Finding Reasons for Progressive Optimism

Progressive optimism and political reform don’t come by saying “pretty please” to the power structure.

From corporate polluters to political bosses, power elites try to create a myth of inevitability, trying to make workaday people feel helpless, too small to change the injustices of the system. “Don’t bother” is their message, “progressive optimism” is futile.

But the feisty residents of Boxtown, Tennessee, definitely did bother when they learned that a couple of profiteering fossil fuel giants were targeting them. Boxtown, a historic Black neighborhood of Memphis settled by former slaves 160 years ago, was considered by Valero Energy and Plains All-American Pipeline to be politically powerless, so when these multibillion-dollar petro powers decided to ram a dirty and dangerous pipeline through the Memphis area, Boxtown was their chosen route. The rich Texas oil barons even sneeringly called the lower-income community the “point of least resistance.”

Boy, did they get that wrong! Those “small” people of Boxtown resisted fiercely and smartly. Most flat-out refused to sell their family land at the thieving price offered by the oil slicks. They forged a unified grassroots coalition (Memphis Community Against the Pipeline), reached out to other neighborhoods and educated locals about the terrible safety records of the two corporate plunderers. They also enlisted environmental groups to help beat back the strong-arm attempt by Valero and Plains All-American to seize the people’s property through eminent domain. It’s a long story, with many ups and downs, but the inspiring essence of it is that local “nobodies” defeated the big money and raw, racist arrogance of a powerhouse duo of absentee corporate elites that disrespected — and misjudged — them. We’re not helpless or too small — remember this: Even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building!

It gets little national media attention, but regular grassroots communities and coalitions are mounting — and winning — gutsy fights against corporate and political exploiters all across America. Start with this: Tuition-free higher education for all residents. While Biden gave up on his pledge to provide free community college access for Americans, New Mexico has done that and more, enacting (and funding) a bipartisan program to cover tuition and fees at all state colleges, universities, community colleges and tribal colleges. Yes, bipartisan — the state seems to be blessed with a gutsy governor and some GOP legislators who’ve been persuaded that education, not extremist ideology, is the real path for peoples’ progress, and that higher education for all is a public resource, equivalent today to what free universal enrollment in high school was a century ago.

And how about this? New Mexico — ranked as one of the poorest states in the country — has prioritized free child care as an essential need and common good for families, the economy and the state’s future. The product of a decadelong grassroots push by groups like New Mexico Voices for Children, the program is open to all 0- to 5-year-olds — and it also provides decent pay (starting at $18 an hour) to attract quality caregivers and instructors. The “Land of Enchantment” has become the Land of Can-do.

Political reform and progressive optimism doesn’t come by saying “pretty please” to the power structure, but by steadily organizing to gain enough force that you can jettison the powers that be. You could ask Sen. Joe Manchin about it. He’s a one-man political steamroller in Washington — a Democrat. Except when he’s not, which is most of the time. The multimillionaire West Virginia coal executive is the darling of fossil fuel and pipeline lobbyists, as well as Republican opponents of progressive Democratic policies. Indeed, he’s funded by Republican billionaires.

But Washington lobbyists and billionaires are not the only source of personal political power that allows him to hold office and block “small d” democratic policies that the American majority wants and needs. Back home, Joe has maintained a tight, authoritarian grip on West Virginia’s Democratic Party structure, rigging the rules to put little Joes in each and every party position. In turn, this has long given Boss Manchin control over who gets to run as Democrats for down-ballot elected offices in the Mountain State.

Until June 18, that is. That’s when a statewide democratic rebellion that had been organizing for six years elected its slate of over 50 candidates to oust the Manchinites on the Party executive committee, replacing all but one of the top Party officers with grassroots activists. It truly was a diverse, people-run victory. Selina Vickers, a social worker, was chief strategist, and Mike Pushkin, a cab driver, is now the party chair. Danielle Walker (now vice-chair of the committee and the first person of color in state history to sit on the Party’s governing body) summed up the significance of this turnaround: “There’s a new beacon of light shining down on the government with people energized and ready to strategize with a return to the democratic process.”

For guidance on bringing this kind of progressive reform to your local/state Dem Party hierarchy, go to Our Revolution, the one national group that is prioritizing work on this fundamental democratic change to the Democratic Party.

Jim Hightower
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