A new generation of activists eschews the single-issue focus of its forebears
As Praktike, The Reapers, and others have said recently, environmentalism desperately needs to climb out of its special-interest, single-issue ghetto and start forming working coalitions. There are two basic ways this might happen.
One is that individual green organizations — or the storied "Green Group" coalition of big green organizations — might strike explicit deals with other single-issue groups like labor. This is what seems to be going on with the Apollo Alliance.
The other is that action on green issues may be taken over by broad-based, loose-network-style groups like MoveOn, where membership is largely transaction–based and no single issue dominates. Green groups might still serve a think-tanks or training grounds, but the action itself will be coordinated mostly by a young, internet-savvy, flash-mobbin’ new generation of activists.
On that note, Markos from Daily Kos recently spent three days at "a conference of various leaders of the budding VLWC." (That’s the Vast Leftwing Conspiracy, an attempt by lefties to match the coordination and message discipline of the VRWC.) He brought back some interesting observations, which I quote at length:
There were leaders, all of them older, of extremely prominent liberal interest groups. We’re talking labor, environmental, economic justice, things like that. And some of them were genuinely awesome.
But there was a large contingent of them that were obsessed with one thing — their pet issue. It was about them, them, them. Why wasn’t their issue being addressed? Did they have to stay in some meeting if their issue wasn’t being discussed? Etc.
Wow! Their self-centerdness and lack of interest in working together (unless it revolved around their issue) was breathtaking.
On the other hand, most of the younger activists at this retreat ran community-style groups. They weren’t focused on any single issue, but on using the collective force of their communities to bear pressure on various issues.
… thinking of all the organizations formed the last few years — many by entrepreneurial younger activists — I couldn’t think of one single-issue organization. The ones I came up — organizations like Run Against Bush, Music for America, the National Hip Hop Political Convention, Center for American Progress, and Democracy for America — are all broad-based coalition-type organizations.
The blogosphere tracks this phenomenon, with few single-interest blogs getting much attention. People want to work together for change, across a variety of issues.
And that lack of single-issue obsession allows these groups to form ad-hoc coalitions to tackle any number of issues. It’s quite inspiring, actually. A new generation of activists seem to be rejecting the myopic single-issue focus of the previous generation — a short-sightedness that has, in large part (IMHO), led to the ineffectiveness of our single-issue groups. The environmental, labor, women’s, lawyer, and ethnic/racial groups have been woefully ineffective in beating back attacks from the Right Wing machine.
At this retreat, it was the younger crowd that gave me hope — a rejection of the ineffective activism of old.
There is still a clear role for the single-issue groups, but in the future, it may be more of a think tank model — providing the ammunition and research necessary for the ground troops to wage multi-disciplinary campaigns. DFA and MoveOn can mobilize its shock troops at a moment’s notice, ready to wage a campaign in defense of ANWR, in defense of overtime pay, or a defense of a woman’s right to choose. The single-issue groups can’t hope to compete with that in the future. And they won’t have to.
Matt Yglesias agrees, and adds this:
There was a time when the government was basically run by people who, when they decided to focus on Problem X, did in fact make a reasonable effort to solve Problem X. If you were dissatisfied with federal treatment of X the difficulty might be that people weren’t worrying about X when they should have been. Or it could have been that they were simply mistaken in terms of how best to deal with X. There was a certain set of tactics and strategy that were appropriate to dealing with such a situation.
Those circumstances have, basically, nothing in common with the present situation, which calls for an entirely different approach. Some people get that but many, sadly, do not. Or, worse, they pay lip service to getting it but don’t actually behave as though they get it.
Right. And in a similar vein, check out this post on the Network-Centric Advocacy blog.
There are plenty of logistical and infrastructural challenges to overcome in breaking out of the "Problem X" ghetto, but the one I worry about most is the attitude of those that seem to enjoy being there. They express frustration that their issue doesn’t get the attention and solutions it warrants, but on some level they enjoy feeling like an embattled and enlightened minority. Keeping their issue separate from other issues, and from being sullied by the compromises necessary to work inside coalitions, is politically inefficacious, but it is flattering to their sense of their own virtue.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the institutional environmental movement has an unusually high number of such folks, which does not bode well. On the other hand, there are vast majorities outside the movement — many of whom feel put off by the zealotry of the movement — that could be marshaled by the aforementioned loose-network, transation-based groups to great effect, which bodes well. We live in interesting times.