Last night I was on a national conference call to discuss the growing movement that is making the connection between endless war spending and economic collapse here at home. People from coast-to-coast were on the call and they shared what they have been doing locally around this concern. It is clear that Maine's Campaign to Bring Our War $$ Home is a model of sorts for other groups around the nation who are just beginning to move into this particular organizing focus.
There were a couple of comments on the call that troubled me and I wanted to share that with readers of this blog. Several people (they appeared to be folks who call themselves Progressive Democrats) were talking about the need to get some "legislation drafted" in Washington that could then be used to rally around as a key organizing strategy.
I was a bit surprised to hear this because at this time even the casual political observer would recognize that with the recent Republican victories across the nation that politics in America is being devolved to the state legislatures and local communities. We will now be facing both political gridlock in Washington and the capitulation of Obama to the demands of the Republican Party to dismantle social progress in America. Even now during this "lame duck" session, while the Democrats still control Congress, they can't even get an extension of unemployment insurance passed. So how could a serious movement focus on the coming black hole in Washington and still be effective, inspiring, or most importantly, strategically sound?
The action in the coming next few years is going to be at the state capitols and in our local city councils and school boards. Those are the political bodies that are going to have virtually every social responsibility dumped on them without any resources. The Republicans, who want to end "big government", are going to pull the plug on every social program they can. Thus people will be turning to their local government bodies for help and they are going to be told - there is no money to help you.
Real organizing is going to need to happen locally and at the statewide level. Coalitions of teachers, students, workers, peaceniks, unemployed, people without health care, and others who are being cut loose will need to be brought together on the statewide level. These coalitions must then call on local and state politicians to demand an end to war spending so that those wasted billions every month can be invested back into our communities to deal with the growing economic crisis.
In other words our ability to impact the politicians in Washington is going to dramatically diminish. Thus our energies and our voices should increasingly be directed on local politicians who will be feeling the pressure every day from the growing masses of unemployed and displaced. If we play our cards right, those politicians will soon enough begin to speak out against war spending because they will recognize that returning those wasted $$ will be the only way to help alleviate the fiscal crisis here at the local level.
Pushing some ill-fated legislative package in Washington might make activists feel good but it is not going to inspire folks or create much energy at the grassroots where people will be daily struggling with survival issues in their communities.
The progressive community does not do "strategic thinking" very well. Many national progressive groups, based in Washington DC and funded by foundations that are most often linked to the Democratic Party, have to try to focus grassroots work on the Washington black hole in order to justify their existence and their continued funding. Thus they are not really in support of pushing the foundation money down to hire local organizers to work on these local issues. It cuts them out of the picture and their job is to be gate-keepers to stand between the grassroots and the Democratic Party.
I've been saying these kinds of things since 1995 when I wrote a piece for the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice newsletter called "A Strategy for the Future". In that article I said:
I've got an idea. I think we should demand that the Washington DC based progressive groups (unions, women, gays & lesbians, peace, environmental, social justice, people of color, senior citizens, disabled) all get together and develop a 10-year national organizing plan.
We should demand these groups skeletonize their expensive Washington operations and pool those dollars as seed money to build a base that would, in time, begin to change America.
When I say "skeletonize" what I mean is this: Stop paying all those expensive rents on those lobby offices. Stop introducing legislation that will be compromised even before it is written. Stop paying lobbyists to fight the losing battle in Congress. Stop asking the "folks back home" to get letters into Congress. My research shows me that they're not writing. (Many have given up hope.)
Instead I suggest we take the money saved by my skeletonized DC plan (we would keep a small team of lobbyists in Washington - say two or three - just so we could have one office open with a phone and a computer) and hire grassroots organizers by the thousands around the nation who would implement the national grassroots campaign. The campaign would be centered around the local realities that people face. We would seek to involve local people in issues that affect their lives from day to day. We'd organize campaigns around health care, education, fixing roads and bridges, and cleaning up the local water system. We'd fight for more job training money. We'd call for conversion of the military-industry complex. We would run folks for local offices, using the energies that would be unleashed when people saw their allies moving together all over the nation.
Once each year state conventions would be held followed by regional conventions. At these events the collective demands of the people would be voiced. We want health care. We want clean water. We want jobs!
I know what would happen next. The ground would shake. The sky would rumble. The Democrats would find a backbone, or a very strong third party would be formed. The politicians would begin to write legislation. Our two or three lobbyists in Washington would tell us so. A bill would be passed to create jobs and the military budget would be cut to pay for it.
I wrote the above soon after Newt Gingrich took over as Speaker of the House the last time the Republicans threw the Democrats out of power in Congress. Not much has changed during the last 15 years - in fact the issues are the same except now things are getting worse. The organizing strategy of the progressive community has not changed one iota. The Washington DC strategy still trumps all others comers.
Some say we can do it all - do local work and still maintain a Washington legislative strategy that keeps the DC groups relevant. I say it's a mistake. We can't fund both approaches. We don't have the local energy for both. We have to fish or cut bait.
We need to talk more about this. Let's not wait another 15 years to get started.
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Bruce Gagnon is the Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space.
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