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No Shortcuts in the Fight for Power

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Lime green treated image with text overlay that says 2020 this is not a drill dispatch #2

Progressives will only become a hegemonic force if they join a broad majoritarian coalition to defeat Trump and become a leading force in politics over the next two presidential cycles.

This second installment of Organizing Upgrade’s new 2020 election column “This is Not a Drill” elaborates on the two imperatives presented in dispatch #1: Beating Trump in November is absolutely essential but also not enough.  

Defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 election is essential for removing the main immediate threat to the well-being of people in this country and across the globe. It is necessary for preserving the democratic space needed to organize for social change. But it will take more than ending GOP control of the White House and Senate to undo the damage of the last three years and start a new cycle of progressive change.

There is no shortage of policy platforms laying out what is needed by the popular majority. There is the Moral Agenda Based on Fundamental Rights offered by the New Poor People’s Campaign; the detailed Platform of the Movement for Black Lives; Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Platform; the many specific plans put forward by Elizabeth Warren; the Framework for a Green New Deal issued by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.

What’s much tougher is gaining enough power to put our desired policy agenda into effect. At the federal level, partisans of deep-going transformation need to become a formidable (and at some point, hegemonic) force in the coalition that elects a president and majorities in both houses of Congress. We must win parallel strength in at least a majority of states, the level of government where crucial decisions about policy and its implementation are made. Above all, we have to unite in a grassroots-driven formation that can fight inside and outside of the electoral arena; pressure and hold accountable elected officials, and steadily expand popular support for radical change so that deeper changes in U.S. society come onto the horizon.

Progressives can’t do it alone

Important steps in that direction are already underway. Activists in Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns are carrying the progressive banner in the presidential race. A fresh wave of fighting candidates, especially women of color, are contending for congressional and state-level positions. Organizations such as Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, Democratic Socialists of America, People’s Action, and Center for Popular Democracy Action, and a host of state-based community organizations, sectoral formations and the various ongoing networks, ‘tables’ and coalitions that bind many of them together constitute the building blocks of the kind of united and ‘at-scale’ progressive alignment we need. These and other bottom-up efforts have supplied the dynamism powering the anti-Trump camp since the first Women’s March in January 2017.

But the left’s 2020 strategy must be based on more than a celebration of the gains we’ve made so far, more than confidence that our agenda can over time gain support from most of the U.S. population, the working class and communities of color first and foremost. Strategy must be rooted in a hard-nosed assessment of the current balance of forces and a realistic plan for moving stage-by-stage to nationwide hegemony.

Any serious analysis indicates that even in best-case scenario we progressives alone cannot defeat Trump and the GOP.

It is an over-simplification to view the opposition to Trump as divided into two neat wings, “moderates” or “the establishment” on the one hand and “progressives” on the other. There is a spectrum of views, and a period when – thankfully! – many people are changing their minds is not the time to consign various sectors or individuals to permanent pigeonholes. Still, as a first cut, this categorization is useful to get our bearings. It describes two different policy mixes, two different attitudes toward bottom-up activism, and two different inclinations on how much to confront the racist right. It identifies two different sets of candidates who presently embody those differences.

For setting our orientation to 2020 and beyond, two key points about the relationship between these two tendencies stand out:

One, there is contention between them over what candidate, message, set of policy proposals, and priority constituencies should be in the lead in the current anti-Trump efforts and a post-Trump administration.

Two, to beat Trump, the overwhelming bulk of both tendencies must join together and go all-out in the 2020 campaign.

Not a comfortable reality

This second point is a reality many of us are reluctant to face. It’s more comfortable to focus on the activist upsurge of the last few years, the current momentum behind Bernie’s campaign, and the popularity of anti-capitalist sentiment among people under 35. All these are exciting developments that we should push further. But we shouldn’t let them seduce us into one-sided assessments.

There remain millions of people in this country who are fiercely anti-Trump but who do not (yet?) support all or most of the progressive agenda. These include large numbers of white suburban women who are hesitant about an overly redistributive economic agenda, and several million older Black voters whose positive reference point is Barack Obama and whose main take on his presidency is that he was constantly under vicious racist attack. With left organizations and campaigns only starting to systematically engage these and other constituencies in the last few years it is no surprise large numbers have yet to embrace our agenda. They tend to support “moderate” candidates, who not only retain a mass base but remain better resourced than the progressive camp. (Of special note on this point: union density, a key measure of working class institutional strength, is down to 10.3%, the lowest figure since modern data reporting began in 1964.)

Four years ago the left had barely even a toehold in electoral politics. We’ve made huge gains since then, as demonstrated by the big progressives wins scored in the 2018 mid-terms. But “moderate” candidates made big gains in 2018 as well; they aren’t going to disappear, surrender or see all their mass support surge to our side in less than two presidential election cycles.

The balance of strength between the two wings of the anti-Trump camp will be shifted by what happens in the primary battles about to get underway. In this stage it makes sense for us to fight hard to gain maximum influence for our agenda, pull new voters into our camp, build our independent organizational strength while campaigning vigorously for Bernie or Warren.

Unity at the ballot box and in the street

But even as these efforts take center stage, it is imperative to keep in mind the unity that will be needed in the post-primary phase. That translates into exerting maximum effort while staying positive and not burning bridges with constituencies that we need to ally with six months from now. It means recognizing that if our side ends up in the driver’s seat (say Bernie wins the nomination) the left needs to back the compromises that will be necessary to convince “moderates” to go all-in to a Sanders-led anti-Trump campaign. Likewise, if a Biden or some other centrist gets the nod, we need to use every bit of leverage we’ve gained to bargain hard about the shape the campaign, and then go all-in once a compromise is reached.

A working relationship with centrist leaders — and more important with their voting base — is not needed just to beat Trump in November. It is required to galvanize the sustained activism that will be needed after the votes are counted. There is a good chance that we will need to bring massive numbers into the streets on election night to defend an election victory that Trump will claim is illegitimate. And if we overcome that hurdle and a new administration takes office, pressure from below will be essential to breaking the combination of opposition and inertia that stands in the way of significant change.

Radical organizations will have to take the lead in mobilizing and sustaining that kind of pressure. This is especially the case regarding issues of war, militarism and international solidarity. While a large majority of the U.S. populace now opposes Washington’s “endless wars,” a spirit and practice of solidarity with peoples beyond U.S. borders is not the permeating feature of all social justice activism it needs to be. This is the Achilles Heel of the U.S. movement for systemic change in today’s interconnected world.

The point is, no matter who is in the White House only if we make progress in pulling “moderates” along with us can we make our demands more than a wish list. And winning some victories early in a post-Trump administration is not only important to the well-being of millions. It is the route to continued expansion of the size and self-confidence of the progressive “eco-system.”

Role of fighters for systemic change

Radicalism is not stridency. The challenge to those who hold an anti-systemic view is to keep our eyes on the big picture. The left’s role is not to push our full agenda on everyone at every moment. It is to gather in action the forces necessary to accomplish the task at hand; to build confidence in radical leadership by playing a unifying and anchoring role as well as growing our own organizational strength to prepare for even sharper battles down the road. Skill at doing this is crucial for moving history forward because people cannot make history “as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

This is an ugly time and we all dream about finding a short-cut out of today’s horrors. But successful political shortcuts are very rare. Pursuing them seldom shortens the time to victory. Rather what gets lopped off are the ties to allies and the persistent, patient organizing that that is required to gain leadership of a majoritarian coalition that can take and hold power.