Summary: The term “grassroots” acts as trump in American political debate, evoking immediate obeisance. Too bad it leads to a dead end. Our love of grassroot organizing, focusing on local communities and local action, makes the 1% smile. They have seen during the past few years how it allows them to continue gaining wealth and power in America with little effective opposition.
Today we look at an interview with John Stauber: “Does the Left Have a Future?”
Stauber is an investigative journalist, an author, founder of Center for Media and Democracy, and describes himself as a “public agitator”.
In CounterPunch, 25 December 2013. Hat tip to a comment by Steve H.
I agree with most of what Stauber says, but not this:
“The best way for people to make a difference is to personally work in organizations at the grassroots level around the critical local issues that most affect them…”
It is a common belief. Too bad it is a trap and delusion, on several levels.
(1) Power is increasingly wielded at the State and National levels
The critical issues that mostly affect people are increasingly decided not by local politics, but at the State and Federal levels. For example, the State government rules in the conflict over Gogebic Taconite’s proposed mine in northern Wisconsin; for details see Charles Pierce’s articles at Esquire: private “security” at work, big money carries the day, profile of a plutocrat.
(2) National organizations can build local units
Local organizations cannot easily appear across the nation without national sponsorship of some sort. The Tea Party movement shows how national organizations can spark the creation and drive the growth of grassroots organizations (details here). In the other direction, effective and spontaneous organization from the grassroots to a national level only rarely happens — and seldom succeeds.
(3) Relying on bottoms-up growth (local to national) is slow and clumsy
In politics we worship the invisible hand, hoping it will bless our works so that local organizations will spontaneously arise and combine into a force effective on a national scale. We hope in vain. Adam Smith cries at our folly.
Unfortunately, locally based organizations cannot easily or quickly unite to form an effective national organization. Power comes from strong leadership, ample finance, well-conceived doctrine and plans — culminating in coordinated action over years or decades. This requires intelligent design, noticeably absent in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.
(4) Relying on grassroots organizing fights the tide
As the 1% grows in power, they force civil and political organizations to centralize at a national level, so as to maximize their influence and depower the local elites who formerly ran them. Noteworthy examples are the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. This will be a difficult trend to fight. I have tried in my community, and utterly failed. For details see An Independence Day special report: I have seen the New America!, 5 July 2013.
Cautionary examples of weak organization
(a) The Tea Party: Born in opposition to bank bailouts, adamant in their refusal to build a national organization, it was easily co-opted to become shock troops for the bank friendly GOP (notable for its opposition to bank regulation that can reduce the odds of another crash like that of 2008). Without leadership to craft effective political strategies, they’ve become tools of far right-wing extremists — increasingly feared and despised by their fellow Americans. The history of the Tea Party Movement follows that of the John Doe Clubs., in that both were loose locally-based organizations created by elites and captured for their personal goals.
(b) The Occupy movement: adamant in their refusal to organize or craft coherent doctrine or goals, they became a typical peasants protest. Unable to command national respect. Easily crushed. Leaving little behind.
To reform America we must change our thinking — the way we see the world, ourselves, and our history. That’s a lesson of history, common to most successful great reform movements. But in terms of action, reform will begin as it always has — with organization. Organization begins by forging links with people sharing your goals.
In today’s America that means family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellows members of professional and fraternal societies, etc. Geographic proximity is only one of many dimensions of affinity; building a powerful force requires tapping as many dimensions as possible. Given modern communications and geographic mobility — the many tight regional and national networks that tie America together — that means national organizations can and should arise naturally quite early in the reform process.
Allowing this kind of rapid growth is a design imperative for a political movement just as much as for a dot.com.
Real reform will require us to do better than we have done so far. We need to get over ourselves, especially our belief that American exceptionalism puts us above the need to learn from the well-proven methods of past reform movements.
For More Information
These posts look at reform from different perspectives, from high-level theory to the nuts-and-bolts details.
(a) Posts about grassroots political organizations:
- Occupy Wall Street, another futile peasants’ protest, 5 October 2011
- Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
- Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”?, 27 January 2010
- Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”, 21 March 2010
- Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism, 15 May 2010
- How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 2011
- A new political party for a New America: the Tea Party GOP, 9 October 2013
- The Million Vet March, a typical peasants’ protest. Does it portend more serious protests in our future?, 13 October 2013
(b) Solutions to reform America:
- Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America, 1 December 2012
- Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance., 29 October 2013
- Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America, 24 November 2013
(c) Steps to reforming America:
- The sure route to reforming America
- A third try: The First Step to reforming America
- The second step to reforming America
- The third step to reforming America, with music
- How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America
- Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America
(d) Other posts about reforming America:
- Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
- How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
- The project to reform America: a matter for science or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
- Can we reignite the spirit of America?, 14 September 2010
- Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
- We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
- Thoreau reminds us about one of the few tools we have to control the government, 24 June 2013
- The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy, 27 June 2013
- Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013
- Understand our problem before you prescribe a cure for America. We’ve gone mad., 17 September 2013
- In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
- The missing but essential key to building a better America, 21 November 2013
- How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?, 20 December 2013
(e) Posts about using music as a tool to revitalize America:
- A great artist died today. We can gain inspiration from his words., 26 June 2009 — About the Man in the Mirror
- The New America needs a new national anthem! Here’s my nomination., 24 November 2012
- Listen to hear the state of America (and its cure) explained in song, 8 February 2013
- The third step to reforming America, with music, 3 September 2013