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Why the Left Is Fragmented (and a Modest Proposal to Counter It).

Fragmentation on the left is an entrenched feature of the U.S. political culture. Sociologist Todd Gitlin writes that the left is "wracked by culture wars" that have torn its "common dreams" asunder.

Some put the blame for this on the failure of progressive programs such as desegregation and public housing, with no consensus on any new initiatives to replace them. Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, who calls herself a "recovering statist," says progressives in the past were uniformly overdependent on federal and state programs. Today, however, progressives have divided views on the reliability of government.

A pervasive disunity exists that atomizes the efforts of the left and blunts its influence as a force for social change. To better understand this self-defeating phenomenon, I conducted a survey of activists and leaders from forty-three diverse organizations in the Los Angeles, California, region. (My survey was in collaboration with the Center for Labor Research and Education, a unit of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Public Policy and Social Research.)

Assuming that frontline activists ought to have a pretty good notion of what is blocking collaboration and political impact, the interview list was taken from a compilation of progressive Los Angeles groups with "the most effective activists" assembled by the editors of the L.A. Weekly, a leading West Coast leftist news source. These groups included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now, the Industrial Areas Foundation, Americans for Democratic Action, the Service Employees International Union, the Feminist Majority, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and many grassroots advocacy groups.

In the interviews, I asked participants to spell out the main obstacles that have hindered collaborative action within the progressive community. A daunting list of impediments came forth. And although many of them were familiar, seen collectively they highlight, in a fresh way, the uphill struggle required to reach a reasonable measure of solidarity. Here's a brief summary of the thoughts of those polled.

Activists spoke of the absence of a common ideological project with an organizational vehicle to push it. There is no overarching nationwide cause or agenda comparable to the earlier civil rights and anti-war movements or to the New Deal through which to galvanize people. Leaders don't have a common vision and holistic philosophy that places their organization in a broader context. Participants lamented that progressive organizations don't think of themselves as part of a broad collectivity, and their leaders don't act to make that happen. Some observed that this is an aspect of a diminished sense of community in U.S. society generally.

Philosophical differences pull people apart. There are differing political and economic analyses and varying levels of political awareness and ideological commitment. This often produces "true believers" who would never think of collaborating with those who hold a different position. Even the defining of a problem can become a contentious exercise. Respondents said that this sectarian thinking and identity politics not only leads to disagreements but causes opposing sides to break apart into hostile camps that avoid and reject one another to the point of character assassination.

Groups with identical long-range goals will become intensely antagonistic because of disagreements over immediate actions. A point of conflict that was mentioned several times concerned the differences between organizations that put a premium on building grassroots constituencies versus those that engage in more "bureaucratic" legal or political advocacy (think Martin Luther King Jr. versus Justice Thurgood Marshall).

A "niche mentality" prevails, and progressives are bogged down in their own narrow ruts. There is an intense focus on single issues--like the environment or distinct minority concerns. Unfortunately, people are "always doing their own thing in their own sector," leading to a kind of "organizational isolationism."

Almost everyone interviewed spoke about the immense volume of work demands and time pressures activists experience in promoting their causes. Repeatedly they referred to being "overwhelmed" and "beleaguered" and to their work as "burdensome." Their cluttered desks, clanging telephones, and stacked-up message spikes confirmed this. They complained about the lack of resources to deal with their overloaded agendas. Each organizational domain, they said, is huge and complex and leaves scant time for coalescing with others. Because they are stretched thin (and often fatigued), they don't have the wherewithal to arrange or take part in events that involve crossing mission boundaries.

Inter-organizational competition generates antagonisms. In the absence of a progressive community consciousness, progressive organizations drift into rivalry with one another, which further accentuates the differences between them. Participants describe turf battles --contests over money, resources, media attention, and community support. There were horror stories of groups that entered into collaborative arrangements and then found themselves pushed aside by fellow organizations reaching for the lion's share of funding and credit. Some leaders are said to have a me-versus-them attitude and a penchant for building their own empires. We were told of organizations that lay claim to a geographic area, like gangs occupying a new territory. In some instances, we were told, radical political parties would use them "by moving in and taking over" their events.

