The Civic Upswell

Eric Liu has a piece in The Atlantic that looks at the civic upswell that’s happened in response to Trump. It’s overall encouraging, celebrating that “people are exercising both power and character.” It’s optimistic in a dark time.

This line is something I might be skeptical of:

“The surge will likely outlast his presidency. Americans today are rushing to make up for decades of atrophy and neglect in civic education and engagement.”

Let’s say something – Russia, lying about what he knew, corruption, emoluments, being certifiably crazy – forces Trump from office, either with impeachment or resignation or removal under the 25th Amendment, Section 4. In that case, Mike Pence would become president. Pence is just as extreme a conservative as Trump, if not more. However Pence speaks the language of civil governance. He doesn’t tweet crazy things. He sounds like any other politician.

My fear is that even if Trump is removed from office (which I want to see happen!), the removal of the tangibly insane thread from conservative governance would quell the popular civic outpouring that is currently taking place.

Pence would feel normal, even if he still pursuit draconian immigration/deportation policies, gutted social programs and took a bellicose posture towards Iran, China or Russia. The normality, the leveling-down of extreme policies by the press because of being more normal than Trump, would be a cold splash of water on the current civic upswell.

It would be up to us as organizers to keep it going, but it would be far less self-sustaining and require even more coherent, intentional organizing.

The Hard Work of Change

In Jacobin, Alex Gourevitch has an interesting article challenging the resistance movements that are emerging in response to Trump to be sure to include a positive vision for the world we want to see.

I’m seeing frequent references on the Left to the need to do real politics; to build power through slow, hard work; to organize in impacted communities; to not attempt to take shortcuts to achieving mass actions. All of this is correct and worth noting. That’s why the start of Gourevitch’s article is frustrating to me:

Under Obama, Occupy squandered the initial hopefulness and general appeal when it let procedural squabbles sap its energy and undermine its potential for a real political intervention. No wonder there was little public support when the police showed up. The resurgence of activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement marked another significant moment for the American left but, despite three years of protest and consciousness-raising, public attitudes towards the police have improved and there are few balancing accomplishments to point to.

These are valid objections to make, yet they miss that many of the things which have grown out of Occupy still exist. Mutual aid projects like Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes (especially in Atlanta and Minneapolis), and Strike Debt did just the hard work we see demanded of now – and it paid off with sustained engagement and local presence.

Elements of grassroots political power that formed in the crucible of Occupy were there supporting and accelerating Black Lives Matter. Dream Defenders and the Wildfire Project immediately comes to mind, as does the persistent community-based organizing from Occupy Our Homes in Minneapolis and Atlanta. Local groups from BLM and OWS are out front in organizing the response to Trump, including through the Indivisibles and the Women’s March.

None of this necessarily amounts to sea-change in the political landscape, but it does speak to the ongoing hard work by people committed to create change through organizing in impacted communities. You can’t look at Occupy or Black Lives Matter and say that they failed to build power simply because they didn’t succeed in achieving all of their goals full-stop. It’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation that every movement that emerges in response to a major disruption be immediately capable of delivering lasting transformative change, especially when so few organic popular outbursts, let alone well resourced strategic ones, have reached this level of success in the US. This is and was what the hard work of organizing is about, these movements did it and there’s something to learn from them, and why they didn’t achieve their goals even while doing the sort of organizing that many from the Left want to see today.

I’m starting from a somewhat negative stance on Gourevitch’s piece simply because I feel these are comments worth making, not to disqualify where he goes with his evaluation of what we’ve seen from the Trump resistance so far. He writes:

The point here isn’t to bash the Left; it’s to take a sober look at the opportunities and limits we face. The truth is, this should be our moment. The Trump administration and Republican Congress are a fragile entity, whose control of the state rests less on mass support and more on the undemocratic features of our institutions.

Trump received a minority of the popular vote, the fifty-two Republican senators in Congress represent 44 percent of the population, and the eight-soon-to-be-nine ghouls in Supreme Court robes are even more insulated from actual majorities. Moreover, there are all kinds of internal divisions among Republicans on how to handle everything from health care to immigration. To the degree that Trump and the Republicans look like an unflinching, reactionary juggernaut it is because there is so little organized power to stand in their way.

This is exactly right. Admitting that moments that have felt transformative, but failed to be so, isn’t an attack, it’s the truth. There’s plenty that we should be encouraged by right now. And as I noted above, I still see much from OWS and BLM that indicates a positive direction of travel, if not outright victory.

Gourevitch raises a critical point regarding how the Left has actually tended to sit outside of the political realm, using only direct action tactics to have impact, while avoiding more traditional mechanisms.

