A tough, self-critical assessment to clear the way to a better future

The outcome of the 2012 election is extremely important, but even a victory for President Obama and the congressional Democrats will not ensure that our nation moves toward a new shared prosperity and genuine economic opportunity and security for all. For more than years, corporate America’s relentless attacks and its economic and political domination have been growing and will not stop regardless of the election results.

What is the way forward? First and foremost, we progressives from many movements need to do an-depth self-criticism of how we are organized and carrying forward the fight for a better future. We need to ask ourselves tough questions about our vision, values, agenda, strategy and collective organization. I include myself in this tough self-critical examination.

I submit that the progressive movements lack the critical collective organizational capacity to the develop an overall coherent vision of a better future and to proactively map the road forward. We are a multi-limbed organism that lacks a well-developed brain and central nervous system. If hard work, dedication, and a deep commitment to justice were all that were needed, our nation would look very different. Unfortunately much more is needed.

What does this deep self-criticism look like? Major league professional sports teams study game films every week. They study the offense and defense on every play. They analyze the strategies, tactics, timely adjustments, quality of the players, and the role of random luck. Their study leads to decisions to rebuild the team, to fundamentally shift strategies or tactics, to add a few new players and/or persist with the current strategy.

For political and economic movements, history itself is the game film. Let’s look at the 30-plus years of the game films of the origins of the financial collapse and the Great Recession. Most importantly we need to look hard at what we, the progressive movements, did to combat the financial deregulation origins of this economic catastrophe.

For decades, Corporate America, its Republican and Democratic allies, and many elite economists and commentators aggressively pushed deregulation of the banks and financial industries. President Carter and the ruling congressional Democrats started the process in the late 1970’s. President Reagan and Congress continued. President Clinton and most of Congress delivered massive deregulation in the late 1990’s. Bush, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and their cronies mismanaged the weakened regulatory protections in the 2000’s.

It added up to a largely bipartisan selling out of the American people. Final score: Big banks bailed out — for the people, massive pain.

Studying the game films of our opponents is easy. Deregulation took place in broad daylight. We know what they did if we care to look. Here comes the uncomfortable part for the movements and for me personally. What was our collective offense and defense over the past 30+ years?

Our offense and defense were largely non-existent. If you doubt this, try to recall how many demonstrations and protests of any size took place across the country in opposition to deregulation and the need for greater regulation. I can’t remember any. Why? Deregulation took place publicly. Brilliant progressive economists and some progressive Democrats warned us of the great dangers. Let me be blunt. We were not paying attention. We can’t blame our opponents for this. Why were we so unprepared?

The progressive movements are splintered up into literally thousands of organizations focused on single issues. We have labor, health care reform, immigration reform, hunger, poverty, human services, senior issues, reproductive and gay/lesbian rights etc. etc. etc. What mass movement is in charge of ensuring that we don’t have unnecessary economic collapses? None. More importantly, we lack a central organizational structure to discuss these matters across movements to ensure an effective vision and strategy to prevent crises and lead us forward to a better future. The institutional Democratic Party failed miserably in this historic task.

All progressive movements and their constituencies have been hit hard by the five-plus years of economic hard times. For decades, we have lacked the collective capacity to ensure that economic policy and financial regulation serve the people and not the wealthy elites. When the collapse came, we were both powerless and largely clueless regarding what to do.

All of us want a brighter, more secure and sustainable future. We must recognize our collective strategic organizational failure as the first step in laying out our positive vision for the future and how we will get there. More on this in later articles.

Let’s win the Elections! Then what?

Today we are constantly reminded that the 2012 national elections are the most important elections in our lifetimes. They may be a decisive turning point in our nation’s history. A Romney and decisive Republican victory will move us down a path of increased economic inequality and diminished dreams for tens of millions of Americans. An Obama and sweeping Democratic victory may provide us another opportunity to move our nation more decisively toward a new brighter future with greater opportunity and economic security for all. A split election bodes ill for positive change.

Let me be very clear. I strongly support the re-election of President Obama, the efforts to secure Democratic majorities in the Congress as well as the election of Jay Inslee as Governor and keeping our state Legislature in Democratic hands. I urge everyone to work hard and donate as much money as you can spare. Defeat is not an option. However, decisive Democratic victories alone will not guarantee that we, the people, get the sweeping reforms needed to move us toward a brighter and more sustainable and secure future. So what else is needed?

From time to time, historic moments for sweeping reforms emerge. Four times in the past 50 years, we, the people, have risen up and won sweeping election victories by electing a Democratic President and large congressional majorities: 1964 – President Johnson; 1976 – Carter; 1992 – Clinton; and 2008 – Obama.

Each time, we wanted sweeping reforms that would ensure steady progress toward expanding the American Dream of greater opportunity, fairness and security for everyone. We also wanted an expansion of political democracy and rights that would help ensure greater opportunity for the people’s voices to be heard in the great public debates on the road forward. Unfortunately, we won a broad reform agenda only once: 1965-68 with the passage of the Great Society under Johnson and some major victories in the first few years of Nixon.

The last three great reform moments under Carter, Clinton and Obama did not produce the broad sweeping reforms we wanted and needed. Why didn’t they? Equally important is what were the progressive movements doing that hindered our ability to win sweeping reform agendas after we helped win big electoral victories?

These are uncomfortable questions as I must engage in difficult self-criticism and deep and constructive criticisms of the movements that I have been a part of for decades. If we are unwilling to do deep collective self-criticism of our collective work over the past decades we will not learn from our mistakes of the past and will continue to repeat them. This is critical and very uncomfortable work. We cannot assert that we don’t have time because the current struggles are too important.

I am tired of what I call the “Pity Party” discussions among progressives and people concerned about our country. I confess that I have participated in hundreds, if not thousands, of these discussions over the years that sound like this: “We elected (insert name of choice) and the Democrats. They promised (insert issue of choice). They didn’t deliver. They blamed the Republicans. Pity us. It is so unfair.” I want to limit these conversations to a five minute maximum and then shift to what each of us and we collectively are willing to do in the short- and long-term to regain the offensive toward a better future.

The elections will create new opportunities and challenges. Some things will remain the same: Corporate America is determined to dominate the country. The Republican Party serves their corporate masters. The Democratic Party has many progressives fighting for change and a corporate wing that sabotages many key reforms (see three previous reform moments). We have many movements fighting to a better future. The country is deeply divided while the vast majority of Americans are struggling with ongoing economic challenges. These are the facts on the ground.

We progressives have major choices here. Are we willing to do the deep critique of our own work over the past man years? Are we willing to clarify our vision anchored in deeply held values, create a comprehensive agreed upon agenda, and organize ourselves more effectively across our many movements so we can be more effective in the long-term struggles ahead? We must say yes. The next articles will explore these questions.

(Mark McDermott is a member of the PSARA Executive Board and the organizer of economic and social justice workshops now being sponsored by PSARA.)