PET ISSUES

A characteristic comment from Kos:

we won’t have a governing majority until the energy expended in pursuing pet interests gets redirected toward getting Republicans out of power and getting Democrats — even some of the imperfect ones — elected to replace them…take a look at the new progressive organizations arising the past few years — MoveOn, the blogs, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, etc — all of them movement-based multi-issue organizations. That is the future of the American progressive movement. Not the single-issue groups that continue to hold their narrow interests above those of the broader movement.

What’s frustrating about comments like this is the uncritical conflation of the “broader movement” and the Democratic party. What’s a “pet issue”? Well, it’s an issue taken up by people you think could spend their time better doing something else. Since Kos’ goal – certainly an urgent and worthy one – is to replace Republican elected officials with Democratic ones, he tends to snipe at progressives who focus on pretty much anything else – be it reducing poverty or expanding civil liberties – as a higher priority. And his hammering on the all-too true point that the Right in this country has demonstrated much stronger long-term strategy than the Left over the past few decades only makes it that much more disappointing each time he makes the short-sighted argument that progressive groups which too strongly criticize or withhold support from Democrats who don’t share their values are selfish for not subordinating their cause to the goal of winning the next election. That’s not how conservatives accomplished their takeover of many of the powerful institutions in this country.

What really gets me about this particular post, though, is the way it conflates Kos’ “every left-wing group in the country should work to elect anyone to Congress who will vote for Pelosi for Speaker” critique with a critique I agree with: the left hasn’t done a sufficient job of building lasting multi-issue coalitions, and progressive activists have too often failed to see and articulate the connectedness between their causes. For Kos, the latter critique must be the former, because the only legitimate form for multi-issue cooperation to take is the Democratic party or organizations or websites mainly devoted to electing Democrats. But that’s not the view of many of the most articulate exponents of the latter critique, including the “Death of Environmentalism” essay which he rightly highlights as a crucial document (here too, I agree). In fact, the very excerpt he quotes in his post is:

Our thesis is this: the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“What’s that,” you say, “it’s possible to have a long string of defeats under a Democratic President? (For a sobering account of just how poor a job NRDC and the Sierra Club did at cashing in on their work electing Bill Clinton, check out Randy Shaw’s Activist Handbook). So much for the idea that all progressive groups have to do to advance their causes is get Democrats elected.

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Frequent readers (thanks, Dad) know that I’m an advocate of broad-based progressive moments as the only effective instrument of progressive change. In particular, I’ve used this space to argue that in support of moves within the labor movement towards a broader conception of what it means to sdvocate for the interests of workers, be it native and immigrant workers standing together in the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, partnership between healthcare workers and patients calling for universal coverage, or SEIU’s strong stance against the Federal Marriage Ammendment as an assault on the rights of its members. As was declared at the first union event I ever attended in New Haven, in response to President Levin’s intimations that Yale’s unions have a broader agenda, “You bet we have a broader agenda.” I’ve also criticized those movements locally and nationally when the broader agenda has proved not as broad as one would hope.

This is a debate that must take place in every progressive movement committed to winning over the next years. The environmentalist movement, as Randy Shaw argued compellingly in his Activist Handbook, is a prime example as well. Looks like former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach agrees:

For example, I’ve been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club and the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about — much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s a skirmish along the way that’s not strategic. It’s way off to the side.

Via Ralph Taylor at Nathan’s site, who also points back to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s “The Death of Environmentalism”:

The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections…Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time….The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.

…There is no better example of how environmental categories sabotage environmental politics than CAFE. When it was crafted in 1975, it was done so as a way to save the American auto industry, not to save the environment. That was the right framing then and has been the right framing ever since. Yet the environmental movement, in all of its literal-sclerosis, not only felt the need to brand CAFE as an “environmental” proposal, it failed to find a solution that also worked for industry and labor. By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don’t concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with “the environment.” The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies…Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren’t stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you’d likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, “Health care is not an environmental issue.”…Let’s go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest — make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let’s highlight the jobs and farmers behind it. But bring about this sea-change in the way the environmental movement thinks and operates isn’t going to be easy. For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.

We all have a lot of work to do.