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The Progressive Generation Gap

Markos Moulitsas (as in Kos) raised a good point at the end of last week, reporting on a three day conference of "various leaders of the budding Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy." After some pointed comments about the usual infantile leftism of people who can apparently still say "visualize world piece" without ironic air quotes, he notes:

But there was another weird dynamic at play -- this one generational. 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.

I know some of the people who went to the same conference (actually, I got hold of the list and I know almost half of them), so I can put some faces on what Markos is talking about. It certainly doesn't surprise me.

In part, this is similar to the point I tried to make in my most recent take on "The Death of Environmentalism," in the American Prospect -- that the "policy literalism" of traditional advocacy just doesn't work anymore.

But Markos adds two dimensions to this. The first is that it's generational. He's certainly correct about that, and it makes perfect sense. I've recently noticed a similar dynamic, especially in the kind of smaller, more grass-rootsy and more truly left-wing groups such as the ones at this conference. Such groups tend to have an executive director. Usually a white guy, often somewhat over 50, who's put a lifetime into his cause. Never made a dime, the car he drives is still called a Datsun, he's entirely admirable. If he's in his mid- or late 50s, he started by registering voters in the South; if younger, he started in some Nader organization. He's probably a lawyer, started off thinking the courts could solve all problems but has since learned otherwise. He's been through the nuclear freeze movement, the Nicaragua obsession, the Reagan budget cuts, seen it all. He's entitled to be burnt-out, but isn't.

And then there's the rest of the staff. They typically range in age from 25-32, they're more racially diverse or biracial, extremely energetic, imaginative. Although more likely to have roots in identity politics, as Kos notes, they are more into community and organizing constituencies than promoting an issue, and they can be more collaborative, less turf-conscious. And, of course, they're experiences are totally different. They've never heard of David Stockman; if they've ever uttered the word "Nicaragua," it was with a short "i" and hard "c," just like it looks. Nader's just someone to vote for if you want to say fuck the system and elect Bush. If they go to law school, it will be so that they can be sure of making a living, not because they dream of being the next Thurgood Marshall. They have seen political success not so much in the liberal movements that the boomers are nostalgic for, but in the unity and motivate-the-base strategy of the current Republican party, and in the exciting communion of the Dean campaign.

It's easy to celebrate the younger generation, who do represent a long-overdue renewal of progressive energy and who sometimes do seem to get the current political situation better than the class of '68. But the political experience of this generation is much narrower, and for all the excitement of organizing communities, they don't yet have much to show for it. There's a lot to be learned from the people who now have a couple decades of activism and learning.

But one reason that these two groups often seem to be talking past each other is that there aren't very many people in between. There was almost no progressive activism on campus in the late Carter and Reagan years, which means that there are relatively few of us in our late-30s/early-40s in these organizations. That's a bridge generation that can be very useful. When you're 23, and your boss is 53, that's a big gap, literally a generation gap. That's dad. And generational differences such as the ones Markos noticed stand out starkly when there's no one who represents a little of both camps. Obviously, I'm exaggerating -- not only are there 40-year-olds with both attitudes, but there are 25 year olds and 55 year olds in both camps. But, generally, this perception corresponds to what I've seen in a great number of progressive organizations.

And then there's the issue Markos identifies of "organizing communities" as opposed to working an issue. This is another familiar distinction to me from the foundation world. The distinction between "organizing" and "policy" often seems much starker than it is. "Organizers" are devoted to street-level democracy, to helping people define problems for themselves and find their own solutions, and bringing voice to the political process. "Policy people" are devoted to understanding the issues, developing new approaches or critiquing conservative ones, and enlisting people to support those strategies. "Organizers" sometimes think "policy people" are arrogant, white, older, over-educated, trying to set people's agendas for them. Policy people think organizers are naive, sloppy, disconnected from real politcal power, and miss opportunities for change. Again, these are exaggerated stereotypes, but I've heard them from both sides. But it's yet another matter where people have different functions within a larger progressive system. Everyone's got their own strengths. And again, one needs bridges. Between organizers and policy people, the best bridge is the Center for Community Change. The most important task for the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, if there is one, is to find ways across the very real internal divides, which are divides of culture and attitude, not simple matters like different opinions about abortion, toward a common purpose.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 21, 2005 | Permalink


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There was almost no progressive activism on campus in the late Carter and Reagan years

This is simply not true. The anti-apartheid / South Africa divestment campaigns and the movement to stop U.S. intervention in Central America were very strong on campuses in the 1980s.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 21, 2005 10:08:17 AM

Sorry, hit 'post' too soon. I was going to continue: Maybe students involved in those issues didn't go on to staff the big world o' nonprofits, but they were a significant activist force.

