So you went to one of the recent big anti-Trump actions, and you want to become a progressive activist. Not just vote every year or two. Great. But there are dozens of major left activist organizations and hundreds of minor ones working on a host of issues at all levels. Which one to join?
Politics is a minefield. No two ways about it. And the group (or groups) you choose to work with will determine both the course of your life going forward and, in some sense, the fate of the nation. How do you even begin to decide?
I recommend starting with a gut check. What issues are most important to you? Do you want to take on a big fight like getting Trump and his rogue’s gallery of white nationalists out of power? A smaller fight, like expanding public transportation in your region? Or a huge fight, like saving humanity from global warming?
Once you’ve thought deeply about where your political interests lie, search for organizations that are taking on the issues you care most about. Look hard. Do deep web dives. Ask everyone you trust that shares your values. Then ask yourself a series of questions like the following:
1) Is the group run democratically? Far too many activist organizations—especially on the national level—are not. If all edicts in the group seem to come from top officials, and none of the important decisions are made by the members, you’re probably barking up the wrong political tree.
2) Is the group led by elites? Look at the staff, elected officials (if any), and board. Do you see lots of rich people and CEOs? Lots of Ivy League connections? Lots of big (and therefore corporate) foundations? And you’re a progressive and want to rein in corporate power? Find another group.
3) Is the group’s membership and (more importantly) leadership diverse? Do you see people who look like you and a broad array of your friends in the organization? If not, you may want to look elsewhere.
4) Is the group’s agenda transparent or opaque? What does the organization stand for? Is it developing its own positions democratically, or does it seem to be taking marching orders from some unseen higher level? Always look for a clear statement of its politics, values, and action plan—and an indication of who calls the shots in the group. Such information should be front and center in outreach materials, websites, and social media presences. If it’s not, keeping moving.
5) Is the group connected to the Democratic Party? You’ll need to think very carefully about this question, because it determines where you’ll come down in the debate on the future of the American left. Do you want to be connected to the populist left wing of the party? The neoliberal corporate wing of the party (that got the country into the mess we’re in)? Do you want to break with the party and form a better left party? Or join the extra-parliamentary left that doesn’t believe in electoral politics at all? Definitely study before you leap.
6) Is the group purely reactive? Does it engage its members in political discussion and debate, determine a strategy, take action, analyze the action, course correct, and move on to achieve meaningful political change. Or does it follow various dog whistles from powerful societal institutions and various media without really developing its own analysis, and encourage members to endlessly engage in aimless street protest. Eschew, if the latter.
7) Is the group a cult? A loaded question, yes. But one worth thinking about. Political cults do exist. If any organization you approach starts putting super heavy pressure on you to join them, to spend all your available waking hours working for them for free, and to disassociate from your friends and family … run.
Otherwise, if you don’t see a group you like, start your own! In general, keep your head about you and use your common sense. Avoid well-off wannabe revolutionaries, radical chic hipsters, and faux radicals who encourage your mouth to write checks to cops, intelligence agencies, and the military that your ass can’t cash, and you’ll be fine. Have fun fighting the power. And let’s be careful out there.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.
Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on: