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Ask Auntie Pinko

February 2, 2006
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I am an activist currently working to build the progressive movement in this country. I look at how Bush's poll numbers are again rising - despite the failure of leadership following Katrina, despite the obvious lies that led us into the mistake that is Iraq, despite the scandals, despite the spying, despite all of it. I am starting to wonder what the use is in trying to fix a system for people who obviously don't care and/or don't understand. Is "America" a myth? Is it fixable?

Albany, NY

Dear John,

Thank you, on behalf of both myself and the young people I care about, for your work to build a progressive movement in America. Never, ever doubt that it is important. And never doubt that you are having an effect! There is, indeed, a broad progressive movement re-coalescing in America, a movement of immense significance for our country.

What we tend to forget, I think, is that in real life things like "movements" don't happen overnight, and their effects don't come all at once. Indeed, sometimes some of the most important changes result from actions that receive little, if any, public attention. The Revolution is NEVER televised. In fact, if you see it on television, it's not the Revolution. By the time it hits television, the Revolution is already over, and a new Revolution is a-brewing.

It is too easy for Americans, who have been conditioned to expect instant gratification and full media coverage, to forget that real change doesn't happen in the newspapers or on television, it doesn't happen in Presidential races, it doesn't happen on the Senate floor or even in the Supreme Court. Real change happens around kitchen tables, in little-noticed newsletters (or the modern equivalent, personal blogs - and not the big, famous 'cultural phenomenon' kind) on college campuses and in public library meeting rooms. It happens in offices and shops, in living rooms and on front porches, and the media is rarely, if ever, there to tell the story.

It takes decades for the effects of change to permeate a society as vast and complex as America. It took nearly fifty years for the last progressive revolution to come to fruition, and another fifty years for the reactionary revolution to reach the point it has reached now.

And just as the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Head Start seemed to be powerful signs that America was committed to progressive ideals, but were actually the last acts of the old progressive order, I believe we are seeing the same phenomenon now. We may be in for another ten to fifteen years of deep, wrenching struggle, but there are signs that the tide has indeed turned, and the era of regressive reaction has begun its inevitable decline.

One encouraging sign: when Mr. Bush demanded Congress cede its Constitutional power to declare war, the progressive movement mobilized enormous protests that startled many of our elected representatives. Yet the Democratic Party leadership in the Senate acceded to Mr. Bush's demands and voted to relinquish their authority to him, and 29 of 50 Democrats agreed. Last week, in another massive effort, progressives jammed the phone and fax lines to oppose the confirmation of Judge Alito. And the result was very different-not only did all but four Democrats vote against confirmation, but the Party leadership itself embraced a public repudiation of the Mr. Bush's choice in a highly visible filibuster attempt.

Yes, you can say "it doesn't matter, since we lost," but the point is that when something important was at stake (the war in Iraq) and the Democrats had the power to stop it, they didn't. Yet the "assured" confirmation of a man committed to dismantling Constitutional checks and balances was challenged by the leadership. And the rest of the Party, with remarkable unity, felt free to express their disapproval of Judge Alito even if many lacked the additional measure of certainty to join in that challenge. It's a sign, however small and insignificant, of a larger change happening under the surface.

Remember, John, that except for a small minority, human beings - even those whose natural inclinations are progressive in nature - regard change itself as unpleasant, threatening, something to be avoided. The power of inertia is enormous, and we are struggling against nearly fifty years of regressive effort and three decades of regressive power's diligent work to establish and institutionalize itself as "normality." It shouldn't be surprising how many people are remaining silent and compliant in the face of the current Administration's highly demonstrable incompetence and malfeasance.

Rather, we should take encouragement from the number of people who are starting, ever so timidly, ever so reluctantly, to ask awkward questions. We should be paying attention to the number of people who are now openly acknowledging their discomfort with the status quo, even if they're not ready to embrace change. If you're in the revolution business to win over "the people," get out and go into television! Get yourself a gig on "American Idol." Revolutionaries never win over the people, the best they can manage is a reluctant acquiescence to non-violent change, or a passive, ineffectual dislike of violent change.

By the time the progressive revolution becomes "normality," ten, fifteen - even twenty or twenty-five years down the road, the revolution itself will be long over, the revolutionaries gone home or entrenched in power as part of the status quo, and the change momentum will have passed back to the regressives. Then we progressives will be resisting change, just as we did in the 1970s and 1980s, and most of the 1990s. A rather ironic position for us, and not our most effective mode.

So take heart. Building the progressive movement is an effort that is succeeding, even if you can't see it from the trenches. Change that lasts doesn't happen overnight, and the fastest changes are rarely the most effective or permanent ones. Don't expect "the people" to love or trust change, no matter how bad the status quo may be. Keep applying the steady, strong pressure and we will rescue our environment from some of the worst risks, restore some of the world's trust in our foreign policies, solve a few of our most critical social policy dilemmas, and rebalance our economy to preserve our children from financial collapse and unending debt.

Of course, we will then have to start defending those modest gains and resisting the resurgence of regressive revolution, but sufficient unto the day, as they say... And thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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