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Targets of opportunity.

So the liberals have finally returned to power, and the Left, after twelve years of fighting rear-guard actions against the Reaganite Right, can once again think strategically about what we should struggle for and how to go about it. Of course, we deserve a better class of liberals than Bill Clinton et al., and we'll have to spend more time than we should combating their own rightist predilections. Nevertheless, they pay at least occasional lip service to notions of Government responsibility for the common weal and ideals of fairness and equality. And, no matter how ashamed of it they may feel, their electoral success still depends in part on the progressive constituency.

While it's not a very bright or exciting moment, we have our best opportunity to go on the offensive since the likes of Anita Ward and the Bee Gees were dominating the pop charts and Jane Fonda was making left-inspired movies. We should try to make the most of it because it may not last very long. The stakes are high, and our job is not easy.

The currently fashionable liberalism looks first to prove itself acceptable to the Right. And it's not only the self-styled New Democrats whose reflexes drive them rightward. For example, "Year of the Woman" star Barbara Boxer, in response to California Governor Pete Wilson's latest outburst of xenophobia, has called for stationing troops on the Mexican border to stem illegal immigration - an old stratagem of the Minutemen and other ultra-rightists. New liberal conscience Bill Bradley has endorsed a version of Edward Banfield's nefarious call (as laid out in The Heavenly City) for taking "lower class" children from their parents to correct their supposed psychocultural deficiencies in orphanages (or is it workhouses?).

We face the danger that this liberalism will become virtually indistinguishable from the Jack Kemp/Christian Weld wing of the Republican Party, thus rendering the mainstream political landscape empty of real alternatives to the legacy of the last twelve years. A key objective has to be stopping this dangerous convergence.

Many of these liberals are fundamentally committed to their rightward slide. They actively want to redefine the polity to include only the mainly white, comparatively well-off voters to whom they pander. Others may, as their defenders insist, only be responding to a realpolitik dominated by pressure from conservatives. In either case, our task as progressives is to change the shape of the realpolitik by exerting pressure from the left.

This task entails: 1) intervening in policy debates to provide alternatives to the prevailing assumptions and initiatives; 2) cultivating and mobilizing-electorally and otherwise - a broader constituency, and 3) using the only real leverage we have, the ability to disrupt the routine operation of dominant institutions.

Perhaps the most dangerous current tendency in American politics is the assault on the legitimacy of public authority and action. This assault appears most insidiously in the assertion that Government action in pursuit of any social objective (other than war or protection of markets) is suspect and inferior to "private," "voluntary," or "community-based" initiatives. We can see this assault in movements to privatize public services and issue school vouchers, and, of course, in the constantly reiterated mantra that the Federal deficit preempts the very idea of public action.

The Left's job should be to challenge those claims. Because of our weakness as a social force, we have little prospect of being able to enter political debate effectively on the national stage. We can, however, more easily force our way into mainstream politics at the local level. We can raise issues and press for reforms that are worthwhile in themselves and help to emphasize the connections among local, regional, state, national, and global dynamics and the ways that government action can and does shape events in those domains.

For instance, we can agitate for responses to the crisis in the public schools that reject the current focus on youth violence and images of inner-city pathology. Those, after all, do not lead to any specific policy initiatives except police repression. We can fight for equalization of school funding and merger of metropolitan school districts - an agenda that implies assertion of the authority of state and perhaps Federal action over local prerogatives. Similarly, we can press for arrangements like metropolitan tax-base sharing and other revenue-redistribution schemes that could ease the strains on central city governments' capacities for providing social services.

We can intervene in other local concerns, such as homelessness, poverty, and crime. Even joining in debates over local economic development initiatives provides opportunities to stretch the boundaries of conventional discourse. We can underscore patterns of disinvestment and show the results of past and present policies and policy orientations.

These issues, moreover, connect with larger concerns about job loss and economic restructuring. The processes at work in the North American Free Trade Agreement are the same ones that have driven economic deconcentration from cities and regions in the United States, and they are equally influenced by conscious public policy. The processes that make subhuman wage scales and toleration of environmental hazards seem natural to Mexico are the same ones that make the phrase "low-wage service sector" jobs appear to express natural law because jobs in that category are associated with women and minorities.

I present these as a sample of avenues for political intervention; no doubt we can all imagine others comparably important and with comparable potential for gaining a real hearing in public discourse. My intention is not to presume to detail a coherent strategy but to describe an approach to politics that helps us make the most of our slim window of opportunity - a phrase that itself suggests the persisting effect of Reaganite ideology on American culture.