[T]he downside of direct action is that it has often served as a tacit admission of the Left’s inability to translate social power into political control. The Left has generally been on the outside looking in and its celebration of direct action put it in static rather than dynamic opposition to the corruption and opportunism of existing parties.

Direct action is critical in terms of forcing people to think about the crises before them and respond beyond business as usual. But the whole point is that it occurs in a place of harm, at a moment when politics have failed. He goes on:

We can field thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, even occasionally hundreds of thousands, and then be safely ignored. We call it resistance, but any exercise of our agency that isn’t total cooperation with the status quo looks like resistance. It contains no internal measure of success or failure, which is why it is compatible with retreat or even resignation. And while it is “mass” politics in the sense of many people, protests do not require anything like the ongoing commitment to principle and organization that something like party politics does.

Our unwillingness to admit our own weakness is the flip side of not having a clear set of principles that can serve as the basis for a mass movement. Instead, we give ourselves the appearance of unity and purpose by resisting evil and by taking our collective “No” out into the streets. We find comfort in knowing that we are not them, that at least we are doing something. Trump is immediate and present, the evils are right in front of us, numerous, and ready-to-hand.

Being for something is the key counterpart to resistance and mass mobilization against Trump (or his corporate backers). The prescription is freedom:

The better principle is freedom. It is the interest everyone has in being free from the myriad forms of domination and oppression that most people face, and it is expressed by being part of a movement that seeks to transform society. Freedom is something everyone wants, but can only be achieved if we demand it and pursue it jointly. It is a principle that naturally bridges all those aspects of left politics that otherwise separate us. We are divided by the varieties of oppression and the proliferation of identities that are born out of that oppression, but we can be united by the desire for freedom.

Less abstractly, freedom is the principle that explains and unifies what we are for. We are more than being against Trump, racism, sexism, inequality, etc. We are also more than a list of demands, like universal health care, cheap and legal abortion, open immigration. We are only for those things to the degree that they are all the same thing: freedoms that everyone ought to enjoy.

The positive vision for society, through the lens of freedom, creates a powerful way to connect to those who are in the streets resisting, just as much as it does to those who didn’t feel energized to go out and vote in November, just as much as it does to those who felt attracted to Trump.It has a strong grounding in basic human needs and desires. It’s a strong organizing principle, one that can safely nurture and grow our intersectional values of equality, fairness, safety, and health. It’s a clear lens that can be used to condemn and resist against Trump’s agenda.

What’s more, while it may not sit as an articulated list of demands on many organizational websites, I’d hazard that you can ask most people who are resisting Trump what freedom means to them and you’d find it’s strongly oriented around similar real-world applications on a range of issues.

Gourvetich’s whole piece is worth reading in full. We’ve seen a lot of criticism of mass mobilizations under Trump so far and while he does make some fundamental critiques of where past disruptive movements failed to achieve lasting change, he provides a pathway towards hope in this moment. It’s certainly a start.

The Fast Pace of Trump

It’s terrifying to think that the Trump era has only been going on for two weeks and two days. It feels like it’s been months already. A huge part of this has been due to the breakneck speed that Trump has launched himself into office. Almost every week day has brought a major new executive order or foreign policy action that shakes the country with its severity and radicalism. From a Muslim ban, to reauthorizing Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, to pulling out of TPP, to pulling back environmental regulations, every day we are regularly seeing transformational actions emerging from the Trump White House.

And that’s just the things that are definitively happening – the rumors of what could come next, from a national right-to-work (without job security) push to gutting federal LGBT protections, are pouring out just as fast. Other intended massive initiatives, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or building a wall on our border with Mexico, have been announced but only seen limited concrete progress.

The press isn’t prepared for the pace of action. The Democrats aren’t prepared for it. And civil society groups responding to Trump are finding themselves pulled in every direction at once by the pace of Trump’s actions.

Of course what we’re seeing Trump and his team actually do is actually exactly what he said he’d do as a candidate. He is rapidly checking off as many boxes as possible when it comes to keeping his promises from the campaign. We are just historically unprepared for this sort of directness. Obama and Bush both moved primarily through legislative actions in their early days. Their executive orders tended towards less transformational actions.

I see two potential explanations for Trump’s governing behavior, which has largely avoided anything requiring congressional action.

The first and potentially more reassuring explanation is that Trump, Bannon, and the rest of his political team are going with a realpolitik  political strategy. They want to be able to say to their base and to the country on whole: We were elected. We kept all of our promises. And when these executive orders and actions inevitably get rolled back or reduced by either legal proceedings or congressional action, they’ll be able to point a finger and say, “See, it was the corrupt judges. It was the crooked establishment. It was just like I said when I was a candidate. I kept my word and they are to blame for where we stand now.”

This explanation makes sense if the Trump team is comfortable spending a lot of time litigating their actions. They maybe don’t care about their policies being fully realized, as much as being able to tell a story that helps them win re-election. It is a cynical, yet arguably sharp, political plan.

The second explanation for the Trump executive action blitz is significantly more scary. Instead of being based on a political-electoral analysis, Trump and co. are actually governing in the manner that they see the presidency functioning. They want to act quickly because they think they are the sole decider of American policies and laws. They act without consulting Congress or even cabinet officials and staff at agencies like DOJ, DHS, DOD or State. They don’t think they need bureaucrats and experts to craft legal orders. They don’t need to consult people with deeper knowledge than that possessed by a TV entrepreneur, an editor of Breitbart, and an small-time publisher. They are in charge and they aren’t interested in waiting for others to weigh in.

The scary part of this is that it speaks towards an authoritarian orientation towards governance, one that is incurious and insulated. We saw inklings of what may happen when border patrol officers refused to honor judges’ decisions to suspend the Muslim ban last week. We saw it again this weekend as Trump took to twitter to blast a “so-called judge” who happened to issue a ruling against him. When this administration and their staff refuse to follow the orders of a co-equal branch of government, we enter a real constitutional crisis.

The actions of Trump, Bannon, Miller and others are truly terrifying. They have not displayed any competence in a traditional sense. However their pace of action and its extreme nature not only make up for the general incompetence of implementation, but ensure that many of the bad things they are trying to rush through will become realities in the end.

Either Trump is politically astute and positioning himself for four years of war against the establishment or he’s a genuine authoritarian who will govern through constitutional crisis. In either regard, he is and will continue to implement terribly destructive policies that cause real human suffering.

I’m not sure if Trump’s strategy is particularly relevant to how Democrats or the Left respond to him right now, at least not on a case-by-case basis. But as we get greater clarity on the direction of travel he’s moving down, the more relevant it becomes. A politically expedient desire to keep campaign promises quickly then spend four years pointing fingers at the establishment stopping them from being fully realized would suggest we just have to weather the storm now.  In contrast, a strong turn towards authoritarian, ignorant rule from the White House would suggest a real risk for the 2020 election being something Trump would accept if he lost. And that should be enough to make one’s blood run cold.

Supporting resistance


I’ve been an activist for half my life at this point. When I was in high school and college, going to marches and protests really fired me up. It was the realization of grassroots, campus-based organizing I was doing. It felt awesome and empowering. But once I because a full-time activist and organizer, I got over it. It got old. I don’t get excited about protests. I don’t go to them unless I really have to, it just doesn’t do it for me. I get enough from my day to day organizing work to feel like I’m making a contribution without having to be physically present at a protest or rally.

But marches and protests aren’t actually for me, not the me of today. They’re for the high school and college me, the one who may only have one afternoon a week or one day a month to be able to make a full political statement with my body, my time, my voice. I get it if you are cynical about mass mobilizations. I get it if you don’t see the value of marches from your perspective as a professional activist or organizer, as this is often a hub of cynicism when it comes to physical action. But they’re not for you, they’re for the people who don’t have jobs dedicated to change-making in a full time way (which is to say, they’re for almost everyone else in the country).

Last weekend’s women’s marches were big and bold and inspiring. People came out because they care about what is happening in America and want to resist against it. It was a loud statement of our values and such a needed one. These marches are helping people struggle through dark times. They are creating a vibrant, visual resistance to Trump. They are bringing millions of people into political engagement. They are 100% exactly what we need right now, because they will make so much of what comes next possible.

Senate Democrats aren’t going to save us. House Democrats aren’t going to save us. MSNBC isn’t going to save us. None of our tweets are going to save us. We are going to save us and the people showing up at these marches and protests are the “we” I’m talking about.

Let’s find was to build, inspire, grow these marches. For professionals like me, let’s lend our professional talents and tools to empower and enable the people in the streets. Let’s do that even more as people move from attending marches and protests towards building new organizations, local organizations dedicated to resisting against Trump and defending our values.

Arriving In Power & the Establishment

Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed piece in The Nation on Clinton, Sanders and African-Americans is worth reading. I want to pull out one line from it, though, that isn’t about race but instead about power and change.

Yes, Sanders has raised millions from small donors, but should he become president, he would also become part of what he has otherwise derided as “the establishment.”

