Grassroots v. Mainstream

By Greg Moses

The term mainstream keeps coming up as an aspiration for Democratic Party strategists, and this worries me.

For one thing, mainstream to me screams status quo, and how are we ever going to get anywhere with an aspiration like that?

For another thing, if I go to the party website for Texas Democrats, I find mainstream on one page and grassroots on another. And I want to know, how can you do both at the same time?

Grassroots sounds okay to me. It means that you’re looking to the rising aspirations of people who have not yet come to full power. It means that you’re trying to affect if not revolutionize the mainstream. It means, in the words of Amy Goodman, who spoke in Austin yesterday that you are going where the silence is in order to hear what the future needs to be.

By comparison, mainstream is quite a defensive slogan. It tends to increase pressure to NOT listen to new and troubling voices.

Or to put it another way, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. Mainstream is a thermometer measurement. It tells you the temperature of the political climate as it exists. Grassroots on the other hand is a thermostat concept, because when you get into it, you start wanting to change the temperature.

So, to Texas Democrats, a word of encouragement: drop the mainstream language.

Danny Glover last night at the benefit for the Texas Civil Rights Project whispered the famous Langston Hughes line: “America was never America to me.” It was a profound reminder that “mainstream” has never been mainstream for so many worthy voices.

If I try to imagine the motivation behind the clinging to mainstream, the best motivation seems to come from a fear of losing the so-called culture wars, of being left (yes left) with the smaller faction of votes whenever the “wedge” issues get pounded on: issues like gay marriage, pot smoking, affirmative action, reproductive rights for women.

But the best answer to this fear was suggested a couple of weeks ago by Damu Smith of Black Voices for Peace when he addressed a peace conference in Dallas. He said if your program is comprehensive enough and is really aggressive on all matters of jobs and justice, then the wedge issues won’t kill you. I’m putting my own words to his message here, but he seemed to suggest that Democrats were vulnerable to wedge issues only because they were so weak on everything else: war, jobs, rights, whatever.

So Democrats have pieces of the answer already in their language and history. Grassroots, civil rights, housing, wages, women’s reproductive rights, workers’ organizing rights, full and fair education, rights to speech and assembly. It would be great if we could add to this list Peace.

Democrats could do worse than follow the general outlines of an American dream articulated by King (and wonderfully revived last night in a performance by Felix Justice). Fight racism, poverty, and war. Work on empowerment politically, economically, and ideologically. Apologize NOT for your attempt to make America BE America. And who knows, someday we might have a mainstream we can live with.

Meanwhile, the focus on mainstream is damaging needed attention to grassroots. How many words have been devoted by official Democratic channels to the bad voter bill introduced by Kaufman County’s Betty Brown? Well, I’m happy to report that the party channels seem to be working very well in this instance. Now compare that to the number of words that official party people have uttered in recognition of Kaufman County Commissioner candidate Brenda Denson Prince, who is STILL fighting her fair election contest, and you’ll find in the word-count difference the tragedy of a mainstream party trying to survive without its grassroots.

Or take another example from the Heflin-Vo contest. How many grassroots Democrat voters were harassed by Republican attorneys in this race? Again, let me applaud any support that the official party mechanisms have thrown toward newly elected state rep Hubert Vo. But let me also wonder out loud, where is the matching concern for the grassroots voters that made Vo’s victory possible?

The mainstream strategy expresses and encourages a politics that will surely wither the aspirations of grassroots values as it ignores the struggles of ordinary Democrats who seek empowerment through voting and elections. So it is PAINFUL for me to watch Democrat officaldom (officialdumb?) holler “Mainstream!” and whisper “grassroots.” Surely, this is a hollow strategy that will collapse under the weight of its own pretensions.

If the leadership of Howard Dean means anything here, then the so-called grassroots movement among Texas Democrats will not prove to be just another mainstream shelter for a wanna-be status quo. But when I look at the recent experience of Houston voters or one Kaufman County candidate, I am NOT encouraged by what I see.


First posted Sunday, Feb. 20, 2005.

Greg Wythe considers and rejects the argument at GregsOpinion.

In short, even a good thermostat has to compare itself to a thermometer reading in order to measure progress. To do otherwise, is to seek out reform for the sake of reform alone – a chaotic proposition at best. A grassroots without a tether cord to reality is not a true grassroots movement so much as a loose cannon.

Wythe’s response seems to join in spirit with two brief comments posted at Democratic Underground that want to minimize the diff between mainstream and grassroots, as if “grassroots” posed a threat of some kind. These responses prove that any assertion of grassroots urgency will have difficulty even among self-described progressive Democrats. I should not be surprised by this, I know. But I am surprised. I had imagined that “progressive” included a vigorous “grassroots” commitment. Now I have to ask, what does progressive mean, anyway?

While Wythe’s response announces a disagreement, in fact it affirms a main assumption: that a thermostat or a grassroots movement aims to change the existing temperature or status quo. Yet the prospect of such change seems to make Wythe nervous. Again, I have to figure out why a self-described “progressive” thinks that “grassroots” reform cannot be reality based. For me “grassroots” reform is where emerging realities are born. Perhaps this is what makes me a self-described “lefty.”

On the other hand, SoniaS at DU says there is a self-described grassroots movement in the Democratic Party:

We’ve all heard that saying “if ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Well that’s the m.o. around the party still, but at least they are now willing to try. The grassroots committee is completely brand new. They just set that up at the last SDEC meeting in January. The SDEC simply wouldn’t give up on that. Supposedly it had been proposed for many years but never approved. I think the success of the Dean organization finally woke them up. And I mean success, in terms of the Democracy for Texas growing, the Progressive Populist Caucus growing, and what happened with Travis getting bluer etc.

Sonia’s reply indicates that “grassroots” is a term that has finally achieved practical value in 2005. We’ll see what comes out of the Saturday meeting of the Progressive Populist Caucus.

Aside from the philosophical debate, two specific questions remain: will Democratic officaldom respond to the needs of either Brenda Denson Prince or the Democratic voters who were harassed in Houston? Maybe “grassroots” is not the best way to describe what’s being ignored here.

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