Some of the rivalry arises naturally from competing organizational needs. Also, the dismal funding situation encourages jockeying among groups by forcing them to draw from the same limited funding sources. Foundations and public agencies channel funds for very particular purposes and programs, and this restricts organizations regarding what they can do and with whom. An especially disturbing form of competition, which is not uncommon, pits ethnic and racial minorities against one another--even though all are underserved or resource-poor--as they joust for the same meager support pool.

Ego and personality idiosyncrasies work against collaboration. Organizing and advocacy are people-intensive, and people introduce human foibles into the process. Our respondents tell us that "egos get in the way of getting things done." There are leaders who want to control and who let self-interest and elitism carry the day. Sometimes the wrong people--those who don't have the capacity to be inclusive--want to lead.

There was agreement that progressives could benefit a great deal from learning to work together better. More people need to be sensitive to the civilities and dynamics of collaboration. One individual, perhaps recovering from a meeting earlier that day, was fed up with the "stupidity, parochialism, and lack of focus of some people."

Geographic scale and segmentation in urban areas are a deterrent to organizational collaboration. The long distances and patterns of segregation based on historical racist housing practices have fostered a striking degree of separation. There is no common meeting space or even the opportunity for informal contact within a sprawling metropolis. Accordingly, we were told, "people don't run in the same circles" or even "get to know each other."

Racial differences and racism play a role, because, despite lofty intentions and rhetoric, progressives are not exempt from racism. One participant commented that all of us view the world through racial lenses and that affects the way we do our business. Yet, this generally goes unacknowledged, so it continues to distort and confound relationships and understandings. Another individual indicated that racist attitudes influence who is given leadership and how funds are allocated. Racial distrust seems to surface, in particular, around the question of funding.

How to combat these centrifugal influences? We asked the activists surveyed to respond to the question: "What arrangements or means do you think might bring progressive groups closer together and foster cooperative action?" Their answers give some clues to promoting greater unity.

The most revealing finding was that there are ways of coalescing progressives that don't necessitate organizing around issues or electoral preferences, which only aggravate differences among groups. The people I interviewed could not identify salient issues that a wide spectrum of progressives could focus on. A number of them pointed to the need for an infrastructure to facilitate communication and capacity-building within the network of progressive organizations. This would include designated staff to coordinate collaboration and take some of that burden off the backs of activists who are already hard pressed. They named a range of possible components of such an infrastructure, including:

* A newsletter to keep organizations informed of each other's activities.

* Training programs to inculcate skills in organizing and managing, using the media, fundraising, campaign tactics, and the like.

* A central rapid response hotline to disseminate important and timely information quickly regarding meetings, demonstrations, and legislative actions.

* A directory of progressive groups to help activists identify and network with relevant organizations.

* A common facility to overcome impediments of distance and segmentation and to provide a common meeting space for conferences, committees, and other group events.

* A mutual help line for progressive organizations to cooperate in such areas as technical assistance, access to useful contacts and pressure points, running campaigns, loaning equipment, providing space, and so forth.

Activists felt that the infrastructure ought to emphasize linkage and support, which almost everyone can go along with, rather than issue campaigns, which can generate rifts. The experience of collaborating in nondivisive areas could engender trust and association conducive to collaboration on matters that have been contentious in the past.

The notion of a progressive infrastructure is similar in some ways to a chamber of commerce, which plays a facilitating role for adversaries of progressives in the business world. Hospital councils and councils of churches engage in the same way with their constituent units. An analogous facilitating or coordinating instrumentality for local progressive communities is a missing element (in the absence of well-established left parties and institutions in the United States), but because such an instrumentality has not existed, the activists are not attuned to its absence.

The local community infrastructure notion doesn't reflect the grand scale mode of thinking that leftists thrive on. It doesn't compare with Marxist theory or coalitional politics. But with no real alternatives at hand, it does offer a modest and practical means to counter fragmentation and help consolidate progressive networks at the community level.

Jack Rothman is professor emeritus in the University of California at Los Angeles' School of Public Policy and Social Research. He can be reached by e-mail at
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Author:Rothman, Jack
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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