Threats to our democracy are two-fold: a growth of support for authoritarianism by some and the withdrawal from and lack of engagement in political activity by others. Both trends stem from people’s loss of trust in their government and belief that officials don’t represent and serve them. Neither escalating partisan conflict nor escapism are solutions. However one fresh tactic is increasingly being used to establish broad dialogue, actively engage citizens in policy decisions and thereby revitalize democracy.
Citizens’ assemblies have a long history, from ancient Athens and Rome to Rousseau’s Geneva and Vermont’s annual town halls. Rather than bringing all residents of a particular jurisdiction together, recently leaders have turned to selecting representative demographic samples of the population using the technique of “sortition.” People identified in the sample are invited to join the assembly, which functions like a jury. The participants gather either in person or virtually, are paid, receive information from experts and then deliberate together to make policy recommendations to government officials. The success of these exercises in participatory democracy depends on initial support from officials, accurate sortition, reliable and balanced expert information, transparency, extensive communication with the public and, finally, adoption and implementation of the recommendations by the officials.
In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies now regularly advise its government. The last one that considered gender equality was completed in April 2021, and its recommendations — which addressed numerous issues, including parental leave, early childhood education and care — are presently advancing in the legislature.
Ireland’s first assembly was established in 2016 by its parliament in response to a proposal put forth by We the Citizens, a research project involving several Irish university political science departments that designed and conducted a pilot citizens’ assembly. That action followed seven years of major demonstrations against austerity policies in the post-2008 Irish economic downturn.
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In the initial assembly, 99 professionally-sortition-selected members were asked to consider several issues, including abortion, climate change and the country’s aging population. They met for five weekends over a five-month period and heard from an array of experts with varied positions, as well as individuals providing personal testimonies. Many of these presentations were streamed online, while written submissions by experts and interested individuals were made publicly available. As the members deliberated on the information and questions, they also shared views that reflected their diverse perspectives.
The assembly’s report, which recommended legalizing abortion, an ambitious set of measures to combat climate change, and reforms for referenda and parliamentary terms, was presented to Ireland’s parliament at the end of 2017. That body debated it in early 2018 and promptly held the national referendum in which two-thirds of voters supported giving parliament the authority to regulate abortion. Without delay, the legislature then acted to legalize the procedure. On the climate issue it established a Joint Committee on Climate Action, which published its own report in early 2019. The lower chamber endorsed this, declaring a “climate and biodiversity emergency,” and these actions were followed by a government action plan on climate change.
“We’ve changed the culture in terms of transparency and in terms of letting people have their say.”
A much smaller scale citizens’ assembly or citizens’ jury was formed in 2017 in Saillans, France to update its urban plan. With a population of about 1,500, this village created a 16-member citizens’ panel of which one third were elected officials and the rest randomly selected individuals. After holding around 25 public meetings to obtain the community’s input and deliberating together for two years, the citizens made the final decision on the plan, which was then ratified by the officials.
Saillans resident and filmmaker Emmanuel Cappellin, who was actively involved in the process, remarked in an Earth Day 2022 webinar that the panel’s labor, extensive public outreach and communication established “a culture of participation [that] changes expectations for people.” Public meetings were conducted as “cafés where people could learn about these issues and think about the common good together with elected officials.” He added, “We’ve changed the culture in terms of transparency and in terms of letting people have their say,” concluding that “this culture of conversation and of dealing with issues, this is really what I think is the more hopeful part of that experiment.”
Leeds is one of several U.K. cities now embarking on bold climate action. In 2019, the Leeds Climate Commission, an independent advisory group, formed a citizens’ climate change jury composed of 25 randomly selected citizens who reflected the city’s demographic diversity. The sessions, in which members met for nearly 30 hours over an eight-week period, began with a review of the science and tactics for addressing carbon emissions. Participants then selected topics they wished to further explore, calling speakers to give presentations, which were all filmed and made available to the public on the internet.
As they deliberated under the guidance of independent facilitators, the members shared their individual experiences and opinions, finally voting to approve an ambitious set of recommendations that included a progress report on their implementation. The whole process was overseen by a panel consisting of a dozen principal local stakeholders, and it took place while the city council separately held the Big Leeds Climate Conversation. That consisted of 80 events across the city in which council officers engaged with citizens as well as focus groups, workshops and an online questionnaire.
Upon receipt of the jury’s recommendations, the Leeds city government began working on implementing most of them with a goal of halving carbon emissions by 2025. The next year a few dozen local organizations applied for and obtained climate action funds from the national lottery and launched Climate Action Leeds. This is a broad program that aims to achieve a zero carbon, nature friendly and socially just Leeds by the 2030s through mobilizing communities, campaign groups and different sectors to plan and act together. In 2021 climate progress in Leeds included opening a solar-powered park-and-ride, funding energy efficiency improvements for low-income homeowners and creating dozens of skilled green jobs.
Like the one in Saillans, the Leeds citizens’ jury served a critical function in educating the participants, government decision makers and the public, as well as providing a mandate and motivation to act. The same effect is seen in the Irish experience. Prior to the citizen’s assembly, a May 2017 poll found just 23 percent of the public was in favor of legalizing abortion in all circumstances. Yet, when the referendum was held, over 66 percent of voters supported it, closely mirroring the 64 percent approval vote by members of the assembly.
The use of citizens’ assemblies is rapidly increasing, especially for politically-contentious issues. Both the U.K. and France conducted them on the topic of climate change, and the state of Washington held one as well.
However, not all citizens’ assemblies are successful in terms of how they are conducted and their outcomes. French activists charged that the expert information provided in their climate assembly was skewed, and Extinction Rebellion criticized the limited budget and publicity for Britain’s. In addition, there has been little progress by leaders of either nation to implement the recommendations, perhaps because their leaders believe they still lack a mandate.
The assemblies in Ireland, Saillans and Leeds succeeded because they were sponsored by — or at least blessed by — the governing body. They also involved oversight, transparency, broad public outreach and, finally, prompt official action to fulfill the recommendations.
The present extreme crisis of our democracy demands bold action that can also break the barriers to communication between polarized factions.
They also built upon solid groundwork, such as that laid by We the Citizens in Ireland. The residents of Saillans had reformed their government to maximize citizen participation following their mayor’s unilateral and deeply unpopular attempt to allow a supermarket development in the town. Their municipal team therefore decided to create the citizens’ jury primarily to include the people in their urban planning process. Leeds’ climate commission was established in 2017 by a team at the University of Leeds that worked with the city council as it also brought in two dozen civil society partner organizations. Additionally, the council had declared a climate emergency shortly before the jury convened.
As they now multiply around the world, citizens’ assemblies, juries and some other participatory policymaking processes are supported by numerous organizations and online resources. Democracy Beyond Elections offers guidance, case studies and a toolkit, and peoplepowered.org provides a manual, training and mentors. These resources give detailed advice on techniques like organizing coalitions to persuade elected officials to consent to convening citizens’ assemblies for particular purposes. Shared Future has instructions specifically for organizing and conducting climate assemblies.
Citizens’ assemblies and juries can be formed at any level of government for important, yet divisive issues — and by putting everyday folks at the center of public decision-making they bolster people’s trust in their government. They also perform an invaluable service in educating the public, especially insofar as information is disseminated in face-to-face interactive gatherings, as it was in Saillans, where it spawned a culture of conversation. Leeds’ jury prompted the formation of a broad citizens’ program to improve the environment and the lives of city residents. Both exercises got people conceiving visions for their communities and thinking about action that is needed beyond their boundaries.
Electoral activity is clearly needed to accomplish many of the goals identified by citizens’ assemblies. So although they are nonpartisan, their impact must extend to energizing prospective candidates and voters to fully achieve their objectives. Especially now in America we are faced with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: to become more engaged, many people will need to regain trust in the government, yet they must become engaged in order to establish a government they can trust.
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Holding citizens’ assemblies is a means of resolving the quandary. They are ambitious and require considerable investment of time, labor and resources. However, the present extreme crisis of our democracy demands bold action that can also break the barriers to communication between polarized factions. Leaders exhort us to “talk to our neighbors” about public matters, but for the most part we are not on speaking terms with those with whom such conversations would be useful. Citizens’ assemblies are vehicles for creating this urgently needed culture of conversation and engagement.
The final benefit of citizens’ assemblies is that they identify citizens as the fixers of problems. People have lapsed into regarding themselves as consumers of government services and the electoral campaign spectacle, heaping criticism or adoration on the players or turning away from politics altogether. Our leaders are not meeting the extreme challenges of our time, whether that means climate change, extreme wealth inequality or burgeoning authoritarianism. By forming citizens’ assemblies people can proceed to develop a vision of how they want their world to be, at the center of which are people actively engaged as citizens. From there they can move forward together to realize their vision.
What are the prospects for civil war where you live? How would you know if the danger is becoming greater? For answers to these questions, turn to Barbara F. Walter’s new book “How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them.”
Walter is an international relations professor at the University of California at San Diego. She is part of a group of scholars that’s been studying civil wars around the world. They look at data from different countries relating to dozens of variables, such as income, political parties and ethnic divisions, and seek to find correlations with outbreaks and other features of civil war.
Where, you might ask, are there civil wars? Examples in the past couple of decades include Iraq, India, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. If you think, well that’s okay, because civil war is not coming to where I live, think again.
Walter’s book is an engaging popularization. As well as citing studies, she tells of interviews with individuals living in countries where civil wars broke out. Despite being right there and being familiar with the local politics, they didn’t see it coming. Sometimes outside researchers, drawing on mounds of data, can provide better predictions — at least in a statistical sense — than people on the ground.
In the U.S., “civil war” brings up images of the war between the Union and the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865, in which well-matched armies fought on battlefields, causing massive carnage. More Americans died in this famous civil war than in any other U.S. war.
Walter counters this picture with another: a guerrilla war in which opponents of the government use hit-and-run tactics against military targets, sometimes operating from a secure base in rural areas. What is the likelihood of this sort of civil war?
The danger zone
Researchers have developed an index that indicates where a country is on a scale from dictatorship to democracy. At one end is a highly repressive regime, and at the other a governmental system with support for civil liberties and processes for orderly change. A country’s index score can vary with time, for example when an autocrat is overthrown or government leaders in a democracy start restricting the rights of political opponents.
After having classified lots of countries according to this index, their scores can be correlated with outbreaks of civil war. It turns out that, according to this sort of analysis, fully functioning democracies are not prone to civil war, but neither are highly repressive regimes. The danger zone is in between, an area called anocracy, a term coined by political scientist Ted Robert Gurr.
Besides anocracy, various other factors contribute to the likelihood of civil war. One of them is the way political groups are organized. It’s safer when political parties have members from a variety of backgrounds. Walter says, “War is even more likely, the experts found, if at least one faction in a country becomes a superfaction: a group whose members share not only the same ethnic or racial identity but also the same religion, class and geographic location.”
Another factor is social media. Those who might be called “violence entrepreneurs,” who push their groups towards using violence, can do this most easily by using social media. Walter notes that people prefer social media posts involving fear, falsehood and outrage.
Yet another factor is the way the political system is organized. Walter refers to a study showing that all democratic countries that had civil wars between 1960 and 1995 had majoritarian or presidential electoral systems, like in the U.S. In contrast, countries with proportional representation were completely spared. Reading this, I felt a bit better about my country, Australia, where the Senate has a limited form of proportional representation and preferential voting occasionally enables the election of minor-party candidates in House seats.
The potential for civil war in the U.S.
While the first half of Walter’s book is about research on civil wars generally, with examples from across the world, the second half looks specifically at the United States. According to the measures used by scholars, the U.S. has moved away from a fully-functioning democracy, towards the danger zone of anocracy.
What is it about the U.S. that worries Walter so much that civil war seems like a possibility? One indication is the rise of a superfaction. U.S. political parties used to be mixtures of various political persuasions, cutting across regional, religious and other demographics. But in recent decades, they have become more unified and polarized, especially the Republican Party. It used to be that many members of Congress voted across party lines, but now bloc voting is used to oppose measures supported by the other party.
Another factor is support for the political system. Before Trump, candidates for office would almost always accept the vote. Trump repeatedly refused to accept defeat and many of his supporters followed suit. This is a warning sign.
Walter says that according to opinion polls, an increasing proportion of people in the U.S. accept violence for political ends. This is another warning sign.
