How to Turn an Outpouring of Progressive Activism Into a Winning Social Movement

How to Turn an Outpouring of Progressive Activism Into a Winning Social Movement

How to Turn an Outpouring of Progressive Activism Into a Winning Social Movement

Why the left needs to build power, now.


In the wake of the catastrophic election of Donald Trump, we all know the left needs to get its act together. But how?

I posed this question to Jillian Johnson, L.A. Kauffman, and Jonathan Matthew Smucker, three longtime activists well-positioned to provide some insight and advice to anyone ready to commit to the budding resistance. Jillian Johnson is a year into her tenure on Durham, North Carolina’s City Council, where she is uniquely poised to contribute to a progressive turn toward municipal and state-level politics across the country. Kauffman’s new book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, traces the history of a powerful strain of American dissent, and how it is being harnessed by a new generation of change-makers. Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, gets into the nitty-gritty of why movements fail, and how they can succeed. Our conversation lays out much-needed historical lessons and theoretical guidance for anyone engaged in grassroots organizing today.

Astra Taylor: What is power to you?

Jillian Johnson: For me, being involved in city government is part of a larger project to build local power. I feel more and more that local government and local power is where we have a possibility of making real change and a material difference in people’s lives—something that seems less possible right now at any other level of government. City councils are dealing with decisions that can seem really small, but that have significant impact.

In North Carolina, where our state government has been in the hands of the far right for the last several years, and now with our federal government shifting more and more to the right as well, I see more and more people turning to municipal government and local movements as the only place they really feel like their energy can make a difference.

I think we have an opportunity this year to elect a strong progressive majority on the Durham City Council, and that makes me a little bit more hopeful about this political moment. I’m excited about what we could do to fight back against Trump on a local level in the “rebel cities” framework that people around the world have been building. It’s a little bit harder for us here in North Carolina, since we will also be fighting our state as well as our federal government. If we are able to build more power locally, we will be able to provide an exciting model for this work in a progressive city in a red state under Trump.

J.M. Smucker: Power in the sense that we’re talking about is fundamentally about the capacity to accomplish things that are beyond the scope of what individuals can accomplish on their own. The ability to achieve policies, transform structures, to make changes that impact our lives.

Over the past 40 years, capital has demonstrated its power by weakening regulations, by undermining social safety networks, undermining and attacking gains that were made by previous social movements. People power—the power of people organized into a vehicle that can navigate political terrain and win things—has been deteriorating.

This is an incredible moment, right now. It’s high stakes. We’re seeing how bad things can get when the right consolidates power. We’re also seeing a huge change in everyday people’s relationship to politics. Folks understand that it’s up to us to build the kind of people-power we need to turn this thing around. I’m based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Our state shares some features with North Carolina, where Jillian is organizing: a purple state, a very gerrymandered state. Like Jillian, we’re very grounded here at the local level.

We’ve built up this thing called Lancaster Stands Up since the election. We turned out 2,000 people for a rally against Trump’s Muslim ban—unprecedented numbers for Lancaster. We’ve got a list of a couple thousand active folks now, and we’ve got progressives running for down-ballot races like school board. At our mass meetings we’re giving this rap about how we need a broad opposition that runs for every open seat. We’re not shy about calling out the Democratic Party for failing to fight visibly for working people—and we talk openly about primarying conservative Democrat incumbents.

People here aren’t interested in tired old debates about inside vs. outside strategies—the ballot vs. the street—as if they were mutually exclusive, rather than potentially complementary. This broad opposition moment is giving us the opportunity to intentionally blur the lines between electoral fights and in-the-streets social movements. At the national scale, we have the opportunity to recruit a huge crop of progressive candidates who emerge from powerful movements—who are accountable to movements. That’s why going into 2018 and 2020 we can do much better than deliver majorities back to corporate Democrats; we now have the opportunity to build an independent political force powerful enough to change the entire direction of mainstream politics.

L.A. Kauffman: To the question of building popular power in the Trump era, I think of that at two levels, one positive and one negative. There’s a level of building power in the protest actions that are happening that is hard to hold onto because it’s a negative power. It’s the power that we’re exercising to slow down and limit the scope of the damage from the Trump administration. That can feel amorphous, but it’s an important part of what our movements can achieve and are achieving right now.

We have managed to keep the Trump administration in a pretty remarkable state of crisis since the inauguration. We tend to think about building power purely in the positive sense of achieving what we want, as opposed to deterring what we don’t want. In this moment, it’s going to be both.

AT: L.A., your book is kind of a history of social movements in phases of right-wing reaction, whether the Reagan years or the Bush era. What lessons resonate with you right now as we enter this phase of protest under an intensely hostile administration?

LAK: There has been a temptation at times in the past during these moments of reaction to turn inward, to turn to a localism that is not expansive but that is more about building our communities and our visions of resistance outside of the messy business of trying to interact with institutions of governance and the legislative process. That’s a real contrast with what I see now.

