Sarah Jaffe is the preeminent social-movement chronicler of her generation. Her new book, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, paints a vivid portrait of 21st-century protest: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, the struggle for climate justice, and more. Reading her book, much like talking to its author, leaves you eagerly anticipating whatever rebellion is going to shake things up next. —Astra Taylor
Astra Taylor: You open your book with the Tea Party. Is the left taking advantage of the populist moment we find ourselves in?
Sarah Jaffe: I think part of what we realize now with the Trump upsurge is that there’s a whole lot of people—many of whom are mad about some of the same things we’re mad about—whom we haven’t reached, and who are then reaching for solutions that we find just horrifying. Whether Trump loses or not, we have to deal with what they saw in [him] and whether we can offer them a better solution.
AT: The paradox is that Hillary Clinton’s policies, should she win, will likely continue to create the economic conditions that many Trump supporters are so angry about.
SJ: Who deregulated the banks? Who signed NAFTA? These were Democratic administrations. We’re looking at a moment of mass discontent, anger, and real pain caused by the policies of the last 40 years, many of which have been bipartisan. I think the elite’s failures are what create the energy for massive movements where people feel that leaders are the problem, not the solution.
AT: People tend to emphasize what’s novel about today’s social movements, but you spend a lot of time exploring connections with the past, including the Communist Party and the Populist movement.
SJ: I spent so much time writing about history in this book because I had to discover [so much of it] reading on my own. No one taught it to me in school. But if we know how things were done, and we know things that worked or didn’t work, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, I think one of the things that’s new and that’s shaping this moment is the Internet. Movements spread horizontally because that’s how information spreads on Twitter, on Facebook…
AT: One group you profile, Florida’s Dream Defenders, has spoken publicly about how social media can be distorting. People seem to mistake power for getting a lot of clicks. What is power really?
SJ: The example I keep coming back to is our good friend, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo did not want to raise the minimum wage. Cuomo did not want to create a millionaires’ tax. He was vehemently opposed to these things, right up until massive pressure started to build. The millionaires’ tax went through during Occupy. On $15 an hour, he flipped—and not only did he flip, but he started to brag that New York led the country on it. Yeah, New York led the country, but it was a bunch of fast-food workers who went on strike starting in November of 2012 who led the country. They had to figure out a way to build enough power and enough leverage. It’s not just about “We went and asked Andrew Cuomo nicely and he changed his mind,” because that’s not how Andrew Cuomo works. That’s not how almost any politician works.
AT: So do activists need to give people in power paths to be heroes, not just villains?
SJ: I think it’s important to tell the story the right way. Seattle’s socialist City Council member, Kshama Sawant, has this great line in the book where she says, to paraphrase: “If you tell people this fairy tale that the benevolent leaders sat down and granted the workers of Seattle a $15 minimum wage, not only is it a profoundly disempowering narrative, it’s actually wrong. You miss the fact that there’s a fundamental conflict between the rich bosses and the workers who work for them, and there’s actual organizing that went on to win it.” Because if you know what happened, you can replicate it. If you don’t know what happened, you’re stuck asking nicely and wondering why things don’t change. That’s why even the attempts that lose, even the attempts that fail, teach us something.