She says civil war in democracies will be guerrilla war. Groups initiating violence feel left out of the political process, and even more importantly had previously held power but saw it being downgraded. “In the 21st century, the most dangerous factions are once-dominant groups facing decline,” Walter states. In the U.S., that means whites, especially those in non-urban areas. As a result, if civil war occurs — according to Walter — it will involve far-right groups with common goals to get the federal government out of their lives, cut back on laws restricting their freedoms and put Christian men in charge, all achieved by using violence.
Should it be called civil war?
In some cases, I have a different understanding of political events than Walter. She says, “Rwanda’s plan to democratize was the catalyst for the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis.” In my reading about the genocide, there was nothing about a government plan to democratize being a factor. More importantly, for years before the genocide in 1994, there had already been a civil war between the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, led by exiled Tutsis based in Uganda.
Immediately after the death of the Rwandan president in a plane crash, the Rwandan government initiated the genocide, and the RPF launched an invasion. The genocide occurred during a civil war and was ended by the military victory of the RPF.
In another case, Walter refers to the struggles in East Timor as being a civil war in Indonesia. This is one way to think of them. Another is that, in 1975, East Timor was invaded by the Indonesian military, so the resistance was a war of liberation. Similarly contested is the interpretation of West Papuan struggles. Walter seems to assume that civil war is always to be avoided, which is sensible at one level. But when one government conquers another, should resistance to the new rulers be included in statistics on civil war?
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Because I’ve studied the use of nonviolent action — strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, rallies and other methods of political action without physical violence — I looked to see what Walter said about this. In a word: nothing. She presents a picture in which the options are either using formal procedures within the system, such as voting, or using violence. “It’s when a group looks into the future and sees nothing but additional pain that they start to see violence as their only path to progress.”
Walter does talk about protest, but only the sorts of protest in which citizens appeal to the government to take action. She says protests are about hope, about trusting the government, and that “It’s the failure of protests that eliminates hope and incentivizes violence.” There’s no mention that the failure of violence might incentivize a nonviolent strategy.
The role of nonviolent action is vital in understanding struggles in East Timor, West Papua and elsewhere. In East Timor during the 1980s, the resistance to Indonesian rule switched from armed struggle in the highlands to nonviolent protest in urban areas, a switch that was crucial for East Timor’s eventual independence. In West Papua, nonviolent action has played a vital role in resistance to Indonesian rule.
Walter writes, “President Suharto, an authoritarian, was forced to step down after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.” Who or what forced him to step down? Suharto was more than an authoritarian. He rose to power during a genocide in 1965-1966 and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of political opponents. He only resigned because of mass protest. In short, it was nonviolent action that ushered in a parliamentary system to Indonesia.
Researchers studying challenges to authoritarian governments have found that nonviolent movements are more successful than armed ones. What this means is that nonviolent resistance is usually a better option than initiating a civil war.
Prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, numerous groups prepared for nonviolent resistance to prevent a coup. This citizen mobilization received little attention, as the media focused on official means for dealing with Trump supporters who rejected the outcome of the election.
Nonviolent civil war?
Anti-coup preparation in 2020 was about nonviolent action by those who wanted to maintain orderly political processes — in other words to maintain American democracy, recognizing its limitations. It is a common assumption that nonviolent action is for “progressive” causes, in this case against violent right-wingers. Is it possible to imagine a very different use of nonviolent action — by Trump supporters?
This immediately raises some red flags. Many committed nonviolent activists support greater equality and are opposed to racism and patriarchy, and would not want to aid movements in the other direction. If protests and noncooperation are against social justice, should they be called nonviolent action? Does using the term nonviolent action make a cause seem more legitimate?
Whatever the answers to these questions, surely it would be better for those from the previously dominant group in the U.S., who now feel disenfranchised, to use nonviolent rather that violent methods. If so, should nonviolent activists be helping right-wing militias to switch to nonviolent campaigning?
Is it possible to imagine a nonviolent civil war? Well, it probably shouldn’t be called a war. How about a civil conflict?
Despite Walter’s lack of treatment of nonviolent methods and options, her analysis of civil war offers more than enough thought-provoking material for anyone who cares about wars and how to stop them.
The allure of piling on against the villain du jour — be it Americans wearing MAGA hats, anti-vaxxers or Russians whose government is perpetrating war crimes against Ukrainians — is seductive. When I feel its tug, I ask myself, “What would Thich Nhat Hanh do?”
During talks for my book, “Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide,” I sometimes joked that peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh managed to say in seven words what took me 57,000: “Speak the truth but not to punish.”
Nhat Hanh died in January. His wisdom lives on, but it’s on life support.
Nhat Hanh (or “Thay,” pronounced tie, as he was known) was a Buddhist monk whose opposition to the Vietnam War earned him a Nobel Prize nomination from Martin Luther King Jr. He coined the term “engaged Buddhism” to describe peace and social justice activism undertaken in alignment with Buddhist principles of nonviolence, kindness, generosity, social harmony and open-mindedness.
Thay’s 14 Precepts of Engaged Buddhism include proscriptions against dogmatism, over-confidence in one’s correctness, coercion, anger, hatred, divisive speech, grandstanding, exaggeration, carelessness with truth and turning away from suffering. Like a sad funhouse mirror, these precepts reflect the casual cruelty, censoriousness, falsehoods and self-righteous virtue-signaling that run rampant on social media today.
Thay was not an infallible guru, but his 14 precepts are the best ethical code of conduct I’ve come across. Fourteen makes for a long list, but they all flow from just this one: Compassion.
Compassion is the experience of “suffering with” someone. It’s an innate human ability to connect with another person, even someone you have nothing in common with and may even dislike or detest.
The contemporary political arena rations compassion as though it is a scarce commodity when, in reality, it is inexhaustible.
Compassion is a window into another person’s suffering. “When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight,” Thay said. When we are in a genuinely compassionate frame of mind, we gain a deeper understanding — and correspondingly deeper ability to respond — to whatever is informing the person’s worldview, be it trauma, illness or misinformation. We are able to see a universal truth so easily swept away by the daily sturm and drang: People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever believed.
The contemporary political arena rations compassion as though it is a scarce commodity when, in reality, it is inexhaustible. Having compassion for a white man addicted to opioids or suffering PTSD does not diminish compassion for a girl in an immigrant detention center or for the family of a young man shot by the police.
Withholding compassion from one group might sometimes be based on a subconscious fear that there’s not enough compassion to go around. I believe the opposite to be true: Compassion generates compassion and, in this way, reproduces itself as a cultural norm. But when people get the sense that they are being treated with indifference or hostility, then they too will partake in indifference and hostility, doing unto others as was done to them. An anti-social downward spiral ensues, and we become less capable of sharing, sacrificing and living cooperatively.
Compassion has its detractors, those who see it as the province of weaklings, apologists and dupes. “I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump said in 1990. Trump had it backwards: If this country gets any more vengefully polarized, it’s going to cease to exist.
Trump’s callousness is in a league of its own, but hostility toward the notion of a common good has long roots in American political history. Ever since the New Deal, the radical right has equated mechanisms for collective well-being with tyranny and communism. Big government spending programs, taxation, unions, safety and health regulations, COVID precautions — all are cast as infringements of individual liberty that serve no legitimate purpose. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went so far as to say there is no such thing as society, only individuals.
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Traditionally, the left has resisted right-wing subordination of the communal to the individual and has defended altruistic institutions, customs and values that protect and promote the common good. The left has recognized that, if the right succeeds in rhetorically rendering the common good into tyranny, then the communal whole disintegrates into jagged shards.
There was a time, not too long ago, when leftists cared about human suffering wherever we saw it and didn’t withhold compassion for victims deemed deserving of their misfortune. In other words, we avoided judgment and blame. Moralizing was the Christian Right’s modus operandi — banning books and music, blaming gay men’s sinfulness for AIDS and single mothers’ promiscuity for poverty. Leftists, by contrast, tended to see individual misfortune as a function of societal failure interacting with sheer bad luck and, sometimes, bad habits — but habits that, as we understood it, were shaped or constrained by broader social forces that oppress and degrade us.
What all of these examples demonstrate is that judgment and compassion do not easily co-exist. Withholding compassion requires turning away from suffering, and turning away from suffering is made easier in the presence of a rationalization — the victim did something bad and deserves to suffer. We intuitively know that hearing the other person’s side of things invites nuance and complexity. “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over,” Thay said. Ignoring or belittling what they have to say allows us to turn away from suffering with a clear conscience.
Damning Trump and his supporters to hell feels like fighting back, but what have the ceaseless denunciations and pious sadism achieved other than burning up the social fabric?
In political terms, this turning away from suffering excuses governmental dereliction of its caretaking duties. Much of the left has become preoccupied with revenge-craft, jockeying for control over the administration of blame and punishment of ordinary people instead of holding the powerful to account for the devastation wrought by their recklessness.
It is this interpersonal revenge-craft, more than any other practice, that I see as poisoning social media and beyond, causing breakage where there should be bridges and alienation where there once was connection. Victim becomes perpetrator becomes victim, in an endless cycle of judgment, alienation and revenge, while the actual perpetrators of extraordinary suffering carry on. Twenty-one million Americans are drinking water with dangerous levels of lead, nitrates and rocket fuel, while LibsofTikTok fans and foes harass each other on Twitter.
Damning Trump and his supporters to hell feels like fighting back, but what have the ceaseless denunciations and pious sadism achieved other than burning up the social fabric? What good comes from the division of the populace into a binary of the permanently virtuous (us) versus the irredeemable baddies (them)?
Thay observed that “when you make the other suffer, he will try to find relief by making you suffer more.” We will not advance and perhaps not even survive as a species if we persist in the delusion of sweet revenge.
In her book, “The Sum of Us,” Heather McGhee describes racists who would rather drain their public pools than allow Black children to swim in them. They cut off their nose to spite their face. But this mean-spirited cognitive error is not the exclusive domain of racists. Anyone trapped in the zero-sum delusion makes the same mistake, thinking that denigrating one group will lift up another, or at least give them the pleasure of looking down on their inferiors.
Ever since 2016, contempt for a deranged and malicious president has morphed into profound scorn for his supporters who, it was assumed, must be equally deranged and malicious. The Trump presidency was nightmarish, but at least the “deplorables” would get their comeuppance. Trump would take away their health care, smash their trade unions and sacrifice them to COVID … one could only hope.
There is a steady stream of scolding, ridiculing and reviling of MAGA deplorables and, increasingly, of others who don’t meet ever-evolving standards for wokeness. Such contempt produces alienation, and alienation is the cultural milieu in which resentment entrepreneurs like Trump thrive.
What would Thay do in response to bigotry, violence, disinformation and authoritarianism? “Speak the truth but not to punish.” Speak your truth without exaggeration or embellishment, without performative outrage, without making assumptions about other people’s motives, without denigrating their intelligence or morality, without tearing down their humanity, without wishing them ill or punishing them with a stinging rebuke.
This is my truth: Everyone, including those who hold bigoted, conspiratorial or otherwise wrong or obnoxious views, deserves a life of dignity. They deserve decent jobs at a livable wage. They deserve safe and affordable housing. They deserve to breathe clean air, drink clean water and receive medical care without going bankrupt. And when they can no longer work, they deserve their pensions and social security checks. Relishing the arguably self-inflicted wounds of Trump voters and unvaccinated COVID patients might rack up a lot of retweets but fails the “What would Thay do?” test by a longshot.
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When feelings of disgust, resentment and superiority — the building blocks of contempt — arise inside me, I think that what Thay would do is exercise self-compassion by taking note of what is giving rise to these alienating emotions. Am I afraid or frustrated? Am I ashamed of my impotence and, hence, acting self-righteous in order to rehabilitate my self-worth? Is there, underneath these other things, sadness for the state of the world? Is the news cycle stirring up old traumas or making me feel confused or uncertain about what and who to believe? Is it stressful to think forbidden thoughts that members of my tribe would denounce? What can I do to tend my wounds that doesn’t cause more brokenness? If there’s nothing productive to be done in this moment, then I will do nothing, which feels useless but is preferable to adding more poison to the stew.
We’re at a crossroads where we heed either Thay’s philosophy, or Trump’s. We either extend a baseline of kindness and respect, even to those who don’t reciprocate, or we reciprocate malice with malice and devolve deeper into hatred and violence. Our movement can be a puritanical one that deplores and purges heretics, or it can be an altruistic one that builds relationships with those who are imperfect, biased and fallible — that is to say, everyone.
When trying to figure out how they should interact with political parties, social movements face a common challenge: Should they push from without or seek to operate from within? Should they act as a destabilizing threat to all politicians, or should they work to build strength within a mainstream party?
