One of the more hilarious right wing memes out there is the idea that every progressive is a Saul Alinsky acolyte. Alinsky titled his book Rules For Radicals because all too often, radical action stirs no real change. Today’s example comes from activist and radio host Rose Aguilar responding at TruthOut to Van Jones’ recent appearance on This Week:
In response to a question about disenchantment with President Obama on the April 1 broadcast, Van Jones said, “We sat back and we let the Tea Party crowd dominate the protest world in the streets. For the first time, we had the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. And there was not one left wing protest. The right wing was marching. The left wing was munching popcorn, hoping that Obama would do it.”
What he fails to mention is that the Tea Party was bankrolled by the billionaire Koch Brothers. Would we even be talking about the Tea Party if it weren’t for the Kochs and Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, the other major sponsor? When the Tea Party took to the streets, every media outlet was there; when labor groups or anti-war activists took to the streets, the media were missing in action.
Yes, tea parties were bankrolled by billionaires. So what about it?
Look, I chronicled the truth about tea parties from early on, but it made no difference to the amount of attention they were able to grab. Astroturf organizing is still organizing. Noise is still noise. The left was disorganized in 2009, and the examples Aguilar provides to debunk Van Jones actually prove the point:
I wonder if he’s familiar with the incredible organizing happening within the disability rights movement. They didn’t munch popcorn after President Obama was elected. On April 27, 2009, disability rights activists from across the country marched on Washington, many in wheelchairs, to speak out against the administration’s failure to include long-term care in the healthcare bill that would allow them to live independently rather than in a nursing home. Ninety-one activists were arrested for chaining and handcuffing themselves to the White House fence. They chanted, “I’d rather go to jail than die in a nursing home.”
A number of single payer rallies and arrests also took place that year. I remember attending a single payer rally in October in Washington DC. Not one media outlet bothered to send a reporter. In that same month, 61 activists were arrested for protesting the occupation of Afghanistan, and thousands of immigrants marched on Capitol Hill calling for comprehensive immigration reform. Many more actions took place at the state and local levels.
That is not a coherent mass movement, it is the scattershot action of independent groups. Only after the August 2009 health care town hall “silly season” was well advanced did anyone seem to understand they were being out-hustled, and by then it was too late.
I lost count of how many single-payer Facebook groups I was invited to join that year. None of them seemed to be part of any larger umbrella; each had its own plan for success with question marks at the critical bullet point. I’ve had that same experience on email lists: everyone has a plan, so there are always a million competing plans.
Few of them have a realistic approach to get from noise to power in their “theory of change.” Single-payer is a good example, because these were ad hoc organizations demanding “a seat at the table” where plenty of well-established groups were already sitting. Some of them (AARP, Families USA, etc) had been working on their issues for years, and their efforts are written in the ACA now. Single-payer advocates didn’t have a lobbying organization then, and still haven’t formed one.
Indeed, the most unusual thing about Occupy is that a broad coalition of interest groups and affiliates actually gathered in one large crowd. That is just about impossible to do with progressives. I’ve heard organizers mutter that we’re like a herd of butterflies: at meeting time, altogether too many activists reject Robert’s Rules of Order as “authoritarian” and then wonder why it takes so long to get anything done while they concentrate on getting everyone to agree today’s lunch should be vegan.
It was not until far too late in the game (October of 2010, to be exact) that One Nation brought together civil rights, unions, and assorted organizations for a rally on the National Mall. This was after tea parties had been organized for simultaneous April 15th events around the country two years in a row, after the Tea Party Convention, after the Tea Party Express tours, and after two large tea party rallies on the National Mall.
One Nation spent much of that time agonizing over what their name should be and fighting about who got credit for the idea. They were followed by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who managed to bring 250,000 people to the National Mall on the last weekend before the election — the time when those folks should have been calling and knocking on doors to turn out the vote.
So denounce the Kochs all you like, but they were organized: FreedomWorks started out with a name already decided, got straight to making noise, and it worked. As much as I’ve highlighted dissonance and incoherence at tea parties, they were clearly about something. All too often, progressives are only interested in their own pet issues, and while their signs are spelled right their overall message is garbled.
Look at Occupy. Even as the encampments received criticism and critique for having no list of specific goals, Occupy at least had a tagline: “WE ARE THE 99 PERCENT.” It has stuck; Occupy could easily rebrand itself “the 99 percent movement” if they wanted — and no one would skip a beat.
Van Jones was accused of being a radical, which led to his resignation from the Obama administration. Ironically, nowadays he’s not radical enough, even though his organization is helping Occupy expand civil disobedience action across the country. That points to just how hard it is to get the progressive movement moving together. On this, too, the right has it easy, but that’s no excuse.