What are the prospects for a progressive movement in the United States?

It is hard to remember that American politics has experienced times of profound reflection upon and criticism of the premises of modern urban, capitalist, democratic life. Engagement in progressive issues and progressive political movements has a strong history in the U.S. The period of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War was one such time, when institutionalized racism and imperialistic use of military power were the subjects of political debate and activism. An earlier period of profound reflection about our premises was the Progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century. And the resonance that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have had with large numbers of younger voters suggests that it is not impossible that we may experience another period of serious progressive thought. It’s hard to remember today, in the grips of the most right-wing extremist government our country has seen in a century, that the temper of a time often changes in unpredictable ways.

What would it take for a progressive political movement to become mainstream in the U.S.? For one thing, it seems unlikely to imagine that it will all come from a “youth movement”. The sixties anti-war movement did in fact find a very strong base in universities, but those circumstances were probably fairly exceptional and context-specific: for example, the fact that young men faced the Selective Service focused the minds of many young people on the apparent looniness of the war in Southeast Asia. But the social and cohort composition of the Civil Rights movement seems to have been somewhat different — a broader range of ordinary people were involved, at a variety of levels, and young people played a role that was only part of the activism of the time. There were student-based organizations, of course; but there were also broad-based coalitions of faith-based, occupation-based, and regionally-based individuals who were ready and willing to be mobilized. And the Progressive Movement at the beginning of the twentieth century appears to have involved many hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people, farmers, and professionals. The Pullman Strike of 1894 involved at least 250,000 workers in 27 states, and in the presidential election of 1904 Eugene Debs received some 403,000 votes as candidate for the Socialist Party of America, some 3% of the total vote.

What issues seem to be key for building a strong and impactful progressive movement in the U.S. in the 2020s? Activism about the imperative of addressing climate change is one. The issue of extreme, unjustified, and growing inequalities of wealth and income is another. And the failures of American society in addressing the inequalities associated with race and immigration status constitute another urgent issue of concern for progressives.

If we take as a premise that the issues that are most likely to stimulate activism and sustained political commitment are those that are perceived to be key to the future of one’s group, each of these issues has an obvious constituency. Climate change affects everyone, and it affect young people the most. They will live their lives in a world that is in permanent environmental crisis — intense storms, rising ocean levels, destruction of habitat — that will create enormous disruption and hardship. Rising inequalities represent a crisis of justice and fairness; how can it possibly be justified that the greatest share of the new wealth created by innovation and economic recovery flowed to the top 1% or the top 10%? And why should the 99% or the 90% tolerate this injustice, decade after decade? And the social harm of racism affects everyone, not just people of color. The Civil Rights movement demonstrated the potency of this issue for mobilizing people across racial groups and across regions to protest and to demand change.

And yet, these issues are not new. The Occupy movement focused on the inequalities issue, but it came and went. There is broad support in the population for policies that will slow down the processes of climate change, but this support does not appear to be easy to turn into activism and effective popular demands against our government. The government continues to push back environmental regulation and to go out of its way to flout the global consensus about CO2 emissions and climate change. And activism about racism arises periodically, often around police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement; but this activism is sporadic and intermittent, and doesn’t seem to have created much meaningful change.

The question of uncovering the factors that lead to a widespread shift of engagement with new politics is one of the key topics in Doug McAdam’s account of mobilization during the Civil Rights movement in the introduction to the second edition of Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition. Consider this diagram of his view of the interactive nature of contention:

Here is McAdam’s description of the theory involved here. 

The figure depicts movement emergence as a highly contingent outcome of an ongoing process of interaction involving at least one set of state actors and one challenger. In point of fact, while I focus here on state/challenger interaction, I think this perspective is applicable to episodes of contention that do not involve state actors. (KL 280)

 This implies that new political thinking and a corresponding social movement do not generally emerge on their own, but rather through contention with another group or the state concerning issues that matter to both. It is a dynamic process of contention and mental formulation involving both status-quo power holders and challengers. And it is an interactive process through which each party develops its own interpretations of the current situation and the opportunities and threats that currently exist through interaction with the other group. This process leads to the formation of “organization / collective identity” — essentially a shared vision of who “we” are, what we believe in and care about, which in turn supports the emergence of a round of “innovative collective action”. The crucial part of his theory is that there is interaction between the two groups at every stage — interpretation, formation of collective identity, and choice of collective actions. Each party influences and shapes the identity and behavior of the other.

