In the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter carried West Virginia against Ronald Reagan—one of six states that went Democratic in the Republican landslide. This year, the state voted 69 percent for Trump. The “fighting 9th” Congressional District on the Virginia–West Virginia border was the only rural county in Virginia that went Democratic in 1980. In 2016, more than 75 percent voted Trump.
Dudley Cocke, founder of the Appalachian community-based Roadside Theater in Virginia’s 9th District, points out that among different reasons, “among the most decisive was the loss of the United Mine Workers in the late 1980s as a center for political analysis and continuing community education.”
Theda Skocpol makes a similar argument, pointing to Trump’s huge margins in rural areas, small towns, and some exurban areas. In such areas, she argues, unions of all kinds have been decimated. She also points to the fragmentation along issue lines and the professional domination of many urban groups.
In American history, infrastructure for progressive election campaigns has rarely been produced by electoral organizing. As the late Robert Bellah put it, “political parties [in America] often come in on the coattails of successful popular movements rather than leading them.”
At best, union halls were what Cocke calls “democracy’s classrooms.” There are many other such classrooms, what Sara Evans and I call “free spaces.” We found these at the center of democratic movements, from 19th-century women’s associations that became foundations of women’s suffrage and the farmers’ cooperatives that birthed the Populist Party, to the citizenship schools, beauty parlors and congregations of the civil-rights movement. These fed “democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting,” as Vincent Harding, friend and sometimes speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the civil-rights movement.
In free spaces citizens learn political skills. They build civic relationships across divisions like race, class, faith, and partisanship. They develop public confidence. They grow public imaginations beyond group identities and specific issues. The citizenship schools are a powerful example. From 1955 to 1968, 800 citizenship schools taught almost 30,000 grassroots leaders literacy, nonviolence, community organizing, and history. Septima Clark, their architect, said the purpose of the schools was “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.”
Free spaces also build infrastructure to challenge demagogues like Donald Trump, who threaten not only to implement authoritarian policies but also to privatize common things.
So what can create free spaces? One key strategy is building the movement to revitalize civic purposes of schools and colleges. Here are three elements.