Monday, June 12, 2017

Beyond Resistance: Toward A More Unified Left

March 31, 2017
The abominable Trump administration has generated the broadest sweep of active opposition and resistance since the long era of the 1960s.  A quick sampling of The Resistance Calendar reveals the nature and vast scope of this resistance. 

Bold resistance is important in and of itself.  It also becomes a crucial catalyst for mass movement take-off: the sense that change is possible.  The more resistance there is, the more likely it is that others will join in.

But resistance is not enough.  As outrageous and dangerous as Donald Trump is, we need to recognize that much of the current political regime has been in power for a long time, and they represent forces that began to redefine our politics in response to the last time we experienced a comparable surge of public protest across a wide range of political issues— the long era of the 1960s.

By itself, resistance is also difficult to sustain for long in the face of systemic intransigence.  Too easily, its demands will be redefined by the forces that shape our political discourse and our two dominant political parties.  

The issues people are addressing –racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, healthcare, economic inequality, war and militarism, union organizing, fracking, pipeline expansion, gerrymandering, public education, deregulation, and looming above it all, climate change and ecological deterioration— are far too critical to leave to those forces.

We find ourselves at a moment when conditions are so grave that the United States must turn a corner and launch into a new and far more democratic direction.  The time for a continuing see-saw between centrist-liberal Democrats and right-wing Republicans has passed.  The current upsurge of resistance has great potential to be the catalyst for this change of course.

The fact of the matter is that the only real solutions to our deeply rooted problems are progressive solutions.  And yet, with rare exceptions –perhaps most notably the Bernie Sanders campaign—progressive solutions are not even part of our mainstream political discourse, and haven’t been for some 40 years.

Marches and mass rallies are often occasions at which different progressive causes get aired.  Yet in their protest coverage, the mass media puzzle over the diffuse array of causes and play up the more extreme or bizarre expressions of protest.  The fact that there is no one theme seems more than they can handle.

One reason for this is that mass media news coverage stays within ideological boundaries that reflect the monied forces and interests that shape our political process.  This has been true for decades, probably ever since the beginning of mass market media.  The views of outsiders that challenge mainstream Democratic and Republican perspectives are, as Daniel Hallin once documented, “unworthy of being heard” in mainstream news media. (1)

Beyond Silo Politics:

Furthermore, we all typically work on issues that matter to us, tending to stay in the identifiable “silos” of those issues.  This fragmented tendency is reinforced by what Cass Sunstein has called #republic, or the general inclination for people to read and interact with sites we find agreeable –i.e., echo chambers for our own views.

Indeed, most public efforts to influence legislative policy fit the silo politics model, but this is particularly true for progressives, and it is mostly true of the current resistance to the Trump administration.  When issue X becomes salient, population Y moves to the forefront of protesting or petitioning Congress on that issue, often with some short-term support from progressive allies.  Once the protest subsides or interest group petitioning falls short or perhaps finds its way into tepid reform, people revert to working within their silos, and the deep-seated problems remain or worsen.

For these reasons, progressives need to find a way to work towards an identifiable, unified voice at the national, state, and local level.  Not that we will achieve true unity of mind, but our national discourse desperately needs an organization or entity that represents a vast progressive population across our many interests and advocates for widely supported progressive policies grounded in a democratic vision.

Traditionally, this function is performed by political parties.  Our system is so inherently and structurally hostile to third parties that an electoral party at this point makes little sense (and would only duplicate efforts of the Working Families Party or Green Party).  Perhaps a “shadow party” could endorse individual progressive candidates.

The Movement for Black Lives – A Model:

Thanks to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), we have one recent model for how such an entity could begin to be organized.  Emanating from a “convening” in Cleveland attended by some 2000 activists, the Movement for Black Lives has put together a remarkable vison and platform consisting of a series of policy demands, rationales, and explanations.

Many of these naturally prioritize the concerns of African Americans, especially those at the margins of that largely marginalized community –for example “We demand … an immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of black youth,” and “the demilitarization of law enforcement.”  Yet they also advocate a number of more broadly progressive demands that would have a positive impact on their constituents, among many others.  For example, (in summary form here):

  • Real, meaningful and equitable universal health care.

  • A constitutional right at the state and federal level to a fully-funded education.

  • A divestment from industrial multinational use of fossil fuels.

  • A cut in military expenditures and reallocation of those funds in domestic infrastructure and community well-being.
  • A progressive restructuring of tax codes at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth.

  • A right to restored land, clean air, clean water and housing and an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources.

  • The right for workers to organize in public and private sectors, especially in “On Demand Economy” jobs.

  • Restore the Glass-Steagall Act to break up large banks.

  • An end to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities.
  • Protection for workers in industries that are not appropriately regulated including domestic workers, farm workers, and tipped workers.

