We hear a lot about “southern heritage” these days, especially with regard to the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and notables that appear in cities and towns all over the country. Given that the vast majority of such monuments were erected several decades after the Civil War at the height of Jim Crow in the South, but also in the heyday of anti-black ordinances in the North, it is clear that this monument-building had aims other than the expression of southern culture. So here’s my question: why are these statues and the Confederacy they represent so important to southern heritage? Given several hundred years of history, why put so much emphasis on the four years of the Confederacy? Why does the removal of Robert E. Lee and other generals from our public squares present such a threat? Do southerners have nothing else to fall back on? Hardly.
For those who like statues and monuments, don’t we still have southerners like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson? Let’s take it a bit further. What about the great inventors and craftsmen of the South? Do we not have Nashville and country music; New Orleans and jazz–foundations of southern culture beloved by millions around the globe? Lots to be proud of there. What about the unique sub-regional cultures in Appalachia and the Creole regions of Louisiana (and many other places)? How about food? My god, what would America be without southern cuisine of all types? What about the writers and poets, the musicians and novelists and storytellers; the farmers and those who toiled in the fields and factories. Lots to celebrate there and, as far as I can tell, no one wants to suppress any of it. Quite the contrary.
The failed attempts by the republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have yielded some surprising results. The process itself spurred many Americans to pay close attention to health care policy and to republican shenanigans. In the end, instead of sneaking the legislation through quickly with minimal deliberation, conservative senators and representatives were confronted by firestorms of opposition at town hall meetings. Press coverage and continued protests have kept the issue alive.
Even more consequential, as a result of the awful bills put forward (and passed in the House), there has been a shift in public opinion toward the view that everyone has a right to affordable health insurance. Polling has found increasing support for single payer or Medicare for all laws. In addition, many governors, including republican governors, actively opposed the repeal legislation, because of what it would do to Medicaid and the prospect that large numbers of their constituents would lose insurance. And if we consider GOP claims about the legislation–dishonest as they were–that it would improve healthcare and reduce costs for everyone, it is clear they had no choice but to play this game on a field where healthcare for all was a basic ground rule.
With the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of a radical republican party, it is a commonplace to assert that the United States is passing through a moment of great uncertainty and great peril. At the same time, there has been a flowering of progressive movements–going back several years in many cases–and political activism. But for many progressives it is not clear how activism translates into political change.
If you are wondering how the power of protest works, Francis Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America offers some answers. Despite the fact that this book was written in 2006–a lifetime ago given the current pace of dizzying events–Piven’s conceptual approach and historical analysis lend many helpful insights about how protest movements can affect political coalitions and electoral politics.
We live in perilous and confusing times. On the one hand, the US government is dominated by a reactionary two-headed regime that is attempting to throw over 20 million citizens off of health insurance, while giving a huge tax break to the wealthiest 1 percent. On the other hand, the idea of universal healthcare appears to be catching on fast in progressive circles and possibly across the political spectrum in the United States. The Kaiser Family Foundation has noticed a shift in attitudes and even conservative commentators George Will and Charles Krauthammer have recently predicted that the US will eventually have a single payer system. Whatever the outcome of the current effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, universal health care will be on the agenda.
But, as we have seen countless times in the past several years, nothing is inevitable and everything is contested. There are extremely powerful forces that find universal healthcare abhorrent. In a “normal’ political system, a bill that had an approval rating of under 20% would have no chance of making it through Congress, but given the power of the insurance industries, the outsized influence of billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the right-wing media and blogosphere cheerleading for cruelty, this awful bill had a good chance of becoming law. The clear implication is that while universal healthcare is catching on as an idea among newly energized progressive groups, there is a very difficult and expensive fight ahead to make it a reality. If progressives are not prepared, they may lose the best chance in decades to pass a law that guarantees health care to all Americans.
After six months of chaos, it has become apparent that we have entered a terrifying political realm where the leader of the country operates in his own reality and constant turbulence is the order of the day. Let’s call it “Trumpworld,” a place where the man and his ill-considered tweets and statements are everywhere, absorbing media attention and distracting everyone else. His outrageous behavior may not be presidential, but it derives from his personality. He is not going to change.
This presents a problem for democrats and other opposition forces who are struggling to find political traction. On the one hand, Trump’s behavior appears to be more-or-less for the benefit of his most ardent supporters. They welcome his brash, offensive style and will likely stick with him for his entire term. On the other hand, there is little value to scrutinizing every Trump misdeed as his support is already very low and is unlikely to fall much farther. To condemn him is only to draw more attention to him; to play on his field. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to ignore outrageous statements and actions by a sitting president. All of this makes it nearly impossible to make political headway in the media storm that Trump kicks up almost every day. What are democrats and progressives to do?
In left-progressive circles the term “intersectionality” has gained a certain currency. To be sure, it is an awkward term that sounds like academic jargon. But it is an important concept because it explains some of the various ways injustice and discrimination work as well as the opposition to injustice. The classic case is of black women workers who face both race and gender discrimination. Race and gender “intersect” to put them in a double bind. And if we add class to the mix, the forces of discrimination and repression only multiply.
Resisting such discrimination and power imbalances could go in two directions. In one, power relations and identities could isolate these women from potential allies such as African American men, non-black women, and other working-class people. The other direction is where broader power imbalances that victimize ethnic minorities, women, and laborers expand the potential for solidarity among them. This second scenario suggests the potential to build alliances across race, class, and other identity lines, a potential, it so happens, that is already being activated.
To date, I have not said much about what progressives should be striving for as opposed to what they may be against. But without articulating a direction, any kind of political strategy is attempting to fly with one wing. As this site develops, I’ll be engaging with many progressive ideas about how to make America a more democratic country–economically and politically–that can work for everyone.
One intriguing vision is provided by the work of the Democracy Collaborative and its Next System Project. Two weeks ago, I attended a book signing at Busboys and Poets in DC for Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealthby Gar Alperovitz, political economist, historian, co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of the Next System Project. Alperovitz studies democratic forms of economic organization as an alternative to the current system of corporate capitalism based on extraction, profit maximization, a skewed distribution of wealth, and the impoverishment–financial and spiritual–of a large majority of Americans, along with other negative results such as climate change and pollution.
Given the urgency of responding to accelerating climate change, the announcement by Donald Trump that the US was withdrawing from the Paris climate framework is a potential disaster for the future of humanity. For many in the US and around the world, it is also dismaying to see the US revert to the role played by the George Bush administration as spoiler–but in this case, times ten.
For progressives interested in taking back this country and making it a sane and functional place that works for everyone, Theda Skocpol’s article back in January is required reading. It explains how the democrats need to organize and prioritize in order to become competitive again nation-wide, an argument that both Tom Perez and Keith Ellison, among many others, appear to be in alignment with. But, her insistence on the democratic party as being the single organizational locus for resistance may be too limited given the proliferation of progressive organizations that have emerged in the past several months.
In Blueprint for Revolution, Srdja Popovic surveys non-violent movements that have brought about revolutionary change. In his words:
“It’s a book about the revolutions launched by ordinary peole who believe that if they get together and think creatively, they can topple dictators and correct injustices.”
If you are someone who wants to learn more about effecting political change, Blueprint is a good book to pick up. But be aware that this book is more about social movements working outside of formal political institutions than it is about directly influencing legislation, electing progressive candidates to office, and related topics. If your primary interest is in this kind of politics, this book will not offer many direct insights, but it will still provide some interesting and useful ideas about how change can be brought about. And it’s a good read.