Wandering around the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear yesterday, I kept asking myself, "what exactly are we doing here?"
In part, that's because I literally couldn't hear anything from the stage (and I'm still not sure what was going on there). But mostly, it was that many of the homemade signs around me told a story that, while awesome, didn't seem very...strong.
"Nuance is hard to fit on a sign." "You may have a good point, but it's hard to hear with all the shouting." "Some of my best friends are Republicans. They're not all crazy." "I've considered the fact that I might be wrong, have you?" "God hates nags." "I'm not an expert on every issue. But honestly, who is?" Or even one that just read, "Maybe."
I knew this was Stewart's big theme. But these weren't cookie cutter signs -- each was personally conceived and created. As a longtime political organizer, I would never have believed it possible to get so many regular people so fired up about something as abstract and passive-feeling as the idea that we all might be wrong--and that our opponents deserve respect.
Plus, with less than three days before a major election, why weren't we talking about that? How does any of this fuzzy mutualism actually help? Where does any of it lead?
But the more I've thought about it, the more I think this odd shift in focus may be the just the thing we need to win. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and in a much more fundamental way than we have in a very long time.
Like lots of folks who fought for change during the Bush era, I'm dismayed by how much the momentum seems to have swung back in the last two years. What seemed like a decade moving America steadily forward now looks a lot more like a decade of shoving America's pendulum to the left --- leaving it primed for the next hard swing back to the right. And all the pundits are already predicting how a GOP midterm sweep will help set up Obama for re-election. And so it goes.
Is this all grassroots politics can be? Are we doomed to spend our lifetimes see-sawing back and forth in a permanently divided nation? There has to be a better way.
Mohandas Gandhi was probably the most successful movement organizer of the century, and the model for global leaders from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela. So if we're looking for a better way, he's a useful guy to consult.
Gandhi was painfully aware of the see-saws of history, and devoted himself to find ways to win that didn't simply set up the next the loss -- but rather gained permanent, irreversible ground.
The result was a methodology for organizing and life that he termed "Satyagraha" -- a Sanskrit word usually translated as "truth force" or "soul force." Satyagraha calls for engaging one's opponent with non-violence, integrity, selflessness, courage, respect, a willingness to suffer and the clarion power of reason. (Simple, eh?)
But here's the key: you don't win with Satyagraha by defeating an opponent, you win by converting your opponent over to your cause. That's how it beats the pendulum swing -- once you win, everyone is pushing in the same direction and the whole game shifts. Permanently.
Satyagraha has played a major role in the great movements of America's past-- Dr. King was a direct disciple of Gandhi's techniques. But it's tricky to imagine how Satyagraha could be re-introduced into modern progressive organizing. In today's context of total political war, many of Gandhi's axioms just don't sound...strong.
For example, Gandhi wrote that someone practicing Satyagraha "must look continually for truth in a campaign, even in his opponents position, and to incorporate that truth into his own position."
Sounds nice, but could you really imagine an email from my old colleagues at MoveOn celebrating the truths in the Tea Party narrative? Could you see something like that coming from the Democratic Party? And what if it happened--picture getting that email. Wouldn't you worry that we simply can't afford to grant any legitimacy to those with a truly sinister agenda who are fighting us with disingenuous tactics and limitless corporate funding? I know I would.
But we'd be wrong. History shows granting the legitimacy of an enemy's narrative can offer transformative power to those with the courage to try.
Consider the remarkable case of Gandhi's visit to the Lancashire mills.
In the late 1920's British imperial law forbid any Indian manufacture of finished textiles. Instead, raw cotton was picked by impoverished Indian workers, shipped back to British factories and then sold back to Indian consumers at an inflated rate. Gandhi encouraged his fellow Indians to spin and wear their own garments. By the fall of 1931, the self reliance campaign was so successful that the massive British textile industry was in crisis -- factories were closing down, millions of workers were losing their jobs, and all efforts by imperial troops to enforce the ban had failed. So the government brought Gandhi to London to negotiate.
Much to everyone's surprise, Gandhi's first stop in England was the northern county of Lancashire -- the very heart of the British textile industry. He stepped off the train surrounded by a large, furious crowd, fuming at the little man who had brought such hardship to their community.
Gandhi begged them to listen, even if briefly, and then hate him forever if they must. They quieted down a bit and Gandhi began his case--not by recounting the hardship facing the Indian worker--but by discussing with great sympathy and detail the recent unemployment and malnutrition crises facing the Lancashire workers. The crowd was stunned.
Gandhi left Lancashire to uproarious cheers. In one masterstroke, he had transformed a major political force behind the British drive to crush his movement into a powerful ally in his people's quest for independence.
Or consider Nelson Mandela's unlikely partnership with the last President of Apartheid-era South Africa, F.W. De Klerk.
The two first met in December of 1989, at De Klerks's office in Cape Town. Mandela was still a political prisoner on Robin Island, serving his 26th year behind bars. De Klerk was the newly elected president, wanting to size up the legendary opposition leader who posed the greatest threat to his government's survival.
Face-to-face with the head of the administration that had jailed him for decades and still brutally oppressed his people, the leader of the anti-Apartheid movement had essentially one message: "I understand." He spoke to De Klerk of the long history of Afrikaans mistreatment by the British, culminating in the concentration camps of the Boer war. He acknowledged why a people surrounded by outsiders for centuries would cling to their culture and fear black majority rule. He praised the courage of past Afrikaaner leaders and expressed his deep respect for the spirit of the Afrikaaner people.
De Klerk was visibly moved. He later summarized his reaction in the famous phrase Margaret Thatcher used upon meeting Gorbachev: "Here was a man I could do business with." The dialog between the two men became much more contentious as the negotiations advanced, but Mandela never lost the foundation of respect he earned at their first encounter.
Three months after their first conversation, De Klerk shocked even his own cabinet by announcing the official end of Apartheid. Three years later, he and Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
The lesson of Gandhi at Lancashire and Mandela with De Klerk must not be confused with abandoning your own principles to appease an opponent. That is an act of weakness. Neither leader compromised anything fundamental to their cause--and therein lies the genius of the tactic. By remaining broad-minded enough to acknowledge the truth in your opponent's narrative, you your antagonist to acknowledge the truth in your position--thus opening the door to real progress. And that is an act of strength.
Of course, practicing Satyagraha requires a lot more than just acknowledging truth in an enemy's position -- but it's a pretty good place to start. And the surprising passion for broad mindedness in yesterday's crowd offers real hope that Satyagraha is not only still possible, but could be wildly successful in modern progressive organizing.
So I think I know "what we were doing there"--we were rallying to restore Satyagraha as a viable tactic in our lives, and in our movement.
It's merely a beginning. The rally didn't help us win these elections and offered no meaningful direction for what great causes we might unite around afterward. But that's fine. As one sign put it, "I agree with Jon Stewart, but I'm pretty sure he's not the savior".
Those aren't the answers we need -- progressives have never been short of great causes. And we have plenty of recent experience winning elections. What we're lacking is a way to win our causes and elections that doesn't just set us up for a major backslide a cycle or two later.
So it's true that 2010 may soon be remembered as a year when the national pendulum swung back to the right. But if we seize the opportunity to learn from this moment, it may yet also be known as the year we figured out how to win for keeps.