Many years ago when I visited my childhood friend Ted, staying with him was his grandfather whom he addressed as "Gramps" and who was sympathetic to my interest in social change. He had been a labor union organizer in the turbulent 1930s, and as a parting comment said to me gently, "Nothing happens without being made necessary." We must cause every facet of the outcome we want. No gains will come to us by accident.
With Democrats arguing these days about what to do in view of the election results, I wondered what Gramps might say about the causes being set in motion:
J--This is a bewildering time. Democrats have won the presidency, but millions believe it was stolen and are in denial about simple facts. Some Democrats want to "heal" divisions, others want retribution, and others want to push progressive policies as far as possible. We could sort this out easier if everyone were calm and rational, but this is a tense time.
G--In the thirties it was clearer. We had a contest between labor and management, but there was in-fighting on our side anyway. People invest in their personal experience and want to know, "What about my angle?" But elbowing your allies can waste the strength you need against your common opponent. Internal rivalries dilute the energy for change.
J--A major contention is how aggressive to be in proposing new legislation that might offend some voters and thus endanger their Representatives in the next election.
G--People will reach for the fruit they believe they can pick. The Affordable Care Act, remember, achieved a major advance by pushing to the very limit of the resources available then. But when you are worrying about who you will offend by doing the right thing, you surrender your most basic strength, which is explaining what the right thing is. If you want legislation to pass easily and last a long time, you start with its base of support. You communicate your ideas throughout society. Tell people why they should want this. Once they understand and are enthusiastic about it, legislation sails through and lasts a long time. From the opposite angle, how long will a law survive that passes by a bare, partisan majority and the public is not behind it? This again is our fundamental resource, our ability to explain the right thing to do, get the message to people--individually if necessary.
J--The political process seems inherently conflicted over deciding where resources should go. How do you navigate that?
G--You need to start well before you are weighing specific tradeoffs. A country needs to unite about an overall package of values with yours and mine tucked in there somewhere. Separate policies are the fruit of a tree, and the tree is the thinking of the people. When a million people split into a dozen self-interested ways over who gets what, they show they don't understand that. They first need a tree that produces abundant fruit, and then they easily divide it up.
J--The agreement you propose seems impossible right now. The potential needs are so much larger than the resources to meet all of them that competition for the resources is inevitable.
G--It always seems that way, though. First you have to decide who you are, who you include in the problem you want to solve. The "public agreement" is that benefits be spread among everyone, so that even though they reach different planes of wealth and well-being, everyone feels they share in the resources of the country. This standard alone can save a country from fracture. People know if they are left out. 85 years ago, industry management saw itself as the whole game and labor was just a resource to use at the least possible cost. We had to establish that labor was people, the country was all people, which sadly then was even hard to get across. Then after you decide to include everyone, you need thoughtful leaders capable of sizing up carefully what is most urgent to do first, second, and third.
J--"Waiting your turn" implies that people are willing to make sacrifices, will hold back their own demands so that the best solution can work out.
G--Again, this is getting across a different perspective. I think your survival in this period lies in how well you use a big idea, because you need one in order to generate the mainstream motivation to work toward it. When everyone wants to grab what they can for themselves, they will not work hard to benefit others. Something must lead you to believe that your effort, even when you are exhausted, is "worth it."
J--In a pre-school where my wife works, there is a big sign reading, "I didn't say this would be easy. I said it would be worth it."
G-- In my time "the labor movement" was worth it, a sense that we as workers were doing something of generational significance. We had love and respect for each other and for the effort everyone put out even though we could get heated about our differences. You can tell the strength of a team, in fact, by how hard they will push each other and still work as a unit. We all knew in our bones that we were bringing balance to an economic system and making a better life for those we loved. The same kind of thinking happened with the hundreds of thousands who died in the Civil War. Both sides fought for their big idea. In the Revolutionary War, politicians risked their lives for the biggest idea they knew of. Right now you have a lot of people who assume it falls to them to guard a particular plot of value--progressives, Blacks, environmentalists, educators, scientists, and so on. All of those efforts may be needed, but they are sub-units of a larger force that aims to solve all the needs. If your commander sends you out on a patrol to capture a lookout, you need to know that your army is on the way to back you up. Your small unit by itself may be gunned down.
J--Where does the big idea come from?. Does someone invent it, does it pop up spontaneously? What is ours?
G--Circumstances usually seize people's attention and tell them what they are all about just then. Think about King George III and the British Army, slavery and secession, Hitler and Pearl Harbor. The big idea is usually obvious when people grasp their present condition, but it still needs to be articulated, so you need leaders who can do that. Before the nineteen thirties, management drove labor as far and as unfairly as it could, which was universally accepted as the way things were. Changing that required an idea, that that was unfair, that a different balance had to be found between labor and management. Isolated pockets of disgruntled workers would never have made significant changes, and the United States could still be like a Third World country where the wealthy and powerful run everything to benefit themselves.
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