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Getting our act together.

On Inauguration Day, less than an hour after Ronald Reagan took his second oath of office, I was having lunch with a small group of local activists in South Bend, Indiana, a state the President carried last November with 61 percent of the vote. The group included two members of the peace movement, a local union officials, a committed feminist, a labor educator and an organizer in the black community. The questions bouncing around the sliced turkey and coleslaw echoed what many of us ask nearly every day:

"I feel incredibly discouraged. Are there any rays of hope?"

'Why do we spend so much time fighting with one another?"

"Will it take an earthquake to get a strong progressive movement going in this country?"

This article deals with those agonizing questions, exploring strategies for making the left a more effective political force.

What's the objective? Thousands of activists and millions of people in the United States share an acute distaste for the prospects of Reaganism described in the first part of this series ["Four More Years--A Look Ahead," January 26] and long to move toward a future of economic equality and democracy, social justice and a peaceful global order. Can we make our voices heard? Can we improve our chances of achieving that future?

Getting Started

I think many people on the left agree on the initial guidelines to follow in moving toward the long-term objectives we share. While observing these guidelines will not guarantee any final victories, they can point us in the right direction.

[section] As long as we let the right and center determine the questions, we can't provide the answers. That means we must acquire sufficient strength to enable us to pose the questions. That requires planning for the long haul, mapping out targets for the rest of the 1980s, not just the coming year.

[section] The impact of large demonstrations is ephemeral. Neither the Solidarity Day march of September 1981 nor the antinuke march of June 1982, both massive and stirring events, had any lasting effect. We need to supplement such rallies with organizing throughout the country, building

permanent networks and bases of action.

[section] We cannot establish a lasting political movement by riding the coattails of individual politicians. The Progressive Alliance, which seemed so promising in 1979, was set aside and ultimately scuttled for the sake of Edward Kennedy's candidacy in 1980. Jesse Jackson's campaign had a significant impact in 1984, but the Rainbow Coalition's momentum will not be easy to sustain, partly because of the difficulty of translating Jackson's charisma into ongoing political mobilization.

[section] In the present conservative climate, no single progressive movement or constituency is strong enough to accomplish its objectives alone. The unions' failure to push through the labor law reform bill in 1978 and the peace movement's inability to persuade Congress to curb defense spending are only two of many examples. We must fashion broader and stronger coalitions that embrace many constituencies and many issues and in which each group is pledged to support mutual objectives.

[section] The force of reason is not enough to make political leaders change their positions on many critical issues. The countervailing power of money, lobbyists and inertia is overwhelming. We therefore need to acquire sufficient clout at the local level to force politicians over to our side or out of office. That requires formulating a set of precise minimum demands, increasing our voting strength and running candidates against unresponsive incumbents.

[section] More than a laundry list of minimum demands is required, however. To reduce our isolation, we need to project a clear and evocative vision of the future. Ronald Reagan moves people with airy promises of the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road. We need to provide an alternative sense of hope and mission.

Most of those guidelines are fairly obvious. It is equally obvious that we face huge difficulties in adhering to them. We are divided and poor. We communicate badly among ourselves and lack organizational structures that promote coordination and discipline. All those factors engender continuing mistrust within and across constituencies.

There are no simple solutions to these problems--only a number of different possible approaches. My own experience inclines me toward a particular scenario. I shall argue its advantages here, as briefly as possible.

Toward a Common Timetable

I propose we pursue the following course, or something like it, in the next four years. (I confine it to that period because so much of what happens after 1988 will depend on the outcome of the battle for the Presidency.)

1985: Mobilization against the Administration's second-term initiatives. Work toward a common agenda and program. Planning for a substantial number of electoral campaigns in 1986. Engaging in selected direct actions, such as current demonstrations against U.S. policy toward South Africa.

1986: Drawing up an agenda by early spring. Supporting a minimum of twenty Congressional candidates pledged to that agenda. Sharing information about progress and problems. National mobilization in late summer behind a common program to make campaigns and candidates visible.

1987: Careful analysis of voting results. Revision and consolidation of agenda in line with those results. Well-planned direct actions in support of key legislation both locally and nationally. Formation or bolstering of state coalitions to devise strategies for participation in the 1988 Presidential process.

1988: Efforts to double or triple, at a minimum, the number of Congressional candidates pledged to support the agenda. Promises by statewide coalitions to back a Presidential candidate only if he or she supports the common agenda. Possible direct actions during primaries and/or before conventions to dramatize concern about issues as well as candidates.

Toward a Common Agenda

The success of this scenario depends on the agenda. We desperately need to build a program that can unite a variety of constituencies and movements in a progressive coalition. Significant progress in that direction is possible if we heed three fundamental considerations:

[section] Multiple Objectives. A common program must involve general goals, programmatic demands and direct actions. A strong sense of direction is needed to sustain commitment. A progressive manifesto must have specific programmatic priorities so that it is not vague, impractical and unconstructive. And specific targets for direct action supply the ingredients of participation and involvement necessary to build a growing and lasting movement and enable it to apply pressure on the political structure.

[section] The General and the Specific. A common program should include demands aimed at universal interests and at the most important needs of each constituency within the emerging progressive coalition. Progressives are still too divided for any group to commit itself to coalition work unless and until its own needs are expressly integrated into a common agenda. In other words, no mobilization without representation.

