Guardian Voices: On losing

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I’m turning 43 today and feeling glad to be alive. I would love to be writing about the joy of raising children and the mysteries of the universe. But instead, today I’m thinking about last week’s elections, about losing and the nature of long-term struggle. I’m thinking about being born black in 1969, and how, in fact, our side has been losing my whole life. And while this sobering reality about the balance of forces in the nation could make a sane person completely despondent, today I’m considering it a challenge to radically rethink the way we progressives try to change the world. 

The truth is that despite historic victories and truly incredible grassroots organizing over the last several decades, we’ve been getting our asses kicked for a long, long time. Since the right and the state got together to crush people’s movements of the 1960s. Since the Republicans built this rightwing coalition, began pushing wedge politics, winning the hearts and minds of white working people, and winning elections all over the country. And since capitalism shifted gears in the 1970s – we call it neoliberalism now -- and the war on poverty was pushed aside to make way for the war on poor people specifically and working people generally. Since then, our cities have lost good jobs, union members, safety net services, and in San Francisco, more than half of the entire black population.

Thanks to Fox News, billionaire Republicans, and fragmentation on the left, conservative ideas about government, about individual vs. institutional responsibility, and about the supposed virtues of free markets have taken a powerful hold over the thinking of most Americans. One result: Last week in Wisconsin, despite the truly historic mobilization against the right’s Scott Walker, labor and social justice forces lost a big one. And here in San Francisco, in the heart of the “left coast,” progressives lost control of the Democratic Party to that special brand of “moderate” big-business Democrats who are socially liberal but have been making me embarrassed to be a registered Democrat since – well, since Bill Clinton was in the White House.

Clinton’s “ending welfare as we know it” third-way politics made it ok to talk about ending poverty while at the same time helping people get rich at the expense of poor people all over the world. Gavin Newsom was our local version – more socially liberal, and therefore successfully confusing to a lot of people, but he was nonetheless made of the same cloth.

Are you ready for the good news? Well, not quite yet. I didn’t mention the economic crisis.

If this were a boxing match, I don’t think the referees would have trouble judging this one. The current economic crisis was indeed once a crisis for capitalists -- some financial institutions were forced to close shop, other lost billions and Wall Street seemed for a while to be in complete disarray. At one point, one third of Americans supported the Occupy movement and thought socialism was something to consider.

But even taking the ongoing Eurozone crisis into account, the US corporate elites in 2012 are more like a dazed prize fighter momentarily wobbly on his feet than a boxer who’s down for the count. Now, four years after the financial crash, the crisis is primarily a crisis for the rest of us, and our suffering is real. Even the middle class has taken serious punches, and our communities are badly bruised.

Good political spin will not change these real conditions. And the problem is not that organizers and activists, here in the Bay and around the country, aren’t brave and brilliant and working just remarkably hard. And even creating new forms of activism and alliances for the 21st century. But we have to think differently about how we do politics.

Most fundamentally, after so many years of losing in one way or another, too many social justice activists have lost hope of ever winning a truly more just society. Too many of us have settled for short-term gains, defensive fights, and building organizational power.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m deeply committed to local organizing that builds leadership and political power and win’s concrete improvements in people’s lives. But we will certainly never see the society we hold in our dreams without a bold, audacious belief that we can in fact win and govern our city, our state, and the entire country. Like the right – which was, objectively speaking, once weak and playing defense -- progressive forces have to share a common belief that we too can build a majority, that we can govern the entire country based on values of racial justice, equity, sustainability and the collective good.  There’s a big difference between losing and feeling, en masse, like losers.

There is so much already in motion to build upon, so much potential to seize the opportunities that this historic moment provides. Inspired by Arab Spring, we too can be bold and audacious in our visions of what's possible. After we rally against what's wrong, let's make plans for how we are really going to solve the crises of the 21st century and make the world a better place. Local political battles are essential opportunities to build new leadership (especially in communities of color), to change everyday people's consciousness, and defend the ground we've already won. Across the nation, more organizations should take lessons from efforts like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, San Francisco Rising, CA Calls, and the national Unity Alliance that are breaking the fragmentation of progressive forces, moving beyond organizational ego, and consolidating people power. But above all, we have to let go of the idea that it's someone else's role to run the world or that having power is just for self-serving politicians. Unafraid of power and determined to slug it out, let's make my next forty years about how we turned it around, had the Right on the run, built a movement and a society that we are proud to leave our children.

We are not down for the count. We are still in the ring swinging. Our opponent is powerful, and we’re already weak from a long fight, but we have the capacity to regroup, take advantage of our opponent’s weaknesses and make the most of our strengths, plot a new offensive strategy, and win -- and win decisively. Losing is part of political struggle, it’s part of history, but there are more rounds to go. And what’s even better, unlike boxing, in the real world of building a movement for social justice, we engage in the struggle together. What happens next is up for grabs, and history is ours to make.

N'Tanya Lee was formerly the director of Coleman Advocates and one of the founding members of San Francisco Rising. She's a veteran organizer with racial justice and LGBT and youth movement struggles in New York City, Michigan and the Bay. She now works on national movement building projects, advises local social justice leaders and is raising a son with her wife in Southeastern San Francisco.