Why the Right Attacked Unions, ACORN and Planned Parenthood -- Institutions That Help Bridge Politics and Daily Life
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This elite sentiment goes to the heart of the tremendous opportunities we have lost in the last two years. With ACORN out of the picture, Planned Parenthood on defense and unions fighting for their lives, the decreasing ability of national progressive institutions to help meet people’s real needs in the economic crisis has hurt us badly. Policy prescriptions don’t feed the family dinner tonight, and detailed explanations of who is to blame for the crash don’t put a roof over people’s heads tomorrow—no matter how correct the analysis. Of course, exceptions exist--Van Jones’s Green for All is one attempt to bridge the gap--but these innovations are few and often given short shrift by entrenched interests at the national table.
The historic roots of this gap are clear. My generation was raised in a political climate where the excess of the ’80s had spawned a loathsome and blatant disregard for the plight of poor people. The prevailing notion was that addressing poverty and the slipping state of the working class was the purview of churches and private charities, not government. Government was for cutting services and taxes, a whole generation of freshly minted conservatives asserted.
Liberals understandably fought back by defiantly focusing on our core tenet that governmentcan and should advocate for all its citizens, including those with the least. We concentrated national resources into legislative and electoral fights, believing that by battling the collusion between corporate special interests and party bosses we could move toward greater economic fairness. Often, a focus on service was denigrated by those in the political sphere as playing into the opposition’s hands by implicitly suggesting that private citizens could eradicate the need for government intervention through charitable acts alone.
As a young middle-class adult, my work at the local food bank or homeless shelter was commended. However, I was taught this was charity and completely separate from my political organizing. Each had a place in my life, and each had completely separate stories, peer groups and institutions associated with them.
Even the word “service” is a damaging vestige that artificially separates providers from those seeking assistance. As progressives, we need to project a conviction that all American destinies are linked and thus need to be addressed systemically as well as in the moment. Otherwise, frustration borne from lack of opportunity will continue to be parlayed by the radical right into support for budget cuts and other policies that will only further our nation’s misery.
The progressive vision of a government of, for and by the people is as relevant as ever, but in light of the last few years, we need to re-examine how we get there. Powerful political movements reach deep into culture and society. They compel people to join for work, for play and for mutual aid. Emotional bonds sustain them in times of struggle, and a common vision leads to strategic engagement with the forces shaping their world. Too many progressive elites ask themselves why regular folks don’t support their political fights in Washington (take Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas ?).
A better question might be: How do we better support those regular folks in their struggles at home?
Ilyse Hogue is the outgoing Director of Political Advocacy and Communications for MoveOn.org. In