Sadly enough, progressive ideas aren’t permeating our society anywhere near as quickly or defiantly as right-wing ones.
To begin, an anecdote. This past summer, a pigeon walked through my open balcony door while my attention was elsewhere. I shooed it out, but when I turned around two more pigeons walked out of my bedroom. In the 20 years I’ve lived in my apartment, this had never happened to me, though my balcony door was often open. All I could imagine was that those poor birds had gotten as disoriented as the rest of us in these pandemic years when nothing feels faintly normal.
But what is normal, anyway? Decades filled with war, inequity, poverty, and injustice? Really? Is this what we want — a society clearly failing its people?
There are, of course, many groups working in wonderful ways to improve our lives, each of them a harbinger of what’s possible. These would certainly include Black Lives Matter, reproductive-rights organizations, and climate-change groups, as well as newly empowered union organizing, and that’s just to mention a few obvious examples.
But here’s the truly worrisome thing. These days such social-justice groups, inspirational as they may be, can barely be heard above the clamor of right-wing organizing and conspiratorial thinking, which seems to be gathering strength, leading toward an accretion of power across this land of ours. They’re doing so locally by getting onto school boards and city councils; by using social media to spread ever wilder racist, misogynist ideas; by encouraging racial hatred that results in nightmarish murders, most recently in Buffalo, New York, where a young white man slaughtered African-Americans in a supermarket. And by doing all this and more, the right wing has grown into a set of movements that continue to flourish nationwide with far too little forceful opposition.
Right-wing politicians, extremist groups, and their social-media outlets are anything but new. For years, however, they lingered in the shadows. Donald Trump’s presidency gave them permission to emerge all too vocally and capture the fealty of so many Republican lawmakers and voters. The threats to legal abortion, voting rights, marriage equality, and education (via book banning and curriculum reshaping) are just a few obvious aspects of American life now being menaced by a set of authoritarian, nationalist, racist political movements that are unfolding daily. The question, of course, is: What should the rest of us do to counter all of this?
We live on an ever more climate-endangered planet and in a society threatened by growing amounts of disinformation, misinformation, and a tendency toward extreme individualism. Consider just the growing number of anti-vax, anti-masking Republicans who equate their choices with the personification of freedom, which is really a fear of loss of control — white control, rich control, male control.
Sadly enough, progressive ideas aren’t permeating our society anywhere near as quickly or defiantly as right-wing ones. In the increasingly dangerous world we inhabit, it’s not enough to fire up anger by sending people into the streets for a single day of protest, even to shout No!, Stop!, Not in our name! It’s a shame — since they should matter — but such flare-ups don’t engender real change. Only consistent, visible grassroots organizing, local and national, might lead to the kinds of change that could affect political consciousness and alter a country that may be going the way of Trump far too quickly.
History as Proof
It’s encouraging to look back and note that, throughout our history, grassroots movements have made a genuine difference. Those who worked at change, day in, day out, year in, year out often succeeded in their struggles. They won child-labor laws and social security, promoted women’s suffrage and civil rights, and remade American society in other equally important ways. Sustained grassroots organizing by laborers, miners, teachers, and so many others created national unions, some of which then fought successfully for legislation of all kinds, not to speak of the creation of the Department of Labor itself in 1913 to give that movement a “voice in the cabinet.” Through determined organizing, unionization reached a high point during the 1940s and 1950s.
Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, unions began losing members and clout, a defeat only compounded by their inability to stop a great migration of plants and factories overseas. That phenomenon would, of course, devastate large swaths of the country, especially the industrial Midwest. In its wake, it left blue-collar workers in economic despair and losing confidence in both unions and government. Over time, those feelings would only enhance a rightward political shift.
After so many years, however, a new uptick in unionization seems to be underway. The recent surprise vote in favor of unionizing an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, after two years of organizing efforts, offers a striking example of how a vigorous, progressive, and consistent grassroots movement can achieve change and spur yet more organizing by others
But what is organizing anyway? Who can do it? How is it done?
Let me try to answer those questions in a personal way. In 1969, in the midst of this country’s war in Vietnam that swept so many of us into the streets, I became a member of a collective that organized an antiwar coffee shop. We opened it close to an Army base and many young soldiers came in. We offered them free coffee and cookies, music popular at the time, and of course ourselves to chat with every day of the week. We even left coins in a jar on the counter that could be used in a pay telephone booth to get in touch with family or friends.
I can remember talking with soldiers, many of them destined for Vietnam. We discussed the state of the country, class, race, and especially, of course, the ongoing war and what to do about it. We listened as well, learning much about those mostly working-class soldiers of all races and creeds: how they grew up, how they felt about basic training, and how they had learned what they knew. We, in turn, began to understand what influenced the thinking of those young men, many from rural areas of the country, including the role of disinformation in their political consciousness. That coffee-shop collective offered soldiers knowledge as power, knowledge to change consciousness.