Resistance is breaking out all over: the women’s marches, the immigration airport protests and the defiant Sally Yates, the State Department mass dissents, the battle for the Supreme Court, with much more to come.
But where are we going? Are we simply calling for a return to the pre-Trump status quo of runaway inequality, the largest prison population in the world, inadequate and costly health care, unjust immigration policies and accelerating climate change? Or do we have a new vision for America? If so, what is it and how do we fight for it?
Resisting Trump is protest by spontaneous combustion triggered by Tweets and Facebook posts. Too often, however, such uprisings lack staying power. Occupy Wall Street grew to 900 encampments around the world and changed the conversation in America from austerity to inequality. But it evaporated within six months. The spirited Arab Spring in Egypt took down the government, but paved the way for the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood and then a military dictatorship. We should know by now that without organizational infrastructure such wondrous uprisings are fragile at best. They require leadership, dues paying members, legislative agendas, and ways for participants to engage in decision making. Such constructions are very hard work that social media can assist but not replace.
Where’s the glue?
Some hope that the Democratic Party will provide the infrastructure for an alternative vision and movement. Not likely. Too many party leaders are still deeply committed to Wall Street. Too many Democratic officials refuse to interfere with corporations that shift jobs abroad simply to secure lower paid labor and weaker environmental regulations. And, far too party leaders have an eye towards securing lucrative positions among America’s financial elites.
Could labor unions form the organizational core? In the 1930s the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) played this role by organizing unskilled workers and pushing for an aggressive worker agenda that helped to secure Social Security, a minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, and much more. But today labor is torn. The Building Trades are applauding Trump for restarting the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Manufacturing unions are taking a wait and see attitude given Trump’s interventions to stop the off-shoring of jobs, his withdrawal from the anti-worker trade agreement (TPP), and his upcoming plans for massive infrastructure investments. Meanwhile, public and service sector unions, who after going all in for Hillary against Bernie, have yet to respond vociferously to Trump.
Can the remnants of the Sanders campaign fill this vacuum? The jury is out. Electoral campaigns tend to unravel unless the candidate decides to run again. Campaign operatives go back to their day jobs and young volunteers return to school. Our Revolution, the political extension of the Sanders campaign, has possibilities but so far it has not attracted a mass following. But all those young Bernie supporters are still interested in the broad social democratic agenda he so effectively popularized. How do they express their support?
A new formation?
There are many significant institutions with dues-paying members that could play a vital role. For starters there are the unions that supported Sanders, including the National Nurses United, the Communications Workers of America, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the American Postal Workers Unions. With a combined membership in the millions, they have enough funds and troops to launch a new national organization.
Ideally, they could be joined by the more progressive service sector unions like the Service Employees International Union as well as church, community and environmental organizations that represent millions of immigrants, lower income residents and environmentalists. Together they could form a new national political organization that we all could join.
The goal would be to popularize a Sanders-like agenda, organize protests to resist Trump while also building an alternative politics for the next round of elections.
Another key goal would be to bring back the working class Trump voters who previously voted for Obama and Sanders. There are millions of them. Unions that represent workers in manufacturing have found that up to 50 percent of their members (who voted) voted for Trump, largely because of Clinton’s record on anti-worker trade deals like NAFTA and TPP. The goal of any new formation should be to win back those working class Sanders supporters.
Of course, it’s a long shot. After all, the unions involved do not have a stellar history of working together. The community groups also have their own issue silos and funding imperatives that lead them to travel down separate paths. Environmentalists and manufacturing unions are likely to clash over jobs. Also, the questions of race, class and identity politics are certain to create tensions within any progressive formation.
But Trump could do wonders to help us overcome these difficulties. While we were in our silos, pushing our particular issues, the hard right took control of the country ― not just ideologically, but over the real levers of power. Since 2009, when Obama took office, the Democrats have lost 919 state legislative seats. The Republicans now control 68 percent of all state legislative chambers, and control both state chambers and the governorship in 24 states while the Democrats have such tri-partite control in only 6 states.
We can’t blame this on Comey or Putin, or Stein or Bernie. No, we also have to look in the mirror and face up to the fact that as a progressive movement, we’ve been losing overall even as we’ve made some significant gains on human rights for the LBGT communities. The rise of the hard right to some degree is the result of our lackluster movement building efforts over the past three decades ― our failure to get out of our silos and link together. Current organization models and theories are failing against the challenges from the hard right.
The American Populist Movement
We could learn a great deal about organizing from the American Populist movement of the late 19th century. That movement, the first to challenge the power of Wall Street, called for the public ownership of railroads, public banks, a progressive income tax and grain/livestock cooperatives. The Populists put 6,000 educators into the field to spread the word and build local chapters mostly among black and white small farmers in the Midwest and South. Although they were eventually defeated, the Populists set the agenda for American progressivism, the New Deal and even the Sanders campaign. (For chapter and verse see The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn).
Before we can make sense of such organizational structures, we need an attitude adjustment. We need to broaden our identities to see ourselves as movement builders ― as activists who strive to put all the pieces together no matter which silo we inhabit. I may be a climate change activist but I also need to be a movement builder who is challenging the power of Wall Street. I may be fighting for criminal justice reform but I also need to be a movement builder uniting with others for Medicare for All and a $15 per hour minimum wage. It’s all one fight. We are tied together by runaway inequality ― a system designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many.
Will resist turn into something more?
Due to Trump’s divisive politics, the protests will continue. At some point, one would hope that those involved will begin building real structures to sustain these efforts and initiate more. Sooner or later, we should go beyond resistance and advocate a vision for the future ― a common agenda that includes a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street, free higher education, criminal justice reform, humane immigration policies, Medicare for All, an end to outsourcing, fair trade and a guaranteed job at a living wage for all those willing and able.
Perhaps a little more time spent with the craziness of Trump will wake us up from our organizational stupor.
(This piece was originally written for Alternet.org)
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.