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Where Have All the Marchers Gone?
Five years after the Women's March and a few days after the final collapse of Democratic voting rights efforts, it's time to start anew and organize with people where they are hurting now.
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“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That saying, which is inaccurately attributed to Albert Einstein, has been running through my mind this past week as I’ve reflected on the collapse of the Democratic Party’s push to pass voting rights reform through Congress. Watching Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, marching in Arizona on his father’s birthday, accompanied by a crowd holding signs demanding that the Senate “Deliver for Voting Rights” and chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” all I could think was, actually Americans have no idea what democracy, or its absence, might look like.
There’s a public opinion survey floating around progressive circles that shows this stark fact. Asked to say in just a few words, “What values matter most to you as an American,” almost no one says “democracy.” At the top of the list, with 42% support, are the words freedom and liberty. Equality comes in second with 8%. Then family and community (6%), honesty (6%), patriotism and duty (5%), and speech and expression (5%). Values like the Constitution and democracy each get just a scant 1%.
This doesn’t mean that no one in America cares about democracy; it just shows that as an abstract concept, democracy means less to people than things like freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, appeals centered around the need “save democracy” are thus going to fall on deaf ears. Those of us who are highly attuned to the whiffs of fascism in the air (which some of us have been smelling for years, and certainly since Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015) need to recognize that we are distant outliers. Demanding that people pay attention because “our democracy is at stake” only leads to despair when they don’t. This is a self-defeating strategy that is only guaranteed to depress activists who are already feeling beleaguered and betrayed.
Now don’t go blaming ordinary people for not coming to your rally. If you ask a random group of Americans about specific attributes of democracy, it turns out that they like a lot of them. Things like a fair judiciary, gender equality, regular elections, and freedom of religion, speech and the press all still have robust support. But Americans aren’t very happy with how our democracy is functioning; according to a survey done last year by the Pew Research Center, 85% think it needs major changes or to be completely reformed (though they weren’t asked exactly how). None of this, by the way, is all that new. General support for democracy combined with deep unhappiness with how it is functioning (and who it appears to serve), along with openness among a minority of Americans to forms of undemocratic rule, is a constant in public opinion polling going back decades.
Nevertheless, the final failure of the Democrats’ push for federal voting reform—something some of us predicted going back to last February because the bill they asked us to rally behind was a sprawling and over-ambitious mess—is a demoralizing moment. The paltry number of “Vigils for Democracy” that people held in early January (about 200, compared to thousands that took place around the Black Lives Matter cause in the summer of 2020) simply confirmed what was already obvious: this issue isn’t connecting right now. People are far more worried about the economy and COVID then the threat of a coup or civil war. Beating our chests with aggressive denouncements of Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) and the Senate Republicans for enabling racism and authoritarianism instead of embracing a long laundry list of democracy reforms won’t bring those reforms any closer. What we don’t need now is more calls to keep doing what we’ve doing (like this one from Ezra Levin, one of the self-appointed “leaders” of Indivisible); we need to go back to square one and start afresh.
That means understanding where activists come from and then meeting people where they are, rather than continuing to try to run on the fumes lingering from the grassroots Democratic explosion of early 2017, or worse, the ghosts of the 1960s civil rights days.
My friend Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the author of the excellent 2019 book American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, put up a very gloomy post a few days ago titled “Welcome to the Graveyard of the Progressive Movement.” In it she noted how the fifth anniversary of the massive Women’s Marches that marked the start of the Trump Administration was not being marked by anything similar; instead, she wrote, “we will only see activists marching in DC as part of the Annual March for Life (against abortion rights).” Policy failure can be demobilizing for movements, she noted, and the left seemed to be following that pattern. “If the Left doesn’t figure out how to sustain engagement and support its agenda from within the political system, it is destined to keep losing,” she wrote.
Well, where do activists come from? One source has always been leaders who emerge from within communities facing a common crisis. The people directly affected by a specific injustice are always better positioned to lead authentic movements for social change than people who, however sensitive they may be, opportunistically try to organize for change out of an intellectual commitment to a cause. This is one reason why the so-called pro-democracy movement in America has been unable to win major reforms: at the federal level its leaders are typically well-connected lawyers and other political professionals, not grassroots organizers. Fred Wertheimer, the lawyer-lobbyist who has been at the heart of this work since the 1970s and who led the drafting of much of HR 1, the original piece of legislation that died last week, hasn’t lived outside of Washington DC since the mid-late 1960s. If Fred were to announce his retirement tomorrow, I’d be happy to throw in for a nice gold watch. It’s long past time for him to pass the reins.
The other source of movement activism is more situational. Many people may care about an issue, but only a few get involved. Why is that? Ziad Munson, in his excellent book The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works, makes the following argument. People get involved in a movement when three things happen. First, they have to experience a direct, personal contact, through their social networks, to a movement organization. Second, they need to be at a moment in their lives where they are open to a personal change. This is what sociologist Douglas McAdam called “biographical availability.” And third, they have to actually participate in some form of initial activism—a rally, protest, meeting, counseling session or the like—which they enjoy and decide to continue doing.
