What Do You Mean We Need a Movement?

August 14, 2004
There’s a line of thinking I keep running into that goes something like this: Because John Kerry supports Bush’s illegal and unpopular war, we should stop focusing on the election and concentrate on building a grassroots movement. This argument has a number of variations in which it’s maintained that we should focus on building a third party, or changing the system to allow third parties to be built, or threatening to withhold our votes from Kerry until he adopts humane and popular positions.

One important objection to the recommendation that we shift our focus to building a grassroots movement is that we’ve already built an enormous movement that under probably any previous administration would have had a significant impact. We don’t lack a movement. What we lack is someone we can move with it.

The past four years have witnessed unprecedented anti-war rallies including the largest ever, and including huge rallies prior to the start of the war. We’ve seen the largest women’s rights march ever, almost certainly the largest rallies ever against welfare cuts and tax cuts, an endless series of massive protests against “free trade,” and the development of an enormous immigrants rights movement that last year held a series of rallies and freedom rides across the country.

We’ve seen civil disobedience targeting the government and corporations. We’ve seen coordinated efforts combining visits, phone calls, faxes, Emails, rallies, and civil disobedience aimed at swinging the votes of key congress members and senators. We’ve seen huge gains in traditional community organizing, the development of internet organizing, the building of alliances among our many organizations, and the gradual awakening of labor to the need for militant popular opposition.

We’ve seen local and state government rebellion against the federal government in the form of law suits and simple refusal to implement policies. We’ve seen hundreds of cities pass resolutions against the “PATRIOT Act” and the war. Pollution, education, and GLBT rights are all arenas of rebellion.

Bush, Cheney, and their cabinet members are hounded by protesters everywhere they go in this country and outside of it. Anyone who doubts that a movement has been built should be in New York City at the time of the Republican Convention. And it’s important to be there, not trust the media to tell you about it. The media are the same people who haven’t told you about the entire movement that’s been built.

OK, but won’t the movement go away as soon as Kerry is elected? And if it does not, won’t Kerry ignore it just as the DNC has ignored it, just as the Democratic Party Platform Committee has ignored it? I think there is good reason to hope otherwise. For one thing, on many issues the votes of Democrats in Congress have been responsive to people’s needs during the time that Nancy Pelosi has been minority leader. Kerry’s own voting record in the Senate, with some glaring exceptions, has been better than his campaign rhetoric of recent weeks. While some of us would argue that his campaigning to the right is politically foolish, there is also reason to hope that some of it is dishonest or at least malleable. During the primaries, Kerry moved left. He did not say during the primaries that he would have voted for the war even “knowing what he knows now.” Kerry has moved to the right because that has been the Democratic Party’s strategy for losing elections for a quarter century and because popular pressure on him to move left has evaporated.

Yes, we should bring that pressure back and do so now for Kerry’s own good in hopes of attracting new voters, but I don’t believe that’s going to happen in a significant enough way to break through. What I do think will happen, if Kerry is elected, is a massive movement beginning November 3rd to make Kerry a progressive president. I think the same could have been done with Clinton — but we didn’t even try. I think we could have nominated a progressive Democrat in place of Kerry — but we didn’t even try. I think we can move Kerry to positive positions once in office, and I think we’re prepared to try. New organizations like Progressive Democrats of America have made that their focus, and when the labor movement is restructured next year it will not be in a way to make it less politically aggressive. Electing Kerry is on everyone’s minds, but so is pressuring Kerry from day one.

Despite my claim that we have formed an impressive movement, there are always ways in which it could be better and always disagreements on how to focus it. My recommendations would be as follows. First, between now and Kerry’s arrival in the White House focus our energy on electing him and on preventing the stealing of the election with machines that produce no meaningfully recountable paper records. Now is the time to demand simple paper ballots from your county wherever you live. Nothing else is more important for the next two months.

Second, whatever our primary interests are, we should come together to look beyond Kerry and make our number one demand of him now and after the election the institution of instant runoff voting in all federal elections before 2006. Kerry can be brought to understand that IRV can boost turnout and help the Democrats, and help Kerry. Progressives who despise the Democrats can understand that IRV will give life to third parties and provide a powerful lever to move the Democrats to democratic positions or in the long term create a strong new party.

Third, and this should not be an issue until after the election for obvious reasons, we must all push for media reform, as well as continuing to build our own media. If we do not, we will not win on our other issues, including war and peace, trade, health care, civil rights, the environment, campaign finance reform, and on and on. As long as the media locks us out we will not know our own strength, and therefore we will not have any strength.

Yes, we could build an even bigger movement that could win changes even under Bush, but it would be very very difficult, and many of us would suffer horribly. Yes, electing Kerry in and of itself does not go nearly far enough. But if we elect Kerry and also build a bigger, tougher, more coordinated movement – if we demand endlessly that Kerry be our friend rather than on our side trying to be his – there will be hope, encouragement, and new life in this country and the world.