As we approach election year 2004, it is tempting to lead with the rallying cry, “Dump Bush.” Besides the obvious reasons why it would be preferable to unseat this frat boy with his finger on the button, many progressives believe that the slogan appeals to the “middle class.”
Who is this middle class that we so often worry about alienating? I’m afraid it is made up of people who are often not our natural allies, and who in fact are more invested in maintaining their privilege than other classes of people who potentially have a lot more to offer to social change movements, but who we have a pattern of ignoring.
Perhaps we imagine that by hooking our cause to socially acceptable norms, we will grow. If our message is palatable to the New York Times, we will get better coverage, and so gain legitimacy. If our movement resonates with the social-climber professionals, coordinators and decisionmakers, then they will use their resources and talents to carry us forward.
In the last couple of years, I have received email notices reminding me to dress “nicely” for upcoming demonstrations. I have heard mostly white activists debate dropping a black rap group from an event line-up because their language might offend “families.” And I have heard people argue that a “Dump Bush” demand is worthwhile because it appeals to people who “aren’t ready” for a more radical message that lays the blame for war and injustice less on one evil-doer and more on the workings of society’s underlying institutions.
But when we contrive a wardrobe that will appeal to others, eliminate the edge from our cultural commentary, and demonize the figurehead of our corporate controlled government, we lose credibility with the people who know better.
Consider the person I met at a local bar the other night when I was there with a couple of friends strategizing about how to link local and national organizing efforts in Boston during next year’s Democratic National Convention.
We got to talking after he bought us all a round of beers for no reason other than to be friendly. His name was Johnny, and I asked him, “Who do you think you’re going to vote for next year?”
“Vote?!” he said. “I don’t bother voting. It’s all a pile of shit,” he explained as he play-acted shoveling out manure. “Watch out for that shit. You’ll need your waders.”
We all laughed. He went back to his friends and we went back to our conversation, with a fresh reminder that although protesting the national conventions of the major political parties seems like a reasonable and potentially productive organizing strategy, it’s not going to mean much to people who think the whole thing is a charade to begin with. Johnny won’t be voting and it seems likely he could care less about protesting the Democrats or anyone else since he thinks the whole system is a “pile of shit.” And he’s not alone. About half the electorate did not bother voting in 2000 — that’s tens of million people.
It’s only anecdotal, but the people I talk to who are most interested in voting are the people who are most invested in maintaining the status quo.
The welfare recipients and low-wage workers I teach in adult education classes believe the “candidates are all the same” and that it makes no difference who you vote for. They understand oppression as stemming from the fact that they have to be dependent on abusive men, that they have to go along with English-only policies at work, that they have to tolerate bosses who yell at them and give them exceedingly boring and unfulfilling work and then stand over them telling them to hurry up. They are overwhelmingly anti-war because they understand that war kills poor people while it makes rich people richer.
Another patron of the bar was Kevin. He approached us because he noticed my friend’s anti-School of the Americas shirt, which refers to the Georgia-based military training center as the “School of Assassins.”
“I salute you for wearing that shirt,” he says. “That place is nothing but a torture school.” He had been drinking, and there was an edge in his voice as he leaned into us and pointed his finger, “I suppose you’d say I was an assassin, too. And I am. I’ve got four confirmed kills,” he said, “and a bunch more unconfirmed ones.” He had served in Beirut in `83 where a bunch of his buddies died in the attack on the embassy. He served in Panama in 1989 and in the first Gulf War. His voice veered back and forth between aggression and sadness. It was as if he couldn’t decide if he wanted to pick a fight or share his deepest concerns.
Kevin made what he believes is the supreme sacrifice for his country. “And it ain’t dying,” he said. “It’s killing.”
“Dying is nothing,” he tells us, “But the killing.I’ve got to live with that my whole life.”
“Was it worth it?” I asked. He was silent for a minute. “I don’t know,” he said.
But then the anger returned, this time directed at “Nazi-chusetts” where we live, and where the Speaker of the House, Thomas Finneran, told the electorate to shove it when he shelved a referendum on clean elections. He railed against U.S. imperialism.
In the course of the conversation, there wasn’t much that Kevin, Johnny or I disagreed on, yet there was an enormous gulf between us. “There’s nothing I can do about what’s wrong with this country,” Kevin said at one point. “That ‘s for you people to figure out. You’re articulate. You’ve been to college.”
To state the obvious, Kevin would not be showing up at any anti-Finneran or anti-war protests – both of which (between my friends and I) we had devoted years to organizing. Unless we do something radically different than usual, he won’t be coming to the DNC protests either even if some of the plans were hatched right there in his own neighborhood bar.
This is one of the disconnects that keeps progressive movements on the margins. My guess is that there are millions of people like the low-wage workers and the ex-marines who don’t need to be enlightened about injustice. But very few would have anything to do with current social change movements, and under most circumstances would keep their distance from the apparently educated and articulate elite that seem to determine the anti-establishment agenda.
And I’ll be honest. I have probably kept my distance from people like Johnny and Kevin. I did not go into the bar that night wondering what the other patrons were thinking about. It wasn’t me who bought the round for everyone. I’m intimidated by guys in bars who boast about their “kills” on the one hand, but on the other reveal just how thoroughly chewed up and spit out they are by a system that recruits them with false promises, uses them for false pretenses, and then leaves them with no way to rationalize what they did.
In my isolation from the guys in the bars, I imagine them to have unattractive views about reproductive rights, affirmative action, and gay liberation. But I don’t know any of this for sure as I have never asked.
Even if I discovered significant disagreement on issues I really care about, that should not impede my efforts to build alliances and work in coalitions with people like Johnny and Kevin. After all, my disagreements with the engineers of Kevin’s fate — the managers, bosses, legislators, and assorted other middle-class professionals– are at least as significant, yet I am part of an anti-war movement that never gives up courting them.
There are possibly millions and millions of people whose trust of us will not climb along with the New York Times’s, but in fact is probably inversely related. We don’t need credibility from institutions that safeguard elite interests. We need credibility from the legions of people that have already given up on these institutions. Their numbers are growing. Are we talking to them? More importantly, are we listening?
Cynthia Peters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is active in the peace and justice movement on the neighborhood, regional and national levels. She teaches in the Worker Education Project at SEIU Local 285.