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Stop Whining, Start Winning
Think of a professional athletic team. What distinguishes those who win from those who lose? Talent and training, of course. But let's assume talent and training are essentially the same for some set of teams. Then what characteristics dstinguish them? Luck will be a factor, of course, but often it's attitude that will be most important. Those who think they can win and who confidently approach even difficult challenges as hills to dig up and remove, or to go around, or to climb over have a better chance of winning. Those who doubt that they can win and who approach even modest challenges as immovable mountains that irremediably obstruct their way forward, have virtually no chance of succeeding.
Now imagine a successful professional sports coach meeting with her/his team. Last weekend they lost. Now it's time to talk about the next game or the rest of the season. Does the coach bemoan the size and strength of the opponents? Does she/he talk endlessly about how the weather the schedule is horrible for her/his team? Does the coach list the team's detriments and the other team's strengths as if they are ordained by some athletic diety and are unbridgeable impediments to success? Not likely. The coach instead pays attention to reality, sure, but approaches each new game from the point of view of asking what the team is in position to affect. How can the team alter their choices and behaviors to win? If the coach spends each meeting listing the strengths of opponents without any clarification of how those strengths are to be overcome, the coach needs to get a new job and the team might as well take a vacation.
Now consider the Left. We might not like it, but we too have to try to win just like athletic teams do. Just playing well at improving society isn't enough. Winning ends wars, feeds the hungry, gives dignity to the exploited, and reduces their hardships. Winning can even create a new world without need for such struggles. On the other hand, just playing nicely or “fighting the good fight” but without winning or even arguably trying to win, and instead laying the seeds for further losses to come—well what is that good for?
Does the Left have a winning attitude? Can we have a good season with our current mindset? I submit that all too often the answer is no. All too often many of us look at the half full or quarter full (movement) glass and we don't just see a glass that is half or three quarters empty, which is true and needs to be recognized, of course, but we talk only about how much is missing and most especially. we do so in tones that suggest that it can never be full. We even see leaks in the glass where they don't exist and opponent's powers to drain the glass's contents that aren't real. Too few of us ask how we can get more into the glass, and how we can retain those we attract rather than having them evaporate? Too often we slip-slide right by sensibly analyzing the conditions we encounter all the way to whining about things we can't influence. Too often we pay little attention to the things about our approaches we could change for the better to remove or go around or climb over obstacles, much less mapping out agendas for doing so.
The fact is, whether we are talking about matters of class, race, gender, political power, ecology, international relations, or whatever else, our movements aren't nearly as large as they need to be to win short-run reforms or long-run new institutions.
But how many leftists write and speak about what's wrong with society without accompanying strategic commentary so that, even against our intent, it has more or less the impact of moaning about the size of next week's opponent? How many, in contrast, write and speak about why our movement doesn't grow faster or about why it loses members and what we can do to have better results? How many of us write or speak about the oppressiveness or power of the media or of the state or of corporations as compared to writing or speaking about the strategies needed in our movements to oppose the media's, state's, and corporation's power and oppressiveness, and about the potential power of our opposition and how it might be strengthened? And I mean “write and speak” not just in publications or at large conferences, but in our personal letters and email, and especially in our face-to-face conversations.
Extending the above sports analogy, a team or coach that doesn't know what it wants to achieve for the season will wind up wherever it is pushed by events but not as champion. So successful teams and their coaches map out clear goals. If we are not ready to try to be win this year, then next year, or the next. They attune their daily and weekly and seasonal agendas to their long-term goals.
Does the Left do that? Do we have goals for the economy, the polity, for families and kinship, for the culture, for international relations, for the ecology? Do we organize our thoughts about what to do today in light of not only our current strengths and weaknesses and the immediate conditions we confront and our immediate aims, but also in light of how all this relates to our long-term goals?
