Thursday, September 06, 2007

An idea for the progressive movement - the Popular Front

     One of the biggest problems I think we have as progressives is that it's tough for us to really organize ourselves into committed, long-lasting movements. The primary reasons for this in my opinion is as follows:

  1). We have no support from the media, so our organizations and small victories we may score go unreported in the news. Everything we do in this sense has to be grassroots. The media also defines what 'mainstream' views are, and these views are generally quite conservative.

  2). Our organizations have trouble fighting for change because there's a strong impulse to let our values be coopted by attempts to elect the 'lesser of two evils'. Even though I think progressive views are strongly rooted in the minds of many Americans, these people, come election time, are usually torn between those who vote their conscience and those who think that doing so is handing the election to the Republicans, who they may view as only slightly worse than the Democrats that they will be voting for. I think this issue is actually one of the biggest problems facing the movement.

     So last night I was thinking about this, and I thought of one solution. The progressive movement, instead of focusing its efforts on rallying support for the Green Party or for Dennis Kucinich, should focus its efforts on convincing people to vote their conscience and to agree on a limited number of progressive goals that any candidate must meet to get their vote. A benefit of doing this is that one's efforts from one election cycle don't go wasted for the next election. So rather than simply rallying for Kucinich, who may not run again next election, the activist energy that you put in today could be then applied to a different progressive candidate in the future. Also, by having people commit to issues and not politicians or parties, the movement can also avoid being stuck to a party which may go conservative. So if the Green Party all of a sudden changed its platform, it would automatically lose the support of those who had agreed on the issues that they felt were necessary to qualify for a vote.

     Now, for the movement to gather momentum, people will want to see it grow and see that it's making progress. This is why this effort would need a name. My first thought for this name would be the 'Progressive Popular Front'. And basically how it would work is that we'd need to establish some basic progressive goals that the PPF supported. Some suggestions would be universal healthcare (the real, non-for-profit kind), some sort of election reform (IRV or something along those lines), legalizing same sex marriage, legalization of abortion, end the war on drugs, clean energy (with some details to be provided on its nature), fair taxes, diplomacy over war (again in actuality, not politicians paying homage to diplomacy while preparing for war), etc. The exact list needs to be progressive enough to be worthwhile but also not too radical so that we can have a substantial following. We would then attempt to convince people that they should only vote for candidates who can meet these criteria and ask them to sign on to being part of the 'Progressive Popular Front'.

     So now what we would have is a movement which was issue-oriented, and uncompromising with its votes. Also, it would be easy to keep the movement cohesive because we've put all these issues under the umbrella of the Popular Front. So rather than saying "hey, do you support x,y,and z, and will only vote for someone who also supports this?" you can simply say "hey, are you part of the Progressive Popular Front?", and if not, convince them to join.

     Now to show that the movement is making progress, because it won't be reported on in the media, we can have tshirts, a website giving statistics, Popular Front icons for blogs, and bumper stickers saying "I support the Progressive Popular Front". Each person who puts this on their car will show to others that they are not alone (I think alientation is one of the reasons why people let their political desires be coopted). As the movement grows, more and more people will have this displayed and this will help prevent people from voting for the "lesser of two evils".

     The Popular Front website will give analysis each election cycle to help the members determine which candidates support the views they signed off on. Perhaps we can have some sort of internal election so that the Popular Front can officially endorse a candidate.

     Now these ideas are very rough, but I wanted to get your opinion on it. If you like it, we could start and get the ball rolling. It'll of course start out small, but if the idea is good it should grow in size.


vjack said...

I like the idea, although I'm not sure how different it is from what is already out there. There are all sorts of progressive organizations which develop particular platforms and then scores candidates by the degree to which they fit the platform. If a given candidate fits the platform, then the organization throws its support behind the candidate.

What I find compelling about your version of this idea is the possibility of helping grassroots energy follow the platform rather than the candidate. I think this can be a great challenge since American voters are conditioned to vote for people rather than ideas, but I think you have something there.

Delta said...

Yes, there may be organizations which are similar in some respects, but I think this would be different in a couple of important ways:

1). One of the crucial aspects to the Popular Front is that its members have not only signed on to support issues, but also to vote their conscience. An organization which endorses progressive values without also emphasizing the need to vote on those values is nearly worthless in terms of working toward change. The movement needs to say to the politicans "do this or kiss your votes goodbye". It's one thing to know that your community believes in some progressive value or another,it's another to know that they do AND that they're planning to act on it.

