Why Ordinary People Vote for Those Who Represent the Rich: Progressive Politics and the Need for New Communities of Resistance
by Andrew Lichterman*
        In the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, many Democratic Party operatives were looking, as always, for solutions to their party’s problems that would require little challenge to the status quo. They fastened on the role of the “Christian Right,” the network of fundamentalist churches and organizations that has mobilized millions in support of George W. Bush and other politicians who espouse agendas that are militarist, hyper-capitalist, and “socially conservative,” code for rolling back the rights of women, gays, and ethnic minorities. Democratic Party power brokers now argue for yet further compromise with the dominant agenda of the radical Right, showing they are more interested in keeping a share of power and dispensing political spoils than in “representing” the peace, ecology, human rights, and economic justice constituencies for whom they claim to be the only “viable” electoral choice. To justify this new round of pre-emptive surrender, they point to the successes of the Christian Right in organizing low and middle-income Americans into reliable voting blocs. They attribute the Democrats’ failure to being “out of touch” with these “ordinary Americans,” and claim that the solution to this is to move towards the positions espoused by those they voted for.

        This approach, of course, will do nothing for the tens of millions of Americans who are seeing their schools decline, their health care disappear, their environment despoiled, and their children, many of whom joined the military for lack of other economic opportunities, sent abroad to kill and be killed in wars that benefit only the rich. But it does show that those in control of the Democratic Party have one thing right: They are out of touch with the vast majority of Americans, including the millions who grudgingly vote for them for lack of any other visible option. And although there is far more to the reigning Republican coalition than the “Christian Right,” the pivotal role it plays in creating divisions among people who work for a living does provide some insight into what is needed to escape the unacceptable political alternatives currently available in American “mainstream politics.”
        The current brand of Rightist politics in the U.S. grounds its popular appeal in a theocratic melding of religion and politics which mirrors in troubling ways the Islamic fundamentalist extremism that is its preferred enemy. I do not believe that there is anything like majority support for this vision. The mass appeal and the organizing capacity of right-wing politics is rooted instead in the construction or revival of human-scale institutions that offer people solace and solidarity, organized around and infused with a vision of how society should be. It is this method, and not the Republican message, that the progressives would do well to emulate if they wish to provide a political home for those whose real interests remain unrepresented by either of the major U.S. political parties.
        The lack of community, and the response to that lack, may be a key reason that the Right has been consistently winning elections in the United States. Much of a key Republican constituency–– evangelical Christians––consists of people of very modest means, who nonetheless vote against their own material interests. They do so in part because the Right offers them a comprehensive social and moral vision consistent with its view of politics, policy, and law. But more important, this vision is incarnated in cities and towns across the country by the evangelical churches. Most of these are either new or transformed institutions, their particular ideology shaped by the “born again” evangelical movement of the last three decades. Their pastors may not tell people exactly who to vote for, but they play a primary role in shaping views on issues from abortion to war, in a way that makes voting choice virtually a foregone conclusion.

        These pastors and churches simultaneously critique the chaos, anomie, and erosion of social norms–ills that, ironically, are pervasive and predictable consequences of corporate capitalism--and provide a refuge from them. The community and mutual support they offer church members on a day-to-day level–– human connection, collective activities, and sometimes mutual material aid–– are real. Their analysis of how cause and effect works in the social world is not. Criticism, or even reflection upon, the role that powerful institutions from corporations to the military play in causing the real ills people see in their lives is taboo. The predominant social model, replicated on all levels, is charismatic male leadership, deemed to be sufficiently ratified by the enthusiasm of those who follow. The result is a national network of institutions that provide a ready means to disseminate a right-wing message, and to mobilize millions to support it. This network does not form all of the Republican majority in the truncated U.S. electorate, but it plays a key role in dividing those who work for a living and lack economic security, effectively blocking any politics where class issues could be decisive.

        There is nothing omnipotent or even especially coherent about the ideology of the Christian right. It must reconcile obvious contradictions, such as celebrating “life” while vigorously supporting State-inflicted death as the solution to a growing array of social problems abroad and at home. Perhaps more important, the brand of Christian theology most visible on the Right is grounded in a radical individualism: a direct individual relationship to God, and an attribution of success– or the lack of it-- to individual effort and merit, both worldly and spiritual. This world view must exist in tension with the very social benefits which make communities of faith attractive for many: mutual support, and comfort in a world where the one’s individual fate is at the mercy of immense social forces, where there is in fact no connection between virtue and worldly reward.

        Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the Democrats’ most recent defeats, mainstream commentators already are saying that Democrats must “appeal” to the these voters “lost” to the Republicans. The method they suggest is, in essence, that the Democrats should take positions closer to those of the reigning Republicans, again moving further away from the principles of their own core constituency. This is wrong for a number of reasons. The first, and simplest, is that it assumes that politics is limited to competition for “likely voters,” and that the pool of voters is relatively fixed. This election if nothing else proved this untrue, with voter rolls expanding and tens of millions of eligible voters still remaining to be registered in the future. I believe that there remains an enormous untapped constituency for core progressive values--economic justice, human rights, a livable and sustainable environment, and quality public services accessible to all, including health and education.

        The people who make up those evangelical churches did not become part of them with a mind to organize and win elections for the Republican Party. They came because they saw a place where their needs for community might be met, and where they heard a message that resonated with the fears and problems they faced. Right-wing political professionals, activists, and funders outside that movement also recognized its political potential, and worked to develop ways to reach and mobilize its participants. But the evangelical movement was first and still remains a social movement, not an electoral strategy, rooted in the genuine desires and passions of millions of people.

        Evangelical activists also did not begin by trying to formulate some market-tested formula to appeal to the “undecided.” And it is likely that the “undecided,” in an era of widespread social conflict and war that would seem to demand commitment of some kind, are those who pay little attention to “politics” because they are those most throughly imbued with the self-centered privatism of a market driven society, and most difficult to inspire with any vision of the common good.

        This “undecided” element is easily swayed by direct, and simplistic, appeals to self-interest, not necessarily grounded in facts: we will cut your taxes, we will protect you from “terrorists.” Further, these “undecideds” are likely to be unconnected to any politically relevant human-scale community which might ground a political perspective independent of the 24/7 indoctrination of the mass media. Consequently, they are particularly susceptible to the tools and techniques of propaganda, which work best when addressing isolated, fearful individuals. This is terrain on which concentrated wealth and the willingness to manipulate through fear always prevails. As Franz Neumann noted in Behemoth, his study of the Nazi state, the propaganda of the anti-democratic Right cannot be defeated by a “democratic super-propaganda.” It can only be countered by strengthening the political capacity of the larger society, by the restoration or creation of human-scale social settings controlled by ordinary people, where they can come together, quite literally, to practice democracy.

        Over the past two decades, progressive political strategies increasingly have been reduced to electoral campaigning and legislative lobbying approaches. I have on numerous occasions, for example, been told quite seriously by activists who run small, regional peace organizations that our first priority should be formulating arguments which will be persuasive to Republican legislators. The problem here is a confusion, or conflation, of the very different tasks of political campaigning and movement building. Legislative and electoral campaigns focus (quite rationally) on cobbling together a majority, where one does not already exist, for a compromise program. Movement building requires a different set of priorities: strengthening local and regional organizations that provide community and a trusted voice on issues people care about, starting new ones where none exist, and forging a new and attractive vision of the path to equality, environmental sanity, and true human security, grounded in what we discover in the everyday work of organizing. That new vision will not emerge from the world of think-tanks and professional political operatives, removed from the concerns of ordinary people and the day-to-day work of organizing among them.

        With movement building largely abandoned, people on the “progressive” end of the political spectrum have experienced a steadily declining ability to mobilize power relevant to legislative and electoral contexts–– meaning money and votes. The response from the mainstream issue-oriented progressive groups, from arms control to the environment to human rights, has been to ask for less and less, in an increasingly fruitless search for short-term compromises that they can describe as victories to their funders and contributors, until even those largely defensive efforts are mooted by the next wave of right-wing electoral gains.

        This is the other message of the elections not only of 2004, but of 2002 and 2000. The right wing core constituency–– grounded not only in the Christian right, but also those with a direct economic stake in the U.S. quest for global military dominance, and in the extractive industries most directly served by an aggressive U.S. foreign policy–– is sufficiently consolidated that “centrist” compromises are less and less achievable. Bush could safely direct his campaign to mobilizing his base–– which means concretely mobilized, not theoretically possible, voters–– because it is large and dependable. Further, propaganda gambits based on fear and self-interest--protection from “terrorism,” the promise of tax cuts without end–– assured that Bush could hold his own among the undecided likely voters, largely anomic, unorganized, suburbanites who get their information mainly from television.

        Even before the election, a number of commentators working in mainstream liberal organizations were arguing that progressives should copy what they perceived to be key right-wing strategies: the concentration of resources in highly professional think-tanks and public relations firms. We are hearing this more loudly now, despite the failure of the Democrats’ latest professionalized, focus-group-tested national campaign, with its candidate chosen most of all for his putative middle of the road appeal. They argue that what the Democrats mainly need is a more effective message, or as some have put it, a “progressive brand” (A term that should be self-contradictory to “progressives” seeking a politics, and a world, no longer dominated by top-down media manipulations).

