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Three Tough Laps to Change the Balance of Power

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Black and white image of protesters at a Black Lives Matter Protest

There can be no real progress unless we change the balance of power.

Partisans of social justice are nearing the end of a very tough lap on the long march to a different world.  Even if we succeed in achieving a best-case vote November 3, the next two laps – protecting the electoral victory and then winning substantial changes under a new administration – are likely to be even tougher.

The October 24 installment of “Weekend Reading” – the regular bulletin written by Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO – explains why:

“I fear that when we succeed in our immediate task, electing Joe Biden, we seem all too ready to make the same mistake we made in January 2009 – believing that the worst is now behind us. We will again believe that Democratic politicians can solve our problems if only we “hold them accountable.” The lessons of the early Obama years are seen to be tactical and correctable; this time, we’ll end the filibuster and do big things fast.

“This is delusional.

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“Our collective de facto tolerance for racism, capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy excused by the pretense that we have no choice but to abide a Constitution that favors supremacists, capitalists, imperialists and patriarchs makes confidence that “this” will not happen again insupportable.

“There can be no real progress unless we change the balance of power.”


How much can the ballot yield?

Making our measuring stick shifting power means that beating Trump at the ballot box is our bottom line imperative for November 3. If the anti-Trump majority accomplishes that, it will translate into a measure of harm reduction for millions and expanded breathing room for radical movements. Those are essential. A second Trump term would block any possibility of progress.

But much more than the presidential race will gauge the strength of the forces opposed not just to Trump but to the whole Trumpist agenda. A host of other races will also affect the post-2020 terrain for social movements and the left.

Will Trump lose in a landslide? Can a “blue wave” end GOP control of the Senate and at least five to eight state governments? Will the way-beyond-2016 electoral efforts by progressives succeed in expanding the Squad and electing a large contingent of Squad-like candidates at other levels of government?

Democratic control of the Senate as well as the White House would mean far better prospects for progressive legislation. It would open possibilities for breaking the grip of the now 6-3 right-wing majority on the (illegitimate) Supreme Court.

That’s why McConnell and a large cohort of big GOP donors decided a few weeks ago that they would shift emphasis from Trump’s faltering campaign to preparations to obstruct everything a Biden administration might do. Their strategy was three-pronged:  get Amy Barrett on the Supreme Court by any means necessary; reclaim the banner of “cut federal spending” by refusing to pass a much-needed stimulus bill even when Trump wanted one; and pour money into “saving” vulnerable GOP senators while letting their presidential nominee run short on cash.

A shift in control of state governments, meanwhile, would have long-range impact because 2021 is a redistricting year. And a landslide defeat of Trump could spark the kind of recriminations and divisions in the GOP that diminish its appeal and demoralize its base. Only a weakened right offers the left much chance of taking advantage of the class contradictions in its ranks to win significant layers of white workers away from allegiance to right-wing populism.

All home-stretch efforts to achieve these outcomes are more than worthwhile.

A tougher next lap: Stopping a coup

Current polling combine with anecdotal evidence indicates that if all who are eligible and want to vote do vote and have their votes counted, Trump will lose badly. But majority sentiment in this country’s undemocratic electoral system is only a starting point toward people’s power, not that power itself.

In this especially fraught election year, it will be a challenge even to protect what we hope to win at the ballot box. All pretense is gone; everyone from the far left to the New York Times writes that there is no level of lies or hypocrisy too low for Trump’s core team to use in their attempt to win. It’s a raw contest for power that probably will intensify, not end, after November 3.

Racist voter suppression backed by rulings from courts packed with right-wing judges and a crusade to discredit any election Trump doesn’t win have been long underway. Tapping into this country’s deep history of white supremacy, the Trump camp has rooted its campaign in fanning white grievance and what Public Enemy called “Fear of a Black Planet.” They are terrified by demographic change – the steadily growing proportion of people of color in the U.S. – and by the leftward shift of opinion among youth. They believe the 2020 election may be their last chance to entrench a Jim Crow 2.0 system of white minority rule as the anchor for anti-working-class policies across the board.

The Trumpists’ drive toward racist authoritarianism takes full advantage of structural features of the U.S. electoral system that have always favored the enemies of democracy and racial justice. But Trump is now going further, dispensing with the “rules and norms” that meant, within the limits of this unfair system, most votes would be counted and the candidate who lost would accept the outcome.

Those days are gone. We are not yet at the stage when the President can simply declare he won and stay in power. But we can no longer assume that the election will have a fair count and the result, even according to unfair rules, will be accepted.

We are somewhere in between. Exactly where will be tested in this lap of battle.

Protect the results, choose democracy

A host of social justice and pro-democracy organizations are rising to the challenge.

For months a range of local, state and national organizations and coalitions have been battling on both the legal and political fronts to protect the right to vote, with special attention to making it possible for people to vote safely amid COVID-19. As November 3 has drawn closer, numerous organizations have launched election protection programs and trainings, including The Frontline (initiated by the Working Families Party and The Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project), Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and the Election Protection coalition.

Preparations are also in motion for mass action after November 3 to protect the results in the (likely) event that Trump challenges them and refuses to cede power. Protect the Results, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, already has over 300 post-November 3 actions planned. Choose Democracy, an initiative anchored by organizers with deep experience in nonviolent direct action, has already trained several thousand activists committed to four principles:

  1. We will vote.
  2. We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
  3. We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
  4. If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

Another initiative of particular importance is Labor Action to Protect Democracy which is pressing local and national unions, workers centers and allied labor organizations to commit to labor actions should Trump attempt a coup.

