Citizen Action of New York's History

by Alan Charney

Understanding the history of Citizen Action of New York (CANY) can only be done by looking at the origins of Citizen Action as a national effort in the 1970s to consolidate an anti-corporate strategy and program as the basis for progressive politics. What I propose to do is first look at the economic and political, the institutional and ideological context in which Citizen Action was founded as a national federation of state organizations. Then, I will point out those economic and political, institutional and ideological factors peculiar to CANY. Finally, I will argue that the overall context previously defining Citizen Action has changed radically – posing a host of new challenges for us. This can only mean that the strategy and program of CA must change accordingly.

The economic and political, the institutional and the ideological context for Citizen Action strategy and program.

  1. The economic and political context. Citizen Action, as a national federation of autonomous state organizations, was founded in the mid-1970s at pivotal point in post-war history. It was the point at which the longest period of sustained economic expansion in the history of capitalism was coming to a close. It was a period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s that was based on corporate dominance of the national economy along with mass prosperity for the majority. It was built on a virtuous circle of rising productivity, rising profits and rising wages. During this period, trade unions were significantly stronger than they are today, and working class communities were much more stable. An expanding tax base and an economic orthodoxy of deficit spending promoted an expanding welfare state. Indeed, many corporate interests were supportive of greater government intervention in the economy…unlike today.The strategy and program of Citizen Action were shaped during this time of corporate liberal hegemony. The strategy of CANY was fundamentally anti-corporate: that is, it was based on the premise that the national economy was controlled by large national corporations whose interests were almost always opposed to the interests of poor and working people. Furthermore, the main countervailing institutions opposing corporate power were organized labor, and poor and working class communities, primarily unorganized. The program of CANY was fundamentally pro-government: that is, it was based on the premise that government power was necessary to regulate and control the excesses of corporate power. Thus, unions and communities together would organize state and national campaigns from legislation that would reign in the corporations.So, by 1978, CANY had initiated the Citizen/Labor Energy coalition to combat rising gasoline, electric and national gas prices. Later, there were campaigns against toxic wastes, and of course, the campaign for single-payer health insurance. Ironically, almost the entire history of CANY, from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s unfolded during a period of economic decline for poor and working people and one of ascendancy for corporate power. It was a period in which trade union membership and influence also declined and stable working class communities were in eclipse. During these twenty years – and continuing today – there has been a retrenchment of the welfare state, a great reduction in taxes for the corporations and the top 20% of income-earners, and a right-wing assault on government activism. Except for four years (1977-1978, and 1993-1994), this has been a time of conservative hegemony.
  2. The institutional context. In its origins, Citizen Action was fascinating amalgam of the Old Left and the New Left. Its Old Left side included both an understanding of the institutional importance of the trade unions, even if many of them lacked progressive leadership, and the institutional necessity of organizing poor and working class communities. Saul Alinsky had been the leading advocate of bringing the lessons of organizing the mass industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s to bear directly on organizing communities as countervailing institutions to corporate power. His approach to community organizing became the basis for Citizen Actions approach to organizing for social change. At the same time, CANY’s New Left side – primarily due to the influence of the Civil Rights movement — included an emphasis on community empowerment and direct action politics, as well as a greater reliance on government programs as the solution to endemic problems of social and economic injustices. In this regard, the civil rights and social welfare laws passed from 1964-1965 served as a model.
  3. The ideological context. CANY was conceived and organized by a cohort of New Left activists, many who had first become involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Indeed, a disproportionate share of them had been members and leaders of Students for a Democratic Society, the premiere student New Left organization of the 1960s. In advocating a “citizen action” approach to social change, they were explicitly rejecting what they viewed as excesses of New Left politics, such as ideological sectarianism, a radicalism of thought and action that seemed to put off a majority of Americans and issues such as the Indochina war which couldn’t help but divide a broad poor and working class constituency. The citizen action approach was based much more on organizing poor and working people around their immediate interests, which were almost always opposed to corporate interests and avoiding potentially divisive social and ideological issues.We believed there was a majoritarian strategy, based on a program of economic justice, that could organize poor and working people to win progressive legislation, which would both expand the welfare state (as with national health insurance) and regulate corporate power (as with energy prices), as well as elect many more progressives to public office at all levels of government. Moreover, Citizen Action, as a national federation of state multi-issue organization, was central to the realization of this majoritarian strategy. This strategy was bold and flexible, but it also had its major shortcomings. Foremost was its “strategic” neglect of communities of color. A majoritarian strategy did not require a concentration on building bases in communities of color. It also meant that many of our issues were important, but not central, to the interests of people of color.

