"Politics is [beauty pageant contestants, gun owners, religious people...]"
When addressing the important question of scale--"how big or broad do we really need to be in order to start calling some shots in a meaningful way"--some of us on the left are fond of approvingly paraphrasing Lenin's idea that "politics is millions." ["Politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions."]
This is a truism that few would contest, but it's also a good reminder of the real mammoth task at hand. Before we can realize the "another world" that so many will be imagining in Detroit next week, we have to think about what it will take to get there. When I think about this, I envision millions of people who identify with social movements and are directly engaged by them. We would be able to recognize this phenomenon in the conversations of strangers at a bar, the lyrics of pop songs, a politicization of sports, and so on. These people are from all walks of life and carry eclectic, diverse, and often contradictory political positions. The left is there, but only as a midwife to the struggle--leading by example and careful not to undermine its influence by mandating political orthodoxy on an array of points for every campaign or by exhibiting insensitivity to cultural and religious traditions that may have reactionary elements about them (as well as radical potential, in some cases).
The example I'm about to cite is not from one of those traditions with radical potential...in fact, it's from an early target of the women's liberation movement in the US--the beauty pageant! Thanks to a certain social networking website, I came across a video of the 2010 Miss Georgia Pageant late last night. As it turns out, one of the contestants gave an excellent shout-out to the public education group I've helped organize! Check it out for yourself by skipping to the 8 minute mark...
If the video does not load, click here.
Transcript: [Contestant] Hello, my name is [...], and I'm Miss Thomasville. I have lucky panelist number three.
[Panelist] What one change would you like to institute at your university?
[Contestant] Well at my university, the University of Georgia, we've been very affected by the budget cuts. And a group was founded on my campus called the Georgia Students for Public Higher Education. I would really like to see that group grow and become more successful so that as students we can play an active part in our university and fight some of those budget cuts to keep the integrity of our degree and to keep our professors on staff.
Does this mean I'm going to be navigating away from my feminist position against beauty pageants to advocate an "inside-outside" strategy to ending patriarchy? Um, no. However, it does get me excited to see "popular" movements actually achieve a bit of popularity, visible in the degree to which they saturate the culture of most people.
This is why I think the fights against neoliberal austerity measures in the midst of this crisis are so critical to rebuilding the left--and surrounding that left, an infrastructure of dissent that is peopled with thousands upon thousands who may not initially understand the difference between a reactionary, a liberal, a leftist, and so on. After all, it's active participation in movements really educate and prepare the people to rule. These fights are perfect for inviting broad participation, building the moments where people can identify with and agitate for the demands of the left.
I'm also reminded of a recent conversation I had with a woman before a high school budget cuts protest in ultra-conservative East Cobb County, Georgia. As I waited with a comrade for what we expected to be a spirited, several hundred-strong, student-led demonstration against teacher layoffs (it didn't disappoint, by the way), a woman approached us to talk. She was positively beaming with delight and told us her daughter was one of the main organizers. I replied, "that's so impressive--you must be proud!" "Well yes, but not as much as her father," she continued. "He's the real political one, and takes her out to all the Tea Party protests."
I struggled to keep a straight face and avoided my head exploding a la Cronenberg:
We politely parted, and later found moments to exchange smiles in between shouting chants like, "No cuts, no layoffs, CHOP FROM THE TOP!" We are provided with so many opportunities to directly engage people who may start with ideological positions completely against the left and to not just dialogue with them, but to stand side-by-side and prove ourselves worthy allies in the good fight. If we can really take advantage of these, I'm willing to bet you'll hear more country songs like John Rich's "Shutting Down Detroit" (except with an anti-racist and pro-union message!) and more beauty pageant contestants giving us props.
Who wants to take me up on that bet?