Less Than the Sum of Its Parts
It's a long, diverse and impressive list of activists that runs in this issue, an imposing array of agitators who make L.A. a better place to live. And yet, and yet . . . the net effect of the whole here is less than the sum of its parts. Progressive L.A. today is often as fragmented as L.A. itself. While a common thread of political inclination runs through most if not all of these activists and groups, it takes more than inclination to construct a citywide force for progressive change. When today's activist community is stacked up against its predecessors, it becomes apparent that it lacks, first, a uniting ideology; second, a common civic vision and strategy; and third, some kind of citywide organizational structure where activists and leaders from different constituencies, neighborhoods and issue areas can identify and work on common causes, and learn to understand and trust one another.
The very idea of a universal ideology, the postmodernists tell us, can no longer be sustained. Their counsel never reached Wall Street, of course; for the past decade the only "ism" with claims to universality has been capitalism. The left, by contrast, has increasingly retreated into tribal insularity and academic irrelevance. This asymmetry of ambition has not only helped saddle us with a grossly imbalanced global economy. It has also deprived left activists of the sense of belonging to a larger community engaged in a larger struggle - a sense that energized the left in both the '30s and the '60s.
That said, progressive cities can and have been built by activists for whom ideology was largely beside the point. What's been missing in progressive L.A. for the past decade has been a compelling vision of how to make the city better, a vision that could plausibly unite disparate communities of progressives and nonprogressives alike. In the '80s, liberal regimes in several cities - Ray Flynn's Boston most particularly - won support from balanced-growth and inner-city activists through policies that required downtown developers to set aside significant funds for affordable housing and other neighborhood improvements. Nine years ago, an L.A. Weekly conference that drew 1,000 civic activists to UCLA focused on what it would take to build such a regime in Los Angeles - a task that became sadly academic when the recession of the early '90s brought virtually all development to a screeching halt.
Today, a new civic left may be forming. It could be glimpsed in last year's successful campaign for a living-wage ordinance, and in the recent flourishing of growth-with-equity coalitions in such battles as the expansion of Universal's CityWalk (which has produced an odd-couple alliance of homeowner groups, trying to scale the expansion back, and unions, trying to condition expansion on the creation of decent-paying jobs). This fledgling left has identified a primary civic problem (the proliferation of low-wage jobs), a solution (requiring new projects to pay decent service-sector wages), a diverse coalition to support it (labor, Latino, inner-city, clerical, liberal and some balanced-growth groups), and a source of political muscle to campaign for it (the newly potent County Federation of Labor).
This is the first time in a decade that L.A. progressives have even come close to having a strategy and a vision that address the city's foremost problem. Such a strategy and vision are necessary conditions for a successful civic left - but they are not sufficient.
Assuming this strategy and vision prove a successful rallying point for local liberals (and they may not), there's still one more ingredient required for a progressive renaissance, and it's nowhere in evidence today - a citywide organizational network, a place where activists from disparate causes and communities can get to know one another and work on common campaigns. In the '60s, L.A.'s Democratic clubs provided that kind of structure for many progressives - bringing them into contact with people from far-flung neighborhoods who shared certain core beliefs, converting them, as they grew to know and trust one another, into a citywide political force. Perhaps reflecting the decline of a common ideology, and the long-standing absence of a common civic vision, there is no such network in the city today. There is no multiplier effect that maximizes the efforts of L.A.'s extraordinary activists. All too often, they work in isolation that is anything but splendid.
With the intent of breaking down at least some of the walls that separate activist from activist, the Weekly, Occidental College and a number of the city's leading progressive organizations - the ACLU, the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the Liberty Hill Foundation, the Nation Institute, and the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research - are sponsoring the Progressive L.A. Conference at Occidental this Saturday, October 3. The conclave will feature discussions with activists from the city's left-of-center movements both past and present - ranging chronologically from former Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins, first elected to the Assembly on the Upton Sinclair EPIC slate in 1934, to such current figures as the AFL-CIO's Miguel Contreras, affordable-housing advocate Jan Breidenbach, and Anthony Thigpenn of AGENDA. It will conclude with a look at progressive L.A.'s common future, a discussion featuring such political leaders as Jackie Goldberg, Tom Hayden, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Our intent is to celebrate L.A.'s progressive past and understand its progressive present. It is also - not a moment too soon - to attempt to shape our progressive future.
The Progressive L.A. Conference: Uncovering Our Past and Envisioning Our Future; Saturday, October 3, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Keck Theater, Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road, Eagle Rock, near the intersection of the 134 and the 2. Admission is free; lunch is $14. For further information, call (323) 259-1407.