Democratic Underground

Power and Powerlessness

March 15, 2006
By Joseph Hughes

I'm power hungry. I'm not afraid to admit that. So I'll say it again: I'm power hungry. Guess what? There's nothing wrong with that. And the time has come for we progressives to recognize that fact.

Sure, it's easy to harbor distaste for power, especially when we see what those in charge today have done with it. But I contend that power, in the sense that it represents the ability to achieve a purpose, doesn't make people inherently good or bad. It just allows them to make their vision of the world a reality.

If you have a positive vision, which we do, then to be afraid of power is to be afraid of the means we need to see our hopes realized. Powerlessness, therefore, is a far more dangerous concept, one that prevents us from reshaping our world for the better.

Think of what good-hearted, optimistic Americans have been able to achieve when they haven't been afraid of power. They ended slavery. They got women and African Americans the right to vote. They helped the poor, the sick and the elderly. Now, these achievements didn't happen solely because people wished them so. They happened because those with a progressive vision were able to use the tools of power to their advantage. Those tools - organized money, people and ideas - are at the core of true change.

When I look around the progressive world, I see an abundance of great ideas. Ending the war in Iraq. Providing health care for all Americans. Breaking our reliance on fossil fuels. Fighting for equal rights. Protecting the freedom of choice. Lifting up everyone, not just a select few. One of our strengths, therefore, is what many would consider our weakness: A diversity of issues. We win on our issues. Our issues built this country. And our issues will save it.

What I also see when I look around the progressive world are inspiring people. Strong leaders. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds armed with a desire to see things change. Not just those at the national level giving voice to our concerns - the Russ Feingolds of the world. But those on the state and local level, too. Everywhere you look - except the Bush administration - you'll find people with a positive vision and the desire to see it realized.

What I'm starting to see more of is money. Now, we'll never be able to match the financial backers of the Republican Party, but we shouldn't let that stop us from using what we do have wisely. Those at the top need to realize the grassroots is more than an ATM. Conversely, we need to do a better job of making our money work for us. Because the key to each of these three tools - ideas, people, money - is organization. Without that organization, all we have is our hope. And that's great, but it doesn't get us the power we need to turn things around.

If there's one thing my time at Camp Wellstone and my interactions with fellow progressives taught me, it's that we can't rely on elections alone. What we need is a progressive movement that leads to the institutionalization of our ideals. In plain English, we need to be in this for the long run, not just the first Tuesday in November. Yes, elections are great and they can help give us the officials and initiatives we desire, but they're not the end-all and be-all of the progressive world. Too often, we move the big tent into town right before November, only to pull up stakes immediately after. This is a crucial mistake.

We can rectify those mistakes by recognizing the necessity of both progressive movements and progressive institutions. While the two tend to have an adversarial relationship, it doesn't have to be that way. There can be a symbiotic relationship, one in which the changes achieved thanks to movement progressivism are preserved by long-lasting progressive institutions. Conservatives know this and have been successful at it for decades. There's no reason we can't do it better.

So how do we use the means at our disposal to achieve the ends we desire? Well, we keep doing what we're doing, while taking time to learn from our victories and our defeats. We continue to shape the opinions of those in charge. We keep fighting to put our issues on the agenda. We keep framing our progressive values in terms of what could be. We embrace our differences and band together to work to achieve everyone's goals. We find strength in numbers.

From a movement perspective, what I'd like to see is more institutional support for the initiatives that will lead to a brighter future. The organized people and ideas are, for the most part, already here. What we need is that final component, the organized money. Too often we've seen the blogosphere rally behind candidates and push them to the top of the mountain. Only institutional help will allow us all to push them over. Increased financial support would also mean more think tanks, more chances to push our message in the media, more opportunities to train the next generation of progressives. Trust us, with your help we can do great things. Don't diminish our efforts. That's what the right does.

What I'd also like to see is less timidity from our elected Democratic officials. The world is with us. America is with us. We're ready to fight. We've been ready. We're not afraid to take stands and ruffle some feathers if it means our agenda gains prominence. What is stopping our leaders from joining us? Surely they recognize how terribly the Bush administration is doing. That they're not exercising every last bit of their power to fight for our shared values is, to say the least, disheartening. I understand that the Republicans are in charge of everything, leaving our side with fewer opportunities to show strength. But an opposition party isn't doing its job if its leaders aren't opposing. The right didn't get to where it is by building bridges and holding back when the left was down. They stepped on our necks.

Conservatives mock us now. They see our opposition to the war, the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping and call us the fringe. They see our Web sites and tell us that the mainstream considers us irrelevant. They see our $10 and $20 donations and laugh. But they fear us. They fear what we can become if we organize around our money, people and ideas. They fear that America is starting to wake up, that people aren't being fooled by their distractions any longer. They fear that their shortfalls are now painfully obvious.

So they mock us, ridiculing progressives in an attempt to make us feel like the entire system is against us. That we don't belong. That way, their thinking goes, we'll lose our hope, we'll feel powerless. And if we lose the idea that we do matter, that we can make a difference, things will stay the way they are. Someone is benefiting from the way things are. It's just that those someones aren't us. But what are we willing to do about it?

Joseph Hughes is a graphic designer and writer by day and a liberal blogger by night. Read stories like this and many more at his blog, Hughes for America.

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