Progressive Meltdown(s), Continued

NOTE: This is a followup to our post of early June about the widespread internal turmoil & dysfunction among national progressive groups. The long piece in The Intercept by Ryan Grim has now penetrated the media stratosphere, aka the columns of The New York Times.  Will this increased exposure make any difference?  We can only hope.

Check it out.

Excerpts from The New York Times “Guest Essay”: Democrats Are Having a Purity Test Problem at Exactly the Wrong Time

By Thomas B. Edsall — June 29, 2022

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

There has been a burst of stories in recent weeks describing devastating internal conflicts within progressive organizations, the most conspicuous of which was Ryan Grim’s June 13 Intercept piece, “Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History.”

The progressive political strategy for 2022 (and after). It’s a classic.

Grim’s assessment resonated across the internet and was quickly followed by Molly Redden’s June 17 HuffPost account, “Inside the A.C.L.U.’s Post-Trump Reckoning” ; Jon Gabriel’s article in the Arizona Republic on June 18, “Who needs a right-wing plot when progressives are busy eating themselves alive?”; Zack Colman’s June 19 Politico column “Justice or overreach? As crucial test looms, Big Greens are under fire”

The revised progressive political strategy for 2022 (and after). It’s also a classic.

[NOTE: See also re: the Sierra Club, ”Sierra Club culture tolerated ‘anger and aggression,’ report finds” ; and an answering defense of Sierra founder John Muir, who was denounced by activists as a racist, a charge some critics found overblown and unhelpful. The Muir defenders include Board members of color, and in an article, “It’s Just Wrong,” there is a list of many top staff resignations at Sierra in the wake of the internal controversy.]
and John Harris’s June 23 Politico essay, “The Left Goes to War with Itself.”[ALSO: This list neglects the substantive blog post here from December 2021, which raised a similar set of issues, and aggregated links to a previous round of reports and commentaries describing the unrest and the damage it has done, with special attention to impact among some Quaker groups. This  concern has had to struggle to gain traction in a society riven with violence and turmoil; but with Grim’s report, and the hammer blow of Roe’s fall, it finally seems to be getting some belated, grudging recognition. But has that come too late for meaningful corrective steps — or will it only result in more recriminations and circular firing squads? ]

Edsall, cont.: According to Grim (and these other reports), disputes over diversity, equity and inclusion — over doctrine, language and strategies — have paralyzed much of the left advocacy and nonprofit sector.

William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, has a sharp eye for what’s not working in Washington and has long been a critic of those he feels are pulling the Democratic Party too far to the left. Galston emailed me his take on the current situation:

In recent months I’ve had the chance to talk to several presidents and executive directors of established left-leaning centers and groups. They all tell versions of the same story:

Around 2015, something changed. The young people they were hiring were focused on issues of race, gender, and identity as never before, and they were impatient with — even scornful of — what they regarded as the timid incrementalism of the organizations’ leaders. They wanted equity (as they defined it) immediately. They were acutely sensitive to what they saw as microaggressions, including the use of terms to identify different groups that they regarded as out of date and insulting. They were prickly, quick to take offense and to see malign motives rather than inadvertent mistakes.

This generation gap has forced leaders to devote unprecedented time and energy to internal governance, sometimes to the detriment of their organization’s mission. The left has a long tradition of turning on itself, and what I’ve reported is the latest chapter in a long running saga.

Edsall, cont: One high-ranking nonprofit official who has been in the middle of these battles, but who declined to be identified because of the repercussions he would face within his organization, commented by email that

Difficulties addressing D.E.I. issues and identity politics are part of the problem, but they are symptoms as much as causes. There’s a new perfectionism in our organizations that gets in the way of actually dealing with challenges in our imperfect world.

The fundamental problem, he wrote, is “the presence in every progressive organization of a small but very vocal fringe that views every problem as a sin.” This hyper-moralization of internal disputes spills over into real-world, but otherwise routine disagreements, he continued: “It has become too easy for people to conflate disagreements about issues with matters of identity.”

