Crosscut – January 22, 2016

Is the Left losing? A talk with Nick Licata
by Drew Atkins

The world needs more radicals. As people get comfortable and small-stakes in their ambitions, radicals reconfigure what is considered possible. In politics, they look at the incremental “proper way of doing things,” and attempt to throw it out the window. Activists with a radical streak are just as necessary for a healthy democracy as the politicians and media they so frequently denounce. They force movement, whether it’s toward the right or the left, positive or negative.

Back in 1999, Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata housed anti-globalization activists in his home, sheltering them after the city’s historic World Trade Organization protests. He went on to denounce the city’s crackdown on civil disobedience, and penned an essay titled “Every Politician Should Live in a Commune.” Since then he’s led fights for a $15 minimum wage, affordable housing, paid sick leave, and more. In 2012, The Nation magazine named him the “Most Valuable Local Official” in the United States, citing his leadership in a nationwide network of elected progressives, and his work on the council since 1998.
As politicians go, Licata – who decided against running for re-election last year – can be fairly described as a progressive activist who’s worked within the system. On the other hand, he’s also been described as very pragmatic in his efforts, even by opponents of his policies. He’s no radical. This came across in a long discussion with him about his recently published book, “Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, and Advice for Changing Our World“.

Licata is the sort of politician who listens to the fringe voices and big thinkers, and proceeds to work their ideas into legislation. But he also believes progressive radicals would be best served by toning it down a bit. Looking at the Occupy movement, for example – which railed against a system rigged in favor of the “1 percent” of wealth holders – he told me they’d have been more effective if they’d received staffing and financial support from the “institutional left.” They should’ve aligned with some wealth holders, in other words. The Tea Party was co-opted by the Republican party in a way Occupy should have been by Democrats, he said.

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Billed as a primer for the successful modern activist, the content of Licata’s book holds true to its title – he wants to inspire people (mostly on the left side of the political spectrum) to become involved and “change the world.” But these days, progressive activists are losing the war in many ways, despite scoring in some battles. Wins on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization – which Licata depends on to present his book’s optimism – are more easily supported by business leaders and other powerful people. On many tough economic, environmental, and other legislative issues outside of cities, progressives are losing ground.

As recently as seven years ago, Democrats controlled the majority of state legislatures. Now Republicans control 70 percent of the country’s house and senate seats. While liberals focus on national fights, conservatives are winning on the local level, resulting in more local legislative action.

Licata knows the progressive brand of activism is falling behind, and that leftist radicals are marginalized more than conservative ones. He’s written in various outlets, including Crosscut, about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization dedicated to bringing right-wing and business-friendly legislation into law.

This led me to question whether the mode of progressive activism he touts in his book needs a more critical conversation, and perhaps a shake-up. In essence, whether a more radical approach is merited at times. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Reading your book, there seems to be an optimism underlying a lot of it.

I’m glad you picked up on the tone of being optimistic. Too often activists are not. Because you know so many things are wrong, and the things that need to be changed are so large, we tend to get overwhelmed. We get discouraged. What I was trying to point out in the book is that changes can happen, but they can take a while, like gay marriage or marijuana legalization.

Would you say this book is a pitch to get involved? Or do you see it as a more realpolitik guide, along the lines of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”?

Well, I’ve obviously read that book and ones that are similar that have been published since then. I was gearing this toward people who were not self-described activists, but wanted to do something. I think there’s a difference. Activists can sometimes think of that as a career path.

What do you say to someone who looks at the system right now, and sees citizen input and activism as shrinking in influence in our political system, as compared to moneyed interests? The voice of individuals losing ground?

Well, the irony is that people on the right wing might not even agree with you. The Tea Party is doing pretty good these days. They’ve gotten a lot of people elected. Their activism has been on the upswing for some time. People who are getting discouraged, it’s more on the left than it is the right. I think part of that is the right has changed so much, whereas the left, I think we’ve lost our cutting edge. We’ve lost the ability to think strategically. We have to start thinking about how we gain political power, instead of winning an issue at a time.

The Tea Party had the full media support of Fox News. They had funding from the Koch Brothers. They weren’t going after economic issues like the wealth gap.
Totally. There’s no doubt about that. The point is, we should be reaching out to those people somehow.

On the flip side of the coin from the Tea Party, you write about the Occupy movement in your book. It sounds like your main criticism is they didn’t integrate themselves into the Democratic Party.

It’s interesting, because they would’ve seen joining the Democrats as selling out, and they were therefore not interested in joining it. But again, the Tea Party felt the same way about the Republicans. Their attitude was, “We’re going to take it over.” To a certain extent, we didn’t have leaders then like Bernie Sanders, who can be seen as offering a clear alternative. A lot of activists are so anti-government they’re ineffective. What makes people like Kshama Sawant effective is you have to play the game, get involved, run for office, make proposals that can make it into legislation.

Do you see Occupy’s lack of central leadership or spokespeople like Bernie Sanders as a weakness in the movement?

The institutional left should’ve stepped in and helped provide some staffing for Occupy. It’s not a lack of leaders. As was pointed out, they had very little resources. The fault isn’t with Occupy. It’s with the funders of Democratic institutions, saying, “These are our ground troops. We should be able to work with them.”

