Have we become too comfortable, sitting behind our keyboards and silently typing away our anger? Has the progressive movement embraced the wonderful technology of the internet at the expense of real world activism and organizing?
I'm afraid this might be so. And it's time to turn that around. On Bill Moyer's Journal this past Friday, economist Robert Kuttner brought up a striking fact that is missing from nearly all of the plethora of analyses - ranging from Obamapologist to Obama hater to everything in between - that I've seen of this presidency:
ROBERT KUTTNER: The other thing that's missing, if you compare him with Roosevelt or LBJ or Lincoln, the other thing that's missing is a social movement. In all of these great periods of transformation, you had social movements doing a complicated dance with the president, where sometimes they were working with him, sometimes they were beating up on him. That certainly describes the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson. It describes the abolitionists and Lincoln. It describes the labor movement and Roosevelt. Where's the movement?
Especially at Daily Kos, the Netroots is stellar at fundraising. As Casual Wednesday points out, "The Netroots Rock!"
We do an amazing job of raising funds. Remember what we did for Rob Miller in South Carolina. And how about Alan Grayson? Don't forget, there are 433 other races going on just for the House. How much can you give?
However, for some reason that money does not translate into the change we all desire so much. I mean, whether you're a huge fan of Obama and glossy photo diaries or you check Glenn Greenwald's and Matt Taibbi's blogs like I do, you're here, and there's a very good chance you desire significant social and political change in this country. And for all of our yelling louder and all of our fund-raising, that change seems to be eluding us. I cannot deny that improvements are being made by this Congress and Obama. However, we are getting piecemeal change instead of fundamental change.
Perhaps the more telling piece of Casual Wednesday's diary is the next paragraph:
On the other hand, all of your yelling on the blogs will not necessarily translate to votes. If you really care about building solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and in your towns and cities, then go out and volunteer for campaigns. Make calls. Canvass. Use your talents and write letters to the editor. GOTV. Most campaigns would be happy to have the help.
Blogging is great - I'm here doing it right now, after all! But it is not the end all, be all of politics, even in this modern age. We need to start translating our online enthusiasm into offline action a lot more effectively, or we will continue to be frustrated. If nothing else, it can be a very cathartic experience to go out and shout on the street (or talk quietly in a board room or whatever other form your action takes) for what you believe in.
In fact, I believe that part of the reason the stress levels are running so high in the progressive blogosphere is related to this lack of tangible action. In an explanation of why there has not been any kind of large social movement recently, psychologist Bruce E. Levine says (this is a bit of pop psychology, but is an interesting point nonetheless):
The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review study ("Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades") reported that, in 2004, 25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. (In 1985, 10 percent of Americans reported not having a single confidant.) Sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, describes how social connectedness is disappearing in virtually every aspect of U.S. life. For example, there has been a significant decrease in face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends due to suburbanization, commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other variables created by governmental-corporate policies. And union activities and other formal or informal ways that people give each other the support necessary to resist oppression have also decreased.
Don't get me wrong, I know that plenty of bloggers go out and canvass and phone bank and do plenty of other wonderful things. But I'm not talking about taking your own initiative and getting involved with an existing campaign. The Netroots needs to adjust its overarching approach to politics. Instead of propping up existing political organizations, we must become our own - we must become able to take ourselves from the computer to the streets without anyone's help. Groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have done well to create a kind of independent progressive political structure in electoral politics. But we still need to rely less on online petitions and online fund-raising.
As kos himself mentioned in his book Taking on the System, Ron Paul's presidential campaign offered a good example of this. From a relatively small base of online supporters, a campaign was created that ended up being competitive in the Republican primary. Paul did not win any states, but he came in second or third in 27 states, got 35 delegates to the Republican convention (which means he came in fourth - ahead of both Fred Thompson and Rudy Guiliani), raised almost $35 million, and got over one million votes total. On the presidential level, this doesn't translate into victory, but 99% of this came from the grassroots level, which is what makes it impressive. The Paulites were able to use online tools like Meetup and Yahoo Groups and forums to create real world activism.
Progressive ideas seem to have a broader appeal than Paul's quasi-libertarian ideology, and progressives seem to have a larger online presence than Paul's supporters. Yet during the 2008 campaign Paulites were more successful in organizing independently in order to turn online support into offline activism. Granted, the Obama campaign was an incredible example of this type of organizing, but this goes back to one of the fundamental problems I'm talking about - we as progressives are now forced to rely on Organizing for America instead of having a group of that size and type that is independent of the president and establishment Democrats.
So what's the advantage of being independent? Why not rely on the people with money and titles in Washington to organize nationally?