Effective grass-roots organizing is a year-round process, not one limited merely to presidential elections. In a guide to rebuilding the Democratic Party, from the ground up, Theda Skocpol links to a handbook of practical suggestions for ways that local advocacy groups can best influence their Congressional representatives. Indivisibleguide.com, letters to the editor, pointed questions at regular town hall sessions can all help to illuminate and gain publicity for the dangers of the Trump agenda.
A successful response to Trump depends on a message that constructively addresses the pain rural and urban poor and working class Americans have experienced over the last four decades. Trump has employed a devilishly effective strategy to gain a disturbing share of those voters. That strategy has included a succession of lies serving to scapegoat a series of vulnerable constituencies for their very real pain.
Responding to these attacks requires not merely identification on multiple occasions of the lies, but also calling attention to the mode of lying employed by Trump. He moves from one lie to the next so that earlier lies are left standing at some level of our consciousness as attention moves on. In addition, as William Connolly points out, targeting the media is an essential part of the strategy: “They are ‘liars,’ ‘scavengers’ and ‘scum,’ Trump would say. This tactic allowed him to dismiss correctionjs of Big Lies made by the media, to energize the hatred of the crowd against a constellation that in fact had too often treated their regions as fly over zones.”
Just as important as calling attention to this strategy is the task of building a counter narrative. In rural America especially, where the Democrats in many counties have no organized presence, organizers might start from the bleak message of Nobel Laureates Angus Deaton and Anne Case: They “found that from 1999 to 2013, the death rate among non-Hispanic whites aged 45 to 54 with a high school education or less rose, while it fell in other age and ethnic groups. This is an HIV-level silent epidemic.”
Deaton concluded, “A lot of the inequality in the US comes from … firms and industry seeking special protection … There are around 200 thousand people who have died from the opioid epidemic, were victims of iatrogenic medicine and disease caused by the medical profession, or from drugs that should not have been prescribed for chronic pain but were pushed by pharmaceutical companies, whose owners have become enormously rich from these opioids,”
Such a message would speak in constructive ways to the anger over trade treaties, which are full of special privileges for investors, the bank bailout, which left foreclosure victims in the lurch, the increasingly monopolistic practices of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and the continuing subsidization of dangerous energy sources and transportation modes. More broadly, Connolly warns us, “the ugliness finding ample expression today in sections of the white working class must not be deployed as an excuse to ignore its real grievances and suffering. The idea is to criticize expressions of racism and misogyny… as you simultaneously support positive responses to real working class grievances. Hopefully, it has finally become clear how necessary it is to draw working class and other minorities closer together.”
In calling out lies, progressive advocates must think beyond the immediate issue, another lesson the Tea Party teaches us.
Medicare cuts is an example of strategic treatment of one of the regular corporatist lies. A perennial corporatist lie is the supply-side notion that lower tax rates for the wealthy promote growth. In fact, the deficits they produce become an occasion to confront voters with a harsh choice. Will you cut Medicare or Medicaid to fund the Obamacare alternative? This idea should be planted early to connect with the doubt many working-class citizens already harbor regarding the future of Social Security.
Connolly also reminds us that in all domestic policy areas the US is an outlier in the extremity of its commitments to these established monopolies. The melding of fundamentalist Christianity and neoliberal corporate lobbies both in policy objectives and dogmatic hostility to liberals, environmentalists, and the poor has created a powerful political machine.
He argues: “To overcome this reactionary resonance machine a pluralist assemblage of workers, professionals, farmers, minorities, nontheists and church/temple/mosque devotees of several types is needed.”
From the Tea Party example it is clear that electoral politics, at the local level and year round, is an important aspect of this process. Perhaps the first and most urgent task is to build/restore a context in which politics can occur. I agree with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich that resistance to Trump’s authoritarianism is crucial. Trump’s “undermining the freedom and independence of the press; threatening critics; creating “registries” of Muslim-Americans and a religious test for entering the United States; cozying up to foreign dictators; blaming economic stresses on immigrants and fomenting public bias and even violence against them; attributing acts of domestic violence to “enemies within,” and using such events as excuses to beef up internal security and limit civil liberties; creating a personal security force rather than a security detail accountable to the public; and personally profiting from public office.” must be resisted. This “has nothing to do with the old fights between liberals and conservatives over the size of the government. Conservative Republicans have traditionally been vigilant against tyranny, and they must be invited to the cause and become part of the coalition.”
To advance the prospects of a grass roots formation that might address deleterious inequalities Democrats at the state and local level should start right now by pushing for a DNC chair who is an organizer and will give verbal and monetary support to Democrats engaged in the process of organizing. Skocpol admonishes donors both large and small should to stop fragmenting their efforts and concentrate their funding on party efforts to build such year round organizational efforts. I think the advice is well taken, but I would prefer contribution limits so that the party remains focused on grass roots concerns. I would also add that these skilled organizers must connect with liberal advocacy groups in the quest for full access to voting rights and exposing the growing efforts to suppress the vote. Knowing one has little opportunity to vote can only blunt eagerness to join grass roots organizations.
Some concluding thoughts. Skocpol’s emphasis on local, year-round politics and organizing is well taken and especially pertinent now. My only qualm or question lies with the role of such public demonstrations as Occupy or the Dakota Access Pipeline. Part of Occupy’s relative lack of programmatic success lay in its unwillingness to seek connections to the levers of power available to it. Nonetheless, I see it as playing a major role in changing the vocabulary and issues of American politics.
Even an authentic grass roots Democratic party needs a proverbial kick in the behind to recognize and address suppressed or neglected concerns. Protesters at Standing Rock and a larger coterie of urban and suburban protesters, indigenous activists, and academics have exposed false promises, health hazards, refinery explosions, aquifer damage, river pollution and soaring C02 emissions. In a review of Naomi Klein’s superb work, Connolly puts it, “Klein helps us to discern how a series of disparate movements COULD (emphasis mine) begin to merge into a larger constellation, how each provides ammunition, tactical insight, publicity, and moral support to the others.” I emphasize could because absent at least eventual electoral and legal support, such efforts are all too likely to collapse or lead to counterproductive violence. Both forms of politics need each other.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email email@example.com.
From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2017
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