The economic and political, institutional and the ideological factors peculiar to CANY

  1. The economic and political context. During CANYs first 12 years existence – from 1983-1994 — state government was dominated by liberal Democrats. Only the State Senate was Republican controlled. Moreover, in a period of corporate conservative hegemony on the national level, key corporate interests in New York were oriented in a more liberal direction. (The fact is that Wall Street – that is, the finance sector — has remained the only capitalist sector with some loyalty to the program of liberal democrats.)Historically, corporate interests in New York have always been less resistant to social reform than corporate interests in many other states. (I know it is hard to take this in, but comparatively speaking it is true.) Thus, there was a political climate more favorable to a “citizen-action” economic agenda, particularly around health care. Also, the Republican control of the State Senate determined, to a significant degree, CANYs political focus.The State Senate was the roadblock to the passage of progressive legislation. Most of the Republican State Senators were from Long Island and upstate. Therefore, it made sense for CANY to organize its political base on Long Island and upstate in order to put pressure on these legislators. Indeed, for many years CANY was one of the only statewide organizations, along with the CWA and UAW, openly and actively to oppose Republican control of the State Senate during election time.
  2. The institutional context. CANY was founded in 1983 as an amalgam of a chapter-based organization called the Citizens Alliance, and the statewide affiliate of the Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition. The Citizens Alliance was a membership organization of poor and working-class people, similar to ACORN. C/LEC was primarily a coalition of trade unions. (In other states, Citizen Action affiliates were either organized on a community chapter model, or on a statewide coalition model.) For the first year, we stayed primarily a chapter-based organization, but we quickly realized that in a populous state like New York with many powerful institutions it would be exceedingly difficult to influence state politics from an exclusively community base. So, in our case necessity led to innovation, for we wound up combining the chapter and coalition models. Thus we were able to involve both local bases of citizen activists and influential statewide progressive organizations. And, we have had the capacity to intervene on both local and statewide issues and elections.
  3. The ideological context. Another distinguishing factor of politics in New York State is that it is carried out at a higher ideological level that in most other states. This difference is due partially to the historic influence of the organized left, like the Socialist and Communist parties, as well as the former prevalence of many left-wing unions. But it is also true that the right wing has, for many years, had a distinct ideological presence through the Conservative Party. Ideological identification is not only less of a problem in New York State. Many times it can even be an asset in building coalitions and involving activists. Indeed, our regional chapters are made up of many self-identified progressive, and left, activists. The Working Families Party adds further support to CANYs overt progressive character.

Changes in the context: challenges for the 21st century.

  1. The economic and political context. In the last 25 years, there has been a transformation from an era of national corporate capitalism to one of global capitalism. Overall, transnational corporations, whether American or foreign, operate on a planetary scale. They are more powerful and control more wealth than national corporations ever did. Moreover, national governments by themselves have less capacity to regulate and control corporate behavior and less ability to redistribute wealth in favor of poor and working people.Communities are much more transitional and diverse than before, and unions are no longer organized in the today’s leading sectors of the economy – finance and information-like they were fifty years ago in the mass production industries. This means that the “citizen-action” majoritarian strategy, at least on a national level, will be even more difficult to achieve. But, it does point to the necessity of a new approach – based on transnational organizing, transnational coalitions, and transnational issues. This approach may appear absolutely daunting at first, but so did the idea of national organizing one hundred years ago. So, here is my first prediction for the 21st century: a progressive majoritarian strategy will have to be trans-national to succeed.
  2. The institutional context. In our political activity, we are facing an increasingly diverse and pluralist population. This is so obvious it needs no enumeration. Moreover, communities will continue to get more and more diverse. There may no longer even be a possibility of constructing a simple majoritarian strategy and program around any key issues, save for a few “tried and true” ones like Social Security. We need to think more in terms of a complex majoritarian stategy and program. We need to invent institutional models based on an expanding plurality of constituencies. For, when we add up the myriad of constituencies and communities demanding social and economic justice today, it is actually a larger potential majority than the old one.The key is looking for a program which better encompasses this complex majority. Education is certainly one basis for this new program because it is institutional in nature. A diversity of interests from a plurality of constituencies can be accommodated and coordinated but only if the institution – in this case public education — is protected and enhanced. The struggle over the future of the institution comes first. So, here is my second prediction for the 21st century: a majoritarian strategy will have to be institutional to succeed.
  3. The ideological context. In the 21st century, there will be a “return of the ideological.” In large part, we have the right wing to thank for this resurrection. For one, the right wing has organized its constituencies more around values and ideas than around interests. More importantly, the right wing has mounted powerful ideological assaults on democratic institutions, particularly government. It is obvious that a democratically run, activist government is essential for the realization of a progressive program. How else can we effectively redistribute wealth and expand the welfare state? So, progressives are compelled to defend the integrity of government as a precondition of winning any serious social reforms.Moreover, the collapse of liberalism has left the broad left as the only principled defender of public values and institutions. There is no other way to beat back to right-wing assault on democratic institutions except through ideological means. Indeed, what is most fascinating is that the roles of left and right have reversed. Traditionally, the right has defended the “impartial” character of public institutions against the assaults from the left, which viewed public institutions as subservient to “ruling class” interests. Now the right argues that government is subservient to the interests of our constituencies. In effect, by attacking government, the right is attacking democratic participation and the values of citizenship. That’s why, in the long run, our defense of government will greatly enhance the persuasiveness and prestige of our progressive viewpoint. So, here is my third prediction for the 21st century: a majoritarian strategy will have to be ideological to succeed.Finally, we are the bearers of a noble strain of American life – the inheritors of all those social movements that have instigated changes for more justice and less inequality in American society. The truth is that at no time in our history did a progressive stance really encompass more that minority of the American people. Today, our viewpoint represents about 15% of the population. But, there are several other viewpoints out there. None represents more than a plurality. Ours is hardly the smallest. I believe that our viewpoint – the progressive one – has the greatest potential to expand. But, only if we understand the opportunities afforded by the new context, and only if we are willing to make the changes necessary to succeed.