Frances Fox Piven and Daniel Schlozman are two theorists who stand at opposite poles of this debate. In Piven’s view, movements win by deploying disruptive power from the outside that can polarize the public and create discomfort among politicians. “[M]ovements of mass defiance fired the most important episodes of class and racial reform in the 20th century,” she contends. “This capacity to create political crises through disrupting institutions is … the chief resource for political influence possessed by the poorer classes.”
Schlozman, on the other hand, upholds the view that movements wanting to wield power in the United States do best when they move toward the inside and embed themselves within a traditional political party — and he warns that failure to do so can reduce once-promising mobilizations into historical footnotes. “Movements for fundamental change in American society seek influence through alliance, by serving as anchoring groups to sympathetic parties,” he argues, “because parties hold the special capacity to control the government and its resources, and to define the organizable alternatives in public life.” Movements that limit themselves to outside agitation, he believes, lose much as a result.
This debate is one with genuine consequences. At present, climate justice organizers, Black Lives Matter activists, and a resurgent socialist movement are all debating how they should engage with mainstream parties — and how they can most effectively extract concessions from the Biden administration. Even as mass protests have risen up, community organizations long averse to electoral politics are throwing down to elect champions to local office. Criminal justice reform advocates have propelled a new wave of progressive district attorneys to office. Meanwhile, groups like Justice Democrats are working to expand the Squad in Congress and, in the process, create a faction powerful enough to realign the politics of the Democratic Party.
As they pursue such diverse efforts to build power, activists must make some tough decisions. One of them is choosing what side they will take in the debate between Piven and Schlozman. While some movements have tried to split the difference by combining electoral work with outsider organizing, there are unavoidable tensions between the two approaches, and these frequently generate conflict between organizations taking different paths. How groups manage these tensions will have a profound impact in determining how effective they can be in creating change.
“Disruptive dissensus” and the power of outside agitation
Now in her late 80s, Frances Fox Piven long held the post of Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. In her landmark 1977 book, “Poor People’s Movements,” written with her late husband and longtime collaborator Richard Cloward, she made the case that movements of the disenfranchised have the most impact when they defy well-meaning advisors who tell them to work through the accepted channels of mainstream politics and instead become unruly. Historically, Piven argues, such groups have gained leverage by harnessing the power of disruption and deploying such tactics as “militant boycotts, sit-ins, traffic tie-ups, and rent strikes.” These cause “commotion among bureaucrats, excitement in the media, dismay among influential segments of the community and strain for political leaders.”
“When [marginalized groups] just quietly follow along and support political leaders, they’re ignored … It’s only when they make trouble that they are attended to.”
Piven’s theory of “dissensus politics” holds that movements make gains by threatening to pull apart the majorities that elected officials have cobbled together. “Politicians don’t like divisions,” she said, “They especially don’t like divisions within their coalition. To fend off the splintering of their coalition, they will try to propose reform. And that’s how movements win.”
“We have to start by realizing that the dynamics of electoral politics and movement politics are very different,” Piven explained. “In particular, the sort of logic of winning in electoral politics is different from the logic of winning in movement politics. If you have a two-party system, and you want to win elections, you need a majority. And to create a majority, you have to build coalitions and alliances between different groups. The magic of the electoral politician is the ability to bring these groups together by finding the issues, the rhetoric, and the mood that will unite them.” Social movements, on the other hand, rely on “division and polarization,” she argues: “In movements, agitators identify issues and raise hell over them. They drive groups into action — and some groups they will drive away.”
For people lacking wealth and insider status, such cleavages are a source of power. “When [marginalized groups] just quietly follow along and support political leaders, they’re ignored,” Piven states. “That’s the way it’s always been. It’s only when they make trouble that they are attended to. It’s only in the aftermath of trouble that you can have some dialogue.”
Elaborating on this point, Piven and Cloward wrote in 1999, “Although a small poor people’s lobby can be ignored with impunity by political leaders, institutional breakdowns that contribute to discontent among large and variegated segments of the [electorate] cannot be.” Movements that exacerbate such crises play a unique role in shaping political consciousness. As Piven and Cloward write, “Disruptive protests have communicative power, the capacity — through the drama of defiant actions and the conflicts they provoke — to project a vision of the world different from that in ruling-class propaganda, and to politicize millions of voters.”
This politicizing function is especially critical in the United States. “For reasons that are deeply rooted in our history and governmental structures (not least mass disenfranchisement of the poorer classes by voter registration procedures during most of the 20th century), the political parties in the United States are not sharply class-based,” Piven and Cloward argue. Absent the kind of labor party that we might typically see in Europe, “it is difficult for people to define their interests in a way that is consistent with their class position. Thus movements generate the conflicts that politicize voters, and that makes votes count.” It is when social movement groups politicize the electorate that politicians must scramble to respond. Or, as Piven and Cloward put it, “To avoid worsening polarization and to restore institutional stability, political leaders must either promulgate concessions or institute repression.”
This dynamic does not usually lead to harmonious relations between movements and politicians. Instead, the fact that the two have different sources of power inevitably leads to tensions. “As an elected politician, coalitions are sort of your meat and potatoes,” Piven said. “And if activists have the effect of straining those coalitions, then it’s difficult to treat these people as allies. But they are allies if you’re interested in addressing injustices.”
“There are all sorts of things that have to be done in electoral politics, but movements have a distinctive contribution to make in order to create substantial democracy.”
Piven also acknowledges that sometimes polarizing actions by social movements can hurt the Democrats. “Not everything a movement does supports the broad agenda of reform,” she said. “It’s true some disruption drives some people away.” Nevertheless, she sees polarization as an essential element in propelling reform. “In a memorable saying, [famed community organizer Saul] Alinsky admonished organizers to ‘Rub raw the sores of discontent,’” Piven and Cloward wrote. “We add, ‘Rub raw the sores of dissensus.’ It is then that political leaders will attempt to stabilize a new realignment … and concessions to the bottom may become possible.”
In short, Piven argues that the unique role of movements is to raise hell on the outside, not to focus on the internal maneuvering of factions within mainstream political parties. “I think that’s for somebody else to do,” explains Piven. “Movement organizers who are trying to build power among low-income people and racial minorities don’t have to work on that. There needs to be a division of labor. There are all sorts of things that have to be done in electoral politics, but movements have a distinctive contribution to make in order to create substantial democracy.”
The decision to anchor a party
While also writing from a left-of-center perspective, Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Scholzman takes a decidedly different position on how movements can best propel change. Unlike Piven, who entered academia by a circuitous route after previously working with anti-poverty groups in New York City, Scholzman pursued a more conventional path, volunteering in the Cambridge office of the Democratic Party while working on his PhD in government and social policy at Harvard. Nevertheless, he has taken a keen interest in social movements, and his 2015 book, “When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History,” has been of significant interest within Justice Democrats and among other activists seeking to vie for power within the Democratic Party.
For Schlozman, political parties have a unique and unavoidable role in the political system, one that is too often underappreciated by outside agitators. In his book, he quotes mid-century political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, who argued, “A political party is an organized attempt to get control of the government.” In other countries, movements that differ ideologically from major political parties simply break off and form their own. However, the entrenched two-party system in the United States inhibits such action with ballot access restrictions, first-past-the-post voting, and a lack of proportional representation. Instead, it compels movements to either align with the Democrats or Republicans, or to give up on a key route to power. “We have a political system that is stacked against big change,” Schlozman said. “And in this system, conflict largely takes place inside parties.” If movements want to share in the control over government that parties offer, he believes, they must become full participants in this internal battle.
Connecticut ILGWU members rally supporting John F. Kennedy for U.S. president, 1959. (Flickr/Kheel Center)
Schlozman’s book proposes that the movements which are most successful at executing this gambit become “anchor” groups in electoral politics by mobilizing a reliable base of support for a chosen political party over an extended period. Schlozman pays particular attention to how organized labor secured lasting influence within the Democratic establishment starting during the New Deal, and how the religious right became an anchor within the Republicans in the Reagan era. “Inside parties, anchoring groups exercise broad influence on national politics by virtue of the money, votes and networks that they offer to the party with which they have allied,” he explained. In exchange for loyalty, anchoring movements gain the ability to shape parties’ long-term trajectories and influence their ideological character.
As opposed to standard pressure groups, who will push their issue on both sides of the aisle, anchors exhibit loyalty to a single party on an extended basis. “How did we get to the world where the Supreme Court threatens basically to overturn Roe v. Wade?” Schlozman asked. “Answer: a party-wide project that has played out over a long, long time. This was not just the Christian Right treating abortion as one issue among many, where they were going to lobby legislators. By becoming an anchor and entering the Republicans, they shaped the whole worldview of the party around their priorities.”
In contrast, movements that fail to become anchors face serious consequences. Schlozman points to the populists of the 1890s and the antiwar movement of the 1960s as political formations whose legacies were severely diminished by their inability to enter a major party. “With Populism died the most serious challenge to corporate capitalism that the United States would ever see,” he writes. And “although its personnel occupied positions at the top of the Democratic Party for decades, the antiwar movement failed to restrain American empire.”
The decision to try to anchor a political party, however, is not one that movements can take lightly. As a cost of entering into an alliance with a mainstream group, movement leaders may have to distance themselves from radicals in their ranks who pursue precisely the type of disruptive protest that Piven recommends. “We see the price mostly clearly with the labor movement in the late 1940s,” Schlozman explained. “As the Cold War escalates, they have to push out the Communist unions that contain their most dedicated organizers. As for the Christian Right, they had to accept that they’re not building a Christian America; they had to accept that, within the party of Ronald Reagan, they would still play second fiddle to economic conservatives for a long time. Those are heavy prices.”
President Reagan addressing the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983. (Flickr/Levan Ramishvilli)
Any yet, Schlozman believes that “given the rules of the game, [this] is a price well worth paying.” Those movements unable to exert influence from inside a party risk being ignored completely. “One benefit of durable, long-term alliance is that you don’t get abandoned the minute your movement is no longer in the spotlight,” he explained. “The Christian Right has secured long-term benefits, even as its demographic share in the population stopped rising and as public religiosity declined. But in exchange for a durable alliance, you give up your freedom to say exactly what you want, when you want — because you have to protect your allies.”
Schlozman recognizes that many activists will reject the uncomfortable bargain inherent in such alliances. “Maximalists who prize movement autonomy and confrontational tactics may … [wish] to continue to agitate from the outside,” he writes. But he believes that this decision is incredibly risky: “No social movement has sustained effective militancy on a society wide basis … over decades. Passions fade; radicals and moderates split; organizations collapse.”
Scholzman’s disagreement with Piven’s theory of “disruptive dissensus” largely comes down to a debate about timeframe. “For a theorist like Piven, everything happens at [moments] of crisis,” he said. “But if you understand politics as something that happens over a series of decades, then you can’t really understand the ongoing influence of social movements unless you think of them all the way through this long lifecycle. You have to look at how movements can continue to exert influence. You have to look at how that influence is dependent on their mass base, but is often done through ‘regularized’ means of electoral work and lobbying, even during lulls in protest.”
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Although Schlozman acknowledges that periods of intensive uprising can put movements on the map, he argues, in the tradition of a famous essay by Bayard Rustin, that activists must move “From Protest to Politics” if they want to be effective in the long run.
Weighing the debate
Needless to say, Piven and Schlozman represent stances that are far apart, and their respective followers would pursue very different courses of action. What lessons, then, can activists draw from their debate?
First, although juxtaposing the two perspectives reveals incontrovertible differences, it is worth noting that both theorists acknowledge that militant protests and long-term organizing can each have a role at select times. Schlozman notes that confrontational protest can be critical in helping movements to break into public consciousness and to create the types of networks that make parties welcome them in the first place. “There is a role for militancy, and there are certain moments when movements need to strike when the iron is hot,” he admitted.
For her part, Piven affirms that in times of retrenchment, when the prospect of widespread defiance seems distant, more conventional organizing and political work is warranted. “During quiescent periods,” she and Cloward write, “it is reasonable for organizers to emphasize organization-building.” Substantial portions of Piven’s career have been devoted to projects other than raucous protest. For years, she and Cloward were involved in advocacy to build up voting blocs favorable to progressive politics, founding an organization called Human SERVE (Human Service Employees Registration and Voters Education) to advance voter registration in low-income communities. Their work was critical in securing passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, commonly referred to as the “Motor Voter Bill.” This law makes voter registration available at social services agencies that provide unemployment, welfare, and disability benefits — as well as at places where people renew their drivers’ licenses.