I think this is a significant misreading of what the Establishment is. It is not about power alone, but a certain type of power. If Sanders is elected President, he will have a massive amount of power. Based on what he is saying now, it is highly unlikely that he would suddenly appoint a bunch of Rubinite Wall Streeters to cabinet positions and Deep State hawks to run our foreign and military policies. Of course he would have to live the values he is preaching now.

But the mere act of occupying the office wouldn’t mean a conversion of Sanders to the Establishment mean. It would mean fundamentally dislodging the Establishment from the power it currently holds over our government, which is to say, it is exactly what people are supporting Sanders to do.

Self-Identification & Primary Hostilities

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the Democratic presidential primary has dramatically heated up in recent weeks. Bernie Sanders has closed the gap in polling in Iowa and nationally, while building up a lead in New Hampshire. As polls have tightened, the Clinton campaign, their surrogates and many online supporters have gone into attack mode.

What is disheartening to me is that this could be a primary where big ideas are debated and we have a serious discussion of what direction the Democratic Party wants to take the country in coming decades. To be sure, we are having this debate, however it is being played out in increasingly uncivil tones. I’m no shirking violet and I do not think there’s anything wrong with heated political debate. But it is frustrating to see friends and organizations I respect wade into vicious attacks on each other over the candidates and who people support.

I have a sense as to what is causing the rising acrimony. Policy ideas are, generally, fact oriented things. Many different ideas can be easily arranged on a spectrum, with the political philosophies of left and right representative of different polls, and policy solutions conforming towards different points on the spectrum. Arguably there is no normative value associated with different spots on the spectrum. The concept of single payer healthcare is inarguably to the left of Obamacare, which is inarguably to the left of a system where there is no public subsidy for private health insurance.

Where this becomes fraught in today’s political environment is that people have very different, values laden senses of political identifiers. For people who use them to describe themselves, words like “progressive,” “centrist,” or “conservative” tend to mean “a good person.” Thus someone may proudly claim to be a “bold progressive,” a “staunch conservative,” or a “realistic centrist” as if those adjectives increase the person’s worth. And in the tribal realm of politics, individuals apply their assignation of self-worth not just to how they view themselves, but by supporting candidates like them, who fit these same billings and amplify their own worth.

The problems emerge, as we are seeing in the Democratic primary, when someone views themselves as a “bold progressive” and supports a candidate like Hillary Clinton in a race that also includes Bernie Sanders, an inarguably more left (and thus “progressive” in today’s parlance) politician. To say that Sanders is to Clinton’s left is a statement of fact – it has no moral value, nor does it impart any assessment on the worth of the candidates nor their supporters. It just is.

But for people who explicitly or implicitly take “progressive” to normatively mean “a good person,” then someone being more progressive means that they can lay claim to being “a better person” than our Clinton supporter. No one likes to feel like they are worth less than they see themselves, so they fight back against this idea (even though it is purely implicit and premised on the normative application of “progressive” as a designation of self-worth). They defend themselves from this perceived attack. They look for the tiniest of holes in the ideological spectrum, searching for issues to find spots or moments where their preferred candidate is to the left, and thus the True Progressive. We see this in the primary fight where the Clinton campaign has sought to turn Sanders’ lifetime “D-” NRA rating into a liability based on a handful of bad gun votes. The triumphant Clintonite response to this, “A-ha! Bernie is in the pocket of the NRA! He is no True Progressive!”

This also speaks to why we are seeing a real hatred of Sanders emerge in the Democratic establishment, which is almost exclusively backing Clinton and increasingly public in their disdain for Sanders. Democratic “elites” are flocking to Iowa, driven in part by fear and part out of a hatred of Sanders.

The campaign and its allies had planned all along to escalate their efforts at this point, as the caucuses near. However, Democratic governors, senators and other party leaders said they are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surfing a wave of populist frustration to the nomination. And they were quick in interviews this week to dispense advice to Clinton.

Within the Democratic elite, where Clinton enjoys near-universal support, the antipathy toward Sanders has grown steadily as he has emerged as a potential Clinton slayer. All week, McCaskill has been loudly predicting an electoral catastrophe if her party nominates Sanders.

As much as there will be a massive rending of garments in Washington if Hillary Clinton fails to win from the position of presumptive nominee, the Clinton supporters are not wearing desperation well. They’re taking it personally and it is showing.

At least, this is what I am seeing. It could explain the anger and hatred at the increasing success of Sanders’ campaign. If everyone feels like he exists as a finger in their eye, a statement that they are not as good people as they thought they were, then anger is an understandable reaction. Whether it is justified is a different question, but at least this could explain it on an individual, emotional level.