Lead, follow or get out of the way
The progressive challenge
You may have noticed that over the past few years that "liberal" has become roughly synonymous with "pervert." This is especially true in South Carolina, where people tend to be a bit more conservative than our northern neighbors.
Since the carpetbaggers were driven out of the state 100 years ago, being a liberal Democrat (there were no Republicans) meant you thought it was okay for Negroes to vote for white people.
South Carolina Democrats never had to work for what was considered their natural constituency - working people, blacks and women. Since most us fall into one, or all, of these categories, it is fair to say we have been under-represented. Most citizens don't even bother to vote, leaving the dirty business of politics to someone else.
That is, until the Reagan Revolution.
For the decade leading up to the 1994 Republican Contract on America, white conservatives organized around their version of God and country. More importantly, they registered to vote.
They organized grassroots campaigns and took over school boards and local offices. White, middle-class Republicans began reshaping politics in their image. Business was good; big business was better. Government was bad; big government was worse. Using church mailing lists, they registered enough voters to become a slim electoral majority.
At the time, the strategy of South Carolina Democrats was to deny their traditional base and go after the new conservative force. For their efforts, they were creamed at the polls.
The Republican Revolution that brought David Beasley and the Christian Coalition to power was really an abdication. Only 17 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots for Beasley. Republicans didn't win because their conservative philosophy represents the will of the majority but because they organized and turned out their faithful.
Liberals, who generally believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, tend to find politics distasteful. "Don't vote, it only encourages them," they often say.
Conservative ideologues have gotten away with promoting lies: black women are ever-pregnant and on welfare; homosexuals seek special privileges and prey on heterosexuals and children; environmentalists choke industry and send jobs abroad; feminists are destroying the family unit.
Progressives have a hard job rallying their forces, since they are a diverse lot with widely differing values and interests. Conservatives are a homogeneous lot, able to endorse a narrower agenda. They are, therefore, easier to mobilize.
The mistake of progressives has been their splintering into single-issue groups. While issues of race, gender, sexual preference and the environment all are areas of critical importance, single-issue groups can seldom muster enough clout to protect their interests.
The progressive community has to learn a lesson from the conservatives now making the rules: they must organize. They must begin, like conservatives, to sing from the same hymn book.
Forming a coalition proved easier for conservatives. They are predominantly white and middle-class. Many share a fundamentalist religion. Caught up in the promise of the American Dream, they have no class consciousness, and tend to blame the nation's problems on the poor.
While progressives have long been moaning about right-wing assaults on the environment, civil liberties and reproductive rights, they have done little else.
They can continue to whine, and get nowhere but marginalized, or they can get to work and do something constructive.
With that in mind, grassroots groups across the state began putting together a coalition last April. Calling themselves the South Carolina Progressive Network, they moved on the recognition that the state's progressive community could only benefit from a thoughtful, united front.
To date, 40 groups have signed on to the network. They reflect a broad cross-section of South Carolinians, physically, secton of South Carolinians physically, culturally and economically. Ideologically, however, they aren't that different.
The network has the immediate ability to support and strengthen the work of its individual member groups, which tend to have lots of expertise, limited resources, and a propensity to share what they have.
The network, which has its own Web site, is creating an on-line bulletin so progressive groups across the state can keep in better touch.
The network already is expanding the constituency of organizations beyond traditional boundaries. Organizing efforts and press conferences no longer need to be all-white, black, male or female, gay or straight.
A statewide conference is being planned for April to allow representatives from member groups to get together and plan for a healthier, more equitable future for South Carolinians. The conference won't be all work. Members of the network are, by and large, a fun loving and happy people who plan to celebrate their strength and diversity with music and dance.
The conference will offer issues workshops that will draft short position statements on progressive concerns. While many of the groups are prohibited from supporting specific candidates or legislation, but like the Christian Coalition, there is nothing to prohibit them from identifying where politicians stand on issues and educating voters on their records.
Network members have agreed that their initial focus will be on fighting racism. They concluded that racism has a negative impact on all of us. On Feb. 8, they will launch an aggressive and creative (it's got to be!) campaign to remove the Confederate flag from the State House.
The network will be directed by representatives from the member organizations who have formed a steering committee. The network infrastructure is being tended by the Natural Guard Fund, responsible for the paper you hold in your hands, among other things. The Natural Guard has been fighting for social and environmental justice in South Carolina since 1978.
There is no doubt that building a progressive network that can be a player on the political stage is a tremendous challenge, but network members believe that the opportunities outweigh the perils, and that they owe it to themselves, their families and the future of South Carolina to try.
For information about the Progressive Network, call 254-9398 or 1-800-849-1803. A network representative is available to attend your group's next meeting.
South Carolina Progressive Network Members:
Baptist Ministers' Union of Spartanburg (Spartanburg) Promoting the mission of Baptist ministers.
Bayside Tenants' Association (Charleston) Protecting the interests of residents living in the Bayside Gardens community.
Beaufort County Coalition for Choice (Statewide) Reproductive rights coalition.
Carolina Peace Resource Center (Columbia) Focusing on community conflict resolution.
Common Cause (Statewide) Political advocacy group working for judicial reform.
Downtown Residential Neighborhood (Greenville) Promoting a sustainable downtown Greenville.
Lowcountry AIDS Services (Charleston) AIDS service organization.
The Natural Guard (Statewide) Working for political, economic, environmental and social justice.
Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS) (Midlands) AIDS service organization.
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (Statewide) Support group for gays and their families.
Penn Center (Beaufort) Developing African-American self-reliance and cultural identity.
POINT (Statewide) South Carolina's alternative newsmonthly, dedicated to promoting progressive ideals and the arts.
Piedmont Peace Resource Center (Greenville) Promoting alternatives in the areas of peace, justice and the environment.
Planned Parenthood (Statewide) Promoting and protecting reproductive rights.
People United to Live and Let Live (PULLL) (Charleston) Community activist organization working to combat racism and empower low-income constituents.
S.C. ACLU (Statewide) Civil liberties organization.
S.C. Association for Marine Mammal Protection (Surfside Beach) Environmental group.
S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (Statewide) Advocacy organization supporting survivors of sexual assualt and domestic violence.
S.C. Environmental Watch (Statewide) African-American led environmental justice group.
S.C. Forest Watch (Westminster) Works to protect the state's forest heritage.
S.C. NOW (Statewide) Working for reproductive rights and improving the economic and political power of women.
S.C. Rainbow Coalition (Statewide) Moving the state and the nation toward social, racial and economic justice.
S.C. United Action (Statewide) African-American community organizing group.
Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry
(Charleston) Working for the separation of church and state.
Spartanburg Coalition for Choice
(Upstate) Working to secure reproductive freedom for women.
Tri-County CASA (Orangeburg) African-American group fighting violence against women.
Tri-County Advocates for Women on Boards and Commissions
(Mt. Pleasant) Dedicated to increasing the number of women appointed and elected to judgeships, boards and commissions.
Upstate Progressive Voters
(Upstate) Educating and mobilizing the electorate.
VOICE (Charleston) Political action coalition with diverse support.
We Are Family (Charleston) To encourage acceptance of homosexuals by their families, friends and society as a whole.
52%(Charleston) Grassroots organization for the female majority.
The progressive community has to learn a lesson from the forces no making the rules: they must organize and work together. They must begin, like conservatives, to sing from the same hymn book.