Most of the left disparages professional sports for its commercialism, sexism, racism, class relations, and so on. But it would help if we learned a little as well. These teams are the world's foremost competitors and, like it or not, we are in a competition, a struggle, based in class, gender, race, and political relations. Their experience reveals that if you whine you lose. On the other hand, if you confidently strategize, you have a chance to win. Likewise, if you lack goals you will wind up somewhere you'd rather not be. On the other hand, if you have goals, you may attain them. This is all obvious, of course, but it's worth repeating, again and again, because amidst pyrotechnic displays of mental virtuosity about discoursing paradigms, as well as within projects and movements that suffer a lack of resources and serious time pressures, the obvious is often the first thing to drop out of consciousness.
For example, consider the Nader campaign and its aftermath. During the campaign one could have many different dispositions about what was being done. Sure, speeches were being given, press conferences, held, rallies enjoyed, information dispersed, and so on. But to what end? What made sense to me, as someone outside but strongly supporting the campaign, was a multifold set of aims. The campaign should put good radical ideas widely into the spectrum of discussion. It should demonstrate the power of hard progressive work and inspire it in others. It should build the Green Party and third party organizing more generally and learn lessons for enhancing those in the future. It should tally large numbers of votes as a sign of a base of committed support.
But why? One answer would be to pressure the Democratic Party—and that's all. Another would be to advance the careers or visibility and sway of certain individuals. And one could imagine other unattractive possibilities. What made sense to me, however, was for people to undertake and support the campaign in order to increase the infrastructure and morale and thus the power of the Left, first to win immediate reforms whether under a Gore or Bush administration, and second to lay the groundwork for further gains in the future.
Well, what had the campaign attained just after the election? The campaign got about three million votes. It attracted about ten million people into loosely supporting it, with many deciding, in the end, to vote for Gore as the “lesser evil.” There were thousands of people who worked long and hard for the campaign and were invigorated by their efforts, many for the first time in their lives, and others for the first time in years. There were also a lot of people in the Democratic Party and in affiliated liberal organizations and institutions screaming bloody murder about Nader as a spoiler.
So what should be done, post election? Well, if the agenda is developing the power of the Left, then surely the task is to (a) solidify the activist support for the campaign into on-going activity, (b) solidify the electoral support into lasting allegiance, (c) raise huge sums from that broad base of supporters to finance new projects for reaching out still further, (d) ask what attributes the campaign had that diminished its support, and what we can do to correct these faults, and (e) strengthen actual progressive infrastructure in the form of local, regional, and national organization, Green and otherwise.
One way to work on these gains might have been to create a shadow government able to generate not only visibility but all kinds of momentum for associated outreach, participation, education, and activism. It's a little late, now, to build on the electoral momentum, but it could still be very positive. There are other desirable paths to traverse, as well, I have no doubt.
On the other hand, suppose someone thinks that the Left is not a serious player in the future of our society, and that all that's really possible is tweaking existing relations this way and that. Then the agenda changes quite a lot. One has to assess one's ability to talk with elites or to create mainstream rather than dissident institutions and other such variables, largely irrelevant from a more leftist angle.
Where is Nader in all this? Well, we all know that he is largely invisible. He says the media isn't paying attention. If he was in fact holding regular press conferences, leading demonstrations, and otherwise making serious news that ought to be covered, this would be relevant, tough a bit whiny. But I think he isn't doing any of that. I think that except for some campus speaking engagements, he has been essentially quiet. Meanwhile, the momentum generated by the campaign, including his own fantastic efforts, is evaporating.
At any rate, what hasn't happened is for the huge numbers of people involved in the campaign to develop and debate emerging views on what ought to be done, for them to urge positive actions at every level of the Green Party and to Nader as well, for there to be open debate and discussion about agendas, and for there to be lots of energy invested in forward-looking projects.
This is what a movement that believes that it can win and tries to move forward by understanding both its gains and its need for improvement should be doing. Has there been a better time for optimism in the last 20 years? If so, not by much. Yet our movement isn't optimistic and isn't exerting at near the level of the campaign, much less still more energetically. Nader isn't doing it, nor are the rest of us. This is a shame given the potential waiting to be galvanized into lasting gains.
Can we get to it—and by we I mean Nader as well as the rest of us? Shadow government? Mass campaign for electoral reform and substantive gains throughout social and economic life? A 30-hour work week? Whatever—but something rooted in clear goals and spurred on by the desire and the confidence that even if it will take lots effort, in time we can win. Z