So let’s say that the “challengers” of the decade of the 2020s care primarily about three things: reducing the enormous economic inequalities that exist in our society, controlling climate change, and increasing the power of dispossessed groups to advocate for the issues they care about (abortion rights, Black Lives Matter, and achieving more favorable treatment of immigrants). And the forces of the status quo want three things as well: a favorable environment for corporate profits, secure control of the Federal court system, and no change in racial equality and immigrant status. How might the dynamic that McAdam describes play out?

Some of the political mechanisms of mobilization that are described in Dynamics of Contention are relevant for thinking about this scenario. Brokerage, coalition formation, and escalation are strategies available to the “new progressives”. They can seek to find common ground among a range of groups in society who are poorly served by the reigning conservative government. But it will also emerge that there are serious disagreements about priorities, rankings, and willingness to struggle for a common set of goals. The goal of brokerage and coalition formation is to create broader and more numerous (and therefore potentially more influential) groups who will support a common agenda. But achieving collaboration and consensus is hard, and often not achieved.

And what about the “forces of the status quo”? The strategies available to them are already visible through their actions since 2008 to entrench their blocking powers within state and federal government: retreat on voter rights and voter participation; use the primary process to ensure that extreme versions of the conservative agenda find support in candidates nominated for office; undermine the political power of labor unions; use the ideological power of government to discredit the progressive opposition (disloyal, favorable to terrorists, enemies of business, …); and, in the extreme case, use the police and surveillance powers of the state to discredit and undermine the organizations of the progressive movement. (Think of the use of agents provocateurs against the Black Panther party in the 1960s and 1970s through infiltration and misdirection as well as the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago.)

All too often the balance of forces between coalition building on the left and the right seems to favor the right; somehow the groups on the left in the United States in the past several decades seem to have been more insistent on ideological purity than those on the right, with the result that the progressive end of the spectrum seems more fragmented than the right. And somehow the organs of the media that have the greatest influence on political values in voters seem to be in the hands of the far right — Fox News and its commentators in particular. There is also the common background assumption on the left that only profound structural “revolutionary” change (socialism, rejection of electoral politics) will do; whereas typical voters seem to want change that proceeds through the institutions we currently have. 

Current activism in France over reforms of the pension system has several features that make it more feasible than progressive politics in the U.S. First, it is a focused single issue whose consequences are highly visible to everyone. Second, there is a long tradition in France of using strikes, demonstrations, and street protests to apply pressure on the government. These are the “repertoires of contention” that are so important in Charles Tilly’s analysis of French popular politics. Third, the “gilets jaunes” present a very recent and potent example of collective action that was successful in applying a great deal of pressure on the government. It is possible to think of steps that the U.S. government might take that would spark similar levels of national protests (abolition of the Social Security system, for example), but many other provocations by the Trump administration have not sparked ongoing and effective protests (reversal of EPA regulations, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, legislative attacks on the Voting Rights Act, appointments of hundreds of reactionary  and unqualified hacks to seats on the Federal bench, a “feed the rich” tax reform, massive ICE roundups of immigrants, …). 

Perhaps the identity that has the greatest potential for success in the U.S. is a movement based on “reasserting the values of democracy and equality” within the context of a market economy and a representative electoral democracy. This movement would demand tax policies that work to reduce wealth inequalities and support a progressive state; environmental policies that align the U.S. with the international scientific consensus on climate change; healthcare policies that ensure adequate universal insurance for everyone; immigration policy that made sensible accommodations to the realities of the current U.S. population and workforce, including humane treatment of Dreamers; and campaign funds restrictions that limit the political influence of corporations. The slogan might be, “Moving us all forward through social justice, economic innovation, and good government.” This might be referred to as “centrist progressivism”, and perhaps it is too moderate to generate the passion that a political movement needs to survive. Nonetheless, it might be a form of progressivism that aligns well with the basic pragmatism and fair-mindedness of the American public. And who might serve as a standard bearer for this progressive platform? How about someone with the political instincts and commitments of a Carl Levin, a Harris Wofford, or a Sherrod Brown?

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