Two things thus constrain who will get involved. First, the availability of sites of mobilization. These are often social settings like churches or other regular gathering places where a friend or acquaintance may invite you to participate in something political. If you live in an activist desert, those contacts won’t happen. This is one reason I constantly harp on our need for more places where progressives may serendipitously collide and rub shoulders with non-activists, and why the presence of thousands of local gun clubs, Bible study groups and home-schooling circles are such a boon to right-wing movements. The second factor affecting who may get involved is whether they are at a stage in life where they may be open to or need to find new connections. Being at a transition moment in life, like starting college, losing one’s job, having a first child, or retiring, is often when people are most open to getting involved in a movement. Munson interviewed dozens of pro-life activists alongside people with similar philosophical leanings who were not activists, and his key finding is that non-activists were neither invited into movement gatherings nor at a stage in life where they might have been responsive.
Now, apply these lessons to the America of today, where nearly all of us have experienced disruptions of life and work due to COVID-19, and where millions have either lost their jobs or chosen to quit bad ones as part of the Great Resignation. Who, on the progressive side of the ledger, is meeting people in the midst of such upheaval? It’s striking to me that since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been very few new organizations launched on the center-left of American politics compared to how many have cropped up on the right. Conditions on the ground are changing drastically, people’s lives are in turmoil, but the organizational landscape that they might encounter has barely changed. To wit:
A search on Guidestar’s directory of nonprofits for organizations with the word COVID or pandemic in their name turns up many relief agencies and a few frontline response networks like Project N95 but few that might be said to have an advocacy or organizing focus. The latter includes the COVID Memorial (a volunteer project which seems to have gone dormant since last October), Covid Act Now (a small nonprofit that specializes in providing trustworthy COVID info), and the Covid-19 Action Coalition (a grassroots, physician-led advocacy group that shut down last July). Only one group has arisen that appears to be specifically organizing people who have been directly affected by the virus to take progressive political action. That is Marked By COVID, an all-volunteer effort that was started by Kristin Urquiza after her father died after he mistakenly trusted Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s assertion back in June 2020 that “it was safe to resume normal activities.” It now includes local hubs in nearly a dozen states and runs a host of activities, including online “meet and greets,” action meetings, and a sympathy card exchange. (I’m hoping to sit down with Kristin soon to learn more about their efforts and will report back.)
Since March 1, 2020, 24 new membership organizations have registered with the Federal Election Commission. Most are arms of traditional interest groups like the Wilderness Society, AIPAC, Clean Energy for America. Just two are reflections of our changing times, an anti-vaccination mandate group called Voices Against Tyranny and an anti-critical-race-theory group tied to the Koch network called the Moms for Liberty Inc Political Victory Fund. It’s not surprising to find two new membership organizations coming from the right side of the political spectrum in the FEC’s data; on the political front nearly all the new organizations that have appeared since the beginning of the pandemic are right-wing. If you search Facebook right now for groups with the word “mandate” in their name, you will find at least a hundred, nearly all of which are against mask or vaccine mandates. Anti-vaccine activists just held a national rally at the Lincoln Memorial. And yes, while the RNC is trying innovative tactics like opening dozens of local “community centers” aimed at recruiting Blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans, the DNC is still just asking for donations and urging people to phonebank.
Lastly, in a few places we’re seeing new unionizing drives, like the ones spreading among Starbucks workers. Unions are one obvious place where a collective response to the turmoil and pressure of work during Covid may move people in a progressive direction. Unfortunately, as Doug Henwood recently noted on LBO News, overall union membership fell by 2% in 2021 while employment rose 3%. Nor was there a significant strike wave last year, he notes.
As I’ve written in many previous editions of The Connector, we are still in a moment pregnant with possibility. But my strong sense is the movement organizations of five years ago and before have run their course. Their old road is rapidly aging. It’s time for a new one.
—Related: The Emerson Collective, an advocacy organization funded by Laurene Powell Jobs to work on a variety of her pet issues, has announced a Democracy Cohort of fellows working to strengthen our democratic systems, protect the right to vote and foster civic engagement. I’m excited for Shari Davis of the Participatory Budgeting Project and Justin Hendrix of Tech Policy Press, two of Emerson’s impressive cohort.
—Also related: “Children are not okay. Teachers are not okay. Schools are not okay.” Seth Lavin, a Chicago public school principal, writing in the Chicago Sun Times about how, even with the Omicron surge waning, lives are in turmoil.
Odds and Ends
—If rightwing putschist Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) somehow manages to win the high ground on legislation barring Members of Congress from trading on individual stocks, Democrats should sue their leaders for incompetence. Washington Post economics columnist Helaine Olen says more about that here, only more nicely.
—Texas’ new restrictions on voting by mail are leading to massive confusion, as hundreds of applications are being rejected and “voters and local election officials have found themselves enveloped in a fog of errors, delays and miscommunications,” Alexa Ura reports for the Texas Tribune.
—I have to admit, this tweet from Greenpeace USA made my day. Kudos to them for seizing the Don’t Look Up opportunity.
One Long Read
—Catherine McNicol Stock on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as an exemplar of what happens when a whole state is taken over by politicians bent on serving high finance and tax avoidance is a must-read on the state that may elevate Republican Governor Kristi Noem to the national stage.
—I meant to share this visualization of the Tonga Volcano shockwave last week. It’s still humbling.
I am now writing twice a week for Medium as part of their contributing author program. If you enjoy the mix of topics that I cover here, then please sign up to be a Medium member. Here’s a “friend link” to a recent post about how funds from last spring’s American Rescue Plan Act are still only now beginning to trickle into local coffers, and how that is hurting President Biden’s agenda.