Regaining progressive focus: Populist organizing lessons for our time

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat May 01, 2010 at 15:30

The series finale of Bill Moyers Journal last night (transcript here) fittingly opened with a segment on Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a contemporary heartland organization carrying on not just the spirit, but a good deal of the organizing approach of the populist movement of the late 19th Century.  Others have noted the loss of  Bill Moyers Journal in Quick Hits, and of course it's perfectly reflective of the Obama era that we should lose such a distinctive and populist voice, and see it replaced with yet more corporate-friendly pablum.

But I want to focus on what Moyers himself focused on, and relate it back to an outstanding question from my diaries on regaining progressive focus that began with "Regaining focus: Growing a progressive majority-Part 1"--and that is the question of how we should proceed in our organizing strategy.  The populist movement is an important model for this, because it was mass movement deeply rooted in local communities, which was also an intellectually sophisticated, morally grounded and historically informed movement.  It was also centered outside the party system.  At one point in the segment, an ICCI activist, Hugh Espey says:

The power of groups like CCI is its members. It's people that's going to give legs to our organization. People give legs to democracy. We're just everyday people, regular folks. Grandmas, grandpas, people you see in the grocery store. People you see in church. People you see at school. Just regular folks that don't want to be trampled on by big money.

These are, in fact, exactly the people that the Tea Party pretends to be, except they aren't overwhelmingly white, well-off, and conservative.  Instead, they are who they say they are-and no hidden corporate sponsors!

Paul Rosenberg :: Regaining progressive focus: Populist organizing lessons for our time
The segment last night gave a broader feeling for the ICCI, but its main illustrative focus was on the fight to defeat a proposed law that would have allowed corporate hog farms to spread hogshit on ice-covered fields, a most effective way to spread disease and generally reduce the quality of life for entire communities.

BILL MOYERS: John and his CCI compatriots have come to the capitol to take on a familiar foe: Big Agriculture. One of the most powerful business interests in Iowa.

They are fighting a bill that would allow industrial scale farms to spread liquid manure on top of frozen or snow covered fields; a practice deemed hazardous to the environment and a potential health risk.

CCI MEMBER: People are spreading manure on frozen ground and as soon as it starts to melt, it is going to run into the drinking water.

BILL MOYERS: Despite those warnings, the bill was passed out of committee, and on to the Assembly for debate. Lobbyists for factory farming interests were sent to push the bill through. CCI members were there as advocates for the people.

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: House File 2324 is an attempt by corporate agriculture to gut clean water protections that were enacted by the legislature last year.

JOHN BLASINGAME: You really have to get in there and tell your leaders where you want them to lead. And if they're not leading that way, you got to demand why of them. They have to hear from you.

ROSIE PARTRIDGE: Sincerely, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

CROWD: Kill the bill! Kill the bill!

JOHN BLASINGAME: And sometimes you have to raise a fuss as Rosa Parks did. Raised a fuss. Got things changed. And what Rosa Parks said, to me, I always see it this way, is, she didn't just say, "No, you can't have my seat." She actually said, "No, I will no longer participate with you in my own exploitation." That's what she said.

CROWD: Put People first! Put people first!

JIM KALBACH: If you don't get involved, if you don't protest, or complain, they can go ahead and pass their bills the way they want.

CROWD: Enough is enough! Enough is enough!

I have to admit, I got a special thrill out of seeing John Blasingame, a somewhat pasty-faced older white guy invoke Rosa Parks in a way that really showed some pretty deep understanding of her and the civil rights struggle--understanding that really only comes out of the process of coming to see that struggle as deeply connected to, if not part of your own.  Because the point he made was the point that Rosa Parks made, the point that the entire civil rights movement made:  You may continue to oppress us, because you are temporarily stronger than we are.  But you will no longer oppress us with our collaboration, our participation, and our support.  And because of that, you will eventually be defeated, and we will eventually be free.

This is the lesson that Barack Obama absolutely does not get.  Indeed, he is the poster child for such collaboration, such participation, and such support.  Indeed, it's the very definition of his "post-partisan", "pragmatic" ideology of preserving the powers that be no matter what the cost.

