Jonathan Cohn

How to Organize the Left

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Is Occupy Wall Street the beginning of a broader movement on behalf of economic opportunity and security for all Americans? Perhaps. But it will take a lot of work.

Nobody knows that better than Rich Yeselson, a strategic researcher at Change to Win who knows a thing or two about organizing -- and history. Guest posting over at Wonkblog, Yeselson explained what needs to happen next:

anger alone can’t sustain action. And action alone can’t sustain political militancy. Much like today’s Wall Street movement, the French students who struck their universities during the Events of May 1968 had a charming way with utopian sloganeering: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!” as they said back then. But the students couldn’t work out a sustained alliance with their working-class allies or move to making structural demands for change that their militancy could leverage. They were not, in fact, realistic. In the end, a massive Gaullist backlash cleaned their clocks.

Movement building is exhausting, highly skilled work. What appears to be “spontaneous” is the result of painstaking organizing and--just like Oscar Wilde never said--constant meetings. Over the decades, social movements have convened meetings of every kind and size, from the farmer’s alliances of the Populist movement to the consciousness raising sessions of the second women’s movement. There have been meetings to assign mundane tasks of list building and phone calling to volunteers; meetings to debate and decide changes in strategy; meetings to hold people accountable for the stuff they promised to do at the last meetingmeetings meetings meetings.

Experienced organizers teach the less experienced and expand the circle of competent leadership. Rosa Parks was an activist veteran. Key CIO staff who organized the steel industry in the late 1930s got their start by organizing the great 400,000 worker strong steel strike of 1919. Betty Friedan was no novice housewifeshe worked for a militant, leftist union in the 1940s. And today academics are learning that the Tea Party is composed not only of the newly disgruntled, but also of many people who have been politically active, some of them since the Goldwater campaign.

And what’s striking about the Tea Party after two plus years is not the Koch brother’s seed money, or the disruptions of congressional town hall meetings in 2009, but, more impressively and relentlessly, the sheer numbers of grass roots chapters around the country that regularly meet in order to implement their pressure campaign on the Republican Party.

The whole essay is worth reading.

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