Culture Watch: What are Progressives to do?

September 1, 2016
By Jo Tavener

“When they tell us to get out of the way, because we’re standing in the way of the lesser evil, you know, the answer to that is that this politics of fear, which we’ve been told to bow down to, has only delivered everything we were afraid of… Don’t vote for the lesser evil, vote for the greater good”  It is hard not to see the truth behind these words spoken by Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the Green Party.*

Though some progress has been made over the past 50 years, mostly in identity politics — women, gay rights, civil rights, etc. — other areas have worsened at the hands of the Democrats. The list is long: mass incarceration, civil liberties, the rights of privacy, first amendment rights for investigative journalists and their sources, workers rights and demands for a progressive job program… Other areas are a mixed bag, like healthcare. Regarding foreign policy, we can blame the Republicans all we like, but it is Obama who is responsible for the policy of extending empire by means of killer drones, the TPP and NATO. We all know this, yet the question still remains, what do we do?

DemocracyNow hosted a debate between Chris Hedges and Robert Reich, who agreed with Hedges’ criticism of the political party duopoly, but hesitated to follow him into “the wilderness” of third party politics. Reich argued that we must support Hillary but continue to hold her accountable as we build on Bernie’s base, creating a mass movement and a progressive party to compete for power in 2020.

Hedges responded that political movements aren’t built that way. He has a point. Political campaigns don’t educate citizens about the nature of political power. Rather, progressive campaigns sustain the very system they wish to reform. I suspect Reich wouldn’t disagree with that either.

Hedges rejection of Reich’s solution also questions his very assumption that electoral politics can provide the necessary systemic reforms. Electoral politics isn’t just about open and clean voting procedures. It is also about the public’s ability to elect politicians who represent their interests and views. Given that the majority of Americans are to the left of Congress on so many issues, it is hard to see how electoral politics accomplishes the task.

Julian Assange raised similar issues at the Green Party convention. “We need to ask different questions by shifting our perspective to how power works in Washington, notably by a collusion of government, IT corporations and the corporate-owned mass media — a kinder fascism,” he suggested. Whoever becomes president represents the forces that surround him, seen in the appointments made for Defense, Treasury, State… “In reality, the president quickly merges with the bureaucracy; its influence is enormous. The power of political parties cannot compete with its influence, coupled with that of corporate lobbyists.”

One could make the case, and I assume that is what Hedges and Assange are doing, that the entire electoral process is a staged celebration of the American mythos, strengthening our patriotic loyalty to the nation and our tribal connection to the group. This year’s version of the spectacle revolved around the question, was America great or did we need to make it great again?

Even if we agree with Hedges and Assange, all is not lost. There was enough cognitive dissonance to put wind in the sails of Bernie’s campaign and anger enough to make Trump the Republican candidate. To hold on to the moment and its possibilities for building a mass movement, some group or party needs to offer followers of both candidates a path into the future without destroying the present and undercutting the few important gains that electoral politics could make: supreme court appointments, middling reforms in taxation, education, trade agreements and job creation.

The Green Party could be that path by forging alliances with other groups to hold local and national governments accountable. Most people are with us on the issues; just take a look at the polls. Where we need the juice is in fighting the defeatism that I see all around me. This is the perfect mission for those energized Bernie supporters who walked out of the Democratic Convention: speak about the forgotten battles of the 19th and 20th Century, battles for the very rights we are now trying to hold on to. The acquiescence to the powerful is what needs to be wiped away with local battles and local wins, with building community through political struggle. By building a local power base committed to structural reform and accountability, the Greens become the voice of reform, backed by a movement much larger than itself. It cannot be dismissed.

Our system has big tent parties that form alliances from within and then attempt to march to the same drummer — a much less democratic way of forming alliances and consensus than the parliamentary system. Still a new party can form at a moment such as ours and gain ground by understanding how power works and educating its members in the quest for popular hegemony, continuing Antonio Gramsci’s long walk through the institutions. As cognitive dissonance grows, so do resilience circles and other forms of powerful link-ups to apply pressure. We don’t need to build a movement from scratch; it’s already there and growing, waiting to be electrified!

*I have assumed a familiarity with the Green Party and platform for this piece.  Go to for platform details.

Jo Tavener is a member of the NewPeople Collective who writes the blog Culture Watch from time to time.


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