“People don’t join movements unless they think they can win something. What makes them think that they can win is often the electoral environment and the promises that politicians make.”
“The reason we undertook this rather conventional electoral reform project,” Piven and Cloward explained in 1999, “is that the success of disruptive protest depends … on the ability of the protesters to galvanize and polarize electoral blocs, to fragment or threaten to fragment electoral coalitions. But protesters obviously need supportive voter blocs if this process of dissensus is to benefit them. This means, for one thing, that the social base from which protesters are drawn must be fully able to vote.”
Piven has long argued that movement and electoral approaches are not exclusive. “People don’t join movements unless they think they can win something,” she said. “What makes them think that they can win is often the electoral environment and the promises that politicians make. When politicians are trying to win an election, they blast off about what they’re going to do differently, and they create a good deal of hope. By doing that, they help to instigate the kind of hopefulness and ambition that fuels movement politics.”
Later, according to the dissensus model, movement constituencies can extract concessions by being disruptive and threatening to fracture electoral coalitions. But obviously there are limits to this approach. If disruptive movements pull apart the blocs that sympathetic politicians assembled to get elected, it can allow most hostile rivals to take advantage. Along these lines, civil rights activists succeeded in expelling Southern Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party, but the defection was a boon for Republicans.
While Piven offers the warning that being quiet and loyal can be a recipe for being taken for granted, Schlozman cautions that boisterous action can also have down sides. Movements can overplay their hand if they do not control large enough constituencies. “In a vast country like the United States, change is really hard, and no small element is going to be a majority,” Schlozman argued. “If you start off with those elemental facts about American politics, then paying the price of alliance suddenly looks a lot more worth it than it might look if you’re just focused on immediate tactics.”
Influence outside anchoring
A second point to consider in weighing the debate between Piven and Schlozman is whether anchoring is the only option available to social movements seeking to achieve influence — or whether there might be multiple ways for activists to pressure political parties from both inside and out, while never embracing a complete marriage.
Schlozman makes a compelling case that institutionalizing by embedding within a political party can lead to victories. And yet many of the major movements of the past century do not fit within his “anchoring” typology, but they nevertheless possess significant legacies. The movement for LGBTQ rights, and its landmark victory on the issue of same-sex marriage, serves as an important case in point. This is not a movement Schlozman identifies as an anchor group, and still the gains it has achieved arguably rival those of the labor movement or the religious right, which have burrowed within the major parties.
Schlozman explains victories by LGBTQ communities as examples of what he calls “cultural persuasion.” As he states, “I think that the LGBTQ movement is a good example of when culture is upstream from politics. … If you have a group that is treated unsympathetically, which you want to be treated more sympathetically, figuring out how to do this kind of persuasion is smart.” By reframing values and ideas, Schlozman explains, movements can persuade through cultural means rather than directly political ones. “I’m not sure I would have advised that movement correctly,” he admitted. “But I think they got that right.”
While Schlozman believes that such persuasion only works with a select few issues, those in the Pivenite camp would see a large part of social movement activity as being “upstream” of formal politics. And they would argue that the boundaries between what are cultural issues and what are political ones is constantly being redefined. “The urgency, solidarity and militancy that conflict generates lends movements distinctive capacities as political communicators” Piven writes. “Where politicians seek to narrow the parameters of political discussion, of the range of issues that are properly considered political problems and of the sorts of remedies available, movements can expand the political universe by bringing entirely new issues to the fore and by forcing new remedies into consideration.” In other words, movements change the political landscape within which elected officials operate.
The antiwar movement of the 1960s provides an intriguing example. Here, Schlozman sees an effort that fell short: “The antiwar movement did not just want to end the invasion of Vietnam, it wanted to roll back the worst parts of American imperialism,” he said. “As they aged, members of that movement became part of the new Democratic establishment, but there’s no actual organized movement that they brought with them. So there’s no real, ongoing dovish presence to push against American empire. It’s just not there. Instead, many of these politicians who might have identified as young activists in the ’60s become the liberal hawks of the 1990s and 2000s.”
Certainly, it is legitimate to criticize such shortcomings. But they are not the whole story. Beyond helping to end the Vietnam War and eliminating the military draft in the United States, there is good argument that the movement had a lingering effect in constraining overt militarism for a significant period. Scholars such as Stephen Zunes have taken the position that the prospect of mass protest and public revolt “served as a deterrent for large-scale U.S. military interventions overseas for the next three decades, a phenomenon known by detractors as ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’” Notably, the likelihood of public backlash made it politically impossible for the Reagan administration to directly deploy U.S. troops in Central America during the death squad wars of the 1980s — something that many administration officials would otherwise have been eager to do.
The antiwar movement did not win everything it wanted, but what political formation ever does? Despite anchoring within the Democratic Party, the labor movement has dwindled to a fraction of its size of a half-century ago, and it has perennially failed to get serious labor law reform enacted. Ultimately, efforts as varied as second-wave feminism, environmentalism and the civil rights movement do not become anchor groups by Schlozman’s definition, but have had major impacts. Each movement has institutionalized over the decades through a combination of means — winning some legal gains and some political ones; some advances in culture and others within business, religious, and other non-state institutions. Put together, the changes they have wrought show that even movements that do not embed within a political party can have lasting importance.
From Piven’s perspective, the fact that long-term gains are never guaranteed is reason to maximize the impact of disruptive moments when they occur: “Turbulence will not last,” she and Cloward advise: “Get people what you can, while you can.”
An ecological view
As much as organizers might wish for strategic unity, in the end movements are diverse and messy formations, involving both inside and outside politics. Bayard Rustin’s proposal that movements transition from “Protest to Politics” proposes a linear progression for organizers to follow, but an alternate way of looking at movements would use an ecological perspective. At any given time, a movement will contain groups and individuals devoted to different strategies and organizing models: In addition to the advocates of disobedience that Piven champions and the inside-game players that Schlozman highlights, there will be base-builders who focus on building unions, community organizations, and other structure-based groups, and there will be counter-cultural groups focused on keeping radical ideas alive by carving out alternative spaces and dissident communities. Each of these approaches has important contributions to make, and all of these tendencies together help to form an ecosystem that promotes change.
Although organizers must decide where their own organizations stand in the debate between anchoring and disruption, they must accept that not all groups will make the same decision. Therefore, they need to figure out methods for collaborating and coexisting with those who have different strategies. Even as they sometimes butt heads with people in these groups, they must determine how to act in ways that allow the ecosystem as a whole to thrive.
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To the extent that there is a progression between them, we can look at how different elements of the ecology come to the fore at various moments in the life cycle of a cause, only to recede at other junctures — and how some might re-emerge to once again play a significant role later, defying a clean and linear succession. Watching a whole movement ecosystem develop over time might reveal, for example, that groups without skill in mass protest will sorely miss that capacity in peak moments of social tension, and that those accustomed to always striking an outsider pose may leave worthwhile gains on the table if they lack insider allies in times when the establishment is ready to grant concessions.
Schlozman, for his part, acknowledges that “Movements always have their radicals and their moderates. And they may need both. But that doesn’t say exactly how radical the radicals should be, and how moderate the moderates should be — and whether or not they can actually work together.” Expanding on this point, he offers a word of caution: “I would say that people in movements should be aware of where they are in that spectrum and figure out how to support one another, and not eat each other alive. Because when they can’t work together, that’s really bad.”
Both Piven and Schlozman see social movements as being critical forces in shaping American democracy, having an influence on formal institutions that most political scientists fail to appreciate. This influence comes not from a single protest group or coalition moving in strategic lockstep. Rather, it comes from a sometimes chaotic amalgam of grassroots groups operating with diverse backgrounds and ideologies, whose combined efforts result in sometimes unpredictable transformations. Taking an ecological view does not exempt organizers from strategic decision-making, nor from taking seriously the dilemma of whether disrupting political parties or anchoring them represents a more fruitful goal. But it does suggest that how they interact with others who make different choices will be as important as the path they choose themselves.
Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.
A medic walked around the circle of 50 people occupying the lobby of the Department of the Interior, squirting water into our eager mouths before the police hauled us away. At the time, I had no idea that I wouldn’t be released until midnight, 12.5 hours after the action began. I just knew it was smart to stay hydrated, so I accepted every squirt of water offered, grateful for the care our Indigenous-led group was showing each other in circumstances designed to dehumanize us.
The Oct. 14 action occurred during the People vs. Fossil Fuels mobilization in Washington, D.C., a historic week of civil disobedience to pressure President Joe Biden to stop fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency. For Indigenous people, the protection of Mother Earth is deeply intertwined with the long struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, as destructive fossil fuel projects — like Line 3 in northern Minnesota — continue to be built through their territories without their consent.
Asserting that “Another world is possible,” they went to the Department of the Interior, home to the regressive Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was last occupied by Indigenous people about 50 years ago. While the media emphasized the conflict that ensued, one aspect went overlooked: how we water protectors treated each other during the tense hours of the action and arrest, illustrating the more caring world that Indigenous leaders say is possible.
Eleven Indigenous leaders from diverse territories entered first and sat in a row in the lobby, their hands linked together with plastic ties and duct tape. When a wave of approximately 45 more people joined them, we formed a large circle, holding hands, as someone swiftly linked each of our wrists to our neighbors’ with thin plastic ties. We quickly learned to adjust our hands to keep each other comfortable, moving in sync when someone needed to change position or scratch a nose.
In the middle of the circle was a bowl of burning sage, an herb used for purification. At the Line 3 resistance camp — where I spent three weeks this summer — sage was brought to each person, who then put out their hands to invite the smoke toward them, especially before actions and ceremonies. It was one of many expressions of care stemming from Indigenous understandings of interconnection. In the cavernous Department of Interior lobby, someone carried the sage clockwise around the circle, and we took turns breathing in the sweet, calming smell.
A bowl of burning sage was used for purification during the BIA occupation. (Twitter/@JenniferKFalcon)
I was especially grateful for this centering practice as uniformed men congregated at the edge of the lobby, the yellow DHS on their dark uniforms indicating they were from the Department of Homeland Security. Indigenous leaders took turns leading chants like “Stop Line 3!” which reverberated between the hard marble floor and the high ornate ceiling. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Deb Haaland over!” they called, referring to the current head of the Department of the Interior — and the first Indigenous person to hold the position. We later heard she was out of town.
When a much older woman joined us in the lobby, a young Indigenous woman yelled for those in uniform to get the elder a chair, which they eventually did after others picked up the chant. Our ages spanned at least five decades, probably more. We also had other physical differences. The friend next to me had slid out of her wheelchair to join everyone on the floor and was nervous about whether she would be separated from her chair and medicine. As arrest grew closer, two diabetics on my side of the circle assessed whether it was safe for them to stay, not knowing when they might be able to access food or medicine. After the medic helped her test her blood sugar, the diabetic with the more severe case chose to be cut loose and leave, while the other stayed. The pain in my hip from sitting cross legged on the checkerboard marble floor was increasingly uncomfortable, but not life threatening, and not nearly as bad as what others suffered during the arrests.
DHS went first for the row of Indigenous leaders, tasing two women in long ceremonial skirts who were simply holding onto each other. One later told me that she had a finger broken in the ordeal. A baton was used on someone else. Most people, including a media photographer, were dragged away roughly, sometimes by the shoulder or by the backpack. Later, I read reports that police had also been injured in the action. If that’s true — and from experience I can attest that not everything police report is true — I suspect they threw out their own backs by not carrying people properly, which would have required helping each other. In contrast, we continued to support one another, chanting, “We see you. We love you. We will get justice for you!” each time someone was dragged away.
At one point during the arrests, an older white woman who was completely new to this kind of action leaned toward me (also a white woman) and said nervously, “I want to remain nonviolent,” expressing a common confusion about what does or doesn’t constitute violence. I explained that all of the water protectors being arrested were being nonviolent. Not one was hitting or trying to hurt the people arresting them, even in the face of police brutality. What they were doing was refusing to assist in their own arrests.
In contrast, during the actions that took place at the White House all week, the majority of the more than 600 people arrested had followed the Park Police willingly, without even being put in handcuffs. Even there, it was mostly Indigenous people who had been dragged out, illustrating both how they are routinely treated by police on the frontlines, and the fact that those experiencing the desecration of the Earth up close are also those willing to risk the most to stop it.
