The year is 2001. People with political leanings to the left-of-center have demonstrated that they have no backbone, no cohesion, no sense of unification. The decentralization of progressive politics has lead to two things. First, there is a terrible amount of infighting. People with similar goals and ideologies refuse to work together based on differences of opinion that do no affect their common goals. Second, there is no leader, no forceful personality that has emerged to give a single face to the movement (although some might argue Subcomandante Marcos from the Zapatistas movement is the face of the worldwide progressive movement). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it less digestable in our corporate-media-driven world.
What follows is an analysis of these two phenomena, with the hopes that discussing the problems with the structure of the left-wing will serve as a starting point for bridge-building among movements.
The Cannibalization of the Left
A perfect example of the infighting on the left was the political crucifixion of Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential race. Mr. Nader is an American patriot and hero. But a large number of people who should have been dissatisfied with Vice-President Al Gore's politics (which include support of NAFTA and unrestricted globalization in general, the War on Drugs, the death penalty, etc.; all anathema to the progressive movement) and happy with Ralph Nader's positions as well as his past actions took the last few months of the race to lambast Mr. Nader for "cluttering" the political landscape (as the NY Times put it). These people included Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, the AFL-CIO, among others. The arguement was that progressives should settle for an Al Gore in the face of a George W. Bush. Implicit in these pleas was what Tom Tomorrow referred to as a kind of 'battered wife syndrome': "Deep down, he's a progressive. He'll change as soon as he's elected!" If we're all good and wish really hard, we'll change our frog into a prince. This is laughable. It didn't happen with Bill Clinton, and it sure as hell wouldn't have happened with Gore.
Of course, the other side is that many progressive were not and are not willing to compromise at all. Contrast this with the far right-wing of American politics which remained fairly quiet on Bush's wishy-washy positions on abortion and other causes near and dear to Pat Robertson and his ilk. Mother Jones, a lefty news magazine, on the other hand, printed an article raking Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) over the coals for "compromising" his ideals in forging deals and relationships within the Senate. However, the name of the game in Congress is compromise.
The trick is for the progressive movement to sit down and figure out exactly what ideals it will not compromise on (like reproductive freedom), and those which can be delayed or modified. This is no easy task, but it is necessary. Getting everyone to agree to a framework develops a unified front to combat the onslaught of conservative politics and thought that threatens to sweep this nation back to the 19th century.
This raises another issue, however. Not everyone will be on the same page with every issue. Some social justice movements are anti-abortion. Some progressive factions are against some forms of campaign finance reform. These differences are problematic, and they have been for quite some time. Pro-choice movements that refuse to talk to social justice movements with an anti-choice bent (and vice-versa) are focusing on the negative, instead of saying something like this.
"Look we differ on this one issue, but we agree on the other seven. Let's put abortion aside for right now and work on acheiving our common goals. When those are finished, then we can go back to arguing!"
This type of compromising is essential to the survival and implementation of progressive ideals. Since the left is made up of a potpourri of movements with a varity of messages, it fails to offer people the comfort of the hard and fast rules that are the hallmark of conservativism. Where conservativism can be viewed as a fasces -- a group unified to a single strong presence -- progressivism can be viewed as a jambalaya -- a mish-mash of various ideas that may not look pretty, but taste really good together.
The take-home message: Although compromise is the name of the game, progressive need to figure out which battles they will fight together. Unification is necessary for survival, and unification can only be achieved but building bridges and setting aside differences.
Fasces vs. Jambalaya
As was mentioned above, conservativism can be viewed as a fasces -- a Roman symbol of a bunch of sticks bound together to a single axe. This was symbolic of a single great leader, a dictator, binding the people together under his power. Hence the term fascism. With this type of political implementation, you get a small number of people dictating policy, with the followers accepting the policy of the rulers at the expense of their own ideals. Progressivism is the diametric opposite. There is no leader, and individual ideals trump the larger movement's ideals. This is the weakness of progressivism: movements are of limited scope and duration because of the inability to set aside differences to move towards common goals.
This is not to say that progressives should be seeking a fasces-type structure. Decentralization is a strength (see some of Naomi Klein's writing on this, or the excellent work of the IndyMedia). Rather, the ideal is of some type of prepared dish: Each group adds its own abilities to a cause, changing its shape to accomodate others while not losing its own essence. Each cause should be championed as an excercise in cooking, with each group asking "What can I add to this cause?"
Progressives are free-thinkers and idealists. It's hard to work with someone you think is wrong on some issue that is fundamental to your belief system. This is the wrong way to look at it. Everyone should be viewed as a potential ally first, until an intractable problem arises.
The ACLU is a perfect example of an institution that views everyone as a potential ally first. They defend the KKK, join forces with religious conservatives, and fight for gay marriage and other progressive causes. They realize the value in each individual and how each contributes to the cause of civil liberties for all.
The downside of having a decentralized movement is that there is no go-to person for the media. No single face or group that speaks for the movement as a whole. Perhaps one charismatic person should be chosen for each cause. (As an aside, the media tend to fetishize the irrelevant, as Ted Rall said. If at all possible, people fighting for a cause should present themselves in conservative clothing. Witness the difference in coverage of things like the Seattle protests, where the message didn't get across in the media but the fashion did, and the protests to shut down some of the vote-counting in Florida, where the message got across immediately and the fact that they were all Republican staffers came much later. In short, don't give the media anything to talk about EXCEPT the cause.)
The take-home message: Progressives need to look at everyone else as a potential ally. Each ally can bring their own particular talents to a cause without sacrificing their ideals. As long as differences can be set aside, progressive can make great strides.
I've tried to show here that the progressive movement, while alive, suffers from some problems. I've tried to address those problems and propose solutions. Now it is up to us to carry this movement forward. See you on the front lines.