But enough of Obama for this post.  What about the broader lessons for us?

I would argue that there are at least four important, broadly-conceived lessons, that I would like to spell out, that are worthy of reflection and discussion to help guide us in how to organize ourselves:

(1) Organization must come from the bottom up.  This is not to say that everything has to come from the bottom up.  Nineteenth Century Populists were great readers, and took inspiration, analysis and direction from a wide range of sources.  But the process of discussing, digesting and making these outside influences their own, and then determining how to act in light of them was crucial to their fundamental approach.  In the segment last night, there were a number of examples where activists cited historical guideposts, such as Rosa Parks, or the preamble of the Constitution:

LARRY GINTER: The preamble of the constitution says promote the general welfare. Well, does that sound like a government that's hands off? That isn't involved into the overall well-being of everybody in this country? So this idea of get government out of my life- I don't know how that works. Because we're supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. So how do I just take government out of my life? I am government!

That's the sign of historical and political understanding that's been discussed, digesting and made his own.  And the process of making such knowledge ones own is won of the most powerful bonds that can help local, bottom-up organizing efforts sink deep roots, perennial  roots that will outlast any one struggle to sustain shared power for the next one.

(2) Organization must flow out of real, pragmatic struggles, reflecting the multiple realities of those involved.  The example of fighting the liquid manure bill is instructive here.  It was a bill that hurt a variety of different people in a number of different ways, as well as potentially hurting everyone in a way that a variety of different people understood in different ways.  Environmentalists, public health workers and advocates, and environmental justice advocates frequently come together like this nowadays, along with worker and consumer advocates.  Concrete struggles like this bring these people together in ways that nothing else can.  They learn to speak each other's language, and tell each other's stories.  They come to see themselves, first as allies, then as friends, then as one people with a common struggle, a common history, a common culture and a common cause.  They also learn how to go meta together--they learn how to learn form one another.

I have been witness to a long-term struggle like this as a reporter and editor at Random Lengths News over the last eight years--the struggle for environmental justice at the ports of LA and Long Beach, and their connection to other communities across the nation also impacted by the bad neighbor policies of the international corporate traders.  The process of dialogue, of listening to one another's stories, and coming to share one another's struggles has been crucial to this long-term struggle, a struggle which is only now about to get a hearing in House next week (I'll be writing more about this tomorrow).  There is, quite simply, no substitute for the connective bonds that are formed through this process.  They are what makes the abstract promise of "we the people" into a lived reality.

(3) Organization must be autonomous in deciding the big questions of struggle: What to struggle for, what terms to struggle on, who to ally with under what conditions, and above all, how to define themselves, their struggle, their values, their purpose and their vision.  This includes, but is not limited to an independence from party hierarchy and organization. This is not to say they can't work closely with progressive party members, and even progressive institutions within the party system, such as Progressive Democrats of America, or the Progressive Caucus. But they must retain their own autonomy, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all their allies as well.  They are creators and nurturers of a prophetic space that must needs directly oppose entrenched powers much, if not most of the time--even including powers that are somewhat sympathetic to and supportive of their struggles.

Maintaining the principle of their own autonomy, and responsibility to their membership and the broader community from which they come is an invaluable practice in and of itself, which also serves to maintain important boundaries so that when differences inevitably arise those differences are not reduced to personality conflicts, or feelings of personal loyalty or betrayal.  By institutionalizing the principle of autonomy, one ensures at least the possibility that times of conflict can become teachable moments in which learning leads to deeper unity over time, rather than irreparable breaches that only empower the common foe.

(4) Organization must be for the long haul. Each generation must fight anew echoes of the battles that previous generations fought--if not those very same battles in slightly altered form.  It would be nice if this were not so. Part of the struggle is for that far off day when it will not be so. But until then, we must be conscious of the inevitable nature of repeated struggle.  "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" 'tis said.  But liberty is only part of what we struggle for. Out of every struggle a deeper appreciation comes of what we struggle for and why. And that is worthy of celebration, remembrance and re-dedication.  It is a life-process, not an issue process that underlies and sustains our shared struggle, and should inform the deepest foundations of how we organize ourselves, and why.

Those are four lessons that I draw.  What think you of them?  And what are yours?

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Wonderful post (4.00 / 2)
great lessons. We need all the models for this sort of productive progressive organizing we can get.

I have one more thought.  During the populist movement, they had paid speakers who traveled around to bring their message directly to the people, without any filter. (Unions that took a more movement oriented approach did the same.) I'd love to see that element of the progressive movement adopted by these activists and others - whether in person or even on line (or better yet both).  That would be a great way to get out an organic progressive message that connected larger concerns with real local level struggles.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

Obama & Organizing (0.00 / 0)
Paul, I didn't see Moyers' show, but I appreciate your summary of it, and I like the organizing lessons you draw from it.

Let me suggest that the main challenge progressives have with Obama is not that he doesn't understand or appreciate organizing; it's that we need to be clear about his role in our national politics, our role in our national politics, and what kind of relationship we want to have with him.

He's the elected president.  His prior record as an elected official showed him to be a center-left politician with a strong interest in cutting the deals he perceived to be necessary to advance his (mostly progressive) agenda.  

As president, it's his job (among other things) to cut deals.  As progressives it's not our job to be happy about that.  It's our job to build the political power to force the best deals possible for our values, our interests, our people.

In a democracy power comes from two sources:  organized people and organized money.  The more we have of both, the more power we have, the better deals we get---from Obama and from any other politician.

Obama Is Largely Irrelevant (4.00 / 2)
both to my post, and to the larger point.

He's just a particularly slick and dangerous poltician is all.

Folks like him come and go.  The forces he represents endure.

It's our job to endure longer than them.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Nicely said (4.00 / 1)
A problem with organizing in America is that they don't necessarily get these lessons.  

(1) Organization must come from the bottom up.  This is not to say that everything  has to come from the bottom up.  Nineteenth Century Populists were great readers, and took inspiration, analysis and direction from a wide range of sources.  But the process of discussing, digesting and making these outside influences their own, and then determining how to act in light of them was crucial to their fundamental approach.

The organizer/leader model central to organizing today, without more training for leaders, is potentially destructive to this kind of bottom up capacity.  This is not a problem with the model, necessarily, but instead a deep lack of political education.  What we have today is a streamlined "system" of social action that, as I've argued earlier, doesn't actually work that well.  

The basic principles underlying it are fairly sound.  But that's all they are, principles.  They have become rules.  

People like Ed Chambers and Greg Galluzzo seem to lay down the party line like it contains some God given truth.  (Nicholas von Hoffman's recent book notes that Alinsky and Chambers actually didn't agree in some key areas, interestingly enough--and von Hoffman was as close to Alinsky's organizing "son" as anyone).  So there is no real effort to give leaders, and even organizers in many cases, a sense of the complexity and contingency of the history of organizing in America (I'm working on a brief history, but it won't be enough).  

(I've actually been digging up early un- or barely-published writings on organizing written by Warren Haggstrom, Richard Rothstein (interestingly enough), and von Hoffman, that has much more "punch" and anger than the recent stuff that mostly toes the party line.)

Because of this, these organizations are not really ready for the long haul (they survive as organizations, but intentionally not ready for movement-like depth).  

According to Heidi Swarts, this was a key issue for ACORN, which was especially staff directed and especially lacking in efforts to build long-term and trained leadership.  Of course, this is hard with poor people.  (von Hoffman says especially nasty things about the capacity of poor people to organize--and he's got a point--but we need to find a way around these issues).  ACORN is really not dead--many of the major organizations remain (I'm not deeply informed) but perhaps this is a time to rethink and remake that model and see if we can find ways to build the kind of sophistication and depth that you describe.

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

It Would Be Good (0.00 / 0)
if you could share some of that early material you've been digging up.  It could certainly enrich my thinking on the subject.

Maybe you could do a dairy or two or three that was mostly just archival stuff you've found with a little bit of framing discussion.

(Hint! Hint! Hint!)

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I'll have to think about how that might work (0.00 / 0)
[ Parent ]
It maybe a start--if it really gets somewhere... (4.00 / 1)
I like to think this thread is an actual effort in the creation of a movement such as won woman's suffrage, and other civil rights  (instead of becoming an academic discussion, with no conversion to action); that given, I would say the rules are a weak start.

We can stipulate that the rules given are self evident truths; that's fine; but the question you pose:

how we should proceed in our organizing strategy
requires more than a discussion in this blog, that slides into the past within a short period of time, and goes archival shortly after that... Who goes back to read the issues of two years ago? Few have rarely the time to scan the front page stuff.

So this topic if it's to survive past the initial punches and excitement from the hope that something meaningful maybe starting up, it must remain present! It must remain prominently in the front page; or it must have its own domain or both. There should be a better method of organizing the information, where past items can be easily referred to and searched for (maybe wiki style). Once it leave the front page it wanes; readers assume the whole thing was an academic exercise. If we get that far, then, I'm sure more ideas and suggestions will be forthcoming.  

A National Progressive Alliance, is the only viable solution.

Very Good Point (0.00 / 0)
I've taken the initial step of tagging all these diaries with the "regaining progressive focus" tag, the better to be able to access them all.  But that's about as far as I've gone so far, the tiniest of baby steps just to make something more lasting and dynamic possible.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Three more thoughts to consider (4.00 / 2)
Great post - I'm glad to see people thinking and writing along these lines.  There are three things I would add for consideration:

First, and this is probably implicit in your post, is that bottom-up progressive organizations should have a democratic process and structure.  I know that this seems like a no-brainer, but as I've spent the last few months searching for and cataloguing examples of "democratic local organizing," it's more rare than you would think.  Many progressive groups want members to donate and call Congress, but give them little say in organizational decision-making.  Structurally, these groups are often staff-led or governed by a labor-heavy board, rather than by regular, unaffiliated individuals participating in a network of community-based chapters.  It's hard to get people out to rallies when they feel no ownership stake in the effort (which is why I think unions and community groups appear to be most successful in getting people into the streets).  In short, structure matters.

Second, many of the groups that are democratic, decentralized and hold significant potential are only loosely connected to each other and operate on a shoestring budget.  When I think of one thing bloggers can do well, it's aggregate and channel money toward good causes.  I wonder if there is some mechanism we could create to channel donations toward democratic, multi-issue, community-based progressive organizing.

Finally, boldhawk raises a good point about how we continue this conversation and take action.  I've noticed that some of the same people are interested in this topic, and wonder whether it's possible to have some communication offline to discuss strategy.  Hope this isn't bad manners, but I'll put my email out there - michael.karpman[at]

At this stage, it's an IT problem (0.00 / 0)
Building a populist and/or progressive coalition is not an ideological problem.

It's an IT problem, as the system to support it is not in place anywhere to the extent necessary to accomplish the numbers that can win.

There are millions ready to join. For example, A New Way Forward has just sent their newsletter showing the type of coalition the managed to get together to deal with some issue... That's just one group. There is the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who lists over 400,000 members. The first time I saw that site, I clearly saw they were doing something worth supporting, so I contributed without hesitation. But even them are barely at the threshold of what needs to be done.

Neither of these have the web application to undertake a coalition building project of the magnitude required to support the project. Neither does Open Left, and any number of others.

As I've said in my last post, we need some official support from the leaders of this domain, and some clear statements of their position, and some quick ramping up IT follow up, and things will start moving, i.e.: suggestions and design information as required or solicited by the leaders, or the requirements can become part of the coalition building discussion, which is a good way to let us in on the decision making process for future of Open Left.

Tagging is a start, which is something to get public help to organize stuff. You need a permanent link at the banner head, that brings people interested in forming the movement to a wiki type page. Posts should not expire nor comments closed.

Have the the leadership (the 3 founders, or whoever else has a say on this) show they care and want to help build coalitions by starting to make the necessary IT changes required for this project (such as the couple of items I suggest above).

. . .after all, it is stated in the "About & Contact:

" OpenLeft is a news, analysis and action website dedicated toward building a progressive governing majority in America."

A National Progressive Alliance, is the only viable solution.


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