The People vs. Fossil Fuel movement assembled in front of the Capitol on Oct. 15. (Twitter/@jamieclimate)
While there was an undeniable racial dynamic in who was dragged away — and how roughly — there was also an age dynamic. I told the older white woman, who was in her 70s, that I planned to stand up myself when the police came for me, since I had injured my back only a few weeks earlier and, at age 59, had a history of painful and expensive shoulder problems. I felt supported in making this choice, along with most of the older folks in the group.
When I was put in plastic zip-tie handcuffs, one side was tighter than I would have liked, but nothing compared to the younger people near me who screamed that their fingers were going numb as we waited in the basement garage. Some had their zip ties replaced, only to have them tightened again just before we were loaded into vans, which took us to different precincts across the city. The medic stayed with my friend in the wheelchair until she was released on site because no accessible police van was available.
After more than an hour in handcuffs, nine of us arrived at the 5th precinct, where (uncuffed) we waited another seven and a half hours with no food, phone calls or information on when we would be released. The four women in my small cell shared two narrow metal beds, stacked on top of each other with no ladder, except the metal rails of the cell door. By serendipity, my bunkmate was a young Indigenous woman new to this type of action, whom I had been told to look out for by a mutual friend arrested earlier in the leadership group.
While creating an activist culture of care is not enough to force Joe Biden to use his power to stop fossil fuel infrastructure for the common good, it can help build a broad and diverse movement with that kind of power
When my bunkmate got cold, I took off the long skirt I had worn over my cargo pants, and she used it as a blanket. When my sore hip repeatedly needed a change of positions, she graciously shifted positions, too. When a person in the next cell was taken to the hospital to examine the thumbs that had turned blue from tight handcuffs, we sang to the remaining cell mate, now left alone. We also sang to reduce the awkward sound of pee hitting the metal toilet only a foot and a half away from the lower bed, and turned our heads to give each other privacy. As the hours wore on, someone named the enormous cockroach roaming between our cells “Archibald,” and told funny stories to help the time pass.
While we were kind to each other, and experienced moments of kindness from the police who held us, we glimpsed the cruelty of the system they worked for — from the hard, cold beds with no blanket or pillow to the slow inefficiency that dragged on through the night. No one offered us water, although we were brought small cups twice when we asked (which we promptly shared with those most thirsty).
When I inquired why our processing was taking so long, one policeman confessed his surprise that we hadn’t been cited and released already. He speculated that, in addition to our large numbers — 55 arrested, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network — we had occupied a federal building, which made D.C. police especially nervous in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. I asked him to explain — if he heard people make this comparison — that we were nonviolent, unarmed, and had sat in a circle in the lobby, not run around private offices, threatening to kill elected officials.
Two hours later, when we finally walked out of the precinct garage door, each with a sheet of paper announcing our January court date, there was a group waiting for us with hugs, snacks and rides back to the different places where we were staying. My hotel roommates were asleep by the time I got in at 2 a.m., but one had left a bottle of juice on my pillow, a small gesture of care that symbolized much of what I experienced during the action and among the water protectors opposing Line 3 more broadly.
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While creating an activist culture of care is not enough to force Joe Biden to use his power to stop fossil fuel infrastructure for the common good, it can help build a broad and diverse movement with that kind of power. Several non-Indigenous friends who’d been part of the Line 3 camps acknowledged that missing that community was part of what motivated them to travel, in some cases across the country, to join the mobilization in D.C. These were the same people who stayed when other actions during the week got scary, looking for ways to keep everyone safe, while many white people without deep connections left. We were reminded by Indigenous leaders that having their backs was crucial in such situations, where police violence was likely to fall disproportionately on BIPOC frontline leaders. As a movement, we still have much to learn about this.
Amid police violence and a lukewarm “we’re listening to advocates” response from the Biden administration, it can be hard to believe that “another world is possible.” But Indigenous people are pointing to their traditions, based on cooperation and care, and reminding the rest of us that it is. To move toward that world based on care, we need to continue building pressure on Biden, especially as he prepares to tell other countries to do more at the upcoming global climate discussions. We also need to carry support for frontline leaders from the sidewalk in front of the White House, back to the frontlines, where resistance continues, no matter what Washington does. And we need to notice that how we do that work is itself part of creating the world we want to bring forth.
When we are in periods of highly-charged organizing, we often lose the lessons of the past. This is why Emily Hobson and Dan Berger, both historians of activism, started working on a collection of primary documents from social movements during the right’s ascension after the “long ‘60s.”
“Remaking Radicalism” collects hundreds of pieces of writing from one of the most underrepresented periods of left-wing organizing. The depths it probes are profound: speeches from rallies, clippings from movement newspapers, pamphlets that were handed out on the street, and dozens of organizations and social movements from ACT UP to the Clamshell Alliance to the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. What it offers is a picture of movements both in crisis and managing to persevere, which can teach lessons about how to approach movement building in our present chaotic time.
With that in mind, I interviewed Emily Hobson and Dan Berger about their book, the lasting impacts of some of the social movements it features and the lessons we can learn from them today.
What was the idea behind “Remaking Radicalism,” and how did you approach putting it together?
Hobson: Ten years ago I initially approached Dan with the idea, which came from the fact that I wanted this kind of resource when teaching. I had the sense that it could be useful for ongoing organizing, but also the recent past was very distant to my students, and this period was not represented in the more easily accessible narratives about social movements. Similar anthologies ended with the 1970s and were conceived of as anthologies of the “long ‘60s.”
Berger: There were a few things already published about the time period, but in general, there was this lacuna — not only in the scholarship, but even in talking to students or to our generation of activists — about what happened between the ‘60s and whenever they got active. Some people were lucky enough to be mentored and come up in a way that connects those dots. But for a lot of people, whatever struggle got them politicized, whatever they are doing now, is reinventing things. I was excited about this project because it seemed like a way to really connect the generations and sort of fill in a lot of the silences that exist because we don’t have a strong inter-generational connection left.
Immediately, we decided we didn’t want to do a linear chronology. It’s like recurring themes that come up, whether it’s about tactics or strategy or even about political ideology. So we wanted to be able to frame a kind of evolving left and series of conversations, and we are approaching the time period thematically rather than chronologically.
There’s a sense of disagreement in the volume. Some of the people in the book would be opposed to each other’s politics. Some people might even be shocked to see certain ideas included in left spaces. How did you make some of these selections?
Berger: This is where the framework of “usable past” really guided us. We were really motivated by organizing documents that were written in a way that would be conversant with the present — that still spoke to the present, even if the campaign or organization were long defunct. But the particular issues and strategies highlighted are still very much alive. So we looked for documents that highlighted the innovation or ingenuity from the time period, but still resonated with our present.
What are some of the factors that are unique about this period and separated it from earlier and later history?
Berger: There are several things that overshadow the period. The U.S. war in Vietnam and 9/11 bookend the period. Then we have the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So within that sort of reshuffling of the world system, you have a lot of social movements responding to historical weaknesses in the left. Intersectionality is one attempt, or breakthrough, at that. I would see that as fitting within a larger series of attempts by social movements to figure out a way to fight for change in the context that is heavily out-maneuvered by the right.
We can look back at things like the civil rights movement as successful, and we encounter them only retrospectively when we think they succeed. And we all know that that’s not the way to think about movements. That’s why we need to take the coup attempt that happened on Jan. 6 so seriously, because the right often wins a lot even if they don’t win the whole pie [such as overthrowing the government]. In this time period we were trying to think about how people are continuing to struggle and what they’re learning and figuring out and experimenting with in the process of that struggle, even if they’re not winning the whole pie.
There were a lot of world historic challenges and national political and economic shifts that presented different challenges in this time period. I think this has led many people to consider that period as primarily about the right’s ascension, or for the left it’s just a period of falling apart or eating itself. But we knew that this was not the case, and we still have an obligation to learn from the movements even when they aren’t winning. Those are moments of realignment, of reinterpretation, of expansion, of intellectual and strategic experience that sets the terrain for the next period of struggle.
The book discusses the rise of the New Right in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and how movements responded. And now we have just experienced our own kind of rise of the right with Trumpism, national populism and white nationalism. What kind of innovations or lessons from that period can we apply to this current rise of the right?
Berger: The urgency with which Black radicals were calling out incarceration — the conversation that became mass incarceration — was deeply connected with the role that the Klan and Nazis were playing within law enforcement. One thing being explored in this time period is the severity of state violence and how that is a project of, or aligned with, far-right movements that want repressive aspects of the state, even if some of them go to war with that same state.
Hobson: Another place that I see innovations across the book is the kind of repeated engagement with questions of new necessary forms of coalition, and also critiques of unwanted bedfellows. In the first section of the book, “Bodies and Lives,” there is a section on fighting the right that includes critiques around the “sex wars” and a piece from the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. This is a kind of critique of the ways that laws against pornography brought feminists into bed with the Christian right.
But even more dramatically to me, and sort of a productive innovation, is the effort to build power through unexpected kinds of coalitions. That’s the work I get excited by, and it pushes back on the easy narrative that you can write the history of “X” movement and it will always be easily distinguishable from all the others, as opposed to actually having to respond to the right and the state and to economic and environmental circumstances. I also love the ways that you see a lot of critiques of unwanted bedfellows from inside communities of color, particularly the Asian American documents pushing back on anti-affirmative action and “colorblind” politics.
We saw a sort of “putting down of arms” on the left over the course of the book’s time period, but are we experiencing a type of re-armament?
Hobson: I would say to a degree yes, but I think it goes along with a broader shift from this era to our own, which is the decline of vanguardism and the massive growth of anarchist politics. Across the period of the book you see the decline of armed activity tracks with the decline of vanguardism. In the last 10 years, maybe longer, I don’t see the increased investment in armed activity being expressed in a vanguardist way, but in a decentralized and mutual aid, type of way.
Berger: [It’s] a sort of defensive posture — a Black Panther-style display of weaponry more than their usage. I think the kind of street fights we have had all summer, particularly in Portland but other places as well, happens in Europe and Latin America all the time. There is more of a history of street-fighting politics rather than gun politics around the world. However, instead of a street brawl it is an armed street brawl because we are in the United States, which I think is a terrifying prospect.
Hobson: It’s less acts of sabotage against the state or corporate targets and more about defense against heavily armed white nationalist militias. [This] in part comes out of the clinging to the Second Amendment as a left tool, which has the danger of alignment with the state’s definition of violence.
How do you think people captured identity as a point of struggle and why did that happen in this period?
Berger: The book starts in 1973 and at that point you have almost two solid decades of not only Black radical organizing, but just Black civic organizing, where there is a profound sense of identity. It’s not narrow, but expansive and holistic. And out of that comes a variety of other moments that similarly tried to project identity outward as a way of organizing an expansive political vision. The Puerto Rican independence movement is increasingly important by 1973. Chicano and Latinx organizing, and Indigenous organizing, and so on. The nature of inequality in the United States is already organized through identity — so it is not surprising that resistance would be politicized in the language of identity. Part of the significance of starting with the Combahee River Collective statement about intersectionality was the way that identity is explicitly linked to a socialist politics, which a number of pieces outline.
There are also other kinds of identity that are an entree to political orientation, like Joel Olson’s “Why the Masses Ain’t Asses,” which is from the punk scene. We often think of it as a subculture rather than identity, but it is still an identity-based orientation to politics. There are lots of debates in the period about the role of subculture, who’s being organized and in what way.
What are the key disagreements in the book, and what are the bigger disagreements of the period?
Berger: I think the debates in the book are largely around strategy and tactics and the role of certain types of confrontation — certainly around violence, but also there’s a lot of debate around how much the left should appeal to the state versus fight the state. How much should you fight to get control or appeal for some kind of reform versus trying to eliminate the state. And there are debates around whether to engage in electoral politics, such as the debate from the Center for Third World Organizing.
Hobson: I think there are also some debates in the book around the question of what is the scope, extent and nature of state violence. How is environmental degradation a form of state violence or state-sanctioned violence, for example? Or how is the threat of nuclear war — interwoven with actual “hot” war or prisons — a form of state violence?
Berger: I think the debate is not only about whether the left should engage in violence and what that means, but what kind of nonviolence do we mean. We had a strong emphasis on groups or documents that reflect a pursuit of radical or revolutionary transformation. That debate on the left is usually presented as violence or nonviolence, but in fact a more generative debate is about the divide between revolution and reform. So we have a number of documents from pacifists that are about revolutionary transformation, and are really clear about it being more of a strategic choice than a moral one. But many people in these groups were conversant with groups that had a different take on this and were still able to be in coalition with them. I think there are a number of people on the “diversity of tactics” left today that would benefit from that emphasis — the dynamic being a question of revolution versus reform, rather than violence versus nonviolence.
