Why Movements Matter: Paradigm-Shifting Elections Don't Shift Paradigms If There Aren't Corresponding Social Movements for Change

Article excerpt

One thing we now know with certainty, more than two years into Barack Obama's presidency, is that change is an uphill battle. We're already defending hard-won gains on health care and financial reform (not to mention the fundamental legislation of the New Deal and the Great Society), and any hope for progress on civil liberties and immigration now seems remote. Even urgent action on jobs has been eclipsed by deficit-cutting zeal.

But this sobering period has also seen inspiring moments of push-back--glimmers of hope that signal momentum on several core priorities for social-justice advocates. They could be fleeting, or they could signal a resurgence of the progressive engagement that captivated so many just three years ago. Whether such a revival emerges is up to us.

That's why the next major project for progressives is not an election. Rather, it is to take a page from the Tea Party and knit what might seem like disparate actions into movement-building--both to create a lasting constituency for change and to rewrite the increasingly hostile public narrative that has come to shape every key policy debate of our time.

The 2010 November elections demonstrated the power of the Tea Party as a serious force in our politics. But this rightward shift also roused many core progressive constituencies, which began to press the Obama administration for concrete results while simultaneously defending against extreme rightwing overreach. On three big issues, we've seen signs of life:

Labor. For organized labor, the last six months have been one of the most sustained periods of activism in generations. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker's plan to eliminate collective-bargaining rights was met by the largest crowds in Madison since the Vietnam War. The protests--at times more than 70,000 strong--began with a strike by public schoolteachers and grew as public and private unions stood together "with magnets in our shoulders," as one worker said.

In Indiana, protests organized by the AFL-CIO drew more than 10,000 people to the state Capitol where the uproar held off the worst of Gov. Mitch Daniels' anti-union proposals. In Ohio, thousands more workers protested Gov. John Kasich's S.B. 5 anti-union bill, which strips Ohio labor unions of many of their collective-bargaining rights. This wasn't enough to stop the bill from passing, but the recent mobilizations have laid the groundwork for the fall elections, when S.B. 5 is expected to go to voters for a referendum.

This activism has spread to other parts of the country. In Washington state, the Service Employees International Union and the Washington Federation of State Employees drew thousands of protesters to demand that the Legislature close corporate tax loopholes as a way to stave off harsh cuts to public services and layoffs of public employees.

Economic Justice. In March, the grassroots advocacy network National People's Action brought hundreds of people to a meeting of state attorneys general in Washington, D.C., to pressure for an aggressive national settlement with big banks on mortgage fraud. NPA leaders facing foreclosure shared their stories with a representative of the attorneys general and demanded that banks be prosecuted for their illegal activities. The NPA has organized dozens of actions and events to hold Wall Street accountable this year, along with rallies in state capitals to protest corporate tax breaks.

National People's Action is just one organization tapping into the outrage over America's growing economic divide. The group US Uncut, founded in February, organized rallies in dozens of cities to demand that corporate "tax cheats" pay up. And groups like Working America, Center for Community Change, U.S. Action, and many others have worked to mobilize the populist anger over jobs and economic inequality. (Full disclosure: Both the NPA and CCC have received grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies, with which the authors are affiliated. …