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Are Well-Off Progressives Standing in the Way of a Real Movement for Economic Justice?

Many progressives are affluent and well-educated. Does their elite status stand in the way of a movement to fight attacks on the working class?

June 1, 2011, 12:00 am

Protesters from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees march around the Wisconsin State Capitol, demonstrating against Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining restriction on unions.
Credits: MuZemike

I sometimes suspect that some progressives see President Obama’s decision to leave community organizing for Harvard Law as validation of policy and legal approaches to tackling injustice over movement-building. But Obama’s career trajectory is actually a case in point for why the Left can’t be led primarily by progressives with middle-class backgrounds and elite educations, even if they’re genuinely concerned with social justice. Organizing is hard work, and it takes a long time. It can’t be done by people who have the option of leaving for greener pastures; it has to be done by people who are embedded within and committed to the communities they’re organizing for the long run.  

Because one thing is for sure: a movement consisting of middle-class supporters with a vague commitment to social justice will not succeed in addressing the root causes of its decline on its own, and it will certainly not succeed in addressing -- or perhaps even in identifying -- the issues that plague the poor and working class. As Vivien Labaton and Gara Lamarche of the Atlantic Philanthropies argue in the American Prospect, "Too often, debates unfold without the voices of those most affected informing them. To win the message wars and, more important, to make the strongest case possible for change, we need to put those voices front and center.”

Figuring out how to do this -- how to expand leadership and build a new type of movement that can not only lend power to progressive politics but help form and shape it -- is perhaps the most important challenge facing the American Left today.

Alyssa Battistoni is a writer and graduate student in geography and environment at Oxford University. This article originally appeared on

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