How do you hope social movements will use this book?
Berger: One thing is being able to recognize all of the issues and documents in the book as part of a shared movement and left. There has been a lot of commentary on Medicare for All and the leading edge of demands in the progressive left are all very national, and stop at the U.S. border. One thing I hope the book can do is be a reminder that issues of colonialism and imperialism and Indigenous sovereignty are and should be a part of what the left is about. And the conversations in the books have corollaries and successors in movements today. They are part of making the left and fashioning radicalism today.
Hobson: I hope that people and organizations can look to the book and find multiple forerunners that they may not have known about before and can trace back their own influences. I hope it can help people think about building inter-generational movements and organizations in new ways. I hope it not just reminds people of the centrality of anti-imperialism and decolonization and Indigenous politics, but also points towards some ways to resuscitate the internationalist left that has been lost in the post-2008 era.
Berger: Some of our framing is older than we might realize. One thing I learned in doing the book is that prisoners in North Carolina in 1974 used the phrase “prison industrial complex.” So I hope the book can be a source of inspiration for people so they can draw on the deeper past for all the issues we are fighting for today. And that it can be an affirmation of a kind of need for experimentation, or at least the need for solidarity. We can’t be in every single movement or campaign, but we can expand our coalition and our sense of who and what we are in solidarity with.
In early 2009, as Barack Obama prepared to move into the White House, a particular historical anecdote rapidly gained in popularity, repeated in dozens of talks and articles as a parable for how supporters should respond to the new president taking office. The story related a New Deal-era encounter between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a group of activists, usually said to have been led by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In the meeting, the advocates laid out a vision of bold action for change that the president could advance with his bully pulpit and his executive power. FDR listened to their position and considered the demands they presented. Then he replied, “You’ve convinced me. I agree with what you’ve said. Now go out and make me do it.”
In recent years, this tale has often been used to encourage social movements to maintain pressure on elected officials, even sympathetic ones, once these politicians assume power. There’s only one problem: The story isn’t true. Upon examination it has all the markings of an apocryphal legend, and it is highly unlikely that the meeting in question ever took place. Yet because the parable raises one of the most crucial issues of our current political moment — how those who voted against Trump should interact with the new administration — it is valuable to consider what the story gets right about the relationship between movements and presidents, and what it gets wrong.
The long experience of organizers shows that politicians, as a rule, do not like being pressured by movements they cannot control and often lash out.
As Joe Biden begins his first term in the White House, the stakes of this discussion are considerable. Far from welcoming outsider pressure, politicians committed to insider dealmaking have a long track record of dismissing and disparaging critics who push them to do better — and they have often preferred to demobilize the supporters who got them elected rather than face heat from potentially unruly movements. Organizers committed to stopping such demobilization must accept that it will likely earn them the ire of the White House.
In other words, social movements can play a critical role under the new administration. But Biden isn’t going to like it.
The makings of a myth
In terms of provenance, the FDR legend rests on shaky ground. Those who cite the story invariably do so anecdotally, and historical documentation of the incident is suspiciously sparse. Journalist Martin Berg scoured several different biographies of A. Philip Randolph but could find no mention of the supposed encounter. As Berg explains: “Now, I’m from Detroit and Randolph was part of the civil rights story I grew up on, and I never heard that story until the 2008 election.” Peter Dreier, Professor of Politics at Occidental College, related the anecdote in print severaltimes in the Obama era, but in some tellings he did so with the caveat that it “has never been documented.” Activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte stated in an interview that he heard the story from Eleanor Roosevelt herself, and this might be as close to a verification as anything on record. But even his was a second-hand retelling, vague on details, passed on many decades after the fact.
As the tale has been repeated, the setting and the characters sometimes shift. FDR is often said to have been talking with Randolph, but other versions place figures such as the labor unionist John L. Lewis in the room instead. Still others turn the story into 1960s parable, with Lyndon Baines Johnson as the president doing the talking and Martin Luther King, Jr. the listening. Saul Alinsky biographer Nicholas von Hoffman has written that the famed community organizer was fond of using the same story, but in Alinsky’s account the politician who tells constituents to “make [him] do it” was former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.
There are important things that the “make me do it” narrative gets right. It tells us that politicians can only be counted on to push forward controversial steps toward progress when they are forced to do so. As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the moral of the story, “[P]oliticians respond to only one thing — power. This is not the flaw of democracy, it’s the entire point. It’s the job of activists to generate, and apply, enough pressure on the system to affect change.” Or as movement strategist Jonathan Matthew Smucker puts it, “We don’t persuade them morally. We persuade them with power.” The story is an injunction to keep the pressure on: It emphasizes that insistent demands from the outside continue to be essential, even when voters put the “right” people in office. For this reason, the anecdote reliably resurfaces among progressives in times when Democrats take power after periods when they have been in the opposition.
What the story gets wrong, however, may be just as important as the valid lesson that its tellers intend to impart. The tale suggests that elected officials are apt to agree with social movements — that they respect and sympathize with those who pressure them, and that they might secretly welcome the nudge to do better. In fact, the long experience of organizers shows that politicians, as a rule, do not like being pressured by movements they cannot control and often lash out at those who demand that they take more principled or politically risky stands. The anecdote leaves out the indignation and contempt that inside-game players feel when their deal-making expertise and political hesitancy are called into question.
Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base.
In August 2010, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went on a well-publicized rant against progressive critics of the Obama administration, deriding them as members of the “professional left” who would never be satisfied with any legislative compromise. Political scientist Larry Berman noted at the time that the administration preferred its voters to be far more deferential: “From Gibbs’s perspective, and the White House perspective,” Berman explained, “they ought to be able to catch a break from people who, in their view, should be grateful and appreciative.” Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who later became mayor of Chicago, used more pointed language against those who sought to make the president and other members of his party pursue bolder policy positions. He condemned those who attacked conservative Democrats for failing to support a public option for health care reform as being “fucking retarded” (a comment for which he was later compelled to apologize to the head of the Special Olympics).
A similar contempt for organizers who dared challenge the expertise of veteran lawmakers was on display in the Bay Area office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in February 2019. There, the senator rebuffed a group of school-age advocates from the Sunrise Movement who prodded her to support Green New Deal legislation. In the viral video of the incident, Feinstein chided the young activists, saying “You know what’s interesting about this group: I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I know what I’m doing.” Subsequently responding to a 16-year-old, Feinstein snapped, “You didn’t vote for me” and then proceeded to dismiss the group by saying, “Well, you know better than I do. So I think one day you should run for the Senate and then you do it your way.”
A history of contention
A look at past presidents shows that irked and dismissive attitudes are hardly atypical. LBJ’s relationship with the civil rights movement was more often characterized by conflict than cooperation. For his part, FDR was often enraged at unions who tried to force his hand in demanding stronger action on behalf of striking workers. This tension surfaced in his interactions with John L. Lewis — the president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, and a character in some versions of the “make me do it” legend. Years before their public break during FDR’s 1940 reelection campaign, the relationship between Roosevelt and Lewis was already characterized, in the words of one biographer, by “resentment for each other approaching hatred,” which generated “ever increasing hostilities.”
During some of the most famous labor conflicts of the New Deal era, when the president would have preferred to avoid taking a stand, Lewis issued statements suggesting that the unions had the White House’s backing. This put FDR in the awkward position of having either to publicly disavow support for struggling workers or to remain silent and give credibility to Lewis’s position. Such maneuvers “repeatedly incensed the president.” In early 1937, FDR likewise grew irate when Lewis refused to accept a compromise he was brokering with General Motors executives to end the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan. Lewis held out for a better deal, and the union ultimately won one — but only after Roosevelt blasted Lewis for his arrogance and short-sightedness. In other words, on the occasions when organized workers effectively “made him do it,” FDR was rarely pleased. Rather than colluding with movements, the president repeatedly sought to dissuade them, calm their disruptive actions and bargain them down from their demands.
The same pattern held when it came to civil rights. A transcript survives from an actual White House meeting between FDR and A. Phillip Randolph on June 18, 1941. Randolph and other civil rights leaders were planning a March on Washington to demand that the government require defense contractors to hire Black workers. As journalist and author Warren Sloat explains, the rapid expansion of war production was priming the economy, and “factories and business offices were hiring millions of workers. White workers, that is. The vast majority of Afro-Americans remained marooned in permanent unemployment. They were barred from defense plants and federal employment rolls. Labor unions banned Black people from membership.”
Instead of seeking to make unions or other social movement groups partners in governing, they look to them as just another constituency to be appeased.
Randolph’s planned march would decry this injustice, much to the dismay of the president. Roosevelt was concerned that, as biographer Jean Edward Smith writes, “A Black march in segregated Washington could easily provoke violence and at the very least would antagonize the southern leadership of his preparedness coalition.” FDR enlisted his wife Eleanor and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to talk the activists out of their plan. When that failed, he summoned Black leaders to the White House to speak with them himself.
Having won recognition of the country’s first African-American union and having once been called “the most dangerous man in America” by President Woodrow Wilson for encouraging Blacks not to fight in World War I, Randolph possessed an imposing organizing résumé. He and other leaders believed they could mobilize 10,000 people for their march, but in their meeting with FDR they were willing to bluff by projecting more.
“Mr. President,” Randolph said as the discussion reached its climax, “our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can’t live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?”
FDR offered to call and talk with heads of defense plants, but the civil rights leaders wanted something stronger than informal persuasion:
Philip Randolph: We want you to do more than that. We want something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive and affirmative.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: What do you mean?
Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to issue an executive order making it mandatory that Negroes be permitted to work in these plants.
FDR: Well, Phil, you know I can’t do that. If I issue an executive order for you, then there’ll be no end to other groups coming in here and asking me to issue executive orders for them, too. In any event, I couldn’t do anything unless you called off this march of yours. Questions like this can’t be settled with a sledge hammer….
Randolph: I’m sorry, Mr. President, the march cannot be called off.
FDR: How many people do you plan to bring?
Randolph: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.
FDR: Walter, how many people will really march?
[NAACP President] Walter White: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.
A week later, FDR signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in hiring in the defense industry and creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee for enforcement. Randolph agreed to call off the march.
From movement to movie
Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base. To some extent, national politicians recognize the utility of social movements during elections, as they seek to galvanize their core supporters and reach out to new voters. Certainly, most Democrats — Biden included — have relied on the muscle of grassroots groups, most notably those of organizedlabor, to propel their field campaigns.
As former Obama advisor and CNN personality Van Jones described the demobilization after the 2008 election, “We went from having a movement to a movie.”
But once in office, they cease to see their fortunes as being connected to these movements. With their focus on maintaining power, they often view concessions to their grassroots base as threatening to their wider coalition, particularly the business interests that support them. Instead of seeking to make unions or other social movement groups partners in governing, they look to them as just another constituency to be appeased. They do not understand their ability to operate as insiders as tied to movements that shape public opinion and set the parameters for what are considered acceptable and desirable stances by elected leaders.
Even when the policies these leaders promote are relatively good ones, the insider “I’ll take it from here” attitude promotes a dangerous demobilization. It reinforces the popularly accepted view of power that sees authority as resting solely in the hands of presidents, senators and CEOs. This sets up the perpetual return of a self-defeating cycle in which, between elections, activated constituencies are encouraged to become mere spectators in the political process. As former Obama advisor and CNN personality Van Jones described the demobilization after the 2008 election, “We went from having a movement to a movie.”
As it turns out, President Obama himself had an important role in spreading the “make me do it” story — possibly a tale he picked up in his days as an Alinskyite organizer. He recounted the anecdote on the campaign trail in 2008 and later deployed it as a response to LGBT rights organizers pushing him for executive action. But even as he ostensibly invited outside pressure, he was frustrated when he actually encountered it. Harry Belafonte, having previously shared the “make me do it” legend, testified to the disjuncture between myth and actual practice: In 2011, he recounted that he had been invited to White House events on a number of occasions in Obama’s first years in office, but never was able to interact with the president for long enough to engage in any genuine discussion. At one event, Obama approached him and Cornel West and asked when they would “cut me some slack.”
“What makes you think we haven’t?” Belafonte responded, ending the brief interaction.
Much more significant than his off-handed comments to veteran activists is how Obama managed the once-mighty electoral movement that propelled him to the presidency. Obama’s 2008 drive had defied the rules of typically top-down presidential campaigns, empowering a vast range of grassroots activity by supporters. By deploying both ground-breaking social networking technology and mass trainings in community organizing, the campaign allowed hundreds of thousands of local boosters to take independent initiative to rally neighbors, plan their own campaign events and energize small donors. By the time Obama was elected, the campaign had amassed some critical assets: a battle-hardened core of volunteers and an email list of 13 million supporters, 4 million of whom had donated money and 2.5 million of whom had registered on the campaign’s online organizing platform. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson quoted longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins — Ronald Reagan’s national campaign director in 1984 — who marveled at the possibilities: “This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works,” he said. “No one’s ever had these kinds of resources.”
Early on, Obama promised that the energy of the campaign would continue and the infrastructure it built would undergird a new grassroots organization; progressive planners within the campaign had envisioned it as an independent-minded operation that could hold up transformative legislation and pressure politicians to enact it. This, however, was not to be. In a February 2017 New Republic article entitled “Inside the Fall of Obama’s Grassroots Army,” journalist Micah Sifry, using previously unreported insider memos and e-mails (including documents from advisor John Podesta that were released by Wikileaks), documented that, even before Obama was elected, party insiders managed to squelch the idea of an autonomous organization.
In the wake of the election, advisors convinced Obama to hand over the entire grassroots apparatus to the Democratic National Committee, or DNC. “The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party,” Dickinson would write. “It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil.”
In the crucial months immediately after the 2008 election, the “movement moment” rapidly dissipated as supporters were left without direction about how their energies would be institutionalized. When it did launch, Organizing for America, or OFA, as the DNC-managed group became known, was a shadow of what its original advocates had imagined. With a stated goal to “mobilize supporters in favor of Obama’s legislative priorities,” it did not aim to influence the president’s agenda or “make him” take on positions more resolute than he might have otherwise preferred. To the contrary, it was designed to be a safely on-message cheering section.
“[T]he organization was mainly known for asking people to donate online and to make phone calls to Congress people,” Van Jones would later remark. “It was confined by the insider strategy, which the DNC and the White House pursued. Rather than mobilizing the people and then cutting a deal with opponents from a position of strength, the White House tended to seek a deal first and then use OFA to mobilize people to fight for the pre-compromised position. This approach may have made sense inside the halls of power, but it left many grassroots supporters cold.”
Crucially, as an arm of the DNC, the group would not challenge Democratic officials themselves, even conservative members of the party who refused to back ideas such as a “public option” for healthcare reform (which itself was a compromise position that fell far short of comprehensive “Medicare for All” proposals). Given that the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate through Obama’s first year — and therefore had a once-in-a-generation chance to pass major legislation without Republican obstruction — this was a fatal shortcoming.
Marshall Ganz, a former United Farm Workers organizer who helped engineer the campaign’s community organizing trainings, mournfully noted that Obama’s White House seemed to be “afraid of people getting out of control,” and that the president’s inner circle had been quick to neuter the campaign’s grassroots base. His feelings were echoed by others who had worked on the campaign but grew disillusioned by seeing establishment advisors with little interest in outside organizing take over. “They don’t give a crap about this e-mail list and don’t think it’s a very useful thing,” one former campaign staffer told the website TechPresident. “They want to do stuff the delicate way — the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying.”
As it turned out, over the course of the administration’s first year, career insiders such as Rahm Emanuel would find themselves out-organized by right-wingers who channeled discontent into Tea Party groups that were unafraid to deploy disruptive protest and to target even Republican leaders they found insufficiently responsive. As Sifry concludes, “Instead of mobilizing his unprecedented grassroots machine to pressure obstructionist lawmakers, support state and local candidates who shared his vision, and counter the Tea Party, Obama mothballed his campaign operation, bottling it up inside the Democratic National Committee. It was the seminal mistake of his presidency — one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed.”
Biden’s relationship with social movements could be significant in determining how long his mandate endures, whether he will pursue more far-reaching reforms, and if a midterm reversal should be regarded as an inevitability.
Christopher Edley Jr., a policy adviser to the Obama campaign who had pushed for a robust and independent organization argued that the Washington, D.C.-minded political hands closest to the president adhered to a theory of change focused on insider deal-making. Therefore, they did not see how cultivating a base of outsider energy could be critical in reshaping the landscape in which elected officials operated and thereby make more substantive change possible. At the same time, they were fearful that a mobilized base could turn on powerful Democrats, or even the president himself. “If you’re not really that committed, as a matter of principle, to a bottom-up theory of change, then you will find it nonsensical to cede some control in order to gain more power,” Edley concluded. “To me, real movement building had to be about defining and advancing progressivism, not a communication strategy from the West Wing basement costumed as faux movement. The kind of movement we wanted would have helped Obama a great deal, without making it all about him.”
In a December 2010 op-ed for the Washington Post, Sam Graham-Felsen, who had been Obama’s chief blogger during the campaign, argued that the president’s supporters “were inspired by Obama’s promise to upend Washington by governing from the bottom up. ‘The change we need doesn’t come from Washington,’ Obama told them. ‘It comes to Washington.’ Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors.”
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There is a price to the demobilization engendered by this approach to governing. It is taken as conventional wisdom that the majority party will lose seats in midterm elections, and this was certainly the case in 2010. After Obama’s first two years in office, Republicans energized by the Tea Party gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives, and Democrats at the state level faced the most sweeping loss of power since the Eisenhower era.
Elected officials see themselves as indispensable servants of the public good. They want their constituents to be appreciative, and they are rankled at encountering people who are not.
Unlike Obama, Joe Biden did not present himself in his election campaign as the head of a transformational movement that would unsettle Washington norms, and so he has taken office with considerably different expectations. In recent weeks, Biden’s determination to “go big” in pursuing economic stimulus, along with his success in taking swift action to reverse some of the most repellent abuses of the Trump administration, have amounted to a substantive early agenda. Nevertheless, his relationship with social movements could be significant in determining how long his mandate endures, whether he will pursue more far-reaching reforms, and if a midterm reversal should be regarded as an inevitability.
On this front, there are ample warning signs. The Trump years saw the emergence of some of the largestmass mobilizations in American history. Yet Biden has not sought to identify himself with these grassroots energies. Instead, he has defined his style as one of “insider competence” and masterful deal-making. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, he “put his ability to forge compromises at the center of his quest for the White House.” Should social movements reject seeing politics as a movie and seek to pressure the administration as well as its Republican rivals, they can expect that Biden will bristle, just as he did when confronted by progressives on the campaign trail.
Even when the active engagement of their base in ongoing political advocacy enhances their ability to succeed, it is foolhardy to believe that politicians secretly welcome pressure or that they will pay tribute to those who, on select occasions, are able to force their hands. Having invested their faith in their talent for insider maneuvering, these elected officials see themselves as indispensable servants of the public good. They want their constituents to be appreciative, and they are rankled at encountering people who are not. “Cut me some slack,” is how Obama put it. “Give me a break, man,” Biden has already exclaimed. These are just other ways of saying, “Don’t make me do it.”
Those pushing for transformative changes to our society should expect to hear nothing different. And the ultimate success of the current administration may rely on them not listening.
Research assistance for this article provided by Akin Olla.
Following the Jan. 6 insurrectionary attack on the U.S. Capitol and on the country, the FBI has warned of violent actions being planned in all 50 states and D.C. nationwide next week. Last week’s assault, which was incited by Donald Trump, enabled by GOP officials and members of Congress, planned on social media, and buoyed by deeply entrenched white supremacy and Christian nationalism at the heart of our democratic dysfunctionality, were not attacks on any political party or ideology — they were attacks on all of us. The entire country has to be involved in responding to what could become a protracted violent conflict or, quite possibly, an insurgency. Meanwhile, historian Timothy Snyder warned of the need to prevent proto-fascism from becoming full-on fascism.
What happens over the next 10 days will set the tone for what happens over the next 10 months and 10 years. In the immediate term, the national response should focus on ensuring accountability and telling the truth about the election, exploiting divisions between those committed to democracy and those willing to destroy it, and preventing further violence from far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon. Longer term efforts require an honest reckoning with the white supremacist roots of our political malaise, addressing the toxic nature of polarization in this country fueled by social media platforms’ monetization of hate and division, and building and supporting movements capable of transforming our social, political and economic systems.
First, the politicians and officials who incited and enabled the attacks must be held accountable for their actions. Unless there are real consequences to engaging in illegal, dangerous or recklessly anti-democratic behavior, it will be impossible to reckon with our present and deter future attacks. Trump is a clear and present danger to the United States and should be removed from power and prevented from ever running for federal office again. The NAACP is organizing bipartisan support for Trump’s impeachment. Missouri Representative Cori Bush has filed a resolution calling for the expulsion of more than 100 Republican members of the House who voted against certification. Indivisible is mobilizing for the expulsion of members of Congress who supported the insurrection.
There are clear signs that the insurrection is backfiring and GOP enablers are paying a price. We need to learn from and exploit this backfire. Trump’s approval rating has plummeted to 33 percent and he was impeached Monday by the U.S. House for the second time. Major companies have suspended political contributions to members of Congress who voted against certifying the result of the election. A pro-Trump candidate for governor of New Jersey abruptly dropped his campaign. Republican Attorneys General who supported the election lawsuit are facing disciplinary complaints and the Republican Attorneys General association is distancing itself from robocalls urging supporters to go to D.C. to “fight” and overturn the election. Facebook and Twitter banned Trump and took down the accounts of over a thousand far-right groups while Google and Apple shut down Parler, a platform favored by extremists.
Despots and extremist groups alike want people to feel afraid and helpless. They need to know that they will not succeed.
Mainstream media outlets should be encouraged to report on these fissures, defections, and divestments and explain their significance in defending democracy. Further economic and social pressure should target the media enablers of violence and violent extremism, which have profited immensely from spreading hatred and conspiracy theories. Prominent Evangelical and Catholic religious leaders, priests, and clergy who spread lies about the election being stolen from Trump should be persuaded and pressured to tell the truth and repent.
Faced with heightened risks of violence in Washington, D.C. and across the country this weekend and next week, it is critical to amplify the work of peacebuilders and invest in de-escalation and violence prevention trainings and capacity-building provided by groups like DC Peace Teams, Cure Violence, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Over Zero, and the TRUST Network. Activist groups have rightly assessed that encouraging people to take to the streets to confront Trump supporters and extremists is the wrong move — both for very serious health reasons and because they know that Trump and the far-right are desperate to make this a clash between opposing groups, rather than a one-sided attack on the country.
Many civic groups are promoting alternative plans for action. Indivisible, The Frontline and #ShutDownDC are planning dispersed nonviolent actions across the country and in the capital to demand impeachment and denounce white supremacy. These include banner drops over highways, car caravans and a #DontrentDC campaign calling on those who rent out apartments in D.C. to refrain from doing so from Jan. 17-20, when white supremacists will be back in town. In a clear victory for activists and a further sign of backfire from the violent insurrection, Airbnb has announced that it is cancelling all D.C. reservations.
Despots and extremist groups alike want people to feel afraid and helpless. They need to know that they will not succeed. In the upcoming week, a tactical option beyond telling people to stay home and avoid street confrontations would be to invite every American across the country — regardless of their race, political affiliation, or zip code — to participate in a synchronized act of national unity and democratic solidarity. The tactic of cacerolazo, or the banging of pots and pans in unison, has been used in places like Chile, Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere to unite people around struggles for freedom and justice. In the United States, it was used during the George Floyd protests and in response to the pandemic, as people in New York City and across the country banged pots and pans from their rooftops, balconies and porches to pay homage to the nurses, doctors and other essential works on the frontlines of the Covid response. It was a powerful and emotionally gripping act of togetherness.
What if, sometime between Jan. 17 and 20 (perhaps on Inauguration Day itself), every American were invited to honk horns and bang pots for a full minute, starting at the same time everywhere across the country? This trans-partisan, pro-democracy and pro-peace national action, if promoted by youth, workers, professional groups, business leaders, media outlets, artists and entertainers, would be a powerful, joyful antidote to the angry far-right shouting and violence. It would send a message that “we the people” will not tolerate violence and are committed to each other, our country and our future together.
Toxic polarization, in which the other side is seen as a monolithic enemy and an existential threat, is dangerous and cripples our ability to solve serious problems.
Over the longer term, dialogue and direct action, nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding, will both be necessary to address deeply rooted violence and injustices in this country. It is telling that last week’s mob attack occurred right after the remarkable election in Georgia, a state with the second highest number of lynching in the country, that saw a Black pastor and a Jewish son of immigrants win and flip the U.S. Senate. Years of Black women-led organizing and powerful coalition-building in the state made the victory possible. Similarly last summer, following the murder of George Floyd and enabled by years of Black-led organizing, there were thousands of protests and demonstrations calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism — the broadest and most persistent movement in U.S. history.
