The Winning Progressive Strategy? Direct Action and Civil Disobedience
Becky Bond is the political director at CREDO Mobile and president of CREDO SuperPAC.
Progressives are waiting to be asked to do something big.
Just look at the quiet emergence of mass civil disobedience, ranging from nearly 100,000 people signing the Pledge of Resistance to stop the Keystone XL pipeline to the serial arrests of activists in North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement to the courageous Dreamers who at great personal risk continue to block deportation buses departing from ICE detention centers.
On the major issues of our day—climate change, corporate money in politics, Wall Street accountability, gun laws, immigration reform —the majority of Americans agree with progressives.
Why, then, are we losing battles where we are in the majority—sometimes in the vast majority? These are fights where we have the power to win. But we often lose even when we offer to compromise on our core demands. Again and again, the right wing refuses to negotiate in good faith, repeatedly beating us at the inside game when it comes to winner-take-all showdowns, in Washington as well as state capitols from coast to coast.
That’s why we’re seeing people risking arrest to build power. They are taking direct action on their own—people like Tim DeChristopher, who took on the fossil fuel industry by bidding for federal mining leases in Utah and went to jail for it. And they are organizing through local institutions, such as Moral Monday in North Carolina, where the Rev. William Barber and the local NAACP chapter are protesting the radical Republican takeover of the state legislature.
It’s long past time to embrace a progressive flank strategy. Our movement needs clear goals. Ban fracking! Universal healthcare now! Overturn Citizens United! Stop breaking up families! But we eviscerate the power of the grassroots with complicated, nuanced and, often, fatally compromised demands.
From climate change to economic justice to civil rights, we need to stop backing down and do big things instead, including escalating fights to the point that we are filling up jails, if necessary. Where we are in the majority, our emphasis should not be on focus-group-tested messages in hopes of persuading the center right at the cost of demoralizing our progressive base. Nor should we pursue another watered-down compromise that our conservative opponents—fixated on total victory—will reject anyway.
There’s an old activist joke. No massive crowd ever wants to chant these words: “What do we want?” “INCREMENTAL CHANGE!” “When do we want it?” “WHENEVER IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”
Most Americans are pretty smart, and progressives know more than many movement strategists give them credit for. They understand that the inside game in politics is rigged in favor of conservatives. Recent Supreme Court decisions have opened the floodgates to corporate contributions in our democracy, and the Court is likely to remove all individual limits in the future, giving money even greater influence in our elections. After 200 years of expanding the franchise to virtually all citizens over 18, states are now systematically taking away people’s right to vote. And that’s in addition to the structural barriers in institutions like the US Senate, where a conservative state like Wyoming has only 1.5 percent of the population of a more progressive state like California but enjoys equal representation.
Progressives need to focus on the outside game, ask our activists to step up and take the lead, and give people the opportunity to do something big to fight for what we believe in (and the majority of Americans support). Conservative political organizations have more money and are overrepresented in our federal government. But progressives have people, people willing to go as far as risking arrest to force conservatives to the table and win the change we want to see.
From the women’s movement to the civil rights movement to the labor rights movement to the anti–Vietnam War movement, major popular movements in America have depended in no small part on civil disobedience to win real change.
We find ourselves once again in a political moment when those in power refuse to recognize the will of the people. It’s up to progressives to articulate clear and sweeping demands that meet the challenges of our day. We must confront those in power and let them know we won’t be ignored. When regular people stand together and take collective direct action, we can and will win.
PROGRESSIVE STRATEGIES IN A POPULIST MOMENT
Also in this forum…
Robert L. Borosage: “Time to Stand Up and Fight for a More Perfect Union”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II: “How to Build a Powerful People's Movement”
Carlos Saavedra: “Winning the Fight for Public Opinion”
Sarita Gupta: “How to Write a New Organizing Playbook”
David Rolf: “What if We Treated Labor Like a Startup?”
Daniel Cantor : “How the Working Families Party Is Already Changing Electoral Politics”
May Boeve: “Fighting, Not Drowning”
Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Max Berger: “How to Organize After Occupy Wall Street”
George Goehl: “Organizing Where We Have the Most Leverage: in the Cities”