Turning new consciousness into political power is not an easy challenge. Labour organizer and author, Jane McAlevey, argues that one of the impacts of attacks on trade unions is that it led them to shift ‘away from deep organizing, toward shallow mobilizing’, which has built very little on-the-ground operating capacity.
‘In place of collective progress, we’ve come up with individual rights, and worked to enforce those’, she says. ‘We win a race and go home without a deeper understanding of governance because we’ve done so little of it.’
From that perspective, even talking about counter-power, as more people on the left are doing, inspired by movement gains in Europe or informed by immigrant experience in Latin America and Asia – is an advance. As McAlevey puts it,
‘It’s too long since we actually talked about power. How it works, how to build it, what power we’re up against and what we already have collectively.’
Over the past 50 years, US liberalism has tended to be fairly narrowly defined. Driven by the need to produce data and ‘wins’ for philanthropic funders, progressive non-profit organizations have poured oceans of sweat and money into meeting ever-increasing unmet social needs, seeking discrete policy changes or defending one-time achievements.
All these years on, it’s clear that while communications work, advocacy and legal defence are important, no amount of any of those will stop systemic madness. US citizens know this, because they have proof, and not just in the White House but in their lives.
Among the many new social movements gaining traction today is COSECHA, which fights for the humane and permanent protection of immigrants. The year kicked off with more citizens following women of colour and queer and trans women into more streets than the country had ever seen, to protest the inauguration of the man many call the ‘predator in chief’.
The massive women’s marches (which also took place in dozens of other countries) were followed almost immediately by citizens standing by non-citizens to resist deportations and an anti-Muslim and racist travel ban. People with disabilities literally threw their bodies in the way of legislators who were considering the repeal of President Obama’s (not-very) Affordable Health Care Act, the so-called ObamaCare.
In off-season elections, progressive Democrats and Socialists defeated bigots and blowhards, including long-time incumbents of local, state and national office.
The revelation, just days before a ‘white power’ riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, that Trump’s FBI was monitoring not white, but ‘Black identity extremists’ came as a chilling reminder of way the state has sought to criminalize and disrupt civil rights activists from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter. But that hasn’t stopped either the Movement for Black Lives or groups like COSECHA, which fights for the humane and permanent protection of immigrants.
In 2017, Repairers of the Breach, founded by Reverend William J. Barber and Dr Liz Theoharis, launched a new poor people’s campaign modelled directly on King’s, which will conduct 40 days of direct action including civil disobedience across 25 states in 2018. Expectations are great, although it is not clear if their ecumenical but Southern church-based vision will resonate in the world of Northern-dominated liberalism, or if enough progressive infrastructure exists around the country to support it.
Decentralized networks turn people out to mass rallies against Trump, but it has proved harder to agree on a platform. ‘I lust for a manifesto’, says Working Families organizer, Stamp.
After the Sanders campaign, the electoral group gaining the most new visibility seems to be the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) (which shares many activists who are also members of Our Revolution.) The DSA was founded in 1982. Between November 2016 and February 2017 membership of this dues-paying organization rose by 10,000, to 32,000, and the median age dropped from 68 (in 2013) to 33. According to one recent account, its membership is still 90% white and 75% male. As for just what’s meant by socialism, it describes itself as ‘multi-tendency’.
DSA members did well in November’s elections, boosting the number of their elected office-holders to 35 from 20. The most striking win was in Virginia where DSA member Lee Carter received a resounding 54% of the vote, routing one of the state’s most powerful Republicans, the GOP (Grand Old Party) whip of the Virginia House of delegates.
Carter, a red-haired, 30-year-old former Marine, didn’t know much about socialism when he entered the race. (He says he started reading up on it a year ago, inspired by Bernie Sanders.) But he learned a lot about the Democratic Party during the process. He says that confidential information on his campaign was leaked, the party cut him off when he refused corporate money, and state political reporter Patrick Wilson tweeted the day after the election that ‘[p]eople within the Democratic Party would have preferred I not write about him. The party, like Republicans in Virginia, is closely tied to the big energy monopoly and Carter stood against that’.
Candidates like Carter, who stood out by standing up with authenticity, were helped by an unusually riled-up election season fuelled less by ideology than identity. The progressive ‘identities’ mostly won: three months after Charlottesville, Virginians elected an African American lieutenant governor. A transgender woman who focused on local highway routes won over a reactionary who focused on regulating public toilets, and similar phenomena played out across the nation.
In Alabama, populist Randall Woodfin defeated the incumbent Birmingham mayor, and at the age of 36 is the city’s youngest mayor since 1893. African American Woodfin was helped by hundreds of canvassers and tens of thousands of get-out-the-vote messages from Our Revolution volunteers and the Working Families Party. It’s unclear how big a part ideology played in these contests, as opposed to outrage and determination to stop terrifying Trumpism. Upon taking office, Woodfin said he had no specific wants in the current year budget, but just doesn’t want any ‘waste’.
It’s important, though, with the excitement over Trump, and the new moment, or the new groups on the scene, or new technology, not to lose sight of the long view. Democrats and progressives of all stripes celebrated the defeat of Republican Roy Moore and the election of a Democrat, Doug Jones, as governor of Alabama for the first time in 35 years in November 2017. But securing Black voting rights in Alabama has been the work of generations.
Roy Moore was defeated in part thanks to 15 years of work by Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, director of The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), to pass legislation re-enfranchising felons and people convicted of misdemeanours. Moore, an alleged paedophile who said positive things about slavery, lost by just 22,000 votes. Of the 10,000 ex-convicts whom TOPS tracked when they voted, Doug Jones needed every last one of them.