The forces that brought Americans together across political, racial, gender, generational and class divides to confront the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow authoritarianism — and to win improbable electoral victories — are those needed to transform the racist and anti-democratic structures and systems in this country. That includes mobilizing around the passage of state and federal legislation, like H.R. 1 and H.R. 4464 that are necessary to protect voting rights, dismantle systemic barriers to participation in the electoral process and chip away at structural minority-rule entrenchment.
At the same time, building broad-based coalitions and movements necessary to transform social and political systems in a deeply divided society is a huge challenge. While conflict, disagreements and issues-related polarization are normal and necessary, toxic polarization — in which the other side is seen as a monolithic enemy and an existential threat — is dangerous and cripples our ability to solve serious problems. Toxic polarization, which some have referred to as political sectarianism, encourages an extreme simplification of reality and the creation of an “us vs. them” framework where “out-party hate [is] more powerful than in-party love.” Making contact with anyone from the other side or making any sort of compromise are seen as a betrayals to your own side. The result is that there are huge incentives to adopting anti-democratic practices and tactics to advance electoral and political goals, ultimately undermining representative democracy.
There is no easy solution to toxic polarization. On the one hand, the rise of far-right extremist groups, backed by a faction of the GOP, is an existential threat to many fellow Americans, notably those who are Black and Brown. Four days after seditionist Sen. Ted Cruz defended Trump’s attempted coup and invoked the Compromise of 1877, which effectively disenfranchised African-Americans and created an apartheid system, Confederate flags paraded through the Capitol. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed far-right extremist groups as the greatest domestic terrorism threat.
Still, toxic polarization, which affects every aspect of our social and political lives, makes it difficult to collectively confront the structural sources of political sectarianism — like economic inequity and structural racism — and makes violence more likely.
Scholars and experts have recommended many potential interventions to address political sectarianism, ranging from creating awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions and highlighting areas of agreement on key policy issues (like immigration reform and gun policy), to encouraging and acknowledging positive experiences with neighbors, friends and family who share opposing political viewpoints. They also suggest engaging with opinion leaders to stop the spread of polarizing narratives and encouraging restorative narratives, pressuring social media companies to end the commodification of hate and outrage, and creating incentives for politicians and other elites to decrease sectarian behaviors.
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These recommendations highlight the importance of making our analyses and narratives more nuanced, engaging in deep listening, highlighting collaborative problem-solving and civic engagement across partisan divisions, and building powerful coalitions and movements capable of building power and disincentivizing anti-democratic and anti-social policies and practices.
At this time of intersecting crises in the United States, there is a great need for the social justice, democracy and peacebuilding communities in the United States to come together and collaborate based on their comparative strengths. The peacebuilding community’s expertise in analyzing the roots of conflict and building inclusive processes, the social justice community’s ability to raise urgency and shift power, and the democracy community’s laser sharp focus on necessary structural reforms are all needed to move the country along a transformational path. Meanwhile, there are tremendous opportunities to learn from activists, organizers, and peacebuilders around the world who are challenging authoritarianism and building peace with justice in highly-divided societies.
While we face the threat of real violence in the coming days, if we can come together and work to address the roots of our deep divide it is possible to imagine a brighter future.
I’m encountering a great deal of alarm among progressive activists regarding continued Republican claims of a stolen election. Do these anti-democratic efforts mean a coup attempt is under way?
Despite being among the first to write about the possibilities of a coup, I have to say (as of this moment) the answer is “No.” My colleagues at Choose Democracy — who have been preparing Americans to defeat a power grab for the past several months — have also stopped short of describing what we’ve seen and heard this week as a coup. In a release today, they said: “What we have seen has been slow, poorly rolled out, and has none of the surprise elements associated with a traditional coup.”
So what are we to make of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits, Republicans refusing to honor the election results and the Department of Justice looking into “allegations” of supposed voter fraud? If this isn’t a coup, then what is it?
The politics of grievance
I believe Trump’s “stolen election” claim is a choice to continue a kind of politics that has served him well in the past — so well that he’s re-shaped the Republican Party in its image. Trump specializes in the politics of grievance.
Millions of words have been written since 2016 about manipulating grievance to gain political power. The question for the politics of grievance is never whether or not something is true — it can be laughably untrue. The claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States was obviously bogus, but it was useful as a way to reduce his legitimacy as president and fit nicely into the politics of grievance.
I believe the point of claiming a stolen election is not to set the stage for a coup, but to add more juice to the right’s list of grievances for building political power in the future. The bigger the publicity that’s produced around this claim, the more juice is created — and that’s what they are trying to do now.
Count on it: the juice will ferment in 2021 and be stronger in 2022. Everything that hurts Americans will be laid on the door of Biden, “who was fraudulently elected!”
What can we do about it?
First, as the Choose Democracy team advises, “Breathe.” Our anxiety doesn’t actually serve us in this case. Additional immediate action steps are also recommended on the site, including writing elected officials and supporting and thanking poll workers.
Second, in the coming months pay attention to the grievances that arise from the circumstances of living in a declining empire. It’s no accident that exit polls showed more people who earned less than $50,000 favored Biden than those with higher incomes. That was also true for those who didn’t work full time. More people also favored Biden who saw the nation’s economy as “not good” or “poor.”
It makes sense: More well-off people supported Trump more often because they are more able to insulate themselves from the deteriorating conditions of American life.
The Green New Deal is a vision that pays attention to some of the real grievances: job insecurity, climate disasters, neglected infrastructure, exploding rents.
The third thing we can do is build a liberatory political culture that substitutes empathy for political correctness. The electoral map makes plain the results of bi-coastal condescension. If you were looked down on, why wouldn’t you want a champion who says “Fuck you” to elitists? This is a grievance that’s within the power of progressives to do something about. As I’ve explained many times, the make-over starts with a sober examination of how classism distorts our understanding of oppression.
A great place to start is with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s beautifully-written book about Republicans in Louisiana, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”
We have momentum
In some ways we’re in good shape for growing in numbers and power in the Biden years. On multiple issues we’ve been on the move, and we’re not likely to make the tragic mistake of progressives in the Obama years of expecting the Democratic Party to do the job for us. The neoliberal Democratic Party leadership will do what Democrats did last time: allow conditions to grow that invite a grievance-based Republican take-over in the next election.
Empathic social movements that retain a big picture of our country and world — and stay independent of co-optative moves from the Democrats — can grow rapidly by developing visions like Medicare for All that respond to the real needs of people, especially in rural areas, who otherwise are tempted by the grievance party. Police and public safety are one example of an issue mired in the dynamics of racism until more work in alternative visioning is done.
We can do all this. The workshops of Choose Democracy were designed to help prepare for movement-building on the chance we wouldn’t need to defeat a serious coup attempt. That chance has arrived.
With millions of votes being cast across the country, President Trump, faring badly in the polls, is working overtime to undermine voter confidence in the election. From attacking mail-in ballots to refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he is behaving like any wannabe autocrat. For anyone familiar with the authoritarian playbook, Trump’s attempts to cast doubt on the election, suppress votes, foment violence, and insist that he can only lose the election if it’s rigged are all too predictable. So, too, is the time-tested formula for preventing a stolen election while keeping the peace: winning decisively at the polls, protecting the results through organized civic pressure and disrupting violence through active nonviolence.
That strategy may be pivotal here. Fortunately, there is a long history of mobilizing in the face of repression in the United States and great deal of recent international experience to draw on, as the popular campaigns to resist stolen elections in Serbia, Ukraine and the Gambia show us.
In the lead-up to the 2000 presidential election in Serbia, a pro-democracy movement called Otpor knew that President Slobodan Milosevic, then deeply unpopular, would attempt to lie, cheat and bully his way to victory. He ordered police and paramilitary groups to beat up, arrest and imprison dissidents and publicly declared Otpor a terrorist organization. Otpor, meanwhile, trained its members in nonviolent discipline, had a strategy for fraternizing with police and deployed women to the frontlines of protests. As expected, following a massive get out the vote effort, Milosevic declared victory over the opposition candidate, Vojislav Koštunica, amidst evidence of widespread vote tampering confirmed by thousands of poll monitors. Otpor organized nationwide protests, many laden with humor, and coal miners launched a massive strike, creating economic pressure and prompting Milosevic to step down.
Something similar happened in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election pitting the popular opposition leader, Victor Yushchenko, against the Russian-backed Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovic. Yanukovic declared victory in the run-off election despite contradictory evidence from exit polls showing Yushchenko the clear winner. As evidence of ballot tampering emerged — and after the compromised Central Election Commission declared Yanukovic the winner — over a million people rallied in Kiev and strikes were launched across the country. Faced with overwhelming numbers of peaceful protesters, members of the security forces defected and refused to obey orders to crack down. The parliament eventually sided with the people and the Supreme Court declared Yanukovic’s victory fraudulent, paving the way to a new run-off vote, which Yushchenko won handily.
In the Gambia, the people voted out strongman President Yahya Jammeh in the 2016 presidential election, choosing opposition leader Adama Barrow. After Jammeh initially said he would accept the results of the election, he then changed his mind and refused to concede power. In response, activists adopted the hashtag #GambiaHasDecided. They plastered the streets with billboards and leaflets and used creative nonviolent tactics to send a clear message that it was time for Jammeh to go, in accordance with the country’s constitution. The movement maintained a peaceful posture despite widespread state repression and shrinking civic space. Jammeh was forced to leave power.
Although the U.S. context is very different, how people in those countries achieved free and fair elections is very relevant, particularly given Trump’s autocratic inclinations and the erosion of democratic norms and institutions over the past few years: They voted the incumbent leaders out, exposed cheating and then used disciplined nonviolent mass action to defend the legitimate results. Keys to the pro-democracy movements successes were an enthusiastic get out the vote effort, the presence of skilled and trained election monitors, nonviolent mass action that moved from street protests to mass non-cooperation tactics, and violence mitigation efforts that muted the impact of state and paramilitary violence.
The only way real or would-be autocrats can steal an election — at home or abroad — is if ordinary people allow it.
Analysts and scenario planners in the United States have suggested that Trump could try to claim victory before votes are counted, try to stop counting, or refuse to accept defeat. He could prevail upon GOP legislatures to send an alternative, pro-Trump slate of electors in defiance of the popular vote. Such attempts would constitute an autogolpe, where those in authority attempt to expand their power.
In response, civic groups like Choose Democracy, Fight Back Table and Protect the Results — while keeping the attention focused on a robust electoral process — are training thousands of people in how to resist an executive power grab or coup. They are preparing activists for disciplined nonviolent action, rooted in local communities, that could include acts of mass non-cooperation like sit-ins, stay-at-homes and labor strikes.
A grassroots campaign launched by Hold the Line is calling on elected officials, military and police chiefs to publicly commit to ensuring that all votes are counted, to protect peaceful protesters and to refuse unlawful or unconstitutional orders. The bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity is urging peace and patience while mail-in votes are being counted after Nov. 3.
A network of peacebuilding organizations and data scientists, called the Trust Network, is developing an early warning and early response platform to help communities prevent and mitigate election-related violence. The Bridging Divides Initiative is partnering with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and the Carter Center to map potential hotspots and to connect people to groups working locally to keep the peace. Over Zero, which has developed a globally-informed action guide for building resilience to political violence, is working with local communities to employ communications tools to counter violence, hate speech and disinformation.
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Central to all of these efforts is planning for violence, training people in violence disruption and de-escalation techniques, and getting accurate and timely information to trusted community organizations and leaders, who are in the best position to mitigate violence. Knowing that there will be attempts by agents provocateur and others to foment violence in order to justify “law and order” crackdowns, many activist groups have adopted codes of conduct grounded in nonviolence and have trained marshals to promote protest safety and to maximize participation in their actions.
The only way real or would-be autocrats can steal an election — at home or abroad — is if ordinary people allow it. We have all the power necessary to defend the integrity of the election and to ensure that the new government sworn in reflects the will of the people. Our current moment demands an active synergy of nonviolent action and peacebuilding tools, techniques and approaches to help protect the vote, uphold our democracy and keep the peace. Strengthening this synergy through active dialogue and partnerships between the social justice and peacebuilding communities in the United States is important now and will be key to building a more just, inclusive and peaceful society in the future.