As many are saying, we woke from a nightmare to find it was our new reality. A gaggle of inflated far-right self-promoters and operatives, big businessmen and their toadies, and homegrown fascists will control the presidency and determine the Supreme Court majority, maybe for a generation or more. The Congress is firmly in Republican hands, save for the uncertain possibility that Senate Democrats will muster the gumption to filibuster. And that possibility could also evaporate with the 2018 midterm elections, when as many as 20 or more Democrats will have to defend their seats. No wonder that everyone I speak with searches for someone to blame—Clinton or Comey or white women or the white working class or the Bernie troops—and then asks plaintively: What do we do now?
There are lots of answers floating about. State governments should band together to pass laws that bind their representatives in the Electoral College to support the winner of the popular vote. Or we should begin the hard work of reconstructing the Democratic Party, finally purging the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council and its Wall Street allies, so that it speaks more convincingly to the aspirations of working people and minorities. Or we should push for the reforms that will somehow prevent gerrymandered districts after the 2020 Census. Or we should restore the Voting Rights Act and push for automatic voter registration. And of course—again, somehow—we should restrict the role of big money in elections.
I support all of these efforts, needless to say, and I sign the petitions and respond to the fund-raising appeals that their advocates generate. But I am not very hopeful that any of them can succeed, at least not in the limited time we have to protect the planet from global warming or nuclear catastrophe or both.
There is another impulse evident in the spontaneous reactions that followed Trump’s election in the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Miami, Portland, and elsewhere. Lots of people—especially young people—gathered, made speeches, marched, shouted, and held up signs and banners. All of us who participated can report the lift to our morale the experience offered. We were performing the elementary rites of a social movement, rites that the influential historian Charles Tilly labeled “WUNC”—meaning that people gather together to demonstrate their worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.
Chanting crowds are the familiar insignia of movements. And I think movement politics may even make resistance to a Trump regime possible. But while the great movements of American history were the crucial determinant of our most important democratic reforms—from the basic electoral elements of representative democracy, to Emancipation, to labor rights, to women’s and LGBTQ rights—none of these movements achieved their successes simply through the gathering of people to show their commitment. People gathered, of course, but what makes movements a force—when they are a force—is the deployment of a distinctive power that arises from the ability of angry and indignant people to at times defy the rules that usually ensure their cooperation and quiescence. Movements can mobilize people to refuse, to disobey, in effect to strike. In other words, people in motion, in movements, can throw sand in the gears of the institutions that depend on their cooperation. It therefore follows that movements need numbers, but they also need a strategy that maps the impact of their defiance and the ensuing disruptions on the authority of decision-makers.