Shared Identity -- Not T-Shirts -- Makes a Movement


You could be forgiven for thinking it was Fashion Week in Washington the way media covering the liberal One Nation rally on October 2, 2010 continually referenced attendees' clothing.

"Many wore the bright T-shirts of their unions," noted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "They were all wearing union shirts," said Glenn Beck, presenting an Us Magazine-worthy photo spread comparing One Nation fashion with his "Restoring Honor" rally a month earlier. Even progressive commentary emphasized the Ts in unity, as when Facing South wrote about a group of autoworkers at One Nation "who were easily identified by their Navy blue T-shirts. Other workers joined their respective seas of purple (Service Employees International Union), green (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) and red (Communications Workers of America)."

If only starting a social movement were as easy as spreading swag.

The most important difference between the Tea Party and progressives is not that the Tea Party is an honest-to-goodness grassroots movement while the centralized and stultified progressive sentiment is not. The difference is that the Tea Party understands the need for a shared sense of identity --- essential to creating a spirit and appearance of movement --- while the progressive field is too focused on branding. In the case of movement building, not only is branding not the same as identity but organizational branding actually undermines movement identity.

Of course, we know the Tea Party isn't entirely a movement. Powerful funders and organizations, as well as top-down communication channels like Fox News, were integral all along to the Tea Party's formation and framing. Yet the very fact that progressives continue to marvel with jealousy at the Tea Party's hold on politics and the public imagination reflects how successfully the Tea Party has attained movement status. In that sense, it doesn't even matter if it's true or not. The mainstream media talks about the Tea Party as a movement, the mainstream Republican party responds to the Tea Party as a movement, and perhaps most importantly, ordinary people across the country identity themselves as part of the Tea Party movement, whether or not they belong to any specific, "official" organization.

Manufactured though it might be, we have to give the Tea Party masterminds credit for understanding that the appearance of self-generated, spontaneous movement is not only more powerful than organization-generated action but, potentially, self-fulfilling. If something feels like a movement, people may start to act like it's a movement, and then it may actually become a movement.

The great irony here is that lessons about the importance of shared identity in movement construction are taken directly from the liberal identity politics movements of the '60s, '70s and '80s. "Gay" wasn't even a social identity, let alone a political one, through the 1950s. Women certainly knew they were women before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, but feminist activists created a sense of shared experience and thus an identity from which political struggle could emerge. Even today, the extent to which women or gay folks or black folks, etc., see themselves as linked to a shared community through their racial, sexual and/or gender identity is a reasonable proxy for engagement with the community's political agenda. For instance, those who proclaimed themselves "post-gay" in the late 1990s distanced themselves from the social label as well as the political cause.

Democrats and progressives need an overarching identity that feels deeply shared and organic --- not a simple, top-down brand (with uniform T-shirt).

In the immediate sense, what this means is that if I go to another progressive rally with pre-printed glossy placards and folks posing as symbols of grassroots spontaneity but wearing their union or non-profit brand T-shirts that implicitly signal "Some organization told me to be here" --- well, I might just go all Lindsay Lohan and start throwing things.

In the larger scheme of things, it's time to build our collective loyalty to a vision and set of values rather than our individual organizational brands. Now, that doesn't mean that our values are our identity. The conservative identity isn't "anti-government" or "pro-big business" --- rather, the identity comes from monikers and metaphors that stand in for or represent those shared values. "Tea Party" signals white, elite, traditionalist, small government, anti-tax (all with a threat of violence) without directly saying any of those things. By the same token, "feminist" signals all kinds of beliefs about the equal role of women in politics, society, business and family, while "Black Power" represents a set of values about self-determination and autonomous control.

Progressives believe that we're all in it together, that it is our privilege and duty to rise (or fall) together as a nation, to be inclusive, to be equitable, to balance the injustices of the past with equal opportunities for the future. The problem is that "progressive" --- chosen more as a reaction against the connotations of "liberalism" --- has always been a weak identity at best. So in the giant gap of our own collective self-identification, Glenn Beck et al. have labeled us "socialists" --- an identity that is sticking. The problem is, regardless of the political content it implies, the socialist identity is conceptually associated with Soviet Russia and Stalinism, forced uniformity, all-powerful government and no private industry. Not only is that a poor identity for most of the self-proclaimed left, it has no chance of expanding our movement.

I don't have the answer. Then again, Rick Santelli didn't necessarily have the answer when he said "Tea Party" and it took off (after Michelle Malkin's earlier "pork protests" label failed to stick). So let's start somewhere.

First, a compelling progressive identity for this moment in time has to:

1. Address racial scapegoating. Stoking racial insecurity is the primary divide-and-conquer tool of the Tea Party. If progressives don't address this head on, we will only perpetuate the divisions.

2. Incorporate short-term and long-term change. Part of President Obama's problem has been pushing for (important and needed) long-term structural changes in America (like health care reform and climate policy) but failing to fix short-term problems as publicly and deliberately. As progressives, what unites us is that we care about those who are suffering now and the long-term common good.

3. Support small business and entrepreneurship. Progressives are not anti-capitalism and anti-business. We are, however, anti-big business. Or we should be! But Republicans and the national Chamber of Commerce have successfully lumped all business together, so they can say policies that actually help big business but hurt small business owners are "good for business." We need to distinguish ourselves not as anti-business vs. pro-business but in terms of the kind of business we want for America's future.

4. Appeal to emotions. Organizations are tangible. Identities are ethereal. There is pride in being gay or black or a woman --- or, at least, pride for those who claim those identities and see themselves as part of movements. George Lakoff writes: "In his campaign, Barack Obama articulated beautifully the Democratic moral vision of America. America is based on citizens caring about, and for, each other. The values of empathy, social as well as personal responsibility, and an ethic of excellence lead to a government of, by, and for the people, with values like freedom and fairness, and a governmental responsibility to protect and empower the people." Any progressive identity must be rooted in such empathetic, inspirational values.

Personally, I'm less wedded to what the progressive identity actually is. Call it "New Business" --- signaling that progressives are focused on building America for the 21st century which requires new ways of doing business focused on small businesses rather than global mega-corporations, businesses that care about communities and the environment and not just greed, businesses that compete in the new information and green energy economy versus dying industrial era. Or call it the "New Populism" --- signaling the mass movements of farmers and working folks in the late 1900s to reclaim monetary policy and economic priorities for ordinary Americans. Or call it the "Amistad Movement" --- calling on ordinary people to rise up together and capture the slave ship that is big business and our corporate-controlled government and put working people at the helm of a new direction.

I'm sure there are dozens or even hundreds of other ideas. Post some ideas in the comments section below. Most important is to start thinking and acting in terms of movement identity and not just organizational brand --- behaving as though we all belong to something bigger than whatever it says on our business cards or T-shirts.

To this end, I applaud the organizers behind the One Nation march in Washington. Progressive visibility is never a bad thing. But if we want to counter the Tea Party movement, the answer isn't to raise the power and profile of the NAACP or any other singular or primary organization. We can easily fixate our allegiance on organizations when we don't feel that collective sense of movement. The answer is to build a genuine sense of grassroots movement, rather than exaggerate our fixation on organizations. In other words, leave those organizational T-shirts at home next time.

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