Kos's self-reported behavior struck me as rude and arrogant. There's someone who needs more than bridges...

Posted by: Nell L. | Apr 21, 2005 10:14:43 AM

Wait, that's not how you pronounce Nicaragua?

Posted by: The42ndGuy | Apr 21, 2005 11:12:32 AM

It would be a good idea for the Center for Community Change, and any nonprofit, to list their board (and ideally also staff) on the website in the 'about us' section.

Transparency, and all that...

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 21, 2005 12:38:31 PM

The big exception is the LGBT rights movement, which has been very successful over the past twenty years, and which has women and men of every age coming up through our communities, both in social life and in political activities. In fact, urban LGBT communities are more like churches than anything else in the progressive movement, in offering personal insight, social life, and political networks. (It's quite different outside of urban areas.) See my article on this in The American Prospect (http://www.prospect.org/print/V13/19/graff-e.html).

Posted by: EJ Graff | Apr 21, 2005 2:54:53 PM

Oooh, I don't know that I'd be putting the GLBT community up for a model. After my anthropological experience of a straight man involved in a GLBT issue last year, I think there's as much or more of a generational divide in the various sub-communities of the broader GLBT community as in any other "movement." Maybe the divides are less in the urban communities, but my experience was that folks carried very different assumptions and outlooks based upon their age and the social circumstances surrounding how they came out. I'll grant that there's a greater sense of overall solidarity, a sense of "we're all in this together," but there are huge generational (and class) differences.

And while Nell has a point about apartheid, as someone from that "missing" generation, in general I agree with Mark. Even in the 1970's a lot of people got involved in the Nader orgs or with ACORN and the like, but by the early-1980's, community organizing had declined, and the political and social organizing (other than ACT-UP type organizing) wasn't directed toward domestic concerns as much as "expressing solidarity" with people on other parts of the globe.

One thing I'd add to Mark's piece--one of the reason that 40 year olds aren't in a lot of those positions is that when they were 23 the jobs that today go to 23 year-old activists were still being held by 29 year-olds. There just weren't as many opportunities open to people in their early 20's, so they didn't get into that organizing and foundation world.

Mark, now you've got my mind racing on about five other lines of thought. Great post.

Posted by: DHinMI | Apr 21, 2005 4:52:15 PM

Where does that leave those of us who feel incomplete doing one (policy) without the other (community organizing)?

Posted by: Abby | Apr 21, 2005 5:48:54 PM

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Posted by: Shaun O Mac | Apr 24, 2005 1:39:02 AM

Good observations, Mark. However, as one who has worked on the state level in the west on both policy and grassroots activism -- and one of those "bridge generation" folks you speak of -- I see a lot more connecting between the generations way out here. It is happening of necessity because we're in an area of the country that is largely ignored by national organizations.

State level activists in states have been written off as "too conservative" for our national sisters and brothers to care about, have our hands full figuring out who should fill what role now and what organizational vehicles we need to build to make it work better. There is an amazing mix of people who don't fit the generational stereotypes. The "where's my issue" thinking is a luxury we can't afford to indulge. There's too much to do and we've come up with some pretty creative ways of doing it on a shoe string.

Posted by: Jim Hansen | Apr 25, 2005 2:46:05 PM

Interesting post. I'm still stuck on something trivial, though: how would one pronounce "Nicaragua" without a hard C? I think you were trying to poke fun at a certain kind of leftist who makes a thing of saying the names of Latin American countries with a Spanish accent (which I do find kind of annoying, since those folks don't say "Paree" or "Moskva")... but it's only the vowels and the R that are different.

Posted by: EliB | Apr 26, 2005 3:08:07 AM

Eli B,

I think Mark was gently poking fun at the provincialism of an older generation who stuggled to pronounce the name of a country they had never heard of. If memory serves (I was in my teens in the early '80s), "Nicaragua" was indeed occasionally mispronounced this way as Americans were rapidly introduced to this country and its troubles . There was quite the learning curve over Iranian names in that era as well. You could watch the news anchors' pronunciation evolve from night to night.

Posted by: boonie | Apr 28, 2005 6:00:29 PM