  • Participatory budgeting at the local, state, and federal level.

The Movement vision breaks down each demand down into analysis of “the problem,” what the solution will accomplish, how it will address the specific needs of some of the most marginalized Black people, examples of model legislation, resources and organizations currently working on the policy.

M4BL also makes a point of observing, “While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.”

The Way Forward:

Progressive positions like these provide a sampling of what might become a coherent voice on the left backed by a broad coalition of progressive groups.  Perhaps the convening of groups linked to other large issue concentrations could do the same. Two aspects of M4BL’s work are crucial: 1) their convention was largely made up of grass roots groups from around the country, and 2) their platform was inclusive of demands linked to the interests of other progressive groups.  They take into account the connections among issues.

Each of these foreshadows the need to grapple with two stumbling blocks in organizing a national coalition.  First, any organization runs the risk of becoming hierarchically rigid over time, losing the all-important bottom-up energy and connection to people’s lives.  Two-way connection with grass roots organizations and direct action campaigns is fundamentally important.

One approach might be something along the lines of what the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL, the Quaker lobby) does: every two years, FCNL asks individual Quaker meetings to develop a set of specific policy priorities they would like FCNL to work on.  The national group and their staff draw on these to develop their lobbying plans for the next session of Congress.  However, this is done, the national coalition must continually evolve to reflect issue priorities from its many constituencies.

The other focus is equally critical; in fact, it’s central to the very idea of a national coalition or a unified voice on the left.  And, here, too, there are stumbling blocks galore.  Probably the biggest is that we are so attuned to working within the silos of groups that emphasize the issues we most care about and that reflect our way of thinking about the political system and how to effect change.  The diversity of progressive analyses and causes has perpetually fragmented the left.

So, going forward we need to recognize, first, that we desperately need the powerful voice of an organized coalition that emanates from this coalescing membership.  Second, each of us needs to recognize that such a coalition will never represent all the priorities and analyses of any single group of us; each of us is likely to have issues with some of the coalition’s actions or lack of action.  Quite possible, there could be issue blocs of different kinds within the coalition, charged with gathering on-going policy priorities from within their silos.

But, ultimately we need to recognize that the coalition extends well beyond our silos, and that’s really the point.  Silo politics are insufficient to address the enormous array of problems we face; they are, in brief, too liberal.  As the eloquent Rev. William Barber put it, 'We' is the most important word in the social justice vocabulary. The issue is not what we can't do, but what we CAN do when we stand together.”

At the same time that efforts to build a national progressive coalition go forward, grass roots activism and direct action campaigns must, of course, continue and grow.  As activism continues, the process of building a more coherent voice on the left may require many of us to learn new skills of political interaction.

In the end, we all need to recognize that the foundation of real democracy is conversation and give-and-take among us all.  It requires empathy.  At the individual level it is about our empowerment, which includes our learning and developing as human beings.

Through our actions and interactions, we can all learn how deep-seated and institutionally-grounded our problems are.

Reaching Out to Others Who Are Also Marginalized:

Speaking of empathy, as we move forward in our resistance activities and organizing efforts we would do well to extend this democratic process to conversations and, where possible, collaborative action campaigns with others who have also been marginalized in our political process for a long time, but who live in distant silos.  For decades they have been manipulated by self-serving politicians to blame their struggles, and their feelings of being passed by, on liberal “big government.”

As Arlie Russell Hochschild reveals in her important book, Strangers in Their Own Land, many of the red states are among the poorest states in the nation, and many of those drawn to the Trump candidacy lead hardscrabble lives at the margins of our economy.

The Louisianans Hochschild interviewed embrace what she calls the “Great Paradox” –they suffer from some of the worst environmental pollution in the nation, yet are eager to get rid of environmental regulations that could protect them.  They see “government” as the problem, rather than seeing that it’s the degree to which government is responsive to corporate interests instead of the people’s interests. 

There is much work to be done to establish relationships of trust with some of these folks; collaborative action campaigns that affect their lives as well as those of other marginalized Americans can be an important first step.  We also need to avoid self-righteous rhetoric; mutual respect requires mutual understanding, which again requires empathy and a degree of personal humility.

The payoff could be profound: the creation of precisely the kind of broad-based popular coalition our dominant elites fear.

In the end, we need to express an inviting vision of a truly democratic world, and through our actions demonstrate that, indeed, such a world could be possible if others join us.

       Endnote:  (1) Daniel C. Hallin, “The Media, the War in Vietnam, and Political Support: A Critique of the Thesis of an Oppositional Media, Journal of Politics, 46:1 (Feb. 1984), 21.

Ted (Edward P.) Morgan is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and the author most recently of What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.  He can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment