06/23/2013 10:44 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2013

Myriad Movements, Not Quite a Movement

I spent the last couple of days at Netroots Nation, and it was one impressive gathering. Netroots is highly professional in how it's organized and wonderfully amateur in its inclusiveness. Most of this year's attendees were first-timers, including me.

As a veteran of a different generation whose progressive and journalistic life winds back to the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s and Pacifica Radio in its heyday, I felt both like an anthropologist exploring a whole other era and culture of activism and like a grandfather encouraged that the kids are carrying it on, in antic and ingenious ways that my generation couldn't have imagined.

I'll take Netroots over Yippies and Weathermen any day. What I observed was lots of amazingly creative, funny, principled, affirming, joyous people, mostly young, and lots of movements making a difference.

And yet the movements don't quite aggregate to a Movement.

Why not? It's something I spend a lot of time thinking about and a question I raised with several people at Netroots.

It helps to look at the areas where we are winning, and the ones where we're losing. We are winning big on two key issues: immigrant rights, and LGBT rights.

On immigration, we do have a Movement, with a capital-M. As Markos Moulitsas pointed out in a superb and well-documented talk on Saturday, Hispanics and Asians, the fastest-growing demographic groups, are more progressive than native-born Anglos on every issue that matters, not just immigrant rights. Take that, John Boehner.

But if we just relied on favorable demographics, there would be scant political gain to progressives. President Obama was belatedly pressured into suspending deportations of people brought to America as young children not because of the overall numbers but because the Dream kids (and their elders) organized a Movement.

Republicans may be forced to allow immigration reform to pass Congress because they know how to count votes. Many immigrations policies still stink, including the sharp increase in deportations of adults under Obama and the breaking up of families, but Obama has a powerful movement to reckon with, and demographic groups that can vote or stay home.

As Markos pointed out, if Obama and the Democrats rise to the occasion, Republicans lose either way. If they block comprehensive immigration reform, immigrant groups, their children and cousins born in America know who their enemy is, and it doesn't matter that some of those enemies have names like Rubio. If Republicans acquiesce, they only make the electorate that much more Democratic, because all of their other policies are so repugnant to the vast majority of immigrants.

It also helps that the immigrant rights issue split the business elite. Done wrong (without labor rights), more immigration will conveniently lower wages in the U.S. The otherwise loathsome Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Chamber of Commerce are big supporters.

Personal bravery has been a large part of the immigrant rights movement, too. College students like Mandeep Chahal, who gave a moving talk at Netroots, deciding to come out as undocumented help enlist the nation's conscience, and shamed Obama into suspending deportations of the young.

And it's no accident that the Dreamers use the term, Come Out. For the other stunningly successful cause that is a true Movement is LGBT rights.

The movement's decisions, first, to encourage closeted gays to come out, and then to emphasize marriage, proved unstoppable. As innumerable conservatives have discovered, it's hard to hate someone when he turns out to be an old friend or a loved relative. And there is an irresistible charm to the fact that the last group in America that turns out to believe fervently in marriage is queer.

Okay, that's the good news -- real movements of millions of ordinary people mobilized to fight for change on issues that are up close and personal, and that very usefully split the Republican Party. But the bad news is that we have made scant progress on the mother of all progressive causes, economic justice.

The economy is still dismal for most people, an entire generation of young people is being held financially hostage to college loans, the dream of homeownership has been destroyed for blacks, Hispanics and working class whites because of a sub-prime catastrophe whose legacy continues to threaten upwards of ten million homeowners with foreclosure. The half-reforms of Dodd-Frank are being eviscerated daily. Despite some green shoots like Occupy, and occasional organizing successes, we are still going backwards.

The lousy economy and its upward tilt affects even more people than the causes of immigrant rights and LGBT rights. So, why are there lots of movements for economic justice but no Movement having real political influence?

I can think of five important reasons. First, issues like finance are numbingly complex. I was at Netroots to be on a panel about the still corrupt banking system and talk about my new book, Debtors Prison, and it's always a challenge to discuss financial reform without getting stuck in the weeds.

Second, economic privation is a daily grind that often wears down the soul and leads to resignation rather than revolution. I think of Langston Hughes--does a Dream Deferred just sag like a heavy load? Or does it explode? Most of the time, it sags.

Third, people tend to internalize economic failure. Many young adults carrying heavy debts and failing to get economic traction, or families facing foreclosure or medical bankruptcy, feel personal shame rather than political anger. Economic issues that should properly be politicized are depoliticized.

Fourth, Wall Street, even after its disgrace, still has the preponderance of power. Judging by the results, it has even more power than the people who hate immigrants and gays.

And finally, the Obama Administration, which has been pressured or shamed into doing the right thing on LGBT and immigrant issues, is still mostly on the side of Wall Street when it comes to economics. Obama had a political moment in early 2009 when he could have chosen to break the political and economic power of the banks. Instead he appointed an economic team of protégés of Robert Rubin of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and chose to prop the same banks back up. Today the small cartel of banks that are too big to fail and too big to jail are richer and more powerful than ever, at the expense of the rest of the economy.

But, lest we forget, there is a general movement for economic justice. It's called the labor movement. Trade unions have been at the center of every other crusade for worker rights and decent pay -- and the object of a 40-year campaign of union-busting. Obama, like other recent Democratic presidents, had done far too little to enforce the legal right to organize and bargain collectively. But labor at its best has always been a bottom-up movement, and will revive as a one.

The silo nature of movements on the left is not a new story. One reason, post-1960s, is the reliance of social-change movements on foundation grants, which requires both a unique selling proposition (thus fragmentation) and the avoidance of explicit electoral politics. Better to rely on mass membership.

Before the myriad movements turn into a Movement, the movements for rights need to coalesce with those fighting for economic justice. I had a fantasy at Netroots that the Dream kids could help supercharge the nascent movement for student debt relief; and that immigrant rights could lead to a new upsurge of union organizing. We've seen the general progressive potential of labor-immigrant coalitions in places like L.A.

Netroots, above all, is a reminder that today's Democratic Party depends on the energy of net activism, which began with the 2003-04 campaign of Howard Dean, and which helped Barack Obama win the Democrat nomination in 2008 and two general elections. Given all the netroots energy that goes into Democratic politics, it wouldn't hurt if the next time we worked so hard to elect a Democrat as president, we nominated and elected an actual progressive.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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