This is an extraordinary moment. Tom Hayden once observed: “Change is slow, except when it’s fast.” In fast moments, chickens come home to roost, we confront inconvenient truths, small differences yield big changes, and the choices we make really matter. The promise of American democracy is at greater risk than at any time since the 1930s. The dangers we face are the result of reactive political responses to the challenges of globalization, financialization, and digitalization. Absent a compelling progressive alternative, a right-wing movement, rooted in reaction to role of the federal government in the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements of the 1960s linked with an anti-government “free market” reaction to economic challenges of the ’70s. Together, these forces leveraged control of the Republican Party into control of the federal government—the very institution they were hell-bent on ravaging.
This politics delegitimizes democratic government, marginalizes public institutions, and lionizes private wealth—of which Donald Trump is the poster child. Trump is unique in the depth of his moral and empirical nihilism, sociopathic focus on personal domination, and dangerously erratic narcissism. But he and his wrecking crew are more effect than cause. For many, his election was the moment they realized the United States was in trouble. For others who have known trouble all their lives, it was less of a surprise than a sudden and very direct threat.
This can, however, become a moment of unique opportunity to renew the promise of America. Can we turn our own reaction to the rawness of this moment into the chance to build the moral, organizational, and strategic capacity to strengthen our democracy?
Hope has begun to focus on November 6, 2018, when we can return to the polls to choose occupants of 435 House and 33 Senate seats, 36 governors, mayors of 23 of our largest cities, and 6,066 state legislators. Pundits speculate on whether this vote will deliver a verdict on the Trump presidency and, if so, what that verdict will be. Democrats hope for a blue wave and Republicans hope their tax cut will turn into votes. However, the real question that we need to ask ourselves now is about how we can organize ourselves to win. We have a choice: Do we invest millions of dollars in dueling algorithms, polls, and advertising that leave nothing behind after Election Day? Or do we invest in organizing millions of people to rebuild our power in city, state, and nation?
Political scientist Sidney Verba observed that liberal democracy is a gamble that equality of voice can balance out an inequality of resources. Can the power of public citizenship (expressed through democratic government employing the rule of law) level the power of private ownership (expressed though the deployment of private wealth)? Can the power of politics offset the power of money?
Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the 1830s that radical individualism could threaten a politics of the common good; he argued that making democracy work would require “knowledge of how to combine.” Civic associations, parties, and churches could be “great free schools of democracy” in which citizens could learn to transcend their narrow self-interest in favor of the common good, develop the empathy to enable solidaristic action, and acquire the skills of interdependence necessary to self-govern; Tocqueville called these the “habits of the heart.” This is how individual voices could combine to exercise political power.