Every leader of a nonprofit organization, he contended, “is struggling with the same problems regardless of the race, gender, or identity of the leader.”

He was not alone in his concerns. A consultant who works primarily for nonprofit advocacy groups, who would only speak anonymously to avoid alienating her clients, said she regularly sees routine disputes over salaries and assignments “turned into civil rights issues,” making them extremely difficult to resolve under ordinary circumstances. “The failure to give someone a raise, even when it is a Black boss, becomes a matter of structural racism,” she said.

It is just these struggles on the left that are forcefully documented in Grim’s 10,388 word investigation. . . .

In addition, Grim wrote that these internal battles have been “true of the progressive advocacy space across the board, which has, more or less, effectively ceased to function. The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching turmoil in the past couple years.”

An executive who heads a liberal think tank, speaking without attribution in order to avoid alienating colleagues, argued in an email that the tensions within organizations on the left have to be put in context. . . .

Many progressive organizations are being led by women and people of color for the first time. This shift accelerated during the pandemic, largely in response to the murders of George Floyd and other factors, and so these folks assumed leadership during an especially difficult moment for our country, and for their organizations as well since so many organizations on the left include a focus on race. There have always been differences over strategy — how to do our work, who to engage, etc. — on the left, but the fact that the staff and leadership ranks of many progressive organizations are more diverse means that certain ideas about strategy that once predominated are rapidly being displaced. This, inevitably, has also caused tension, but also creativity.

The process of staff and leadership diversification, the executive continued, “at many organizations occurred in a hasty, slipshod manner — largely in response to national events. So there are many leaders on the left who feel uncomfortable and unsupported in their new roles, and many staff members who feel the new leadership is unresponsive to their needs.”

There are other interpretations of the conflicts within advocacy groups, nonprofits and other left-liberal organizations.

Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, wrote in an email that

These divisions reflect larger divisions within the Democratic Party coalition, between an older (and whiter) generation that learned what works in an earlier time, has nostalgia for that earlier time, and is thus more reluctant to give up on the existing status quo (especially because that means relinquishing power to a younger generation they do not trust), and a younger (and more diverse) generation that has no attachment to and little affinity for the past, and a real sense of urgency about the need for major, transformative change across a wide range of issues. Within the Democratic Party coalition, many of the leaders are refusing to pass the torch (look at the leadership of the party), and a younger generation is impatient with the slow pace of change and eager for their turn.

Drutman said his views have been influenced by the work of Kevin Munger, a political scientist at Penn State and the author of the recently published book “Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture.”

I asked Munger about the dissension on the left and he emailed back:

The fight against identity-based discrimination, against racism and sexism, is of course a much larger movement, but the overlap between age, race/gender, economic stability, and professional power explains why these fights are so heated and why they are happening now.
Munger went on:

When we talk about older people in the U.S. today, we are mostly talking about older white people. And the converse: when we talk about racial minorities, we are mostly talking about younger racial minorities. The baby boomers are the whitest generation in U.S. history (thanks to changes in immigration law and the de-racialization of groups like Italians, Irish and Jews), and Gen Z is the most racially diverse.

While Drutman and Munger focus on generational differences, others contend there are more immediate and more emotionally potent forces at work.

Last summer, in “A racial reckoning at nonprofits: Black women demand better pay, opportunities,” Sydney Trent of The Washington Post reported on “a little-publicized racial reckoning that has been roiling the rapidly growing nonprofit sector — the country’s third-largest employer — since the murder of George Floyd last May.”

Among the areas under scrutiny, Trent wrote, is

the way White-dominated boards and leadership relate to the often poor, minority communities they serve, inequitable decision-making by foundations when doling out funding and discrimination faced by nonprofit workers of color. As with the racial reckoning among for-profit companies, concerns about bias in the workplace have been prompting more employees to voice their frustrations and advocate for change.

