How ‘Progressive’ Pundits Help Silence the Activist Left

Believe it or not, my political activism isn’t limited to the blog (if it were, that would be pretty pathetic). I actually attend local meetings of different types (Democratic ward meetings, various local hearings, etc.), call my Congresscritters (they don’t pay attention to email or petitions), and try to make ‘townhall’ meetings (in Massachusetts, we still have those and they’re free of charge). So when I read twerps like Matthew Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates complaining that we’re whining too much, and not putting the hard work in, I wonder what he’s talking about. I suppose we all can’t have the critical job of being a magazine pundit/professional blogger.

Fortunately, Corey Robin, who is turning into one of my favorite writters, is on the case:

It’s also not clear who exactly Coates is talking about here. Most of the liberals and leftists I know who criticize Obama spend their lives working to elect more progressive politicians, not only in Congress but throughout the country. They know full well that if things are going to change, it’s not going to come from Obama or the Democratic Party but from social movements and grassroots activism….

Here’s how you build that infrastructure of change (I’m just talking about the electoral path; as any activist knows, there are lots of other equally important paths). First you get a progressive Board of Aldermen in New Haven. Then you get a lock on the state legislature in Connecticut. From there you take it to the state congressional delegation, until finally you’ve kicked the shit out of Joe Lieberman and got two fairly liberal senators in Congress—or at least two senators who feel themselves beholden to your power. And you do that in every state. It doesn’t always work, of course—Lieberman’s still in the Senate—but that’s how it’s done.

Coates gets the principle: “People who talk of primarying Obama need to pick smaller targets–and thus elicit bigger results.” He just happens to believe he’s the only one who does.

I, as does Robins, receive a constant barrage of emails about actual concrete things people are doing to influence politics at the local level. But Coates either doesn’t get those emails, or actively disappears them (boldface mine):

But that Coates doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t speak, about even these stories is telling. Of not just failure on his part, though it is that. I mean, seriously, the dude is a journalist. How hard is it, before he picks up a pen, to pick up a phone and ask someone in the labor movement or a grassroots organization what they’re doing?

But Coates’s silence is also indicative of a bigger problem confronting the left: the shroud of media indifference under which it labors. Most of the stories that come across my transom are never reported in the New York Times or magazines like the Atlantic where Coates works. Not because activists haven’t tried to get the media’s attention but because Coates’s colleagues simply don’t care about them, and if they do care, probably don’t like them very much. Far more interesting to talk about the Tea Party and right-wing activism than to talk about activism on the left.

If each of us is going to put our shoulder to the wheel, why doesn’t Coates start with himself? Not with a harangue about how we fail to realize that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen because “Martin Luther King was a really nice guy.” (The one orbit of the political universe where you can be sure the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are properly understood is on the left.) But by challenging his colleagues at his magazine to report more on these stories, and by challenging himself to do the same. I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?

I write this half-seriously, but I’m convinced that most progressives have had some kind of bad experience (which, no doubt, embarrassed them in front of Very Serious Progressives) with the occasional Trustifarian knucklehead, and they project that onto left-wing and liberal activists. Or maybe it’s just the influence of the Church of the Savvy.

Then there’s the twerp Matthew Yglesias who has been preaching the Powerless President crapola non-stop. While Yglesias argues that there are structural issues limiting the power of the president, he is utterly clueless about how the structural issues limiting the power of activists:

Think about that last sentence: if justice and equality are not happening, it’s not because liberals and progressives face all sorts of roadblocks to making it happen; it’s that they’re simply not doing their job. They’re talking to each other on the interwebs instead of getting out there and doing the hard work.

Reading these two, you get a rather remarkable picture of the political universe. If Obama makes a call to a conservative Democratic senator from Delaware, it’ll go nowhere. But if little old Mrs. Murdle from Wilmington, quietly getting by on her Social Security, makes a call to her senator, mountains will move.

(I’m not being facetious here; Yglesias really does recommend calling your elected official as one of the two key things you can do to make change; the other is to argue with moderates and conservatives and apolitical folks who don’t support progressive policies. For the record, I’ve been doing both for years, probably for almost as long as Yglesias has been alive. But the fact that I and my comrades are supposedly not doing these things is “the most underrated prop of conservative dominance in the United States.”)

First, the people not doing their jobs are the old-guard political organizations which have been co-opted and become sclerotic. Second, the frustration is coming from people who have done what they’re supposed to do: phone banked, canvassed, donated, went to meetings and so on. Yet they are marginalized for all of their (I should write our) hard work. Some of that marginalization is due to useful idiots like Yglesias, but some of it is structural:

Effective citizen action, in other words, has to be, at a minimum, concerted. And guess what: all those veto points against presidential action that Yglesias and his ilk love to cite apply ten thousand times more to social movements and concerted citizen action. Not by accident—and not because we’re apathetic or clueless—but by design…

The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend. That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse.

Instead of hectoring, why don’t Coates and Yglesias do something to help.

An aside: without getting into a meta-post about Why People Blog, writing posts about your desired policy outcomes (something I do too) isn’t that effective unless you’re providing truly novel and unheard information (though hopefully interesting and informative to you, the reader). There’s a large part of narcissism involved–and that’s not activism.

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