There are two things currently happening in the world of Democratic and progressive politics, which are happening independently of each other, for the most part. This weekend, the Democratic National Committee will meet to elect a new chair. Meanwhile, out in the hinterlands, the progressive wave of energy and resistance to Donald Trump and his agenda shows no signs of abating. But I would extend a word of caution to whomever becomes the next D.N.C. chair: Don’t attempt to corral or co-opt the burgeoning Indivisible movement ― instead, just do your damnedest to fulfill their expectations.
Although the new movement is only one month old (like Trump’s presidency, which is no coincidence), it’s already had an impact on the national political debate. Establishment Democrats, so far, are caught between hoping the movement sustains its energy all the way to the midterm congressional elections and worrying about how to “harness” the movement for their own ends. This is the very same dilemma the Republican Party faced when the Tea Party began (although I’m not suggesting Indivisible is a complete parallel or mirror-image of the Tea Party, because it’s so early that it’s impossible to make such comparisons). But Democrats should be worrying more about living up to the movement’s goals than somehow grabbing the reins of the movement in any way.
This is a true bottom-up movement. Social media has now made it possible for such movements to exist and flourish completely independently of any political party’s direct control. That’s the beauty of it ― leaders are not required. The Women’s March on Washington which was organized by one woman posting on social media what she’d like to see happen. It snowballed from there. It wasn’t a Democratic Party initiative, it just happened.
The Indivisible movement’s name comes from a web page put together by congressional staffers ― the people who actually get most of the work done in Washington, in other words. They knew from personal experience what works to change the political landscape and what doesn’t. They shared their experience online and urged people to use the tactics that had worked in the past. But they didn’t try to “lead” their own movement in any way ― they just published a playbook and let the populace take it from there.
Liberal annoyance at the shortcomings and outright failures of Washington politicians to address the real needs of the people has always been with us in some form or another. Sometimes it is just more vocal and visible, really. Sometimes progressives mutter in their beer and sometimes they take to the streets. Sometimes it simmers on the back burner, sometimes it erupts.
The last such eruption was wildly successful at messaging, but ultimately wound up being no more than a footnote, politically. Occupy Wall Street was a bottom-up movement, and one that significantly changed the parameters of the national political debate. The idea of the “one percent versus the 99 percent” was their doing. We would likely not be talking so much about income equality if Occupy never happened, to put it another way.
But in terms of political results, it fell far short. There were never “Occupy candidates” or even “Occupy Democrats” or indeed anything of the like. The Occupy movement had a number of fatal flaws, really. The first was the timing ― you just don’t begin an outdoor long-term protest movement right as winter is setting in. The weather will do more to defeat such a movement than its opponents. The second was its governing methodology. Occupiers may even dispute that there was any sort of governing methodology, but when defined as “self-governing” there was ― and it set its own bars way too high to ever get anything accomplished. Their “general assemblies” were run on the notion that an incredible 90 percent of them had to all agree on anything for it to be an official movement goal. That is a recipe for gridlock, to put it mildly (just look what the filibuster threshold of 60 percent does to the Senate, if you don’t believe this). In the end, the movement couldn’t ever agree on much of anything, except endless navel-gazing and constructing their castle-in-the-air of the perfect world they would (eventually) demand be built. The weather, the organizational dysfunction, and the cops and mayors (who finally got tired of it all) ended Occupy with a whimper.
I don’t mean to belittle the effort. Their strategy was noble, but their tactics left a lot to be desired, that’s all. But the Indivisible movement seems oriented towards much more practical avenues for change. After all, it was started by lower-level Washington insiders, who merely tossed a playbook for action out there to see what would happen.
What has so far been happening is encouraging. People are flocking to the streets to let their voices be heard in the era of Trump. People are showing up at town halls ― even in deep red districts and states ― to give their elected representatives an earful. Regular people are considering running for office who had never before entertained such an idea. Some Democratic politicians are already beginning to understand the fear of “getting primaried” (which, so far, has been almost exclusively a fear of Republican officeholders). People who have never engaged in politics before are even flooding in to local Democratic Party meetings, to see what can be done to accomplish change.
The Occupy movement strenuously insisted that it didn’t have “leaders.” Neither, really, does the Indivisible movement. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren certainly inspire the movement, but they’re not truly leading it. But that didn’t stop the Tea Party from becoming a force in Republican politics. Who, after all, could be said to be the “leader” of the Tea Party? It also has some favorites who inspire it (Ted Cruz, Dave Brat, etc.), but it still resembles more of an unruly mob than what would traditionally be referred to as a congressional “bloc” of votes.
Because of its leaderless nature, the temptation already exists for Democratic politicians who are salivating over the prospect of somehow “capturing” all those incredibly-energized voters out there in the streets. But the nature of such social media movements is that they will not be led around by the nose. How do you “capture” a herd of cats? Each individual is out there protesting for their own reasons ― not some position paper or slogan dreamed up by the Democratic National Committee, after all. They’re going to be impossible to capture, co-opt, or even corral by any top-down organization, that’s my best guess.
Which leaves only one effective tactical option for the incoming D.N.C. chair ― don’t worry so much about controlling or directing the movement’s energy, instead aim for fulfilling its goals on your own. At the best, you can hope to be elevated to the ranks of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ― solid inspirations for the movement, who don’t attempt to direct it from above.
What the protesters want is obvious ― all you have to do is listen to them. They want Obamacare defended and protected. They want women’s health rights to likewise be defended and protected. They want politicians to stand up for people’s rights, including minorities of all types. They want more attention paid to Main Street than Wall Street. They want economic justice. Most of what they stand for almost completely overlaps the Democratic agenda (at least, the one Bernie Sanders was able to write into the last party platform), so there really shouldn’t be a lot of ideological angst for Democrat politicians to join the movement wholeheartedly.
But that verb is important. Democratic politicians ― from the local city councilman up to the D.N.C. chair (whomever that happens to be, next week) ― should seek to join the movement that is already underway. Democratic politicians facing a primary challenge from the movement should really examine their own votes and positions to see why so many constituents are so angry with them. Smart Democratic politicians will show up at the rallies and protests to make their own case directly to the people. In doing so, they should try to live up to the crowd’s goals in order to get their support, with a message that speaks directly to each protester. This can either be a full-throated: “I’m one of you!” or perhaps just: “Here’s where I agree with you, here’s where I disagree” ― whatever level of support the politician is comfortable with. But that’s really as far as any Democratic politician should go, because any attempt to redirect the movement into nothing more than a fundraising arm of the Democratic National Committee is very likely doomed to fail.
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