Social justice activists win myriad campaigns on specific issues each year, but when we step back, it still looks like we’re losing the broader struggle for a livable future.
Despite our best efforts, we still face unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power, expanding economic insecurity (the “gig” economy), environmental catastrophe and systemic racism.
Why have progressives failed to mobilize a force capable of governing the U.S.?
Recently, I found a compelling explanation — and a prescription for winning the long game. It’s a short, free booklet called Dismantling Democracy by Donald Cohen, executive director of the national nonprofit research and policy organization called In the Public Interest.
The booklet is divided into two sections — first, how our right-wing adversaries deliberately worked us into this mess over the last 50-plus years, and second, 10 things we could do together now to develop a long game, to “build a movement and a nation rooted in protecting and advancing the common good,” as Cohen writes.
At its core, the right-wing agenda of the last 50-plus years has been an assault on government. They want us to believe that government is represented by potholes in our streets, long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and “socialism” that creates a nation of “dependent moochers.” Their solution is to privatize government functions — schools, water departments, prisons, the military, and more, cutting taxes to “starve the beast” and shrink government so small they can drown it in a bathtub.
Why did the right wing spend decades demonizing government? There are three big reasons.
First, negative attitudes toward government have allowed the right to sustain their agenda of austerity (cut taxes, then cut benefits), privatization (it’s so much more “efficient,” wink, wink) and deregulation of big corporations (unleash the “job creators”). Destroying faith in government has allowed the rich and powerful to take control of government and rewrite the rules to make themselves even richer and more powerful, eliminating “majority rule” from our political system, which they set out to do in the 1950s.
Second, bashing government convinced huge numbers of secret progressives and “undecideds” that voting is a waste of time — no matter who wins, all you get is more useless government. As a result, even in a presidential election, 40 percent of eligible voters don’t even bother to vote. In midterm elections, 60 percent don’t vote.
The third reason is that government plays an essential role in every issue that progressives and liberals care about. Discredit government, disarm progressives. As Cohen puts it, “living wage campaigns use the power of government purchasing to lift economic standards; inclusionary housing policies employ the land use power of government to increase the amount of affordable housing; mass-transit systems rely on public spending of tax dollars; Social Security and Medicare depend on the government’s unique ability to create universal social-insurance programs; the Clean Air Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act that protect public health rely on the regulatory powers of the state. These are the essential public powers that have created every policy victory from National Labor Relations Act to banking reform, and much more.” No wonder the right has spent more than five decades changing the public perception of government — government is the progressives’ friend if sympathetic people hold office and they work for the public good.
Corporate executives began campaigning in the 1950s to demonize government (they hated Roosevelt’s New Deal and set out to roll it back). Despite their best efforts, Social Security and unemployment benefits have survived (so far), but the right wing totally succeeded in destroying public faith in government. In 1964, during President Lyndon Johnson’s first term, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” Asked the same question in 2019, only 17 percent of Americans said they trusted their government.
Instead of focusing on taking control (by voting) and changing the all-important “who” in government, we progressives surrendered it to our adversaries, who were only too happy to turn the mighty power of government to their own narrow advantage using clever, consistent, concerted strategies. They made “government is hopeless” the conventional wisdom, and then they turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy by gutting the capacity of government to promote the common good. As Paul Krugman wrote recently, “decades of conservative attacks on the idea that government can do anything good have left America with a unique case of learned helplessness” unable to control a pandemic that has killed more than 151,000 people — most of them unnecessarily — and is ravaging our economy.
The only real antidote to decades of anti-government propaganda would be a long-game campaign to rehabilitate the idea that lifting up “public purpose” and “the public good” is how we can all thrive.
The second half of Cohen’s little book spells out 10 strategies for building a coherent, powerful progressive movement to win the long game. It requires finding spaces and times for progressives to discuss and clarify their ideas, to develop “a clear and forceful restatement of the comprehensive case for effective government,” and to develop a clear statement of the kind of country we want to build. It means thinking creatively about how progressive groups are funded — as it is, they compete against each other for foundation and labor dollars. It means working through the racism, classism, sexism and other social issues within our own movements as well.
The good news is, despite decades of government-bashing, large majorities of the general public still believe government should play a “major role” in keeping everyone safe, healthy, educated and able to pursue happiness.
Even before the pandemic, a full 89 percent of Americans said public health plays an important role in the well-being of their community. In December 2017, 87 percent told the Pew Research Center that government should have a “major role” in “ensuring safe food and medicine.” And three-quarters favored a “major role” for government in protecting the environment (76 percent), “maintaining infrastructure” (75 percent) and strengthening the economy (75 percent). Fully two-thirds said the government should have a “major role” in “ensuring access to quality education” (68 percent), “setting standards for workplaces” (65 percent), “helping people get out of poverty” (67 percent) and “ensuring access to health care” (69 percent).
People know what they want, and they know they’re not getting it from government. That’s a huge opportunity for progressives. As George Goehl of People’s Action likes to say, government is not the problem, it’s the prize.