Message to the Left: stop whining and organize!
Last night in Honolulu, Chip Berlet, senior researcher of Right wing movements for Political Research Associates and veteran organizer, spoke about the Right wing populism in the U.S. and its current resurgence in the so-called “Tea Party movement” and attacks on President Obama. He described the history of populist moments in the U.S. as volatile and unpredictable. Often these moments could tip either to the Left or the Right depending on which camp is best able to frame the message and organize legitimate anger. He cautioned that the Left dismiss or ridicule Right wing populists at their own peril. The Tea Party movement, like other populist moments, arise from real anger and insecurity about economic and social conditions. However, the Right has tapped this anger and (mis)directed it towards scapegoated groups – Jewish banking conspiracies on the one hand (elite parasites) and immigrants, gays and lesbians, Muslims, and the poor (lazy, sinful, subversive parasites). If this trend continues, he warns, conditions could get much worse, veering towards the abyss of fascism.
Berlet described how Right wing movements typically mobilize fears about losing some form of unfair privilege, whether it be economic, political power or social status. They turn this into a neat rhetorical trick whereby victimizer becomes victim.
The solution, he challenged the audience at the Honolulu Friends Meeting House, is not to make ourselves feel morally superior by dismissing or insulting people who join these movements, which is just a form of retreat, but rather to out organize them. There is no reason why the Left should not be able to build broad coalitions and movements by taking on the real grievances of the people and directing the anger towards more just systemic change.
Regarding the Right wing attacks on Obama and Left wing disappointment, Berlet said that we should “have his back, and kick his butt.” That is challenge racist attacks on Obama, but also protest and push him on progressive issues. Berlet faults the centrist Democratic insiders that surround Obama for insulating him from the upwelling anger rather than making him take on these issues. This has isolated Obama and made him appear aloof and “out of touch” with the struggles of ordinary folk.
He told a story about important lessons from the fight to defeat the anti-gay ballot measure 9 in Oregon in 1992. A Christian right group called the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to make homosexuality illegal in Oregon. Gay rights political heavyweights from national organizations did the polling and concluded that with the support of liberal urban centers of Portland and Eugene, they could defeat the ballot measure. They framed a message that amounted to “smart liberal city folk wouldn’t vote for such an ignorant and bigoted measure”. Basically, the pollsters and spin doctors were calling everyone outside of the cities ignorant red necks. This would have been a disaster. most of the state is rural and fairly culturally conservative. Such an arrogant and short sighted tactical decision would have alienated 80% of the counties and made it impossible to organize for progressive issues for decades.
Instead, progressive organizers pushed the national groups out and decided that their long term success meant organizing on principled unity between a broad coalition of groups, in other words, solidarity. This was tough because there were contradictions and prejudices against gay rights among many constituencies in the state. The organizers decided that it was better to fight in a way that built a grassroots movement based on principled unity and solidarity for the long term and possibly lose at the ballot than to pick the politically expedient tactic to win the ballot measure, but poison the political water for decades – a courageous decision and a heavy burden for the organizers to bear. Ballot Measure 9 was defeated.
Berlet said that the research shows that the best way to win people over and get them to join your group or movement is through face-to-face encounters and respectful, principled dialogue and debate. Sorry, “internet warriors”. The point is not to convert the ideologically consolidated leadership, but rather to win over the people who may have reactionary politics on some issues, but who have not yet hardened in their ideological stance.
He challenged the audience to take risks and build broad coalitions to fight for justice and peace. He shared the story of the White Rose Society to make his point. The White Rose Society was a Catholic student movement in Nazi Germany that courageously educated and organized against Nazism, fully certain that they would be defeated and most certainly killed. But they felt that morally and politically, they had no choice but to resist the fascist tide. The leaders were executed, but they inspired others to resist. And anti-fascist movements grew. The emblem of the white rose has become the international symbol of anti-fascism.
What does all this have to do with demilitarization? If Right wing populism becomes more powerful and virulent, it may one day turn the existing infrastructure and mechanisms of authoritarian rule and military power into a nightmare of state violence. One of the “first principles” of the Tea Party movement is “National Defense”, which includes endless wars, runaway military spending, torture and extraordinary rendition, warrantless spying and other attacks on civil liberties. To rephrase the famous admonition from the radical labor organizer Mother Jones, “Don’t whine, organize!”
Resources for organizers can be downloaded here: http://www.publiceye.org/movement/handouts/berlet.html
Berlet will speak twice on Hawaii island:
Monday, February 8, 2010
2 pm University of Hawai’i – Hilo, UCB115
7 – 9 pm Keaau Community Center