2). Also, while this is surely not true for all those organizations, some of them may be run by people whose full-time job is to do that. This opens up the possibility that they could be bought off. I would hope that the Popular Front would develop more as a volunteer effort from many grassroots internet activists donating their time and skills, perhaps analagous to the free software movement.

3). The Progressive Popular Front, in my opinion, has a great name. It's unique and it has a nice 'powerful' connotation to it, which will give the movement energy and attract activists, especially from the youth.

4). It supports a variety of progressive views. Some of the other organizations just support one thing, say abortion, and don't give a damn about what else happens. So when election time comes their recommendation on who to vote for is somewhat meaningless, since the voter is likely going to vote based on a variety of issues and not just one. Additionally restricting oneself to a single issue reduces the number of people one can attract and thus limits the power of the organization.

Thanks for the comments vjack. Keep the comments and criticism coming, it helps to define this idea in my head more.

Mookie said...

I like the idea, and see great potential. One problem that isolates regions from one another politically is the electoral college. There are probably plenty of left-leaning progressives in major cities across the US, but are often trapped in blue islands in a sea of red. (I cringe at this terminology.) Their voices are drowned out, especially if their districts have been gerrymandered - thanks Tom Delay. The average that is finally heard is something like Hillary or Romney, right-of-center not because so many people want them as candidates, but because those who do happen to live in large, sparsely-populated regions that grant them a disproportionate say, which moves the whole focus to the right.

I think sticking to issues makes for a better movement, and adding a few more tricks to get folks connected and less isolated will help it become more effective and last.

Good meme. :-)

Delta said...

I think sticking to issues makes for a better movement

I do too. And another benefit this has is that it opens up the possibility for potentially any party to shift its politics in order to pick up the PPF's votes. This is another plus that I think distinguishes it from simply campaigning for, say, the Green party. Campaigning on issues will also give support to progressives who are trying to fight the tough battle within the Democratic party to have it stand for progressive ideals. Additionally, parties and politicians can be rocked by personal scandals, hurting or destroying the movement. Issues cannot be.

Wes said...

While we continue to mix things up, I will leave my complete comment back at California Greening. However, I will here take issue with your first point. While there are many failures in the media to fulfill their obligations as the fourth estate, there are even more failures of the so called progressive movement to do what needs to be done to make their story interesting to the media. It is far too easy to blame the media for our own failures to do the hard, honest work of helping the media to understand things from our viewpoint.

I obseved a very professional effort have significant impact on the media coverage of Richard Pombo during th 2006 election. It was time consuming. It had ups and downs, frustrations and successes, but in the end, when it really counted, most of the media did their job honestly and fairly. (Exception being the editorial board of the Stockton Record and that was mostly kept to the editorial pages.)

Anonymous said...

We do need to 'help the media understand our viewpoint' but it's certainly not 'blaming the media' to acknowledge the systemic and structural reasons why the media covers what they do in the way they and why there are systemic and structural reasons way beyond the Green Party not making their 'story interesting' that lead to it being ignored.
Some history of the 'Popular Front':

E. Heroux said...

Your proposal stimulated the following reflections on the issue of voting info:

Democracy is limited now, and much of this is due to disinformation. A voter's choice is only as good as the information upon which it is made. If that information is simply wrong, then the choice made is meaningless and usually counter to the voter's actual values.

An example is the many voters who were told that Kerry betrayed his fellow soldiers in Vietnam. That was simply disinformation (strategically planted) that too many voters accepted as true.

Another example is shown in Michael Moore's _Sicko_, where Nixon, Reagan and company produced a massively effective propaganda effort to paint national health care as a totalitarian evil that would ruin the country. People believed what they were told and chose against health care. And now they cannot understand why they can't get surgery or medicine or for millions, even insurance. Many of these exact same persons are saying that they will vote for Giuliani for president -- a guy who certainly will not help and will do at least as much damage as Bush.

Speaking of the latter guy, another example is the many voters who told interviewers that they voted for Bush because they care about the environment and about unemployment. This is so basically distorted that it points to a systemic failure of communication. Part of the problem is that people have been led to focus on a candidate's "image" -- while paradoxically knowing full well that this image is crafted by a committee of media experts and has merely an arbitrary connection to the candidate's past record and plans. But image rules, and it is driving the US into the ground.

Any effort that helps to correct this disinformation helps. I agree with vjack that your proposal isn't new, yet we do need more and more progressive organizations springing up all over without fear of duplication. Voters can find websites that list candidates' actual records. E.g., The League of Women Voters has been providing that info for some time now, in a nonpartisan mode. But voters need first to find out that such resources exist, and then also why they have to spend time learning it.

Nevertheless, a caveat: issue-oriented voting has been narrowly focused on a few select issues, to the exclusion of the underlying systemic problems. Voters facing chaos just decide to focus on a single issue, and have been doing so far a long time: like, the war, or gay marriage, etc. The issue focus phenomenon has actually been recognized and cynically deployed by the right wing. When Bush's ratings were dropping right before the last election, the strategists invented the crisis of gay marriage, plastered it all over Fox News, creating a "wedge issue" to divide voters and distract people for the obviously real problems we're not facing. Again, too many Americans fell for that and voted across the board on a platform issue: where do you stand on gay marriage and its "threat" to the family. Meanwhile the US was at war in Iraq, and was secretly planning a war against Iran, the Executive Branch was censoring government scientists about global warming, etc....

Progressives can easily select the more crucial issues, but we will have to be careful about this.

The fundamental challenge in your proposal is in the "popular" part. Right now in the US, racism is popular again. Just 5 years ago, war was very popular, with most college students supporting it. Males and females volunteered to fight. In other words, the challenge is that "popular" is powerfully constructed by the flow of mass media. This distorted information operates broadly and deeply to shape popular values and beliefs about how the world works. Overcoming that is necessary and yet seems nearly impossible. It's a huge problem.

Grassroots is an alternative way to distribute information. Such efforts are traditional, and are doing what they can the hard way. There isn't an easier way so far. Computer networks are making some of this more efficient -- but that's a double-edged sword since the far right neocon fundamentalist crowd also successfully used computer networks to increase its own membership and to spread memes and propaganda in favor of authority, patriarchy, military, etc.

Grassroots communication can indeed get many people to question the focus on "image" -- which is fake by definition, and to focus instead on their own real values. You say you value family? Let's see how a progressive platform actually helps people to get the connection between their own ideals and the actual record.

Democracy needs more experiments like yours, as a means to discover how to make it work for a change!
--E. Heroux

Delta said...


Thanks for posting, and I look forward to your full response on your blog. About the media, I think it's important that we keep our hopes about it within realistic bounds. There are very real economic factors which prevent the media from reporting on progressive causes in a sympathetic way. Have you ever heard of the Propaganda Model. I think it's pretty straight forward.

But regardless, it is true that we must try to use the media as much as we can. Depending on the issue, it isn't impossible that the media will report the truth, as the corporations and interests that control it are not necessarily in agreement with the way that things are going. But in the end, I think it's important to know that it has limitations.


Yes, I agree with what you said (as you can see above). Is there something you'd like to say about the usage of the term 'Popular Front'? I'm aware of its use in history, but I think the general definition is applicable to this movement. And besides, American politics have always been different than European politics anyway =)

professsor heroux,

A voter's choice is only as good as the information upon which it is made

That's very true, and the information that the average voter uses in an election is about as poor as it could get.

Any effort that helps to correct this disinformation helps. I agree with vjack that your proposal isn't new, yet we do need more and more progressive organizations springing up all over without fear of duplication

I do agree that aspects of this proposal can be found in other organizations, but I don't know of one that has all of these elements in it. The fact that it's not party-oriented and that it, in some sense, is so simple, are the main strengths. In today's politically apathetic society, it's very difficult to get people involved continually in organizations that strive to make progressive changes in society. But if we could convince them, just once, that it's best for our future if they joined the Popular Front and committed to not voting for anyone who didn't represent our states values then that's something that they could do for the rest of their lives without requiring too much political participation. Hopefully other visible signs of the movement (shirts, bumper stickers, etc) would remind them to stay true to their original decision.

Nevertheless, a caveat: issue-oriented voting has been narrowly focused on a few select issues

Again, I agree. This is one of the reasons why the goals of the Popular Front will be fairly numerous, to both pull in people whose passion is other things and also to make sure that our efforts result in a progressive change across the board and not just in a single area at the expense of others.

The fundamental challenge in your proposal is in the "popular" part

Well, we hope to become 'popular'. Many progressive issues are actually agreed upon by many Americans (certainly not all of course) so in some sense these things are 'popular'. But besides, it's just the name, and this is certainly up for debate. It's not nearly as untrue as the 'Moral Majority' ;)

Thanks again for the comments everyone. If you are interested in hearing or shaping how this thing progresses I look forward to seeing you around more. If this takes off we'll move to another site (I'll have a timeline for this sort of thing up soon).

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