BOOK REVIEW/Jason Hinkley

What Builds a Progressive Movement?

In 2006, and again in 2008, a tide of progressive sentiment swept the Democrats into power, giving them more of a mandate than any governing party has had in a generation. William Upski Wimsatt’s latest book, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs [Akashic Books, September 2010], explains where this suddenly powerful movement for progressive change came from. Wimsatt tells the story from the mid-’80s to the present of a generation of activists and organizers who were slowly politicalized; first on the neighborhood level, then on the local level and finally on the hyper-competitive stage of national politics.

Wimsatt recounts this process of politicalization, through his own story and that of a host of other characters that he has come to know personally on the community organizing scene. Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs contains examples of regular people working for positive change on issues including climate change, health care, urban development, immigration, labor and equality issues. That work has gone largely unreported, but it paved the way for the national progressive agenda that came into the mainstream between 2005 and 2006. Along with lots of positive examples and rallying cries for the faithful, these stories provide an inside look at the groundwork required for political mobilization and the challenges facing anyone who would hope to harness the energy of the many independent organizations working towards social change.

Wimsatt’s writing is largely anecdotal and much of his analysis is filtered through the lens of personal experience. This view becomes insular at times, often failing to take into account evidence outside of his living memory and progressive circles. The generalization made in the beginning of the book that this is “the most progressive generation in US history” fails to account for the continued widening of the income gap, declining unionization, and overall trends of deregulation and privatization, both here and around the world. These disturbing trends contradict his narrative of a society moving towards a more progressive future. Such claims also fail to acknowledge the strong force that progressive movements and organizations played in American history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a progressive party, a healthy socialist party, a Grange movement, and countless unions who would be considered either radical or militant by today’s labor organizers. Likewise, the many movements of the 1930s and ’60s were quite progressive and affected real change in society, even if much of it was ephemeral.

Despite his tendency to generalize for narrative cohesiveness, Wimsatt is an excellent observer of his environment; many of the insights that he shares about the inner workings of the organizing community and the political left are invaluable. On the subject of where the energy and creativity of the left has gone over the past few decades Wimsatt makes some very acute sociological observations: “millions of the most creative, risk-taking, imaginative, truth seeking, and God-loving people who we need to take leadership, get power, and transform our society have locked themselves up in a ghetto called the arts, which is mostly very safe and has limited impact on the status quo. ... The same is true for teaching, social work, and the nonprofit sector in general.”

While this is certainly a highly contentious characterization, especially for those of us working or attempting to work in these fields, it highlights some real disconnects in our society — disconnects that Wimsatt is trying to remedy one person at a time with local activism, social media and sheer will. Wimsatt’s faith in the power of social media seems exaggerated until he gives us the inside scoop on the inner workings of the now highly influential Wimsatt describes that operation as, at one point, being run by Eli Pariser without an office or even a printer. The success of MoveOn’s use of technology in cheaply and effectively organizing is, as the author passionately points out, awe-inspiring. However, one only needs to look at the ascendancy of the Tea Party and the shunning of mainstream media by some of today’s right-wing politicians in favor of Twitter and Facebook to realize that in the long run these technologies and tactics may be politically neutral.

What makes Wimsatt’s observations and outlooks different from the numerous nonfiction books that come out on politics and social issues every year is his position as a participant, actively working on these issues. Ultimately, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs is a book about the faith that keeps Wimsatt involved: faith in the electoral process, faith in philanthropy, faith in organizing, faith in our ability to overcome our cultural differences and short term self-interests and make changes for the collective good. Beliefs shared by the countless number of people who volunteer on election day and throughout the year; but that rarely exist untarnished in the journalists and academics who chronicle the history of ideas and movements.

Jason Hinkley is associate editor at the literary journal Anderbo.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2011

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