By Glen Anderson
Our nation faces very serious problems and issues, such as the U.S.’s violent foreign policy, nuclear weapons, the climate crisis, fundamental economic and environmental deterioration, massive violations of our privacy rights by governments and corporations, drinking water poisoned by lead in Flint and fracking chemicals elsewhere, etc. All of these issues—and more—need thoughtful discussion and action.
You might think that an election year is when our nation focuses on serious issues, but instead the political candidates and their political parties and mainstream media avoid dealing with real issues and treat the election as merely a horse race – and with wacko Republican candidates also a circus freak show. Candidates, parties and mainstream media use the campaign hype and silliness to actually distract people from the real issues, so these problems get worse because powerful people and the general public shirk their responsibilities.
Even within the progressive movement, people who would otherwise be working on crucial issues such as those listed above have been distracted by electoral campaigns. Some people seem to hope that a partisan savior will fix the many problems that politicians and parties and media are failing to address. This gives away our grassroots power by delegating it upward and abandoning our grassroots issue organizing.
Here are some practical ways to remain effective even during an election year:
Resist the temptation to be lured into partisanship and electioneering for candidates—except for extremely rare instances where the candidate is truly outstanding—and in those cases build infrastructure for a grassroots movement that will persist for many years after the immediate campaign.
Keep working on issues—and be proactive in raising issues, even if mainstream news media and candidates are not paying attention. Your real audience is the general public, not the political system.
Keep linking issues with the needs and values of the broad public interest and deep-seated ethics. Educate the public about your issues, and show how supporting your issues will help the public. When politicians are on the wrong side, expose the politicians’ errors, and win the public to your side. Again, your real audience is not the political system, but rather the general public among which you work to build a strong progressive grassroots movement that is principled, not partisan.
Reach out to the general public. Don’t talk only with people who already agree with you. People all across the political spectrum from left to right are disgusted with the corrupt, dysfunctional status quo. So are people who feel alienated from “politics.” Progressive organizers will find allies from among all kinds of people, not just “the usual suspects.” Reach out to unusual allies and bring them into grassroots movements about specific interests and into broader multi-issue progressive movements.
Expose what the government—and politicians of both parties—have really been doing. Typically they say what the public wants to hear, but they do what the big corporations and the military-industrial complex want them to do. Expose their hypocrisy. The public absolutely hates hypocrisy in politicians, so they are vulnerable on that. As the classic saying goes, “Throw the rascals out!”
Expose their violations of public values, public virtues, and the public interest—and promote policies that support public values, public virtues, and the public interest. See the item above. Ground our critique in the widely held public values, rather than in partisan sniping or criticizing candidates’ personalities. The candidates want the campaign to be about their dominant personalities, so do not buy into their strategies and focus on their personalities—even the wacko ones. Focus instead on the broad general public’s deeply held values and the broad public interest, and show how candidates and parties violate those.
Expose the Republicans’ extremism and cruelty. Expose the Democrats’ complicity with corporate abuses. Expose the bipartisan corruption and catering to big business and other special interests and their reckless support for U.S. Empire and violent militaristic foreign policy. Frame your arguments to show how their behavior violates our nation’s best values, public virtues, and the broad public interest.
Show how the US’s arrogant and violent foreign and domestic policies are actually weakening US national security, bankrupting our economy, hurting the environment, and corrupting our best values. Offer alternative foreign and domestic policy proposals that are both peaceful and just – and would be good for the US and the world.
Study the concept of “framing” and “re-framing” issues, the skillful use of memes, etc. Practice what you learn.
Boldly strategize long-term goals and incremental steps toward them. The campaign season’s climax is early November, but our real struggle must continue building strategically over a number of years.
Instead of being mostly defensive against what we oppose, we must set the issue agenda, and we must start organizing proactively for what we want instead. Articulate our progressive values and goals. Be proactive in articulating, publicizing and practicing your values and the kind of world we want to create. Lay out an inspiring and attractive agenda for what we want instead of the status quo. A positive vision will attract more people than merely being negative about what we’re against.
Plan and carry out events and activities that will set a new agenda for society—and tha will catch people’s attention and make news. A positive attitude attracts public interest and new volunteers.
Recognize that there are two kinds of “conservatives.” (1) Libertarians are likely to oppose wars, excessive military spending, invasions of privacy, etc. We can probably attract some of them to our issues and movements. (2) Traditional moralists want traditional authorities to keep vulnerable people down. But they do have some ethical values that we can connect with nonetheless. We need to devise different strategies to appeal to each of these two groups—and other strategies to appeal to other constituencies—to bring unexpected potential allies into progressive movements.
Many people are cynical and distrust what the government and other elites (e.g., mainstream news media and big corporations) tell us. How can we harness that skepticism to undermine the propaganda from the government and other elites without making the public distrust our alternatives also?
Support principled third parties andtThird-Party challenges to mainstream candidates. But—as mentioned above—resist the temptation to think that any political party can be our savior. The crucial power base must be ordinary people at the grassroots level working nonviolently. Third Parties can be a tool to work with, but they can’t bring us to the Promised Land.
Support alternative news media.
We are working for long-term changes, so we must persist! The right wing certainly does!
Glen Anderson is a long, long time activist in the Olympia area and a major member of the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation.