(Actually bumped at 1:32 p.m., eastern - promoted by Chris Bowers)
We believe that there is a great movement of left-wing activism in America today, and we want to understand it.
Now, there are a lot of ways to talk about movements, and we see them not as historians but as modern political activists. That means we are trying to understand the institutions those movements left behind, and the technologies, tools, tactics, and ideas of those institutions. The first progressive movement, from 1890-1920, led to the regulation of the meat industry, anti-trust legislation, popular election of Senators, women's suffrage, the federal income tax, etc. It's not clear, though, what institutions remain that live on along the lines of early progressive era groups. The ACLU is one example, as it was established after the first red scare, and now has a large direct mail base.
In terms of institutions building, there have been two great left-wing movements in the past seventy five years, each of which, in their time, represented the best of America. At the core of the first movement was the mass unionization efforts of the 1930s, which led to the expansion and prosperity of the middle class in the post-WWII era. The second started with the civil right movement in the 1950s, and flowered into the broader movements of the 1960s. The institutions of this era combined to end Jim Crow and the Vietnam war, achieve new rights for women, and pass the first major environmental and consumer safety laws since the turn of the century. These two groups are sometimes referred to as the Old Left and the New Left, respectively.
Now, we realize that these terms are loaded and possibly controversial. If you look on the blogrolls to the right, you may disagree on where we place different groups and organizations. There are reasonable arguments to be made that "Common Cause is not a New Left group" or "The Old Left was Stalinist!" But we are looking at movements in the context of the political structures they leave behind, and for better or for worse, Common Cause came from the direct mail liberalism of the early 1970s, and its New Left inspired, anti-partisan model of organizing.
The 'Old Left' presents a different problem, because the idea of 'the left' provokes imagery of instability. The 1930s, though, was an unstable time, a time of national emergency. and the great innovations in the labor movement were organized by left-wing activists, some portion of which were Socialists who had extremely progressive views on race and power, views which only now are mainstream. Many of these organizers were purged in the late 1940s, and the fear of being considered 'left-wing', the beginnings of triangulation, happened as the country demobilized from war. Many left-wingers and Socialists in the 1930s were just good organizers - they taught the neoconservatives, after all, and no one can deny that neoconservatives have been able to wield power effectively.
It's time to get over the idea that 'the left', liberals, progressives, or anyone who believes that power should be distributed and not concentrated in the hands of a few is a scary hippy. And that's why we called the site 'OpenLeft'; we see our ideas as a mark of pride, not shame. We think that businesses - like Google - have built highly profitable organizations based on principles of sharing information and distributing power. The genuine radical threat at this moment in history is coming from elites who believe that concentrating power, information, and wealth in their hands should be America's priority. The response to this threat is a new era of left-wing activism, promoted by normal Americans, who have innovated with the tools we have.
Both 1930-1950 and 1960-1975 left institutional legacies in the form of strong unions and mass membership organizations. It is inconceivable to think of modern politics without the hundreds of millions labor pumps into the politics every two years, without the intellectual heft of the consumer rights movements, the environmental movement, and the women's rights movements, without the moral and political credibility of black church networks, and without the economic leverage unions provide for their members. The institutions of these two eras left us a prosperous and secure country. Now, their increasing weakness, due both to internal problems and right-wing attacks, has severely damaged our country (and, indeed, our world).
The catalytic Presidency of George W. Bush and the conservative movement that put him in power has created the third great movement in left-wing politics, which we call the Open Left. This is a movement of tools and technology, but more than that it is a movement of changed cultural relationships. Many of us saw the Democratic Party leadership fail in 1998 with impeachment, in 2000 with the recount, in 2002 with Iraq, and in 2004 with the Kerry campaign. We concluded that it was not just a stronger Democratic party we needed, it was a new set of ideas to animate our political structures. Fortunately, those ideas existed on the internet, the cultural medium in popular use at the time of these failures. And so the Open Left came into being, built on the internet and in response to the excesses of the modern right, the limits of the institutional left, and the learned apathy of much of the public.
Politics today works much differently than it did only ten years ago. In 1997, the politics of siloed special interests reigned supremeMoveon, the first Open Left group, does not have the same relationship with its members that Common Cause does, or that the United Autoworkers does. The UAW is central to the economic welfare of its members, and Common Cause has a Federated mass membership structure dependent on regular direct mail fundraising. Moveon's credibility, by contrast, comes from the willingness of 3 million people to open and read their email, and to sometimes take actions based on the recommendation of Moveon's leadership. This makes Moveon much more responsive to their members, much lower cost and much more flexible, but also less of a clear and direct presence in their members' lives.
This isn't just true of Moveon, of course. Blogs, Drinking Liberally, Step it Up, Freepress - in fact all mass political organizations built in the last ten years share these characteristics. Political power is more and more situated in far-flung networks that can be activated and deactivated quickly, and the new millennial generation that will be the political backbone for the new progressive America likes it this way.
At OpenLeft.com, we are going to explore these new dynamics. We don't believe the internet changes everything, or that older institutions are irrelevant. Far from it. We think that any institution can succeed in building the new America we see unfolding in sketches on the internet. We see the internet and the Open Left as a sort of operating system for a new political system, where groups can plug in and form coalitions more easily and effective on the left, and we see a strong set of dynamics pulling us into this new coalition-focused direction. We hope to host many of these groups, serving as a forum for strategic discussion of goals and tactics.
We want to explore various characteristics of Open Left politics. Identity, including race, notions of the 'creative class', and religiosity are at the root of our changing political dynamics. New Economy companies such as Google and sustainable energy businesses are a part of these emerging coalitions, and extractive industries are set against us. And there is an international element to the Open Left, as this movement is global in nature, though we will mostly explore the American component.
Why Open Left? Why not just netroots?
Good question. We've never been comfortable with the term 'netroots'. It's a term without a coherent meaning, sometimes pointing to liberals that organize in online communities, sometimes meaning anyone online who does so. This term doesn't describe who we are, because there is no divide between online and offline at this point; insiders use email and blogs, and outsider activists run campaigns and have in-person conferences. The term 'Open Left' is a much wider and more descriptive way of understanding the larger political dynamics at play. It is not the use of the internet that matters, it is the expression of traditional left-wing American principles on open systems that is the institutional innovation at work here.
This has been a long time coming. The internet itself expresses certain values that go back to very early American philosophers, and its communal and networked structure combined with its rampant capacity for individualism is uniquely situated for our moment in history. The third important left wing movement in modern American history is nearly ten years old, it's time we recognize what's going on.