The current turn to localism that Jillian was describing—of being robustly engaged with established institutions of power and governance—is happening in a way that so many of the local projects of the left really were not in the Reagan era, where they were kind of off in their own separate realm.

That turn away from engaging with the complex terrain of power is part of what got us in the place where we are. If we don’t engage with those institutions, the other side takes them over and leaves us in a purely defensive and reactive stance.

JMS: A lot has changed since the 1980s. A crisis of legitimacy has been brewing in this country since the Bush years, and I believe people are coming to understand intuitively that institutions are failing them—and that we’re going to have to take them over. The Trump victory really showed this institutional failure; the people who were supposed to protect us from this kind of insanity failed to do so. How are we going to do this now?

AT: How’s your conception of the opposition changed? Is Trumpism actually a continuation or an intensification of earlier trends, or something new?
JJ: I feel like we’re on shifting sands. We thought we knew what the problems were, and they were US imperialism and global capital and massive inequality and wealth accumulation. Now, we’re like, holy crap, actually the problem is fascism! The problem is neo-Nazis! All these terrifying people have been brought into the mainstream political conversation.

The other thing that’s happening, though, is that more people on the left are realizing that in order to fight back against this, we have to be stronger ourselves. We have to be willing to put forward a radically alternative vision of the world and back it up with action. People are talking about sanctuary now all over the country and building a movement to actually protect undocumented people, for example. We are putting out our own much stronger narrative in response to this really scary moment.

AT: Yeah, I think this dovetails with what Jonathan was saying. The people who were supposed to protect us from this failed, and part of it is because they had offered mealy-mouthed neoliberal policies as opposed to bold moral visions. There was a fear of naming the real enemy.

JMS: We can’t treat our opponents—let alone the people who voted for Trump—as a monolith. We have to break down and map our opponents. Doing so presents us with strategic dilemmas. For example, unapologetic white supremacists like Richard Spencer are intentionally shifting the window of acceptable discourse, making life more dangerous for people who are already vulnerable in our society: immigrants, Muslims, people of color, etc. How do we fight these extremists without projecting their extreme positions as more popular than they actually are? It is neither correct nor strategic to paint all Trump voters with this broad brush. If we spend the next four years retreating into liberal enclaves, bonding with each other over how backward half the country is, we will keep losing. That’s as winning a strategy as Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” line.

Trump’s populism is junk populism, but when Democrats failed to speak to people’s pain and refused to name compelling enemies like Wall Street, they effectively conceded populism to Trump. We have to see that Trump also successfully tapped into legitimate resentment at the political establishment. Here in central Pennsylvania, a lot of people feel abandoned by the political establishment. There are real grievances—pain that people are experiencing, from unemployment to the opioid epidemic. Trump taps into that. The optics of an irreverent outsider taking out establishment favorites, one after another—a lot of people enjoyed watching that show.

To contend with Trump’s junk reactionary populism, we need a bold progressive populism. But we have to do this in a new way. In 2017 what we don’t need is people thinking that to have a compelling economic populism means you don’t talk about race, or you don’t talk about gender, or you don’t talk about sexuality. We have to center all of those struggles.

That’s the big challenge of our times. When you think about it, it’s a central challenge of progressive movements throughout American history: how to have a uniting populism that speaks to people’s economic interests and that frames a big and broad we—like the 99 percent against elites—but that doesn’t throw other struggles and identities under the bus in order to do so.

LAK: I think there is a silver lining in the exposure of the alt-right and the bringing to light of these explicit white supremacists: I’m seeing explicit anti-racism being at the center of the resistance to Trump to a degree that I haven’t seen in broad left mobilizations of the past.

I start in this moment from the presumption that we are the majority, that it’s not just that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but that our side represents a broad majority in American politics that has just mainly been demobilized. So the character of the mobilization now gives me real grounds for hope. I think it’s different from what we’ve seen in the past in its breadth and in its framing.

JJ: I’ve realized how effective fear of “the other” is as a motivator, and our challenge is to build a left populist movement that is not based on fear.

The right has taught their people that their enemies are Muslims, immigrants, liberals, etc. On the left, we quite rightly don’t have a tradition of demonizing and dehumanizing people to create an enemy that you can then mobilize people around hating. We need to build the same sort of energy with a very different vision of how the world should be.

AT: I think there’s a potential pitfall, right, of making Trump that person and then fixating on him as opposed to the broader system he is a symptom of.

JMS: Over the past six years, we have been naming popularly resonant enemies: Wall Street, “the 1 percent,” the big banks, and the politicians who do their bidding. These are potent enemies. There’s a strong case to be made that they’re more potent as enemies than the enemies the right names when it punches down at vulnerable communities.

The problem is that we don’t have an opposition party that’s willing to name these enemies and fight along those lines. That’s why I think the most effective way to fight Trump is to simultaneously pick a long-overdue fight within the Democratic Party—over its direction. We have to force Democrats to actually fight visibly for working people, because if they’re not doing that, then they’re going to continue to be cast as the elite character in Trump’s faux-populist narrative.

