As the new year dawns, the gravity of our struggle has codified and become crystal clear. Donald Trump, a proto-fascist demagogue who has populated his cabinet with a rogue’s gallery of consolidated corporate power will be President of the United States. The forces of imperialism and capitalist excess that radicals and activists have been struggling to bring to the light for years will be painted in the most overt and starkest colors ever. Therein lies potential hope and opportunity, and indeed many in the progressive and overall anti-establishment movement have seen just that and wax on the potential for a broad anti-Trump coalition as a vehicle to realize our goals.
Now we are just left with the ‘how’, and on a less hopeful note we may still be in precisely the same position we were before the election. We are still arguing over tactics. In a time when the most important key to victory will be solidarity, this is troubling.
A healthy debate about where to go from here is constructive and necessary, but I posit that we need to focus more on exchanging ideas between these positions than fight it out over a singular tactic to consolidate around. That seems to be how much of the discussion is being framed, and if we become stuck in arguments over what particular tactic is best, we will be a mass of misplaced indignation that will be chaotic, ineffectual, and toothless.
The main tent-poles I’ve seen emerge since the election are #DemEnter, participation in third parties, and an argument to refute the political system altogether and focus entirely on street level resistance. The problem is two-fold.
For one, the political left will never be as monolithic as the political right. The political right is not as demographically or ideologically diverse and has a far greater knack for coalition building, even to the point that they are complacent with allowing a Nazi constituency to call common cause with them (a.k.a., the ‘alt-right’). Against that monolith which now has a near total control of institutional power, leftists bickering about the best way to fight them will not only waste valuable time, but allow their power to only consolidate and solidify further. On a separate note, this is not to say there are not constituencies of conservative thought that are completely in line with the status quo or who are ethically bankrupt, in fact as I will discuss later there is a very important one we may be able to work with inside a broader coalition.
Secondly, all sides of this argument seem to miss the big picture, and fail to understand how all of these strategies are interdependent with one another. One of the most prominent arguments in progressive circles is the strategy of #DemEnter versus building leftist power inside a third or independent party (Greens, Working Class Party, Socialists, etc.).
#DemEnter stresses the weak institutional position that the Democratic Party is in. Before the election, my colleague and talented political strategist Don Ford laid out a incisive piece about how progressives and leftists can use that to our advantage to stage a grassroots takeover from within (and I would recommend anyone even mildly curious as to how that would logistically work to read his thoughts on it). The main argument against this largely relies on the continued obliviousness of those democrats at the top, be it the election of Chuck Schumer to minority leader in the senate or questioning the radical credentials of progressives currently working inside the party (in particular Keith Ellison, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders). The establishment continues to have a grip on the direction of the Democratic Party, thus trying to drive out the snakes from within is seen by many as a waste of time.
The problem is that people who hold those critiques, those people disgusted by the obliviousness at the top, at the political maneuvering and compromise current progressive Democrats make to appease the establishment wing are precisely the sort of personalities and organizers a #DemEnter strategy needs to be successful. We need people to #DemEnter who won’t shut up about the Podesta revelations, or election fraud, or question anyone and everyone that current Democrats hold as sacred cows (e.g., Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and yes, even Bernie Sanders). People who fight for the issues from a genuine concern for the welfare of this country and who are able to engage the establishment critically. The counter-argument here is that one is naive not to expect near immediate suppression and potential expulsion of those types of voices from a corporatist party like the democrats, and I see a fallacy there.
OF COURSE that voice will be initially suppressed. Power concedes nothing without demand, and the personnel of the Democratic Party has been largely constructed to obscure its role as an establishment power-broker with the shell games of identity politics and leftist lip service. The very reason that the demonstrations inside the DNC by Bernie delegates were so powerful is that they were able to do that type of messaging and activist dialectic inside the Democratic Party’s own hall of power, and the establishment Democrats want nothing more than to make sure that something like that does not happen again. Yet the Democratic Party is formed by those who join, those who win elections over party personnel and come to the meetings and build it at the local level. The establishment counts on that participation being at a minimum by people who want to play their particular game and climb the corporate Democrat ladder, and traditionally that has been the case. But fill the local and state arms of the Democratic Party with its most vocal leftist critics, and there is a real problem for establishment Democrats that can’t be suppressed or expelled.
Purging a rat’s nest like the Democratic Party is not going to happen over night, and that’s why independent leftist parties will be crucial in fighting these institutions on the electoral level. Something everyone can likely agree on is the illness that our duopolic political system has wrought, come to the point where an election can seem like a morbid choice between differing flavors of oligarchs. Progressives who choose to work inside the Democratic Party who dismiss this strategy need to understand important avenues of co-operation that need to be exercised in order to put Neoliberalism in the grave, where it belongs.
Greens, Socialists, leftist Independents, members of the Working Class Party, etc., run as an alternative to the corporate parties and were historically far ahead of the curve in doing the sort of messaging and campaigning on which Sanders was so successful in the presidential primary. They are on the vanguard of the intersection between activism and electoral politics, and as the anti-establishment mood on all sides of the political spectrum continues to grow I only see them gaining momentum in the coming years.
Especially in situations that play out where the Democratic establishment is able to fend off challenges from its progressive wing, Independent parties will play a integral role. Solidarity will be needed between them, #DemEnter, and street level activists to ensure that those candidates are uplifted to challenge and defeat them. Jill Stein ran her campaign in much this manner, capitalizing on Sanders’ progressive insurgency to broadcast herself as a ‘Plan B’ should the Democratic establishment bury him. While that strategy may not have been successful in the 2016 election (a topic worthy of a separate article), it is something that could be made into one with enough organization and strategic solidarity. With an aggressive enough voter education ground game, one where progressive Democrats work with these outside parties to elect a common agenda, we can achieve mutually beneficial victories.
Additionally, there are some who think any participation in electoral politics is itself a waste of time. A poignant article has been circling the rounds on social media, which emphasizes the importance of street-level activism and anti-fascist radicalism in the conditions we will face under Trump’s acceleration of the corporate state. It makes some on-point criticisms on how electoral politics have historically hi-jacked grassroots movements for their own purposes, and points to the circus of corruption in the previous election cycle of how we need to abandon that playing field altogether and focus on an uprising in the streets.
I fundamentally agree with many points made here, and on all sides we should agree that street-level activism and rebellion IS the most important. If we are not on the police lines with our gas masks, if we are not chaining ourselves to construction equipment to stop pipelines, if we do not conduct massive and consistent uprisings against the police state then all of this discussion of political strategy may as well be a game of Dungeons and Dragons. However, I do not see street-fighting activism as a be-all-end-all strategy, and I don’t feel these things are mutually exclusive.
However you engage with electoral politics, be it as a progressive democrat or an independent party, at a minimum I think we need to engage in the streets as we never have before. The article is right that we need to build a movement outside of electoral politics, and we all need to participate in it. Electoral politics happen every two years, but systemic injustice is an enemy that never sleeps. On the flip side, I don’t buy the idea that true radicals can’t or shouldn’t participate in our institutions, that they shouldn’t “waste their time.” Your time and participation is up to you, but I have a hard time believing that one can’t attend the occasional political meeting, or show up to vote inside a political party to make structural leadership decisions. A person’s level of participation in institutional politics is completely up the them, but just showing up doesn’t take that much time and can be a valuable opportunity to build networks and solidarity for concurrent street fights against the system.
Before I wrap this up, I want to take a moment to discuss possible avenues of solidarity with the sensible right and, in particular, Libertarians. While I’m sure their stance on many issues are the type of thing that could really get a lot of progressives to start talking quite loudly in their local coffee shop, we have a lot of avenues of consensus where we could work together and build strength. Some of Gary Johnson’s most vocal talking points in the 2016 election were about issues involving military imperialism and social justice, and we need to strengthen and embolden a branch of conservatism that can find common cause with us on those types of social issues. We should push our institutional political discourse to resemble an actual marketplace of ideas. The Republican Party is currently made up of a coalition of corporate puppets, Christian fundamentalists, and the morally abhorrent white pride constituency of the ‘alt-right.’ With few exceptions (looking at you Rand Paul) the ‘small government’ ideology that Republicanism is supposedly based on is just as fake and laughable as an establishment Democrat claiming to be fighting for the interests of working class people.
This country should be based on political debate of opposing ideas. It is in the progressive movement’s interest to embolden Libertarians because while they may in many cases be the progressive movement’s ideological opposite, it is much healthier for our democracy to frame ourselves in a debate against them than corporate puppets, anachronistic religious ideologues, or unabashed Nazis. It would also serve to weaken the growing political power of the ‘alt-right’ who, make no mistake, are organizing with an unnerving political savvythat matches a lot of the strategic political discussion the progressive left is currently engaged in. If you disagree, please remember what happened with the ‘Pied Piper’ strategy that sought to elevate an ideologically weak but politically extreme opponent.
We should have a consistent debate about these tactics, which are the best to use in different contexts, and how they can interplay with one another. What we should not do is hold up one of these tactics as being superior to another, and try to usher our opposition around a single strategy. In the history of social movements, it has been shown that we are most effective when different groups are engaging in different strategies around similar goals. Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle for civil rights would not have been as sharp or held as much leverage without Malcolm X and the Black Panthers more aggressive stance of black nationalism and self-defense. Yet even Malcolm talked about the potential of infiltrating our institutions and using electoral politics to usher in a ‘bloodless revolution.’ He had the foresight to understand that no one approach is sufficient, and we needed to seek ‘All of the Above.’
The stakes are higher than they have ever been. We have the potential to unite behind a common enemy as we never have before, and if Donald Trump’s election to president has any net positive it is that him and his administration represent something so obviously toxic that even historically moderate players and citizens are starting to build street-level and political coalitions against him. But we don’t have time to argue over which one tactic is best.
#DemEnter and independent parties need to build a unified institutional threat to the dominance of the out-of-touch Neoliberalism that handed Trump the election. And we all need to take important lessons from our street-fighting activists, because the front lines of our struggle will need to be busting at the seams with opposition to bring about the sort of change that we need. In light of the continued consolidation of power on part of the elites, and the impending catastrophe to human civilization that awaits under unmitigated climate change, time is literally running out.
If that does not happen, I have a palpable terror for what the future may hold. I personally will have to resort to my own Plan B, wherein I learn survival skills and how to live off the land. Perhaps then I will still be around to help build a “Post-Apocalypse We Can Believe In.”