In a recent op-ed in the Roanoke Times, activist and organic farmer Anthony Flaccavento argues that Democrats must pay a lot more attention to rural America if they hope to rebuild the party. It is a startling proposition, if only because it rarely gets articulated, but one that should be a central part of a progressive agenda in 2018 and beyond. It also takes aim at the stale debate in democratic and progressive circles about whether the party should “lean to the center” to try to appeal to imagined swing voters, including the so-called “white working class,” or aim instead to “energize the base.”
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.
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.
This is my first review post of This Is an Uprising, an important book by Mark and Paul Engler published in 2016 by Nation Books. Important because it offers insights from many countries that social justice, environmental, and other movements can learn from and apply to their struggles.
In a chapter called “Structure and Movement” early in the book the authors talk about two models for promoting political change and the actions that correspond to each.
[Note, this post was written before the latest bombshell revelations about Trump’s statements to the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office and former FBI Director Comey’s notes about his meeting with the president in Feburary]
With the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the continuing slide of the United States towards authoritarian government, there has been much discussion and hand wringing about how to confront the president and his allies in Congress, who continue to support and enable him for the most part. The problem is that there appear to be few pressure points or ways to significantly weaken some of the administration’s pillars of support.
One way to look at this struggle is in the sphere of public opinion. Although Trump’s approval ratings are dismal in comparison with all other recent presidents, he is still strong among republicans and his other supporters. In a Washington Post article May 12, Phillip Bump presents data showing conclusively that republicans think Trump was correct to fire Comey, have little concern about the accusations of Russian meddling in the US elections, and approve of the overall job Trump is doing.