By Rick Jahnkow
In 2003, I wrote a critique of the U.S. anti-war movement that included a reference to the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.”For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it’s about a TV reporter, played by Bill Murray, who is sent to cover the traditional observance of a groundhog’s emergence from its burrow on February 2nd. According to legend, if the animal does not immediately return to its den, it will portend an early arrival of spring.
In the film, the journalist wakes up the next day and discovers he is trapped in a time loop that keeps returning him to February 2nd. When he gets up every morning and goes about his business, he encounters the same people starting their day the same way as before. Unlike those around him, he is conscious of the time loop and knows exactly what to expect each day. Despite his awareness of the cycle, he can’t figure out how to stop it, and each morning begins again with Groundhog Day.
The context for my reference to the film in 2003 was the beginning of yet another devastating war launched by the U.S. and its allies. The peace movement, then, was like the Bill Murray character, having witnessed many similar beginnings of U.S. warfare during the previous 50 years, and yet still unable to prevent their repetition.
Today, the Groundhog Day syndrome is as evident as ever and applies in a much broader sense to where we currently find ourselves: experiencing a resurgence of some of the most regressive social attitudes and politics since the 1950s, ones that some of us thought had been banished as a result of the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s as though the compelling movements of that earlier time — against racism, poverty, gender inequality, war and environmental destruction — never even happened. And instead, we’re now witnessing a growing national movement, led by an authoritarian ex-president, that seeks a return to the oppressive social order of the 1950s. While it is the case that other rightward swings of the political pendulum have happened periodically in the last 50 years (e.g., the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years), they never reached the extremes we are seeing now. Those who are greatly alarmed by this should engage in critical introspection about why these regressive cycles keep happening and figure out what can be done to prevent them.
Finding a way out of the Groundhog Day syndrome
As a person born in 1950, I became active in the progressive movements that began in the 1960s and witnessed many of their accomplishments – for example, in the areas of voting rights, labor justice, gender equality, environmental awareness, and racial justice. In the decades since, I’ve continued to have an activist role in anti-militarism work, while also observing the organizing patterns and strategies generally employed by U.S. progressive groups.
One thing that has stood out to me is that activists on the left in this country are very good at applying their organizing skills when it comes to immediately responding to problems like war, attacks on the environment, repressive legislation, police brutality and discrimination; however, their actions mostly come only after the problems have risen to crisis levels. What I see missing from most progressive cause organizing in the U.S. is evidence of deeper thinking about proactive long-term strategies needed to preserve their successes and prevent future crises from forming. Granted, immediately mobilizing to put out fires can be absolutely necessary, but a strategy that focuses only on that type of reactive organizing is one-dimensional and a sure way to guarantee that the fires will keep returning – i.e., the Groundhog Day syndrome.
So, what kind of long-term, proactive strategy should be on the agenda of progressive organizations?
- One answer can be found by looking at what is done by entities on the other side of the political spectrum. For example, the U.S. military, right-wing organizations and corporations all share a similar long-game strategy for maintaining their future power and influence: First, it emphasizes generational time-frames rather than election cycles.
- Second, it reflects an understanding that the norms and values taught to members of our society are determinants of their individual and collective behavior.
- And third, the military, conservative organizations and corporations all place an emphasis on the K-12+ school system, which is the second most powerful institution (after the family) when it comes to teaching and reinforcing norms and values.
Schools, remember, are where young people are a captive audience for an average of 6.5 hours a day, five days a week, nine months of every year, for over 12 of their most significant, formative years. It logically follows, therefore, that the military would seek access to students in schools all the way down to the elementary level; that corporations would use schools for brand marketing; and that conservative groups would be working furiously to take control of curriculum content, using local school board elections and lobbying for changes in state education policies.
The need to provide a counter strategy to the above should be obvious to progressive social change activists, yet there is little evidence of groups on the left actually making school system involvement part of their agenda (some exceptions are listed below). If they were seeking examples of actions they could take, they’d merely need to visit the “Where Do We Go from Here” page of the National Call to Save Civilian Education at www.savecivilianeducation.org. The Call, issued with a long list of signers in 2014, had the precise goal of encouraging such involvement by progressive organizations, foundations and media, yet it still is largely missing from their radars.
A long game is a slow process that doesn’t satisfy our culturally-ingrained need in the U.S. to see immediate results from everything we do. Nevertheless, if we are ever going to break free of the Groundhog Day syndrome, long-game approaches must be given as much emphasis as organizing rallies that demand “change now!”
Rick Jahnkow has written several articles for the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (COMD) and for “Draft NOtices.”
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (COMD) (http://www.comdsd.org/). It is the lead article in the Oct-Dec 2022 issue of Draft NOtices. Some organizations that focus on education, values development and youth outreach are listed at the end of the article.