We need to cultivate a sympathetic audience beyond the ranks of those who actively identify with Left politics. Perhaps the most productive place to look for that kind of audience is among those who operate in the trenches: enlightened public functionaries, service providers, minions of labor, women's, civil rights, and environmental organizations.

Typically, in part as an unfortunate vestige of the New Left, those who identify with radical politics tend to remain distant from the logic that operates in mundane activism - the imperatives that shape the implementation of policy and provision of services. By the same token, those who work in practical politics tend, understandably, to limit their political reflections to an immediate focus on "getting things done."

One consequence of such thinking is a kind of narrowly fixated perspective that can slip into a self-defeating opportunism, intentional or not - an interest-group version of what's-in-it-for-me politics that can accommodate dangerously regressive agendas.

In addition, all too often those who try to resist opportunism lack access to the broader critical perspective that would make their skepticism incisive and politically meaningful. We need to overcome this perverse separation. Doing so would help guard against opportunism while giving the Left's political critique a badly needed infusion of pragmatic depth.

There is another ironic relation with our New Left heritage - one that also reflects the toll that the Reagan/Bush era has taken. Toward the end of the 1970s, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argued persuasively in Poor People's Movements that the contingent successes realized by egalitarian interests in this century have resulted from the willingness of the oppressed (yes, I know that terms like oppression seem inappropriate and quaint in current liberal parlance; that they do is part of our problem) to assert their only real leverage in this society, the power to disrupt the routine functions of the social system.

Recognition of the power of disruption was central to the intuitive understanding of 1960s activism. It drove the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement, the welfare-rights movement, the women's movement, and even the student movement. Since then, we've recoiled from attempting to use that power. First, we saw during the 1970s a subtle shift from the model of the activist as organizer of the oppressed to a model of the activist as professional advocate for the interests of the specific populations - a shift, that is, toward an insider, bargaining politics. A rhetorical theme of this shift was the view that the wild, outsider style was a dated artifact of a less sophisticated - or at least different - era, like bell bottoms or Afros.

Then, the Reaganaut brownshirts came along, bullying and redbaiting, and we began giving ground. The spectacle of liberals on newschat television falling into heaps of Jell-O before the attacks of rightist goons like Robert Novak and Pat Buchanan (best described by Christopher Hitchens some years ago as a "fascist psychopath") illustrates this retreat.

Most telling, though, was the tepidness in much of the protest against the Gulf war. We allowed ourselves to be cowed by the spirit of orgiastic patriotism fomented through the media - which, of course, is exactly how they wanted us to react. Thus, at demonstrations it was often difficult to tell protesters from counterprotesters. We let ourselves be lured into a cul-de-sac of pointless debate over who really supported the troops - as if the decision to wreak havoc on the Persian Gulf had been made by military plebiscite!

We need to recover the combative spirit at the base of our approach to politics. Being on the Left means always to press against the boundaries of the possible, to dig in and fight back against the assault from the Right. Our only hope - even for holding the small gains we've made - is to deny the Right's fantasies of its impenetrable hegemony.

Even now, weak as progressive interests are, we see the results that can be attained by fighting back. The movement of organized labor, environmentalists, and farmers may defeat the North American Free Trade Agreement in Congress. This movement also indicates a significant point regarding the Left's position in national politics.

The opposition to NAFTA is a reminder of the symbiotic relation between electoral and extra-electoral political activity. If our objective includes influencing the exercise of pubic power, we have to take Government processes on their own terms and operate on that terrain as comfortably as any other. The point of Piven and Cloward's argument is not that participation in official processes is corrupting and therefore should be avoided. Rather, the task is to be aware of the dangers of absorption and to remain vigilant. This seems to me to reinforce the Left's role in maintaining dialogue with the kinds of constituencies I described above, a dialogue oriented around a frame too many of us find threatening to the noble purity of outsider politics: How would we govern the society if it were ours to govern?

Like the coalitions that formed to defeat Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court and to renew the Voting Rights Act, this one is held together by a largely defensive effort, resistance to an initiative inimical to the interests of the various coalescing constituencies. It is not a coalition grounded on a clear, coherent Left agenda, and it would almost certainly fall apart if it were to attempt to fashion such an agenda. But that's no problem.

What will likely happen is that people within those various movements will debate strategy and program across interest-group lines. And that debate is healthy. Out of it could come opportunities for articulation of a practical Left vision. Politics is not a sterile engineering exercise any more than it is a press conference, photo-op, or symbolic crusade. It moves and changes the world through tension and debate.

Frederick Douglass expressed that essential fact most eloquently in 1857: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them. . . . The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
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Title Annotation:liberal strategies
Author:Reed, Adolph, Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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