Progressives Need to Focus
Single-issue advocacy groups have gone out of fashion. That's a problem for the left.
Recently, Sunrise DC, the Washington, D.C.-based affiliate of the youth-led environmentalist organization, found itself in the middle of a controversy few would have imagined just a few years prior.
The activists at the organization decided to pull out of a rally advocating for voting rights legislation because of the presence of what it called “Zionist organizations,” pointing to three Jewish American groups whose views on the Israel-Palestine conflict didn’t align with those of the young progressives who run Sunrise DC.
The move set off a political fracas that ended with Sunrise DC apologizing for singling out the Jewish organizations for their position on Israel, admitting that other organizations also taking part in the rally had similar positions on the Middle East. But they reaffirmed their belief that Zionism is an “ideology that has led to Palestinians being violently pushed out of their homes since 1948,” writing that “we stand with Palestine and those who join in solidarity.”
What the activists at Sunrise didn’t reconsider was the wisdom of an environmentalist organization dedicated to battling climate change—what should conceivably be one of the most uniting causes one can imagine, given that the entire planet’s population depends on figuring out a solution to this problem—wading into an issue as thorny as the conflict in the Middle East. While I’m sympathetic to the point of view adopted by much of the U.S. left—that the U.S. government is too supportive of the government of Israel—it was frustrating to watch an organization with a completely different mission decide to engage so strongly on this issue.
Over the past few years, mainstream progressive activist organizations have increasingly adopted worldviews that insist on assuming a link between seemingly distant social and political issues. In this mindset, you can’t stand for just one issue, you have to embrace them all.
The days where progressive organizations saw themselves as single-issue or narrowly focused on a handful of topics are quickly ending. Another recent example is the AFL-CIO—an organization that serves as one of the voices of American labor unions— deciding to celebrate International Pronouns Day.
Most Americans are probably wondering what in the world International Pronoun Day has to do with wages, benefits, or conditions, the typical issues that motivate labor action. But under the new intersectional approach, celebrating gender diversity is a labor issue because almost everything is a labor issue.
To argue otherwise, the narrative goes, would make one an insincere or impure progressive, a concern that I suspect is motivating the progressive shift away from single-issue advocacy. The people involved in these organizations are activists whose social circle tends to be similarly composed. By constantly adopting the new language and causes of their cohorts, they are engaging in the progressive version of keeping up with the Joneses.
If you’re wondering why so many professional progressive organizations seemed to rapidly adopt terms like “Latinx” or “birthing persons” that few Americans use, this probably explains it.
But the problem with a political organization adopting the intersectional, whole-hog progressive approach is that it could undermine the organization’s primary goals. The controversy with Sunrise DC is an example. The organization is dedicated to saving the planet, but found itself in a days-long dispute over the Middle East that likely divided its membership—the national organization distanced itself from the local group—and did nothing to battle climate change.
While it might make the progressive operatives who run these organizations feel good to say they’re on the cutting-edge of every single issue, it also raises the barrier to entry to potential allies. Someone who wants to get involved with Sunrise has to be comfortable not just with advocating for renewable energies, but also for a very specific, hard-left position on the Middle East conflict. That’s a litmus test that will only narrow the potential constituency for an organization, not widen it, as the intersectional activists had hoped.
Although the conservative movement does not have the same intersectional philosophical grounding for abandoning single-issue advocacy, there are also examples on that side of the aisle of the same strategic mistake being made. For instance, the pro-gun rights National Rifle Association (NRA) has become an increasingly partisan organization. In the early 1990s, it leaned Republican but also backed a considerable number of Democrats. Now it almost exclusively supports Republicans at the federal level.
This partisan shift has created incentives for the NRA to adopt a wide set of conservative ideological totems; its CEO and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, for example, has attacked Karl Marx and socialism (ironically, Marx was a fan of arming the working class.)
This is happening at a time when America’s gun-owning population is diversifying. As the president and CEO of gunmaker Smith & Wesson noted during an earnings call last year, “overall firearm purchases by African Americans are outpacing all other demographics with 58% growth in the first half of the year alone through June.” And a recent Pew poll found that one in five Democrats or Democrat-leaning Americans owns a firearm, with nearly one third at least living in a household with a gun.
Yet gun owners who don’t believe in disparaging Bernie Sanders’s economic views—LaPierre blasted “free safe spaces, free college, free health care, free jobs” in a 2017 speech—would be unlikely to join an NRA that now comes across as more dedicated to GOP messaging than advocacy for gun ownership.
Single-issue advocacy works because it’s the way to create the broadest coalition. Interest groups like banks and pharmaceutical companies get their way because they’re able to focus their advocacy on a narrow set of issues and coalesce Democrats and Republicans who have myriad views on other issues.
Single-issue advocacy can also work on behalf of progressive causes. The disability rights organization ADAPT waged a years-long campaign centered around one goal: passing the American Disabilities Act. In doing so, they earned the backing of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike, and the bill passed the Senate with 76 votes.
Advocates for the bill showed their willingness to compromise by allowing Congress to exclude certain contested provisions from the final text. Although many progressives were likely pained at this inability to win protections for everyone, they were also able to avoid being pigeon-holed as a far-left organization working for a bevy of far-left causes, and their bill was signed into law by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush.
In the end, the ADA passed because its advocates had a singular focus on ending discrimination against people with disabilities and resisted the urge to rope in other progressive objectives. Other progressive organizations would do well to learn this lesson and build stable coalitions of supporters who may not agree on other issues.
That doesn’t mean political organizations should never branch out of their primary mission. There are times when it makes sense to do so. But they should think about the costs and benefits of departing from the issues they’re focused on, lest they alienate more people than they attract.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.