Sam Smith, 2020 – One of the problems I have with activism these days is that we seem to have lost both the capacity and desire to convert the weak. Too often there is a style I’ve come to think of as evangelical liberalism in which organizers and those who agree with them will allegedly be saved, but the rest will just go to hell.
Philosophy aside, this is not particularly good activism or politics. It eliminates large numbers of people whose misplaced positions and priorities are often the direct result of false propaganda by the powerful and fears for which the system provides no solution. For example, as noted here before, the currently widely used term “white privilege” can’t be expected to be received well by poor whites who number twice as many as poor blacks. And there is little sense, as Martin Luther King wanted us to hope, that some day our enemies might be our friends.
A handy alternative approach is to attack the strong for their evils, but covert the weak they have falsely convinced. One reason the latter have been fooled, for example, is because the percent of workers who belong to a labor union that might educate them towards more progressive views is one third what it was in the 1950s. In terms of influence, there is no equivalent alternative to the lies and misdirection of a Donald Trump.
The decline of churches and other forms of community is another factor working against us. There are too many who live in too small worlds that work against understanding a more decent and collective approach.
At the same time, broad as our current problems are, we tend to ignore the fact that we have made considerable progress in recent decades thanks in part to the changed minds of Americans who once favored segregation and other forms of ethnic bias. One small example from Black Demographics:
Of the 100 largest cities in the country, 39 have had elected black mayors. In 2018, 57.1% of black mayors served in cities (over 40,000) that did not have a black majority population…. Perhaps the introduction and prevalence of the Black mayor has helped America become more comfortable with Black politicians in positions of major leadership. In 2018 there were about 32 Black Mayors of cities with populations of more than 40,000 according to our estimates.
Or consider this story from Associated Press: ‘More Americans than in 2015 say police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than a white person, 61% today compared with 49% in 2015. Only about a third of Americans say the race of a person does not make a difference in the use of deadly force, compared with roughly half in 2015. And 65% say that police officers who cause injury or death in the course of their job are treated too leniently by the justice system, compared with 41% in 2015.”
And a recent Slate story by Priya Satia tells the tale of a a police officer in British India who “quit after five years out of a deep sense of shame, evident in his first published piece, in which the narrator, a police officer in Burma, is quietly complicit in the execution of a colonial subject… A dog is the only being that acknowledges the prisoner’s humanity, jumping up to lick his face, to the crowd’s horror.”
That police officer was a guy named George Orwell who went on to write 1984.
The point is that people do change for the better and successful activism is based on this assumption and the skills with which to achieve it.
I attribute evangelical liberalism in part to the fact that the liberals are much better educated and better off financially than was the case, say, in the New Deal or Great Society.
Take for example the case of Frances Perkins, the Roosevelt labor secretary who during her term of office, championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With The Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service.
Name any leading Democrat in the past fifty years who can come close that.
In fact, the Perkins model offers a hint of what black, latino and white liberals could be doing now together. With the economic chaos that awaits the end of our lockdown, we will need to be redefining how money is created and used, instituting reforms such as a guaranteed income and more cooperatives, and providing decent places and programs for those most hardly hit by the current disaster. This provides an opportunity for progressives of all ethnicities to join in a cause of substance, and blacks and latinos could lead the way.
The best way to get a real progressive national movement is to confront the powerful but convert the weak.