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Of Parties, Politics, and Social Change

Commentary by Dr. John D'Emilio

Ever since the 1994 elections, when Republicans captured control of Congress for the first time in more than a generation, members of our community have been anxiously asking what this dramatic shift means for us. Do we need to adapt to this new, more conservative political climate? Do we need to become "pragmatic"? Do we need to modify our goals, revise our methods, and change our message to succeed? Do we need to narrow our expectations and our agenda in order to court a Republican party increasingly dominated by the religious right?

At one level, the answer to these questions is very simple. Of course we have to change to take into account the new political environment. But this is a matter of tactics and strategy, not of goals and fundamental values. We cannot give up on AIDS funding, health care reform, or support for Medicaid and other welfare programs that benefit members of our community in order to appease a Republican majority antagonistic to "big government" and intent on balancing the budget. Nor can we abandon efforts to eradicate discrimination just because new civil rights initiatives have been labeled "special rights" or because older initiatives like affirmative action are under attack.

It is precisely in hostile political times that our commitment to core values needs reaffirmation. I am reminded of what Lillian Hellman, a radical playwright of the 1930s, said when she was questioned by a Congressional investigating committee during the McCarthy era: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this season's fashion."

At another level, our anxious questions betray a deep confusion about history, about movements for social change, and about how struggles for justice succeed. Our worries about the Republican-controlled Congress imply that we see the 535 members of Congress as the key movers and shakers in American politics, as figures with an almost independent power to move us toward a just, humane, and equitable future.

For better or worse, Congress has not typically been the motor force propelling the nation toward justice and equality. Whether dominated by Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or moderates, Congress has been a conservative institution, committed to the status quo and rarely challenging inequality and injustice. In fact, in the last seventy-five years, there have been only two brief periods--in the mid-1930s and again in the mid-1960s--when Congress has enacted a progressive legislative agenda.

What did those periods have in common? They were both characterized by popular grassroots movements demanding change

In the 1930s, in the middle of the worst economic crisis in the nation's history, the unemployed in American cities, sharecroppers in the South, factory workers in the Midwest, farm laborers and dockworkers in California, engaged in an endless round of mass protest and political organizing. Their efforts resulted in Social Security, unemployment compensation, subsidies for farmers, welfare for the impoverished, and the federally-protected right of workers to bargain collectively. That legislative program, propelled by the insistent demands of millions of Americans, helped usher in the most prosperous era in American history.

In the mid-1960s, the Southern civil rights movement rocked the nation. It provided the muscle that led Congress to enact historic civil rights and voting rights legislation. It created a political and moral climate that encouraged initiatives toward economic and social justice: a war on poverty; medical care for the aged; a Medicaid program for the poor; food stamps; federal aid for education. The legislative program of the 1960s expanded civil equality and, until the trickle-down economic policies of the Reagan Administration, improved the economic standing of those Americans with the fewest resources.

These eras of progressive change offer a valuable lesson for us in today's political setting. Social justice, political rights and economic democracy are not gifts bestowed on the people by benevolent members of Congress. They are hard-won victories achieved when popular movements, built from the grassroots up, create a climate in which it is impossible for Congress to say no.


Dr. D'Emilio is the director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). Based in Washington, DC, NGLTF is a progressive organization that has supported grassroots organizing and pioneered in national advocacy since 1973.
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