A Conversation with Founding Director Jean Hardisty
Conducted by PRAccess Editor Tom Louie with the assistance of Sarah Cross, PRA Communications Volunteer
You began PRA 25 years ago. As you reflect back on those years of researching and reporting on the Right, what do you feel are your major accomplishments with PRA? PRA's accomplishments?
I'd say my major accomplishment at PRA was to help hold the line against the temptation to exaggerate our research findings or "sex-up" our analysis to attract more attention and money. I come from an academic background, which is not necessarily a blessing when you work in the movement. But in one sense, it has stood me in very good stead. I acquired a commitment, from some very good teachers and colleagues, to let the story tell itself. Embellishment usually weakens your case. The Right's success is not mysterious. On the contrary, it is understandable.So long as you analyze it accurately, without using demonization, scapegoating, or distortion, you can use that knowledge to defeat its programs.
PRA's accomplishments are many, I'm proud to say. My bias is to pointto our publications -- The Public Eye, PRA's Activist Resource Kits, the new website, and quite a few books we've published or written -- that have provided insight and guidance to quite a few people over the years. But equally important are the thousands of hours of phone conversations, speaking engagements, workshops, and meetings in which we educated the public about the Right. I can't count how many times Chip Berlet has saved an inexperienced reporter from making some dreadful mistakes about the Right, based on bad information. Or how many times PRA staff took the time to give individual attention to someone struggling to grasp the apparently indecipherable right wing. And what may seem a footnote, but impresses me to this day; if you call PRA, you get a person, not a machine.
Activists can be easily demoralized at this time as Right policies have ever greater and broader effects and as they are institutionalized. How can we sustain movements in the long run and stay positive and motivated, especially among young people?
That's not so difficult a question as it appears. There's hope everywhere when you're working in the progressive movement. The one thing that can be said for times as harsh and discouraging as these is that the policies that serve the wealthy and the empty moralizing that blames low-income people for their poverty are starkly visible if you pay attention. The challenge is to pay attention and then to reach down into your soul for the motivation to commit to the fight against it.
The Right can seem an insurmountable and efficient machine and the progressive movement can seem weak, even on the ropes. But the more you know, the more enraging the Right's duplicity and corruption become. The trick is to commit to the struggle, which did not begin and will not end with us, take the defeats with a grain of salt and the victories simply as your due. For those who have spent decades in the movement for social justice, we need to do a better job of describing to young people what a good life it is. The work is frustrating and can make you want to scream, but it is also deeply satisfying and enriching, and most of all, the closest many of us will come to leading an ethical life.
You've talked recently about the importance of leadership and capacity building among communities most impacted by the Right's policies -- communities of color, immigrant groups, young people, for example. How can the Left contribute to building that movement infrastructure and supporting these communities?
The Left, if it is doing its job correctly, is not separate from those communities. It is doing its part within the communities to strengthen them, by improving the community's understanding of oppressive systems and how they work, and by bringing resources to the community to help it to empower itself, individually and organizationally.
You've written that progressives are neither clear nor unified about what we fundamentally believe, that "we are undecided on the larger principles that underlie our work for social justice." In short, that we lack and fail to project an inclusive, democratic, principled "big picture" of values and policies. How are we to achieve this vision?
I think the principal challenge we face is the loss of a public understanding of the positive role that government can play in society. So much of our vision in the past has rested on using government to correct gross inequities and brutal practices that violate any basic understanding of human rights. One of the Right's major accomplishments is its success in convincing the U.S. public that government is unworthy of support. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when government is in the hands of people who oppose its existence.We absolutely must come to terms with our own lack of agreement on some fundamental questions that face our movement now. What do we see as the best role for government to play? How can we correct the racial imbalance in the progressive movement that leaves too much power in the hands of white people? What role should religious institutions play in the public sphere? What principles will we use to determine our priorities? The answers should come from younger activists, who are grounded in their own communities and have enough passion to push through the hard work of figuring out not just what we oppose, but also what we want.
We've noticed you've referred to "the movement," singular, to describe a progressive project. Does this reveal your hopes about unifying separate progressive movements? Do you think it is possible or desirable for people to identify as part of one unified movement?
In my years of studying social movements, I've learned that you build social change by recruiting more and more people to your worldview. That's what a successful social movement does. We're seeing that now in certain Latin American countries, where leftist social movements are alive with energy and possibilities. And a successful movement must provide room and an embrace for people who are simply fellow-travelers. A movement made up only of the fervently committed and involved is not a movement but a cadre. Cadres may be very correct, but they almost never bring about profound social change.To the extent that our issue-specific sub-movements, such as the women's movement, the LGBT movement, or the environmental movement remain indifferent to the large movement for social change, they will claim some accomplishments, but they won't bring about profound change. To do that, we need a vast mobilization around a loosely defined, but clearly progressive, agenda. When lines need to be drawn, they should be drawn over inclusivity, democratic power sharing, and openness to new ideas. These are the places that we should struggle with each other -- not about whose issue is more important.
Over the last few decades, you've predicted, unfortunately with some accuracy, that the Right would institutionalize its agenda. What do you predict from the Right in the near future?
I think the Right has reached a late stage of its own maturity as a movement that threatens its stranglehold on U.S. politics. Knowing that, it is responding as you would expect, by stepping up the pace of political chicanery in order to accomplish as much as possible before the 2004 election.As a result of its victories in 2000 and 2004, the Right fell into the trap of triumphalism (absurd self-congratulation and an unrealistic sense of power), that led to unrealistic expectations on the part of its followers. Now, unable to deliver on its promises, bogged down in an increasingly unpopular war (itself a manifestation of that triumphalism), it is reduced to "stealth reform" between now and the 2008 election. That is, rather than succeeding in the legislative arena by passing laws in Congress, it must achieve its platform by using the Executive Branch and an increasingly compliant judiciary to advance its platform. This is rightist "reform" that will fly under the radar of popular scrutiny, but can be devastatingly harmful. We see examples everywhere -- including the erosion of civil liberties and privacy protections, the elimination of federal regulatory oversight, and the steady erosion of reproductive rights, especially for low-income women. A period as dangerous as this requires that the progressive movement be especially vigilant and aggressive in challenging this legislation-by-bureaucracy.
What role do you see PRA playing in the future? What role might PRA play in defining those overarching, visionary principles that you observe as lacking on the Left?
I don't know of any organization that knows as much as PRA does about social movements and how they work. Having studied the Right for 25 years and been part of the progressive movement as well, it is a treasure of both academic and experiential understanding of what makes a movement strong.
Now is a time for PRA to stay true to its role as an interpreter of the Right. In that way, it can inoculate liberal and progressive forces from fantasies of magic bullet cures to the Right's dominance. It will also continue to play its standard role of serving as an early warning system on the subject of the Right's plans.
But at this time, it can step up as a sort of consultant to the progressive movement on how to build movement strength to defeat the Right. Because PRA has never lost its progressive lens in its years of studying the Right, it will not derive reactionary and compromising lessons from that study. That is perhaps its greatest strength. Because of that strength, I also look forward to seeing PRA play an active role in sorting out the vision for a better, more effective, and more democratic progressive movement.
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