        There are a number of reasons to believe this approach will fail. First, it would only intensify the move towards centralized, professionalized politics characteristic of the past two decades-- a period in which the positions taken by most elected officials, regardless of party, have shifted steadily rightward. Not coincidentally, such a strategy also will accelerate fundamental structural shifts that continue to undermine both social movements and democracy. These shifts include the decline of autonomous, human-scale institutions in which ordinary people can have a voice and find mutual support, and the replacement of real discussion with an increasingly sophisticated array of techniques for manipulating human consciousness.

        There are systemic reasons that a “democratic super-propaganda” cannot prevail over those willing to employ the modern tools of mass indoctrination in support of entrenched power and wealth, an employ them utterly without scruple. Their propagandists can invoke long-ingrained images and constellations of meaning: fear of the foreign Enemy, counterposed by the power of the State, associated still in times of mortal crisis with the Divine, a Power which comforts all those who stand with a monolithic Us, and that will crush all who stand against. The weight of this still-untranscended history is redoubled by the power of concentrated wealth in a society where privileged access to every aspect of public life can be bought–including access to elected officials and access via the media to what remains of the public sphere. And with sufficient money and power, the necessary crisis can, as we have seen, be manufactured simply by recombining bits and pieces, memes and tropes, of propaganda campaigns past.

        No argument, no “message,” can magically transform this political wasteland. The future we must build–– where people everywhere have a voice in their communities, have control of their work, and are working together to restore the planet to a place where we will be able to live in harmony for generations–– exists only in our hopes. It provides us with no repertory of ingrained responses that can be evoked irrationally to sustain it; rather, it requires us to reject any politics that seeks to reach past reason to manipulate unconscious hopes and fears. It requires us to abandon the habits of mind, the easily-exploited images of who we must fear and who we must obey, that are the currency of all forms of anti-democratic politics, regardless of party label.

        All the easy tropes, all the shortcuts–– decrying the faint possibility of terrorist “loose nukes” while ignoring the brute reality of our own world-destroying arsenal, pursuing an ever-more-selfish sliver of comfortable “likely voters” rather than working to connect “peace and justice” to the everyday experience of millions who are barely getting by, picking candidates who stand for nothing but once looked good in uniform –– all these roads lead back to the death of the republic, back to empire. And unsurprisingly, these shortcuts have failed to put together even a majority of the mushy middle. Such messages, formulated by distant professionals with little connection to any actual human scale institutions that might allow people see their histories, their work, and their aspirations reflected in them, are likely to be experienced by their audience as inauthentic. The measure of this is the millions of Americans who saw George W. Bush, the figurehead of one of the most dishonest administrations in U.S. history, as by far the more genuine candidate.

What is do be done?

For ordinary people–– by which I mean all of us who lack the kind of wealth that translates into significant political power–– we must begin by devoting our money and time to sustaining or creating organizations which are accountable to us, where we fel comfortable and welcome either lending a hand or giving our opinion about how our work should proceed, and where we feel like we are respected and make a difference. This will mean for the most part organizations which are local, or which have a meaningful local presence that does more than raise money to support a top-down, national operation.

        Approaches to this kind of work are greatly dependent on context, but there are some questions or criteria we might keep in mind in building organizations which are sustainable for the long term:         Most important, we must be patient, for it is likely to be years before this kind of work can be translated into a significant shift in political power on the national level. In the atmosphere of pervasive, defensive crisis which has characterized progressive politics in the U.S. for most of a generation, it has become easy to dismiss long-term movement building as impractical, as a luxury which must be foregone in favor of preventing whichever electoral or legislative horror is imminent. But ask yourself the following: Do you believe that those legislators who vote “the right way” do so because of arguments made by “liberal” policy professionals in Washington? Or do they vote in response to mobilized constituencies in their districts? Regions that are traditionally “progressive” did not get that way because there is something in the water; places like Massachusetts or New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area have dense networks of locally-based non-governmental organizations working across the issue spectrum. National “progressive” groups could shut down their Washington operations tomorrow, and it is unlikely that the behavior of legislators from these regions would change much.

        It is worth noting as well that the new tools of internet organizing, employed to an unprecedented degree during the 2004 electoral campaign, proved to be neither an unambiguous success or a failure from a progressive standpoint. Many people apparently connected to the political process for the first time through these channels, and this is a good thing. But here, as in much progressive organizing over the past two decades, the step of constructing durable local and regional organizations was largely skipped over in favor of an immediate focus on national electoral politics, driven once again by a sense that the election itself represented a crisis requiring all other priorities be put aside. Much of the money collected was channeled back into the corporate economy via media buys and salaries and expenses paid to standard public relations professionals and other mainstream political professionals. Little, if any, of the millions of dollars raised in these efforts went into sustaining existing progressive institutions on the local or regional levels, or creating new ones which might provide durable contexts where newly mobilized people can come together to practice the skills of democracy and begin building the basis for a better world. It remains to be seen whether the relatively “thin”connections of internet-based organizing can be used as a starting point for the “thick” bonds of community necessary for people to band together for a long-term struggle against power that is concentrated and prone to great violence.