There are good reasons to believe that these all-hands-on-deck efforts will succeed.

They represent the majority and are energized by a rapidly growing progressive and pro-democracy alignment preparing for much more than symbolic protests. And they can exercise the leverage that comes when the ruling elite and broader political class are badly divided. Important ruling class forces are opposed to Trump, and an even larger portion are reluctant to end the tradition of a transfer of executive power that is both peaceful and accepted as legitimate by the whole society. This is a crucial component of their capacity to maintain domestic stability and to project what little that remains of U.S “soft power” across the globe.

Because of this, determined action by millions with majority support that is making the country ungovernable is a combination that can force the institutions controlled by the current powers-that-be to orchestrate Trump’s removal.

And winning a victory like that will buoy support for turning “regime change” into life-on-the-ground change.

It will only get harder

If we can achieve and protect most of our electoral goals, social movements and the left will enter 2021 with considerable initiative. But translating initiative into wins, even on favorable terrain, is going to be a huge challenge. Again, it is a question of power.

The Trumpist right will still hold a lot of it. Beating Trump will throw reaction onto the defensive, but the toxic brew of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, belief in conspiracy theories, and yen for a strongman leader that constitutes Trumpism will maintain the allegiance of millions. Its ranks will include billionaire donors, GOP elected officials at every level, top-level federal judges, and armed fascist militiamen. Its commitment to block every item on the progressive agenda will remain. Among many, willingness to resort to ever more desperate – that is, violent – methods may well increase.

We will also have to navigate the complexities of an administration led by Joe Biden.

In figuring out how to do that, simply labelling Biden a neoliberal is a poor substitute for the kind of concrete, up-to-date analysis that can serve as a useful guide to action. It ignores shifts in opinion at all levels of the Democratic Party and by Biden himself that have been noted by Bernie Sanders (his [Biden’s]  proposals will go a long, long way toward improving life for working families”); Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash (“We’ve seen a pretty huge transformation in Biden’s climate plan…upping his ambition and centering environmental justice”); and most recently harsh Biden critic David Sirota (“Biden brushed off his old deficit hawk buddies, outright rejected GOP talking points…  [this] wasn’t some small matter. It was everything.”)

That noted (and a more detailed assessment of the Biden team’s current politics will be forthcoming in a future column), it will take a huge push from the left to win structural change. Biden is still opposed to Medicare for All and to major steps to defund the police, his climate change plan is not yet a Green New Deal, and on foreign policy Biden is still “back to the (militarist) past,” a stance which if unchecked can overwhelm everything else. It also remains to be seen how hard a Biden administration would fight even for its own agenda. And while winning Democratic control of the Senate would be a blow to GOP obstructionism, the political complexion of the new Senate majority would be to the right of the current Democratic contingent.

The left also needs to be realistic about the size of its base relative to our diehard opponents and for-the-moment anti-Trump allies. We have gained lots of ground since 2016 and people under 25 lean more leftward than any age cohort in decades. But it is sobering to look at a recent poll that “offered voters a choice between 4 presidential candidates with equal skills and temperaments.” Though likely skewed a few percentage points by this pollster’s pro-Republican bias, it still must be taken seriously that results showed 36% choosing a Republican who supported policies like Trump’s; 12% supporting a more traditional Republican; 24% preferring a Democrat who supported policies like Senator Bernie Sanders, and 24% choosing a more traditional Democrat.

Make trouble and organize

On this kind of terrain, it will require deft strategy and a lot of hard work to accomplish two essential objectives: win victories that deliver substantial immediate benefits to all who are affected by today’s interlocking health, economic and racial crises, especially the most vulnerable; and do so in ways that shift power our way.

Thanks to years of persistent grassroots organizing many of the key tools needed to do that have been put in place. Radical proposals for make-a-big-difference changes are no longer just expressed as abstract visions; they have been shaped into a number of compelling and concrete legislative proposals: the Breathe Act, mandating divestment from discriminatory policing and investing in a new vision of public safety; the THRIVE Agenda, a plan to revive the economy while addressing the interlocking crises of climate change, racial injustice, public health and economic inequity; the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act; the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

These ambitious measures, along with overall platforms like the Peoples Charter and the Solidarity Agenda have supporters ranging from grassroots activists to leaders of progressive organizations to members of Congress. Campaigns for them not only can lead to immediate tangible gains, they can serve as springboards to expand the base for deep structural change.

Congress will be a key battlefront during this lap of the journey. But the main action will shift to the streets and to day-to-day organizing in workplaces, schools, and communities. Unless dump-Trump electoral energy is carried into one wave after another of direct action and organization-building, the “more favorable terrain for struggle” we have been fighting for will go to waste.

We need to think in terms of continuing and expanding the depth, breadth, and militancy of the uprising to Defend Black Lives, building organizational infrastructure and alignment in the process. There are no shortcuts: it will take time to increase the size and combativeness of the labor movement by orders of magnitude; to reach a level of radical institutional strength in communities of color and immigrant communities that exceeds what existed at the height of First and Second Reconstruction; to draw together the vital electoral efforts of the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of America, Justice Democrats, DSA, scores of state and local power-building groups and the national community organizing networks into a coordinated force that can elect its own as Senators and Governors as well as expand its representation in the House and state legislatures.

A recent article by Bob Master, Assistant to the Vice President for Political and Mobilization Activities in District One of the Communications Workers of America, made a compelling case that this can be a turning point moment toward a new cycle of deep-going positive change. The keys to realizing that potential are defeating Trump, protecting our victory, and going on to organize and make the kind of trouble that shifts the balance of power in our direction.

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