This, Trent observed, is “particularly true for Black women, who report experiencing the most discrimination in the nonprofit sector.” Black women in the nonprofit sector cited “lower pay, being overlooked for jobs and promotions, lack of mentorship, dealing with assumptions that they are underqualified and being stereotyped as ‘angry Black women.’ ”

The impact of the racial reckoning in the nonprofit sector is being keenly felt in the nation’s capital, which has the third-largest concentration of locally focused nonprofits in the United States. When national organizations are taken into account, the Washington region is home to about 50,000 nonprofits employing 600,000 people, or, to put it another way, about one in four workers in Washington is a nonprofit employee, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. . . .

The current factional difficulties on the left bring to mind the work of Richard Ellis, a professor of political science at Willamette University and a liberal, who wrote the 1998 book, “The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America.” Ellis described the transformation of the radical 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society:

“How did S.D.S. move from the nonviolence of the Port Huron Statement to the violent fantasies of the Days of Rage?” Ellis asked.

Answering his own question, Ellis argued that

The impulse to effect social changes was increasingly pre-empted and distorted by a desire to retain an uncorrupted honesty or purity. The S.D.S. worldview increasingly became one of “us” versus “them,” the good inside versus the evil outside.

A similar process overtook two subsequent movements, in Ellis’s view:

Characteristic of both radical feminism and radical environmentalism is the tendency to dismiss the choices people make as a produce of false consciousness. Under conditions of inequality, Catharine MacKinnon insists, female consent is merely male coercion concealed. Driving a car, radical environmentalists tell us, is an ‘addiction,’ not a real choice.

Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at the University of London and author of the book “Whiteshift” (and who pointed me to Ellis’s book), argued by email that a key element in the struggle of progressive groups “is the elevation of emotion and the personal over reason, generalizable data and process.”

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, contends that internecine conflict on the left has become “a profound issue, particularly for those of us who are terrified that the hard woke left will enable the resurgence of authoritarian populism by inflicting damage on the moderate left and center and by driving voters to the right.” . . .

Recent years have seen a significant increase in the appointment of African-American chief executives and presidents of small and large foundations and nonprofit advocacy groups.  . . .

The foundations, charities and nonprofits with Black leaders run the gamut, including the Ford Foundation, Alliance for Justice, the American Association of University Women, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center for American Progress, Demos, Emily’s List, the Tides Foundation, Greenpeace USA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America — and this just scratches the surface.

For many of the newly promoted top executives, the Chronicle continued, these jobs have produced new predicaments: “having broken the proverbial ‘glass ceiling,’ they often find themselves teetering on a ‘glass cliff.’ ” . . . .

In other words, a shift in the leadership did not bring an end to — much less resolve — the internal struggles over race, equity and other issues documented by Grim and many others.

The question in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions on Roe and gun rights is whether these organizations can get their acts together before the Nov. 8 midterm elections and the end of the 117th Congress on Jan. 3, 2023, and that’s before we get to the question of the momentous 2024 presidential election.

The reality is that the left and the Democratic Party have suffered bouts of internecine conflict repeatedly over the last 100 years. Unfortunately, the most powerful corrective has proved to be defeat, even repeated defeat, on Election Day.

One thought on “Progressive Meltdown(s), Continued”

  1. No, none of these issues are completely new. I recall during my graduate education in the late 70s/early 80s that we students (in such classes as Radical Pollical Economy and Marxian Social Analysis) we frequently frustrated and typical questions at the end of a seminar was “This is all great, but what does it have to do with Praxis?” or “How does this help us bring about progressive social change?”

    The answer was that apart from raising our consciousness, none of what we learned as academics prepared us to do anything real, except spread the word as teachers ourselves.

    The reality is that coalition building in a democratic society always requires compromise and accommodation of those less bent on transformative change that some. We have settled on “getting what we can, when we can” for better or worse.

    However, the election of the first Black president of the US brought about a fundamental transformation on the Right. Compromise and accommodation died, and some (many?) older politians on the Left and Center still seem to be unaware of this. The Right took off the gloves and has become completely ruthless. Must we in the Center and Left do the same? I think maybe so.

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