        Political and policy professionals have important roles to play. They can translate the arcane language and procedures of a complex polity for those they serve, and they can help to ascertain what is the best “deal” possible at a given time in the legal and legislative forums of a complex government. But only millions of ordinary people, informed and mobilized, can change the boundaries of the politically possible, the conditions under which the deals are cut, particularly over against those holding great power and wealth. We have somehow allowed our politics to be turned upside down, with the “professionals” proclaiming the limits of the possible, and demanding that the rest of us stay within them. Instead, we should be building social movements that articulate and prefigure a better future beyond today’s limits, served by accountable professionals who do their best to get as much for us today as they can.

        Local organizations that provide opportunities to learn the skills of democracy and which build community are the fundamental building blocks of any politics aimed at fundamental social change. This can include local chapters or offices of national organizations, but only where they resemble genuinely local organizations in significant ways. These include a long-term commitment to the locale, staff who identify with the locale and its residents rather than seeing their jobs as way-stations to higher-status positions closer to one or another center of power, and the capacity and will to engage in the discussion and negotiation essential to forming coalitions around fundamental common interests. The trust and understanding necessary to bring together different elements of a diverse oppositional culture are more likely to develop in the course of organizing around concrete issues that affect people where they work and live than through the shifting, short-run alliances characteristic of political work in capitol cities, alliances crafted by mobile professionals who move rapidly from job to job, always striving upwards.

        Furthermore, a movement building approach, grounded in the construction of autonomous local and regional institutions, is likely to provide a greater capacity for response in a crisis than strategies in which professional political operations in distant centers of power raise money from large numbers of largely passive supporters, whose participation is limited to sending pre-formulated messages to elected officials in support of an equally pre-formulated legislative strategy. Even where movement-building activities are at a relatively low level, consisting of loose assemblages of local groups of modest size, such groups can provide key organizing nodes at times of crisis. They provide a place that people can turn to for knowledgeable and trusted opinions on the relevant issues, and places where they can go to talk to each other about the meaning of events. Both are essential to resisting propaganda, which is most effective when addressing masses of isolated, fearful individuals. These organizations also provide on-the ground-infrastructure: offices where meetings can be held, phones and copying machines, staff people who can take on the tasks of coordinating emerging coalitions.

        The groups that immediately organized events in support of Oakland, California Congressional Representative Barbara Lee for her lone courageous vote against the open-ended grant of war powers to Bush after 9/11, for example, were locally-based, not national, organizations. They went on to form part of the core of regional organizing for a peaceful response to 9/11 and, later, against the Iraq war. Although some of these organizations also do work on the national and even international level, they have kept their connection and accountability to their region, both sustained by and sustaining the Bay Area’s consistently progressive politics.

        The tensions between the class of professionals who currently control both the Democratic Party and most mainstream pressure groups, on the one hand, and a growing proportion of activists in the new wave of movements for peace, global justice, and an ecologically sustainable world may stem from causes more significant than differences about tactics. The ultimate dividing line may be between those who believe that fundamental social change is needed to make meaningful progress on issues that matter–– issues of war and peace, of social justice, of whether we will leave our descendants a planet than can sustain them as it did those who came before us–and those who believe that incremental change is enough, or is all we can hope for. Moreover, that line may separate those who believe that the times demand actions which will require people to stand together against powerful, violent and essentially lawless forces, both in and out of government, and those who believe that things are not that bad, and that some variant on a less risky “politics as usual” will suffice.
        The pressure to accommodate power always will be with us, often speaking the language of “reasonableness.” At the crest of the last great wave of resistance and striving for democracy and social justice in this country, Martin Luther King, criticized for speaking out not only for civil rights but against the Vietnam War, offered these thoughts:

        “One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?’” In reply to views of this kind, King said, “‘On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

        As Cornell West has pointed out, “without a vibrant tradition of resistance passed on to new generations, there can be no nurturing of a collective and critical consciousness-- only professional conscientiousness survives... Without a credible sense of political struggle, there can be no shouldering of a courageous engagement-- only cautious adjustment is undertaken.” The last two decades of progressive politics in the United States has been one “cautious adjustment” after another. Across the landscape of mainstream politics, careful careerist professionalism is the rule, courageous engagement is nowhere to be found. It is time to start building traditions of resistance anew. Such traditions cannot be designed by experts, mass-produced, and consumed. We must make them for ourselves, together, and by doing so discover who we truly are.

* Andrew Lichterman is a long-time peace and environmental activist who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay region of California. He can be contacted at www.al.marginalnotes.org