New Orleans Ralph Nader has been riding the fence line for many a year to good result and much effect, even though he’s been on the highline at the timber edge for the last few years given the disdain many had for his quixotic runs at the White House. He weighed in with a letter to the editor printed in the New York Times the other day taking issue with the final snarky, “what the f**k” paragraph in an editorial where the paper was upbraiding the folly of a Tea Party proposal to try for an amendment that would allow state legislatures to overturn Congressional acts at their leisure. Re-reading the paragraph, it is hard to disagree with Nader about how much of a below-the-belt, out-of-the-blue cheap shot this was in a piece that otherwise was simply a standard Tea Party takedown:
“In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty. Now the many who are struggling have no progressive champion. The left have ceded the field to the Tea Party and, in doing so, allowed it to make history. It is building political power by selling the promise of a return to a mythic past.”
Ralph correctly lauds the work being done by so many:
“Hello! There are plenty of distinguished progressive champions lobbying, rallying, exposing, suing and organizing at the national, state and local level. Yet they have been mostly left out of the mass media, on television and radio and in the news, feature, style, opinion and book review pages of major newspapers, including The Times.”
In his letter he finishes (or at least this was the published version) with:
“After all, mass media coverage matters greatly for social and political movements.”
In the 70’s when we were working with Ralph, I used to comment that we had to be careful because “if you lived by the press, you died by the press,” which in the crypto speech of organizers meant that if you counted on the press to build your base, then you had to also beware that when the press tired of your act, you could lose your base as easily since they controlled the gateways. We should never denigrate the huge value of advocacy and advocates, but this is the peril of speaking to and speaking for a base, which is unorganized and not organizational. Frankly, it was why the right knew how important it was to kill something like ACORN as a membership organization with a clearly defined base and to weaken and destroy unions for the same reason.
And, this is where Ralph is kinda wrong and speaking to our old times 30 and 40 years ago, rather than the new times where we currently organize. Now there are more outlets for more voices both in established and informal media including the internet, so that frankly the monolithic press is dead, drowned in thousands of voices, including advocates, though still a powerful and incoherent follower of the herd once it is stampeding. Though Ralph is right that the media amplified a lot of small sounds from the Tea Party, he is wrong to not understand that their unquestioned ability to organize and evolve a national base with deep grassroots in lots of communities and actually contend for power is something for which progressives have no answer and no current match. Having fought at the hustings, they also sometimes lost, but also sometimes won.
It hurts me to say that despite their rudeness and their wrongful finger pointing, the Times is right that we have failed to organize a deep, grassroots base willing and able to contend for power across the country and not simply around Pennsylvania Avenue and Congressional watering holes. Until we are willing to organize deeply and aggressively at the local level, contend for power win-lose-or-draw, and meet and match the challenge of the Tea Party at that level, any protests about unfairness are about as powerful as writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times.
Needless to say that’s just more “speaking truth to power,” and powerless by definition.