As the primaries have gone on and the passions of the Clinton and Obama campaigns have gone on, I read an article in the March issue of the Progressive that I thought made a good point. The article caught my eye because it was written by Howard Zinn. As I’ve been on a big Zinn reading kick these past few months, I thought I had to read it. In it Zinn warns Progressives not to expect the election of either Obama or Clinton to unleash any great reform cycle, unless their elections are accompanied by the hard work of Progressives to move the nation to be receptive to reform. In his article, Zinn wrote:
“I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes- the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhoods, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on maters of war and social justice.
Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.”
Zinn is asserting something that I’ve found many other historians have asserted: that reform legislation happens when the reform movements do the hard work of agitating, arguing, slowly changing public perceptions about their issues. William Lee Miller, who wrote the book “Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress”, wrote of the abolition of slavery:
“These politicians depended upon their predecessors, the evangelistic abolitionists, for the pressure, for the agenda-setting, for the raised consciousness that made their work possible; but the abolitionists depended in their turn on these politicians, to gear their affirmations into the machinery of the real world. Both were necessary to bring about the total result, putting the elements togeter- ending slavery within an enhanced constitutional Union.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in an essay on leadership:
“Government by reflection and choice called for a new style of leadership and a new quality of followship. It required leaders to be responsive to popular concerns, and it required followers to be active and informed participants in the process.”
If all goes as progressives and liberals hope and a Democrat wins the Presidency and the Congress, that does not relieve us of the hard work of activism. It’s good that we have a choice between two good candidates, Obama and Hillary, but they won’t be able to make any significant reforms without us. Zinn ended his article with this disclaimer:
“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed it responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which require direct action by concerned citizens.”