[section] Shaping Our Own Agenda. Since we are neither as wealthy nor as opportunistic as the right, the future of the progressive movement depends largely on our commitment and energy. Activists and members of progressive constituencies must make the difficult choices required to shape a progressive manifesto. Our program must not come solely from national leaders or small conferences or intellectual journals. It must come from a much broader base of progressive participants.

The first imperative seems difficult but plausible. The second sounds complicated but is probably not impossible. The third may appear to be beyond our reach--although I think not. Modern communications technology has brought such a participatory process within the grasp of even the impoverished left.

It is possible to build up a mailing list of thousands of progressive activists from a broad range of constituencies. (Individual lists have already been compiled by many groups and publications on the left.) Once the list has been assembled, a randomly selected sample of, say, 1,000 respondents, with equal representation from ten different constituencies, could be polled on various issues. To involve a larger number of people the names woudl ber rotated from one group of polls to the next. The reason for using a sample, rather than the entire list, is simply to save money.

The public opinion process would be used to reach agreement on a set of priorities. At the outset, participants in the polling would suggest issues for discussion. Once a month, detailed analyses of those issues would be prepared, with the options carefully framed, and mailed to the 1,000 respondents. Standardized questionnaires would be enclosed. A computer would tabulate, analyze and break down the responses into differences among constituents, respondent characteristics and intensity of preference. The results would then be reported to everyone on the mailing list. Options that drew considerable support could be placed on a list of common priorities. If the "votes" were inconclusive, the results would at least help clarify differences and identify issues for further examination and polling.

The rpocess would be neither simple nor cheap. But it would have some advantages. The openness of the polling and the range of opinions expressed could help crystallize a progressive agenda. Moreover, the results could be disseminated widely among people who, my observations tell me, do not know to what extent their views are shared by others. The greater the emergent consensus on particular issues, the more credible the argument--to progressive leaders, organizations and candidates--that those specific demands are worthy of support.

Would common viewpoints be generated by such a process? We at the Center for Democratic Alternatives have used a similar technique on a much smaller scale as part of our educational outreach program. We have found that it helps groups debate their views on issues as complicated as tax reform and price controls. When alternative positions are fairly and clearly presented, with at least some supporting data, lopsided majorities frequently surface. And participants seem to feel much greater commitment to the final choices because the process is so open.

To illustrate what a progressive agenda might contain, I have drawn up a sample one, which appears on page 141. Its contents are derived not from the polling process described above but from the Center for Democratic Alternatives' experience with a variety of constituency groups. The exercise suggests, at least to me, that it is possible to formulate an inclusive, comprehensible agenda.

A Common Store of Information

Traveling about the country, I am struck by how isolated many activists feel. They are ignorant of model legislation introduced in other states. And they are victims of the media's hype about the irresistible conservative trend in this country.

I am also impressed by how effectively the right has used the information at its disposal. In making campaign contributions, for example, conservative groups and the Republican Party give extra support to incumbents who are in trouble and to challengers with a strong chance of winning a seat. According to Thomas Byrne Edsall's analysis in The New Politics of Inequality, Democrats give "a disproportionate amount of money . . . to safe incumbents." (That problem was partially addressed in 1984, when progressive political action committees and individual donors paid more attention to marginal races and strategically important campaigns.)

Thus it is vital that we develop sophisticated mechanisms for collecting and sharing information. The microcomputer revolution has made that possible.

What kinds of information? There is a solid amount of data available on the voting records of individual members of Congress, but on other topics and problems we need much better and more accessible sources of information than we now have. For example:

[section] Since we rarely have enough money to finance our own public opinion polls, we should develop a file of other pollsters' findings that are relevant to the progressive agenda. Such a data base could be drawn on in shaping language and priorities for the agenda and in mounting campaigns in support of it.

[section] We need to improve our methods of collecting and disseminating information on critical legislative initiatives at the state and local level. Many activists invest enormous amounts of time and energy in relatively informal, inefficient and incomplete research for legislative models.

[section] As the four-year scenario described earlier suggests, we should develop more effective systems for monitoring election results, analyzing the effects of differnt kinds of campaign issues and strategies and sharing information about which campaigns need help in which parts of the country.

The list could go on, but the point is that computer technology makes at least three of our informational needs dramatically easier and less expensive than they've ever been.

It makes it possible to store readily accessible information on public opinion polls, model legislation and election results; although the initial investment would be large, the costs over the long run would be low. Computer technology has also reduced the costs of typesetting, substantially easing the problems of distributing printed material. Activist organizations may be able to share information by using modems to tap various data banks and by setting up computer bulletin boards and conference networks at low cost.

Those technical advances point to the possibility of a dramatically enhanced democratic politics within the progressive movement, which means broader sharing of information and wider input. Because careful planning and some significant early investment of time and money will be necessary, it is important that we begin setting priorities as soon as possible.

Many readers are probably skeptical about the suggestions in this article, since each requires more resources and more careful planning than the one that precedes it.

As anyone on the left with political or fund-raising experience knows, we have pitifully few resources and they are inefficiently applied. Money, in short, might be our Achilles' heel.

The third part of this series will explore the problem of resources on the left, focusing on the troublesome and delicate relationship between progressive funders and activists. It will also examine the equally sensitive matter of who might or should take responsibility for pursuing various initiatives over the short term, taking the first small steps out of the winter of our discontent.
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Title Annotation:what the liberal movement must do to be effective
Author:Gordon, David M.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 9, 1985
Words:2315
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