Want a slogan that captures the gist of progressive political strategies in America today? Too little, too late sums it up nicely. While conservatives invest hundreds of millions each year in a vast network of think tanks, media outlets, and talent recruitment centers all focused on spreading their vision of America, progressives remain divided against ourselves in a hundred issue silos and mired in reactionary tactics that constantly keep us on the defensive. Conservatives dominate the media landscape and set the bounds of our political discourse. And we tend to feel powerless to stop them because we lack the capacity to build an effective response.
Add to this the fact that corporate money has a stranglehold on both political parties. While conservatives align with powerful political institutions through the Republican Party, we find ourselves in the inconvenient position of having to struggle against corporate Democrats who benefit from the elite power structures standing in the way of progress. So we must contend with conservative media and a larger political system that is structurally aligned with preserving a conservative status quo.
This has to change.
We need a new approach to political strategy that gets us out of this rut. Not only do we need better strategies (more on this in a moment), we also need better methods and models for cultivating and implementing them. It just isn’t enough to take the tools of yesterday and apply them to the challenges of tomorrow. We have to be innovative. We have to constantly learn and grow, evolving to meet the changing needs of our movement.
And America needs the progressive movement to be strong!
Consider this. Research on political psychology has shown that people who align with conservatism tend to have high anxiety about change, and embrace authoritarian structures as a way to preserve external stability and control. In today’s turbulent times, this means conservatives are having a hard time coping. They hunker down and cling to ideas that applied to a different era, or lash out against changes that they aren’t equipped to handle.
Conversely, the psychology of liberals aligns more with tolerance of ambiguity and a greater ability to consider alternative perspectives. This is why we are better equipped to see the suffering of marginalized groups and push the envelope on cultural issues, even when we don’t know what society will look like after we make a change. Add that were also better at envisioning what possible futures will look like if we do attempt change, and it’s easy to understand why America has always turned to progressives whenever a large-scale reorganization of society has become necessary.
So it makes sense that we call ourselves progressives. We have a natural predilection toward progress, and the necessary skills and attitudes that make us change agents and social entrepreneurs. It is time to take pride in what we do to advance civilization—and to put our unique talents to work to re-make and re-define the structures that tie our country to an outdated status quo.
The Big Picture
The progressive movement needs a brand identity—a Big Picture that sets out the values, principles and ideas that guide our thinking, communication, and policies.
We need to spell out what things like climate action have to do with gay rights and why ending the genocide in Darfur sits beside corporate governance as a concern we all share.
We wont be truly effective until we can describe the Big Picture that all our various causes fit into—the ethical basis that drives every decision we make and every action we choose. The pieces hang together in the “mushy” (that is: intangible, non-quantifiable, and often highly emotional) space of shared values and social norms, the moral worldview that constitutes our progressive ideology. Without that strong collective vision, we cant galvanize our movement into a coherent community capable of collective action—let alone offer the rest of the country an inspiring vision of the future wed like to lead them to.
This handbook builds on the foundational insight that social movements hang together around three things:
- A shared identity comprising the core values, worldview, and character of the movement;
- A vividly detailed, richly compelling vision of the better world that the movement seeks to create; and
- An oppositional threat that the movement pushes against in order to right a fundamental wrong in society.
Of course, a movement also needs the resources—people, ideas, materials, money, and connections etc.—to get this out. This is the necessary matrix that ties any movement together; the common soil out of which a thousand flowers can bloom, eventually evolving into a complex, self-reinforcing, and highly adaptive ecosystem.
The progressive movement in America today has all of these necessary elements. We just havent formally articulated them and put them forward at the center of our agenda. This handbook, with its unique approach to collaborative engagement, will begin the process of remedying this situation.