Advancing the People’s Agenda

The notion of solidarity and its significance for people’s political power escapes large segments of the American population. To be sure, it was not lost on the GOP when they used it with great effectiveness to obstruct the Obama presidency. The early grass roots Tea Partiers understood it well when they packed the Town Halls of legislators to make their grievances known loud and clear. And since the 1970’s, business leaders have been masterful in their adherence to and use of solidarity to advance their agenda. Rallied by a now infamous memo written in 1971 by attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, the business community went on the offensive to regain the power they lost during and after the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — The subsequent 40+ years have proven the value of tight organization, an effective narrative, patience and endurance. Corporations and the wealthy arguably have greater control of the US political and economic systems today than ever before.

Wikipedia defines solidarity this way: Solidarity is unity (as of a group or class) which produces or is based on unities of interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies. It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one. The term is generally employed in sociology and the other social sciences as well as in philosophy or in Catholic social teaching.
For progressives, solidarity requires political consciousness, which represents an understanding of the objective conditions in the country; social, political and economic. Throughout our history as a nation there have always been conscious elements struggling toward some desired end — The war for independence from Britain clearly required solidarity among a sufficient portion of the colonists. The 20th Century was replete with successful examples of solidarity expressed in broad social movements that won: women’s right to vote; laws against child labor; the many social welfare advances of the New Deal; civil rights laws; the end to the Vietnam War; Medicare and Medicaid; gay rights and in this century, marriage equality.

Solidarity is more easily achieved around a single, circumscribed issue (single-issue politics) than general issues which tend to be more abstract, with more moving parts and requiring a higher level of political consciousness. As an example of the former we may look to Fight for $15, the ongoing movement for a $15 minimum wage and union rights for fast food and other service workers, begun about three years ago with the support of the Service Employees International Union. Overlapping and undoubtedly aided by the national mood shift accompanying the millennial-led political revolution inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination, the Fight for $15 has made considerable progress in just a few short years. Cities and states around the country have passed $15 minimum wage laws, with other locales having increased the minimum well above the $7.25 federal floor.

Of course, other single-issue struggles are paralleling Fight for $15. Some pre-date Trump, others are in reaction to his policies. Mobilized groups are fighting today for immigration reform and against callous deportation; in support of Black Lives; to end voter suppression; in support of Muslims here and abroad by combatting the widespread discrimination and abuse they face; to protect the planet by supporting a vigorous transition to clean energy, seeking an end to extractive industries and the building of new pipelines, to name just a few. Some of these groups understand solidarity better than others. Those that do, actively support each other’s struggles and seek to raise the consciousness of the activists in both camps by educating them about the root causes of their grievances and connecting the dots to enable those activists to recognize that they share a common “enemy”.

All of these struggles are righteous, their goals worthy and noble. The reality is that they typically take decades to come to fruition. Women’s Suffrage, child labor laws and marriage equality exemplify the point. Moreover, victory on one issue does little to accelerate or improve the probability of victory on another. Success does not generalize. More critically, such successes, individually and collectively do not change the conditions in society that gave rise to the issues in the first place! And perhaps the most pertinent fact, and this can be observed down through the history of our nation, the gains that may have taken decades to achieve, sometimes through bloody struggle and great sacrifice, have no guarantee of permanence. If an issue’s solution became enshrined as an amendment to the Constitution we can safely say it will endure. However, this is a very rare occurrence. Most victories achieved via people’s struggle become memorialized in law. Laws can be revoked or superseded by Congress, or can be found unconstitutional by a future Supreme Court with a political agenda.

Social welfare measures established as part of FDR’s New Deal such as Social Security and workers’ rights were immediately put upon by conservatives of the day, and efforts to limit or entirely roll back those provisions continue to this day. Parts of the Voting Rights Act from the Johnson era were eliminated during a Democratic Administration in 2013. Federal agencies created out of worker’s struggles, such as the National Labor Relations Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are shadows of their former selves due to repeated funding cuts and partisan administration. The Environmental Protection Agency, which grew out of numerous public initiatives in the 1960’s, is a favorite football of Republicans and has suffered serious attacks on its mission by well-funded lobbyists representing the legacy energy industries.

Despite the vulnerability of hard won gains, a core of people in every generation fight on around the issues of the day. But why do these popular advances, which are always concerned with promoting the public interest, be it human and civil rights, justice, economic and educational opportunity, public health and safety, remain vulnerable? And what can be done to preserve these advances for all posterity, following the sentiment expressed in the Founders’ phrase — “…in order to form a more perfect union…?”

In an earlier article, I wrote the following to explain the one step forward, two steps back trend of American history as it relates to the advancement of the popular will: Our economic system pits the interests of corporations and the wealthy against the interests of the rest of the people. And since the 1 percent is usually in charge as an unelected power, they reject and roll back progressive policies whenever they can.
As long as the 1 percent retains power, or is legally permitted to regain power when they are “temporarily embarrassed”, the people’s advances will be fair game for reversal. It should be, therefore, a central goal of the people, working in maximum solidarity, to restructure our government in such a way as to prevent forever the 1 percent, the capitalist class from exercising control over the government. In broad outlines, two ways of accomplishing that goal would be to outlaw capitalism entirely, or, as exemplified currently in some Western and Northern European countries, to firmly restrict and control capitalist enterprise.

It is widely accepted that the US Left, unfortunately, is quite far from being in a position to replace capitalism. Which leaves us with a version of option two. However, this political program is the type that goes well beyond the struggle around single issues. The success of the Left to bring about meaningful and enduring change in this country rises and falls on their ability to 1. Understand and accept this central assertion: that the dominance of the capitalist economic system is the basis for the existence and/or maintenance of all the grievances they and their forebears have fought to correct; and 2. Effectively raise the political consciousness of the public to the level that sparks the solidarity that will be necessary to reach the goal.

Admittedly, this is a far more challenging task than building and sustaining a single-issue movement. But frankly, considering the strangle-hold the capitalists have on government, and the money and resources at their command, a powerful mass movement aimed at permanently reining in their power is our only realistic path to victory in this period.

Widespread political education to raise the public’s consciousness is an essential early step in building this movement. It is something that unions were quite good at in their heyday, but seem to neglect in the present. Workers shared these lessons with family and friends, multiplying the impact of the training. We need to urge unions to resume this crucial work, but since union membership is far lower than it had been, parallel efforts are necessary. Appropriate non-profits and local progressive organizations are natural allies where this education can take place. Local chapters of single-issue advocacy groups should be approached and organized into this effort. It is not far-fetched to believe that groups fighting for women’s, LGBT, black, immigrant, Muslim, etc. rights would be sympathetic to joining forces if they understood how all our struggles are linked.

The political parties have nothing to offer us but the status quo. They have too much to lose by giving up their cozy relationship with the wealthy to begin to faithfully represent us. Expecting a handful of progressives inside Congress to turn things around is a bad bet. We are literally on our own. Too few of us recognize this or recognize the immense power we have by joining together. If progressive activists are unsuccessful at awakening more of the population, we all will ride the spiral ever downward.