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Internal moderation in movement politics fails to achieve goals

For almost four years now, I have been a member of Northfield’s chapter of ISAIAH, a progressive faith-based community organizing group that seeks to build power across Minnesota.

Many in the community are likely familiar with the name ISAIAH, it being one of the most prominent political organizations in the state and perhaps the largest in Rice County. In general, the causes ISAIAH supports are high-profile issues central to left-wing legislative and social agendas in all the state.

Offering driver’s licences for all, expanding Minnesota health care, providing paid family leave to all residents, and using 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 are current goals expounded, the kind of talking points likely to get progressives invested in ISAIAH’s politics.

These issues, of course, expand far beyond ISAIAH: many of these policies constitute substantial parts of left-wing platforms nationwide and worldwide. It may come as some little surprise, then, that even these generally conventional progressive ideas face challenges from outside the organization, in the constant opposition of both large-scale institutions and resistant individuals to such improvements of welfare.

What I did not expect several years ago, dismayingly, was for one of the largest perennial threats to community organizing with groups like ISAIAH to come from individuals within the very same organizations.

I say none of this to scapegoat ISAIAH, an organization of which I am proud to be a part. Rather, I hope to target the mechanisms of reactionary infighting that can often challenge agendas within these groups.

I am not a Stalinist; I would not “purge” any of these members, in a literal or idiomatic sense, but addressing and compensating for their presence requires at least as much effort, unprecedented for me, as does the broader, external fight for justice.

In meetings of a working group to address Northfield’s lack of affordable housing, we raised the possibility of increasing the number of allowed rentals in the city. Individuals then suggested that pursuing this issue would alienate [wealthy] homeowners from other, related progressive causes. To which I say: if we can’t touch certain issues, how can we achieve justice?

Perhaps policy requires compromise in the end, but to compromise demands before negotiating them at all is to deliver a dead letter. In a world where injustice festers on the roots of ambivalence, meeting ourselves halfway at least quarters what we will accomplish once we begin policy work. You don’t start haggling low just to get a better shot at closing a deal.

This issue extends far beyond movement progressives to, unsurprisingly, the very people appointed to ameliorate social ills in our communities. At a meeting of city notaries convened specifically to address affordable housing, a city official (who has since retired) expressed dismay that increasing rentals could “change the character of Northfield” to become something “like Minneapolis.”

Fears of gentrification are of course valid, but not so applicable in an affluent college town that is roughly ninety percent white.

Time and again people, city employees and volunteer organizers alike, have voiced tepid fears like this, that the very work they have set out to do, for whatever reason, contradicts a set of alien principles.

This spring, in preparation for fall 2020, a team of core Northfield ISAIAH members, of whom I am a part, met to discuss the State Senate election this November. A critical race in retaking the state legislature for the DFL, our district offers a choice between the left-wing, working class Davin Sokup on the one hand, and veteran and moderate (read: conservative) Jon Olson.

Perhaps some may say I am defaming Olson by calling him a conservative, a word he would likely not use to define himself. Yet time and again his platform stresses common ground, compromising with Republicans to find some medium of policy that works for everyone.

The problem with this perspective is, given the above context, I hope, clear. In a year as critical as any ever, with the already-present threats of nationalism, state-sanctioned violence, and climate change surrounding us, Olson, by his own admission, draws on his military experience, the perspectives of an irredeemable law enforcement sector, and market “solutions” to climate change.

He seeks, in other words, to use structures we already know do not work to reform, rather than replace, their most failed parts.

It is perhaps for these reasons that Olson has proved so popular among ostensibly progressive Northfield residents. In ISAIAH’s preliminary, unofficial vote to endorse one of the two candidates, Olson came out with over 60 percent of the total.

This, despite lacking satisfactory answers to many questions, including those about climate justice, immigration justice, and LGBTQ+ rights. Many of those affected by these questions in our community, one should note, were not present at the ISAIAH meeting.
Indeed, among those who take initiative in local politics, the most involved tend to be the most privileged rather than the most implicated. The people at these meetings, like the people at city affordable housing task force meetings I have attended, are nearly entirely white, most of them wealthy—I’m sorry, they would say “upper middle class”—homeowners, to whom politics is a hobby rather than a necessity.

Without adequate representation of the communities these “progressives” intend to support—or think they intend to—their bullheaded milquetoast politics accomplish little. The point of organizing is not to elect someone amenable to change, but to hold those in power accountable, to shake the system’s foundation loose.

If we ignore structural reform, as many of these internal dissenting (or perhaps assenting) voices allege we should, our years of work will fail to support our whole community as, I believe, is the goal of this political process.

The grave concerns I and others have raised, not only about Olson but the entire wave of reactionary thinking he represents—have gone largely unheeded in the ears of this majority. If Olson is more “electable” or whatever impossible litmus term people use, if policies of conservative moderation rather than radical emendation hold sway, then we will achieve less even than we expect to compromise for.

Like Joe Biden, Olson’s ascendancy reflects a certain comfort with the world as it is, a privilege to accept that things do not need to get better, not for good, but only return to a state of supposed normalcy, a broken, rigged system functioning as lopsidedly as it always has. This is not justice, but the perpetuation of injustice.

If the goal of organizing is to hold this justice in the majority, we need not compromise, or need not expect to. Let us pick our battles rather than concede them before they even begin.

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