Anybody with an interest in figuring out how to recapture American democracy and move our country forward should read Duane Clinker’s post on RIFuture titled, “Something’s gone missing in the struggle for social change.” Oh, I’m sure Mr. Clinker and I disagree on just about every specific policy question that currently faces Rhode Island and the United States of America. However, I think we do, fundamentally, share a desire to tear down unjust systems of privilege. It’s just that our understandings of justice and privilege appear to be different and, I’d suggest, that Clinker has slipped into a habit of thought that ought to be inimical to his stated desire.
In other words, most of the value of his essay, from my perspective, is to be found in the gaps — in what he fails to see. I’m not sure these are errors that a good conservative ought to correct when made by a devoted progressive, but one illustration should give the basic sense.
Here’s Clinker’s open statement of vision:
I am a revolutionary.
By this I mean that I desire, and work for the rise of an organized movement in these United States and beyond, that will be popular enough and powerful enough to make fundamental changes for the better in the way we live and organize ourselves. This means the eventual establishment of a much deeper community-based democracy, the outlawing of exploitation based on human greed, and the opportunity for all people, in all our diversity and color, to choose full, secure, peaceful, and free lives; lives lived out in honesty and balance with the earth and each other.
What’s striking in this statement is its internal contradiction. He claims to envision a society of freedom and honesty, but loaded phrases like “exploitation based on human greed” and “balance with the earth” suggest that such a society must have boundaries that match his ideology. We can be free, in other words, and have access to democratic political processes, but only if we stay within the parameters of Duane Clinker’s core values.
Similarly, he’s disappointed in the way the professional organizers attempted to align the massive wave of the Pubescence with their narrow organizational objectives, but he appears to approve of the action that intimidated and went far toward silencing a Make America Great Again rally in Providence. Our utopia for “all people,” in other words, can emerge only if we harshly shut down those who disagree in unacceptable ways.
This contradiction indicates a fundamental conflict between progressives’ rhetoric and stated beliefs and their practical activism, and it is visible, again, when Clinker turns his eyes toward history. He writes approvingly of the “voluntary associations” that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in early American society, through which (writes Clinker) Americans “were seizing the power to act for themselves outside formal government.”
Clinker then hop, skip, and jumps in order to compare the organizations of Tocqueville’s description with “soviets.” In doing so, he rushes right past the most important distinction, which may define the difference between conservatism and progressivism in our times. The core benefit of early American voluntary association was that it spread out power organically so that it could not be focused by anybody who seizes a centralized base of power for their own benefit.
Acting in a voluntary way, Americans were extending the power intrinsic in them as human beings to different aspects of society. Religion formed a base of power. Commerce formed a base of power. Social groups could form bases of power. Athletic clubs formed a base of power. In short, any thing in which a group of people took an interest could form a base of power.
All of these storing houses of power organized and influenced people in their own way and according to their own terms. To the extent that they interacted, they did so organically, by means of the individual. This is how individuals become part of a collective without losing their individuality in an honest and free democracy.
Church leaders cannot demand that a law be passed, but they can explain to those who look to them for religious guidance why a particular policy might conflict with their beliefs. Titans of industry can’t bend the power of the state to their own financial interests, but if enough voters are persuaded that they share those interests, action can be taken. Similarly, commercial interests would run into problems if they went crosswise to broadly held religious principles, and churches might find their adherents limited in number if they were unduly adamant against a means of putting food on the table. Through it all, government officials can’t (according to this vision) dictate private actions in religious or commercial activities.
The soviets and community organizers like Saul Alinsky sought to harness all this power for the furtherance of political goals that they — the organizers and planners — would define. Community organizing seeks to create an intermediary level of organization that transforms people’s voluntary activities — which disperse power — into different means of political action. Far from allowing people to interact in ways that aren’t political, they seek to make everything political.
They do so not to tear down all systems of privilege, but to build up their own, whether they’ll admit it to themselves or not. Clinker wants the privilege of defining the acceptable boundaries for others’ actions, and his allies (notably labor union organizers) want the privilege of high salaries and insider influence. In short, it’s just another aristocracy, another form of dominance, and another route to tyranny.
Not surprisingly, as their own historians ought to be able to explain, following that route requires progressives to keep people feeling insecure, threatened, and full of hatred toward some Other. It also requires them to put deception at the center of their organization, preferably within their own heads.