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Frameworks for Post-Election Activism

Dick Flacks
November 16, 2012

by Dick Flacks

“Marvin, what do we do now?”

That famous final line in Robert Redford’s 1972 film The Candidate was meant to sum up the ways that big time electioneering obliterates politicians’ purpose and vision. This is a very important moment to ask the question — understanding that the ‘we’ refers not so much to the President and his party but to we, the people. Particularly we who are so rightfully relieved and, yes, elated by the outcome of the 2012 election.

There are many ways to talk about the victory. The rightwing political and cultural agenda has been repudiated by a decided majority. That majority, it seems possible to imagine, is a new and stable coalition in a position to define the political and cultural direction not only for four years but well beyond. The threat of an extreme rightwing GOP victory helped mobilize a majority whose base includes people of color, the majority of women, a huge majority of the young of all genders and colors, organized workers, and the so-called ‘creative class’ (people with advanced degrees working in knowledge and culture making and distributing). The Republican operatives based their hope of winning on the historically low turnout of many of these categories — for it was that low turnout that led to their 2010 electoral victory — and mainstream media (and many liberal analysts) reinforced that expectation by stressing the allegedly dispirited, disillusioned, disappointed feelings of the Obama base. Then, of course, came all that cash, avalanching on the swing states and on the close congressional races; everyone ‘knows’ that money is what counts in election combat.Nate Silver’s calculations, however, dating back to the pre-convention period, indicated that Obama had a high probability of winning, and that the Democrats had a reasonable chance to keep control in the Senate. After months of campaigning, and six billion dollars of campaign spending devoted to all manner of memes to defame and delegitimize Barack Obama and his popular base, the results were much what Silver and others considered probable in June — and the overall swing toward the Democratic party across the country was stronger than expectations.

I know it sounds really naïve, but here’s what I think: that it’s actually possible for the majority of people to see how their shared interests are at stake and to vote accordingly. African Americans constitutes the most sophisticated voting bloc in the U.S., understanding that voting as a bloc can be empowering. Maybe having struggled, in living memory, for the right to vote — and having to continue to defend that right — concentrates the mind about how to make the vote politically meaningful. Feminists, too — and that includes millions of women (and men) who don’t call themselves that — are also plenty savvy as voters. A similar collective electoral identity has solidified among Latinos and Asian Americans, and maybe on a lot of college campuses. None of these groups vote simply on ‘identity’ grounds. A good case in point was Linda McMahon, who spent tens of millions in Connecticut to get to the Senate, yet the majority of women in that state voted for her male opponent. In fact, the new majority coalition of 2012 shared common ground on a wide range of issues, melding class, race, gender and sexuality in many states and many ways. For example: Here’s Tammy Baldwin, who happens to be the first openly gay senator now, but she ran and won as a staunch supporter of workers’ rights, drawing on the Wisconsin progressive tradition to help define her populism while at the same time being proud of her sexuality. This was just one of many situations in which the progressive majority framework was validated.

So I’m claiming that this 2012 election was a ‘critical election’ — a term political scientists use to refer to (as Wikipedia defines it):

the coming to power for several decades of a new coalition, replacing an old dominant coalition of the other party as in 1896 when the GOP (Republicans) became dominant, or 1932 when the Democrats became dominant. More specifically, it refers to American national elections in which there are sharp changes in issues, party leaders, the regional and demographic bases of power of the two parties, and structure or rules of the political system (such as voter eligibility or financing), resulting in a new political power structure that lasts for decades.

We can’t, of course, know right at the start, whether this is what has happened, or whether the coalition can be sustained. But there’s another political science factoid that reinforces the potential staying power of the Democratic Party coalition: It seems that parties that preside over a post-recession recovery typically stay in power for decades after. Barring unexpected derailment, a decided recovery is likely in the coming Obama years.

My point about stressing the transformative electoral situation we seem to have entered is not, of course, that this in itself brings the change that the progressive majority needs and wants. What it does is create new opportunities for movements for change to gain leverage. We can see some signs of this just a few days after the results came in. Already, voices in the GOP, responding to the Latino turnout against them, are advocating pathways to citizenship and related immigration solutions. The President, capitalizing on the vote, makes it clear that taxing the rich is essential to his agenda, and some Republicans have started to murmur that maybe they better live with that. Democrats in Congress are asserting their determination not to bargain away Social Security and Medicare benefits — this in the face of the endless whine of the deficit hawks about ‘entitlement reform.’ So the signals sent by the progressive majority votes are being picked up even inside the beltway. Even these modest gains for equity and justice won’t be secured, however, without continuing grassroots pressure.

I think the potential emergence of a new progressive majority creates the need for and the promise of a far more embracing vision, program and strategy than immediate steps to protect the safety net or improve federal revenue. In fact, there are several versions of the progressive agenda now necessary and possible:

  • RESTORE MAJORITY RULE: I see the election as a providing a mandate for fighting and winning some big battles to make democracy finally come to the USA. The thousands who waited hours to vote, the massive turning of backs on TV manipulation, the big turnouts of young voters (whose proportion of the electorate grew this time) — maybe these are signs that people really want their voices to be heard and their votes to count. The progressive majority will be strengthened insofar as voting is made easier (a million voters registered on line in California this year). As Piven and Cloward presciently argued years ago, if the electorate actually represented the population, we’d have a real chance for a just social order. I used to think that organizing for procedural reform might not be very fruitful; right now, I’m thinking quite the reverse. We need filibuster reform in the Senate, and other measures, state and national, to end the minority veto power that results from super-majority rules.We need to professionalize voting itself to end the long lines and obstructive practices of local election administration. We need to implement measures like same-day registration and rules that ease voting —and, of course, we need to reverse voter suppression measures. The campaign against Citizens United and other finance reform efforts seem poised to make gains. It would be good to open real debate on reforming the electoral system: to end the electoral college as we know it, and raise awareness about proportional representation and other voting systems that allow meaningful alternative party activity.
  • GREEN ECONOMY: Obama, in victory, finally spoke about climate change. Maybe the pain inflicted by Sandy can be a foundation for advancing the sustainability agenda. Let’s put the carbon tax on the table. Let’s put limits on fracking and other scary carbon-based technologies. Let’s argue strongly and confidently that public-private partnership for alternative energy, climate-change infrastructure, retrofitting, conservation and non-carbon fueled transportation creates jobs, builds the economy and makes the future possible. Don’t wait for the President to start or carry this argument — now’s the time to really spell this out!
  • DEMOCRATIC FINANCE: The new fronts of the Occupy movement include: moving our money out of the big banks and into community-based banks, various forms of debt strikes (by student loan and mortgage debtors), the Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, and progressive tax reform. Its terrain that doesn’t simply focus on federal legislation but on various kinds of grassroots action.
  • THE LIVING WAGE: The federal minimum wage has lost 30 percent of its value in the last 30 years. Many millions of workers earn wages that put them at or below poverty level. Raising the minimum wage significantly seems like it could be an early rallying demand on Congress and a new framework for action in states and cities. Fighting for this could be a way to dramatize the widening inequality that is, in fact, the root cause of economic stagnation as well as human misery.
  • RESTORE THE BILL OF RIGHTS: There are a lot of angry voices on the left, disgusted with the Obama’s defaults and failures with respect to civil liberties. Obama’s signature on the Defense Authorization Act, with its provisions for indefinite detention, were a big source of alienation. The implementation of ICE belies the claims about targeting ‘criminals’ for deportation. The prison system is a festering scandal. And Obama’s legacy will include the legitimation of drones as weapon and surveillance tool. California’s majority voted to liberalize the three-strikes law and narrowly defeated repeal of the death penalty. We need a vocal human rights/civil liberties coalition that understands that a great deal of grassroots education is needed if numbers of people are to get engaged in these issues. And in the process of that education, the hammering out of a Bill of Rights platform embracing the full range of such issues needs to be accomplished. I wonder if there are people in Congress ready to form a Bill of Rights caucus, ready to sponsor new legislation, hold hearings and help the consciousness-raising process. These are issues that can bring a lot of libertarians into coalition with lefties, and, from an electoral-strategy perspective, they are issues that a lot of young people really care about.

These are six frameworks for grassroots action, for public debate — and I think six arenas where we MUST make gains in the next years and also now have some hope of doing so. They’re the issues we all have been involved in, in one way or another. All of these go beyond whatever the administration’s current agenda is — but in each case, promises have been made by the President and party leaders, and therefore feet can be held to fires.

For each of these, making gains requires articulating both a program and a strategy for getting there Instead of continuing, as we leftists often do, to wonder ‘what’s the matter with America?” we now need to believe that these domains represent potential areas where a majority is already plausible

What do we do now? Let’s get to work and whistle while we do!

Dick Flacks, a Jewish Currents contributing writer, is emeritus professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. His many writings on U.S. social movements include Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. He hosts a weekly radio show, “Culture of Protest,” aired on Thursdays, 6-7 P.M. EST, at KCSB, and is coauthor with Rob Rosenthal of Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Routledge, 2010).