Transparent, Accountable Progressivism

Truth in politics has never been more crucial than it is right now.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been involved with a grassroots activism organization. I wrote posts, organized content writers, was made an Assistant Director, took on a de facto role as the point person on social media…and all the while, struggled to communicate the importance of transparency and accountability to the rest of the leadership team.

I wasn’t alone in this; there was one other vocal supporter of the kind of transparency and accountability that a progressive organization must maintain to retain credibility, particularly if we were trying to bring the far left (i.e. the left outside the Democratic party) into an honest movement to reform Congress. But two voices in a cast of fifteen or twenty make for a lot of arguing and a lot of energy wasted on discussion, when that energy could have gone into creating real change.

At the time I joined, my understanding of the organization was that informing voters in an unbiased manner about candidates — not painting over the warts and scrapes, not giving undue coverage to candidates just because the organization had come into contact with them — was a priority. The idea of that as a true goal of the organization eroded over time. There were warning signs: a lack of transparent process, a lack (months after their creation) of a published platform (and repeated replies to people asking for one that, “it will be coming in the next few weeks”), several vehement discussions about where it was appropriate to use our volunteer resources to directly and strategically assist campaigns versus creating resources for the public and for potential candidates... But at each pass, after long and exhausting debate, I felt like we had reached a compromise that was ethical enough for me to continue to participate with a clear conscience.

That changed when the question of endorsing candidates came to a head. After many months of discussion, multiple drafts of a process, and a seemingly agreed-upon document, two members of the campaign support staff threatened to leave if leadership didn’t acquiesce to a number of points. While I disagreed with the bulk of those points (I can’t call them requests, that’s not how they were presented), there was one that I could not in good conscience agree to. It amounted to a tacit gag order on criticisms of the campaigns being supported by the time, effort and energy of our volunteers.

The idea that honestly and factually critiquing candidates’ publicly available positions could be harmful to them is antithetical to my basic, core beliefs about progressive politics: that to have credibility as a progressive organization, one must stridently defend against conflicts of interest, biased representation, and opacity in governance. Bernie Sanders is a wonderful example of a candidate who stands by his positions, popular or unpopular, and gives reasoned explanations when his policy diverges from the progressive norm. He is not weakened by his honesty; rather, he reveals himself to be a man of integrity by acknowledging both positive and negative past actions. He has the humility to recognize that the public has a right to know the full story, and political figures have a responsibility to acknowledge truth. Even when that truth is painful.

I feel — very strongly — that to publicly recommend candidates while consciously refraining from calling out where members of an organization disagree with their publicly available policy is unethical, biased and misleading.

That was not an opinion shared by organizational leadership. Truth could, I was told, be used selectively. The importance of maintaining good favor with candidates outweighed the importance of representing those truths to both volunteers and the wider public. When it was made clear that my ethics and those of the organization would continue to clash on issues of transparency and accountability (and by extension, integrity), the bloom fell off the rose.

The goal of educating the public with full and unbiased information was stated to be incompatible with the organization’s desire to work directly with candidates and campaign. Access trumped accountability. For me, that confirmed that my understanding of progressive ideology and those of the group at large were not and would not be compatible. Several hours ago, I had a short conversation with the heads of the organization, and turned in my resignation.

I wish the organization all the luck in the world with their efforts, but as I wrote yesterday, the problem with trying to change a system from within is that we often begin to internalize and use the language of the corrupt system that we’re trying to dismantle. When concern over access to politicians and campaigns overrides concerns over accountability to members, subscribers, readers and voters, it becomes impossible to separate corruption in the system from corruption outside of it.

When an organization is afraid of telling the truth for fear of offending politicians or “turning off” voters, or giving the opposition the chance to latch on to a candidate’s legitimate, factual weaknesses on progressive issues, then legitimate journalism and the integrity and ethics that go along with it no longer have a place in that organization.

An activist friend of mine gave me a terrific quote the other day, as I talked through the situation with her and tried to figure out whether my personal ethical boundaries and integrity were worth compromising on for the sake of the progressive cause. She said:

“A truly progressive candidate has to be transparent about where they stand on issues. Otherwise they aren’t progressive.”

And she was right.

When an organization goes for months without publishing an official stance on progressive platform issues, when leadership formulates future plans without consulting volunteers, when campaigns are not held accountable for non-progressive stances and obfuscated policy while they are benefiting from volunteer hours, when volunteers are seduced by branding without having a true picture of what’s taking place…that’s when I have to step away.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the group is able to dismantle a corrupt structure from within, but I worry. I worry that the decision to prioritize political expediency over transparency is the snowball that rolls into an avalanche. I worry that the enthusiasm of volunteers who are dedicating hours and effort and emotional energy to the group will fade as they realize that leadership is not giving them credible transparency. I worry that unspoken (and spoken) membership concerns will be sublimated to allow increased access to politicians who can then promise favors and introductions, and ultimately result in a “grassroots” organization that fails to distinguish itself from a run-of-the-mill Political Action Committee. I worry that the public will lose faith in a group that calls themselves progressive but fails to internalize the basic idea of giving a full and transparent accounting of its inner workings.

That wasn’t what I signed up for.

Progressive politicians shouldn’t fear the truth, nor should their surrogates and advocates try to quash dissent. Only through open, clear debate, where all concerns are aired and given due attention and communicated fully to those outside of a decision-making group, can any progressive movement launch sincere attempts to unite the left and move forward with a revolutionary national agenda. Grassroots activism cannot exist in a top-down structure when that structure places restrictions on the actions of its activists for the sake of political expediency.

All that said, it’s a good time to be a disillusioned progressive.

Thanks to Bernie Sanders and his grassroots revolution, there are more new progressive groups out there than you can shake a stick at. I’ve already found another one to work with — one with a wholehearted commitment to grassroots organization on a nationwide scale, with a stated platform which supported candidates will be required to sign on with, and the leadership of seasoned political activists.

Ultimately, legitimate progressive action will require cooperation between a number of divergent grassroots groups. But without a transparent foundation of trust between both groups and their members, bringing about true change in our political, cultural and social systems — which were never designed to represent every American — will never be possible.

In other words, if progressives want to create a true political revolution, if they are committed to involving the 99% in that revolution and if they really want to create a world where people are able to self-determine their future paths without the corrupting influence of money or the allure of access to power, they’re going to have to set aside the corrupt mindset of a failed political system and forge new paths — paths that might not look familiar to them, that may be difficult to follow, that may be mocked or derided by those outside the movement.

Otherwise, we’re just going to keep retreading the same shopworn, tired path, signposted with branding buzz words and dog whistles, unable to accomplish real progressive change.