What would you say the lessons are from Occupy, on organizing around economic issues?
The polling shows that Occupy was more popular than Tea Party. They were hitting the right notes for the public. I go back to my point that we need to be following the Tea Party guide. It could be that they have more billionaires on our side than we do, but there still could’ve been a mechanism to fund the Occupy movement, helping them organize an effort to translate their energy into actually obtaining political power. You need some money, and you need some organizational assistance.

Hearing you talk about Occupy, you’re talking the lack of support from the “institutional left.” What you’re really talking about is a lack of money. How important has money become in effecting change, versus grassroots organizing?

The lessons I give about grassroots organizing are really fundamental. You have to get changes done. That’s the basis of change. When I talk about money, I’m talking about converting Occupy into a national movement.

If you look at Arab Spring, you see Twitter can be a real organizing tool for some activists. But watching your Facebook and Twitter feed in the United States, do you worry social media is more performative, versus a step toward real-world involvement?
Social media is good for certain things. You can get information and breaking news out. But if you rely just on social media, you’re lacking the meat of how you need to be organizing…. You know, posters have been around forever. And they can be very effective in the age of social media.

Do you ever worry social media can lend people a false sense of participation, kind of like political yard signs? As a fellow vet of political campaigns, sometimes the people who come into your office interested in yard signs are less than likely to actually volunteer and work. They think they’re already doing their part somehow.

To a certain extent, I guess that’s what they feel up to doing. They may never volunteer. I don’t take that away from them. That’s one thing they’ve done.

In your book, you made two examples of activism making big changes: same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. To play devil’s advocate, how much easier is it for progressives to organize around social issues than economic issues?

I’m not sure. Because the animosity directed toward same sex marriage was intense, and so was marijuana legalization. You’re right that corporate leaders are very socially progressive toward gay marriage, and tolerant of the drugs. So I think the point you’re making is you’ve got big corporations coming out and supporting these things, and they’re not going to support economic changes.

Having been in a city where politicians run the spectrum from liberal to really liberal, do you worry you have a skewed view on what’s effective in other sort of places?

Again, many of the things I talk about are the basic stuff… Just knowing, for instance, who chairs committees, and who gets a vote in committee, and who contributes to them. Get people to the table, and then get the media to cover that.

Looking at the takeover of statehouses by Republicans, are conservatives out-organizing progressives right now, on the local and state level?

I think probably they’re out-organizing us, in some ways… We haven’t had that organizational approach. Part of it is, you need to think about building an organization instead of winning on an issue. If you just think about winning on an issue, we might not fight another one. Each issue by itself, if you don’t think about who’s going to come up next, who’s going to run for office, you’re fighting individual battles, not a whole war.

Do you think progressives are too issue-focused versus the bigger picture?

That’s one of the major problems on the left, is we’re very issue-oriented. One of the bigger differences between the right and left wing foundations is, ironically enough, the right wing foundations are much more oriented towards getting something done project by project. You get a lot of left wing foundations that will just work on gay rights, or just work on working families. The right wing is interesting, they focus on freedom and liberty, then they take those nuggets, and use them to fight. They take something like the liberties of individuals, and everything flows from that. We don’t have that sort of overarching ideological tie-in.

You’ve written a lot about ALEC. That’s its own form of activism. Would you say that form of activism and the stuff you see from the Koch Brothers is winning over the standard, grassroots progressive model?

You know, I hate to sound defeatist, but they’re gaining more ground than we are on state level. They’re passing twice as much legislation than Democrats are, and they control a lot more state legislatures. Part of that is they focus on getting people in state government who have this, again, overarching philosophy.

It’s not like we don’t have one. Racial equity, and social justice, economic opportunity for everyone. But that’s a lot of words! It’s hard to boil down, and theirs is much more simplistic. Quite honestly, it’s much more self-centered. … I think that we have a problem.
They actually have passed out the book you mentioned, Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” The Tea Party. It’s documented. They bragged about it.

To people who see the influence of individuals and community organizing as waning, relative to the influence of money and well-funded activism, what do you say?

I tell you how I deal. I’ve ask people, do you like losing? Are you a loser? Or are you a winner? Are you going to allow the other person to take over your life? Because if you give up, they win. If you’re discouraged, it plays into their hand. They’re counting on people being discouraged, apathetic, cynical. That’s the fuel that keeps them going, even more so than money. Money can not overcome social movements.

On the left, I’ve heard it said that people are OK with noble failure. They’re fine with symbolic actions that don’t really have a strategy or move the needle or accomplish anything, but make people feel they’re doing something, taking some stand. Do you see that as a problem?

I don’t know if it’s more on the left or the right. The right has that as well. For one thing, it can be a strategy that you try very hard at something and don’t get it, you can see that as a learning experience. That’s probably partially true. But if you keep saying, let’s do it again, we don’t really intend to win, but we’re going to raise people’s consciousness, that’s not a long range winning strategy. I think one of the reasons people go that approach is because they, in their hearts, don’t think they can really win.
This is the thing: small wins accumulate to big wins. If you were only interested in educating people, were you really out to win anything? It’s better to win small amounts and build on that.