause is, why it’s important on its own terms, why they specifically should care about it, and why they should agree with you on it.)

  7. BrianX says:

    The other day I started writing what I have provisionally entitled “Manifesto for a New American Socialism”; I’m trying to make it a summary of where progressives should be going. Maybe it’ll help if enough people pass it around.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says:

    Cathy M @ # 3: … if they are 501(c)3-types, they are prevented from supporting any political cause – ie: rallying for legislation or a legislature.
    Actually, no. Cee-Threes can rally all day and all night for a given item of legislation or a general political cause. They can’t get behind specific politicians or intervene in elections (is that what you meant by “or a legislature”?), which does leave a lot of room. A parallel, less-tax-exempt group defined in paragraph 501(c)(4) can electioneer, so many savvy groups work both ways.
    Many of the now-coopted environmental and abortion rights groups got that way under the Clinton administration, when all their top staff got the craving to be appointed Deputy Assistant Vice-UnderSecretary of Something or Other and started throwing marshmallows as their causes were systematically sold out. (To be fair, Clinton only hinted a bit at dumping abortion rights, probably because the grass-roots howled at every “compromise” trial balloon. All, all other progressive causes went either to the back of or under the bus before 2000.)

  9. Pierce R. Butler says:

    Anonsters @ # 6: … the source of the problem is the way our political process operates today…
    Eggz ackley. I suggest we need at least three major changes:
    1) Instant-runoff balloting, so that minor parties can enter a race without acting as spoilers. This would break the two-party duopoly, which is precisely why it isn’t happening.
    2) Public financing of campaigns, so that politicians don’t spend every moment courting big-money contributors and worrying what those contributors think. Again, since all incumbents are those successful within the existing system of legalized bribery, prospects for change are trivial.
    3) Honest vote-counting. With most American ballots either purely digital or scanned and tallied by machines from one conglomerated manufacturer (which keeps its processes secret, is run by long-time Republican activists, and has a lousy track record already), we urgently need major reforms and a continuous, ferocious auditing process (including regular hand recounts and exit polls). Odds here are approx. same as in #s 1 & 2.
    A few other points, almost as crucial as the above, to keep US democracy alive: independent redistricting commissions; better ethical standards for elected officials, with actual enforcement; anti-trust legislation to break up media oligopolies; serious civics education in and out of schools; abolishing the Electoral College… yah, I need to stop already, I crack myself up.

  10. Anonsters says:

    Pierce @ #9:
    yah, I need to stop already, I crack myself up.
    If it’ll help, we can go stand in the corner and weep softly together for the Republic.

Comments are closed.