FLOTSAM & JETSAM: National politics doesn’t invent change; it reacts to it

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

National politics doesn’t invent change; it reacts to it

Sam Smith – I’m having a hard time talking about politics even with friends these days because my view of it differs dramatically from what so many think. For example, I don’t see politics as an expression of beliefs comparable to religion, but rather as a pragmatic game you have to play in order to help your ideals come to fruition. 

In more than 60 years of journalism and activism, I have learned to separate how I form my goals from how I engage in politics, not because the latter is irrelevant to the former, but because I view politics – especially national politics - as a battlefield on which one must fight in order to move goals towards acceptance by the establishment. I don’t view national politicians as mentors, saints or guardians, but as the final hassle between dreams and a better reality.  Politics – especially national politics - doesn’t invent change; it reacts to it.

And positive change rarely comes from the top until it is forced to react to popular trends. I discussed this in my book, The Great American Political Repair Manual:

In 1992 alone, the 100 largest localities pursued an estimated 1700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government between 1983 and 1991. Another example has been the drive against smoking. While the tobacco lobby ties up Washington, 750 cities and communities have passed indoor smoking laws. And then there is the Brady Bill [to control hand guns]. By the time the federal government got around to acting on it, half the states had passed similar measures.

More recently consider how important state and local government have been in passing laws related to abortion, gay rights and marijuana.

And as I argued last year in Green Horizons:

Greens not only do better at the lower levels, they actually have more power to change things. For example, although I can't prove it, I believe that twenty years of active Green politics in Maine helped to produce successes this year on several referenda including ranked choice voting (the first state to approve it), a tax on the wealthy for education, a public works bond, and an increase in the minimum wage.

There is, unfortunately, an assumption in Green and liberal Democratic circles that the federal government is the best place to get big things done. But history - including abolition and women’s right - tells us that it only typically happens after much hard work lower down.

The other factor that today’s liberals and Greens tend to ignore is the multi-cultural aspect of change. For example, I noted in the Green Horizon piece:

From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of "reform vs. revolution," the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making "immediate demands" of a reformist nature. By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the 20th century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. And Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history.

Coalition politics requires putting issues ahead of identity. This is not a denial of identity; it is only a recognition that if fellow blacks make up only 12% of the country or fellow union members represent only 11% of the workforce, a primary political job is to find friends. They may not agree with you on all your concerns, but the mere fact you find something to work together with them about will start to lessen your differences.

We have lost this drive for coalitions for a variety of reasons including the atomization of culture thanks to the Internet and urbanization, but if it worked in the past – as in the 1960s – it can work again. You just have to find issues you can join with others on despite the fact that you don’t agree with them on everything. And you have to start at the local and,  as you move upwards in politics, don’t look for saints, but for the most electable candidates whom you can influence in a positive way. Your politics and activism are not to be judged by standards of religious virtue but by the best candidates and coalitions that offer the opportunity of further change.