The Democrats won two of the six seats they contested this past week, meaning that some of the people who voted for Walker did not support his broad agenda, though not enough to flip the balance of power yet. Almost immediately, both sides turned to the next elections on the horizon, claiming victories, moral and otherwise, and trying to keep people engaged in their political aims. The protest in the streets has flowed into more conventional, if not more civil, politics.
What gets people out into the streets to demonstrate? It’s not general unhappiness about policy, be it on immigration or the national debt. Social movements are products of focused organization. Even the icons of activism in American history wielded influence through larger groups. Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. Earlier that year, she had attended a workshop on nonviolent action at a labor center, the Highlander Institute, where she read about Gandhi and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Educationdecision striking down segregation in public schools. All of the specific actions weren’t choreographed, but activists had spent many years building the infrastructure and cultivating the ideas that made the bus boycott possible.Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.
Today, most of the organized protest in the United States has been from the right side of the political spectrum, grouped loosely under the mantle of the tea party. Conservative activists, funded by large corporate interests, have been building a movement for more than a decade. Americans for Prosperity, founded and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has invested in conservative ideas and activism. FreedomWorks, led by former House majority leader Dick Armey, has worked to seed conservatism at the ground level. Groups such as these have produced reports, trained and employed organizers, funded electoral campaigns, and worked the media. When public anger at the Bush-Obama Wall Street bailout bubbled up, followed by public anxiety about Obama’s health-care reforms, professional activists were ready to support and channel it. It’s not that there wasn’t conservative anger and concern at the grass roots, but it took professional expertise, effort and resources to funnel it into a national movement.
There were large national demonstrations and numerous local actions in 2009 through the fall of 2010, but — encouraged by Madison’s design — efforts increasingly focused on the elections. After large Republican gains in the 2010 midterms, the grass roots became harder and harder to find, as activists, organizers and fundraisers turned to the Republican presidential primaries.
The Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives was extremely engaged and influential in the budget and debt-ceiling negotiations, though at the grass roots, that issue wasn’t as much of a concern.Local groups are dividing among issues, with some, such as immigration, not so urgent to the tea party’s business sponsors, who value cheap labor. They are also dividing among candidates, with some, perhaps such as Michele Bachmann, not so attractive to large corporate interests that care about winning the general election and governing afterward.
And, for the tea partyers and others across the political spectrum, there’s anger about unemployment. The situation feels much worse than the official jobless rate. Most of us know middle-aged men and women who have lost their jobs and fear they will never work again. As a professor, I routinely encounter earnest and intelligent college graduates who are increasingly desperate to find work that will allow them to begin paying off their student loans or even move out of their childhood homes. But without anything resembling a social movement, they work on formatting résumés and updating networks so they won’t stay among the millions of unemployed. Something more ambitious than that, however, takes organization.
Sometimes, as during the Great Depression, organized labor has spoken for the unemployed as well as those with jobs. In contemporary America, however, most unions have been focused on protecting their members, including funding the Democratic recall efforts in Wisconsin. As the 2012 elections approach, expect to see unions working to protect Obama, putting their differences and disappointments with him on the back burner.
And any Republican candidate with a chance to beat Obama is bound to be a disappointment to tea party ideologues. Expect to see the larger groups working to get voters to the polls, rather than people to the streets.
Frustration and disappointment are butting up against political pragmatism. Just like James Madison planned.