LAK: I would just add that well yes, there’s a risk of focusing on Trump, but there’s also power there. Right now, Trump is the catalyst that is activating people and unifying them. What’s been very interesting to me is how much of the mobilizing now is self-mobilizing, and how much people are setting up their own independent local groups, whether it’s the 5,000 huddles that happened after the Women’s March or the 5,000 “Indivisible” groups that have formed all around the country.

In all of those groups, there are, I think, deep conversations happening about precisely this question we’re talking about: How are we going to limit the damage in this moment, but also retake institutions that have been resistant to our control—not just for lack of engagement on our side, but because of the very real fact of corporate power and the way in which the Democratic Party has been beholden to many of the same powerful interests as the Republicans?

One advantage we have in this moment over when Reagan was elected, for instance, is that that came after a period of decline and crisis for the left. The resources that the left had at its disposal to figure out how to respond to Reagan were pretty thin. The contrast now is that Trump took office after years of rising activism, starting with Occupy, continuing with Black Lives Matter, the movement at Standing Rock, and the important immigrant=rights work that’s been building for years.

There’s not only an existing base of movements, but there are a wealth of existing resources available to the new resistance—from the many kinds of organizing guides that exist that people can find on the web, to the human resources of longtime activists like Jillian and many others who have a solid foundation of organizing knowledge and can share it with a new generation. We really didn’t have comparable resources in 1980 or 1981, 1982 when people were trying to figure out how to counter the Reagan backlash.

JMS: I think what you just said, L.A., is totally right, and it’s helpful for me to hear that optimistic view of our situation. At the same time, I think most of those mobilizations stayed at the level of harnessing self-selectors who were already sympathetic and eager to get involved. I don’t think we’ve gotten very far over the past five years when it comes to learning how to organize everyday people who don’t come to us immediately when we create a spectacle.

I agree there’s a lot of technical knowledge now around mobilization, around protests, around how to do that stuff effectively, but there’s also a lot lacking in terms of how to organize constituencies that haven’t been politically engaged for the past few decades—like in the middle of Pennsylvania between the two big cities. And now in the wake of the 2016 election, there are millions of people who want to get involved, but we’re not very good at building structures for them to plug into yet.

AT: Which can mean a lot of reinventing the wheel or actions that aren’t that strategic.

JJ: A lot of campaigns that have sprung up since Trump seem utterly fruitless to me. Our senators here in North Carolina don’t care how many postcards they get from leftists and liberals about how we think what they’re doing is wrong. This is not going to actually change anything. Honestly, getting one person elected to a city council isn’t going to change anything either. We need a broader and a deeper strategy to mobilize and engage people to take actions that both build movement and change policy.

JMS: There’s a timidity among too many Democrats right now. I’ve heard people say explicitly, “We don’t want a Tea Party of the left. The Tea Party wrecked the Republican Party. They’re extremists.” What they don’t understand is that the Tea Party changed the direction of the Republican Party with very unpopular extreme positions. Progressive positions, on the other hand, are popular now. I’m with Leslie here. I assume we’re majoritarian. I don’t just assume it. There’s polling to back this up. Progressive taxation, universal health care, action on climate, prison reform, drug legalization, marriage equality—maybe not every issue, but on most major social and economic issues, we have super-majority support.

Going bold in the way that the Tea Party did but going bold for progressive values is not “extremist.” It’s not symmetrical to what the Tea Party did. It’s actually the way to win lasting super-majorities and to actually govern and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and transform the direction of the country. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party at a national level is doubling down on the old strategy of hesitancy and playing to an imaginary “center.”

LAK: I would just add that to whatever extent we are successful in retaking parts of the Democratic Party, it’s going to be the independent power of self-organized autonomous movements that’s going to keep those Democrats honest and enable them to leverage their position within the institutions of government. I certainly don’t think you’re saying this, Jonathan, but the task now is not for the left to kind of morph into the Democratic Party, to take it over in a way where we kind of become coterminous with it or any part of it.

Change will come from those independent movements—the work we’re good at, the outsider mobilizing that we have a long history of—in conjunction with these slower steps to retake institutions. That’s going to be the formula for long term success.

AT: Right. If we have a Tea Party of the left, it needs to pressure not just the Democrats but unions, workplaces, universities, all the institutions that define our lives. The key is building power and democratizing all these realms, not just being fixated on this one political party.

JJ: The answer is always both/and. We have to be doing all these things simultaneously, and we’re going to need a lot of new people and support and energy to win. We need to mobilize a new progressive base of support, rooted in the black, brown, and working-class communities that are being targeted by this administration. Trump’s election is truly the failure of the neoliberal centrist establishment wing of the Democratic Party. I really believe that their time is over. Putting out a bold moral vision of our country’s future based on strong progressive values and moving the national conversation to the left is literally the only way forward. Any other path, we just lose.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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