The majority of the country is opposed to Trumpism, but this opposition is much more heterogeneous sociologically and politically than the Trumpist bloc. This reality poses big challenges to a Left that is challenged to both build and maintain the broad unity necessary to defeat the Trumpist-GOP in the 2020 election AND build the independent strength of the social justice forces.
The influence of progressive ideas and the reach of organizations espousing a social justice agenda have grown substantially since 2016, but a realistic assessment of the balance of forces tells us that the progressives remain fragmented in many ways and, even if we were more united, remain weaker and far less resourced than the long-established centrist and corporate forces in the opposition to Trump and, specifically, within the Democratic Party.
The quotes above are among the guiding perspectives of Seed the Vote, a project of the Everyday People PAC, a social justice organization “committed to mobilizing our communities to elect people that share our values.” The need for this kind of approach was highlighted by the results of the recent elections in Britain – the majority of the population was opposed to right-wing demagogue Boris Johnson, yet Johnson and his conservative Tories were returned to office with an increased number of seats in Parliament. A good program that meets popular wants and needs is a necessary but not sufficient condition for translating desire for a better world into popular power to bring a new society into being.
Seed the Vote, based in San Francisco, is supported by Bay Resistance, Bay Rising Action, San Francisco Rising Fund and other organizations and individuals. Organizing Upgrade, a forum where left organizers can discuss strategy and share organizing models in response to the dangers and opportunities of this political moment, is helping to bring this initiative to ever-wider circles and networks as a framework to combat reaction without losing sight of the need for substantive change in the direction of social and economic justice. Seed the Vote’s project is to mobilize Bay Area activists to travel to Arizona, a battleground state where community mobilization will directly confront the forces of “white nationalism,” and the politics of voter suppression. The mobilization will take place October 10 – 20 with volunteers from outside the state working with local grassroots groups that organize in their communities year-round. Those taking part will, in turn bring their skills back to their own respective local communities to continue organizing to defeat Trump and build support for a political alternative.
It is striking how much this recalls the early Civil Rights movement -- organizers from outside an area working with those already there and taking that experience back home – all the more so as a focus of the 1960s was the need to expand, defend and make use of the right to vote, a right today under siege. Voting rights was one of the central victories of Black Freedom movement in the 1960s. That activism also directly influenced the struggle against the Vietnam War, a movement of particular relevance at present for it was a movement in which countless people who started out as conservative (or liberal) war supporters opened up to a radical critique of US society as official lies were exposed by harsh realities. Today’s movement to defeat and replace Trump fits well within the centuries-old struggle that has taken place throughout US history to make real the promises contained in the Declaration of Independence contained within the vision of peace and equality for all.
That context helps situate the work of Seed the Vote as it should situate the work of Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, National People’s Action, DSA and scores of other engaged organizations over the coming year and beyond. This prioritizes the electoral defeat of Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress and statehouses across the country. Simultaneously, it seeks to build the strength of the independent left inside and outside the Democratic Party by organizing around social and economic justice issues. Seed the Vote organizers recognize that, in order to maintain, protect and extend basic democratic rights in our country, we as activists need to build the greatest degree of unity possible with people with whom we have tremendous differences on health care, student debt, trade union rights, criminal justice, financial regulation, taxes, housing, US militarism and the urgency of addressing climate change.
That larger unity is essential to create a popular movement of sufficient weight and resonance able to challenge and confront those sectors of the population who are willing to overlook Trumpism’s appeals to racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant bias, hatred of Islam, fear and hatred of the “other” however defined, so as to express their discontent with society’s direction by supporting Trump and those of his ilk. Among those who are directly swayed by such appeals, some can be persuaded back our way, but others of them need to be forced to the margins of public life away and outside any ability to impact public policy.
This wider unity is also needed to force a retreat by those centers of concentrated finance and business that have assiduously worked at every level to enhance their own power by undermining the conditions of life for the vast majority, corporate power that sees its interests as protected and promoted by Trump.
Complicating the challenge of doing so, as Michael Bloomberg’s entrance into the election so clearly demonstrates, is that sections of corporate power opposed to Trump apparently still would prefer to see the re-election of someone they despise than face the progressive policies – and mobilized populations – that would see the possibility of hope realized with the election of Sanders or Warren and the concomitant election of ever more candidates with a social justice agenda at local levels throughout the county. Lest we forget, for most sectors of capital, rising levels of inequality, insecurity and poverty are not problems to be solved – they are the answer to the “problem” of insistent demands of collective movements for justice.
However, unity cannot be made effective if it is done by ignoring rising public discontent that is seeking solutions based on solidarity and a vision of a genuinely inclusive society build upon bonds of mutual support. Any attempt to replicate the neo-liberal liberalism of the Clinton era as a solution today will fail in its ability to mobilize people as it will fail as public policy. There is a need to continue to organize all those whose needs are left unmet in our country even where that organizing challenges the ideology, the politics or interests of many of those who are similarly opposed to Trump.
If we fail to advocate universal health care, abolition of student debt, a living wage, if we fail to advocate regulating banks, breaking up the power of large corporations, imposing progressive tax measures, passing labor law reform that protects the right to organize and the right to strike, then we will undermine our ability to organize. We will accept the continued deterioration of the conditions of daily life that most face and thus, for all too many, become part of the problem rather than the solution – the very set of circumstances that led to Trump’s election and created the popular basis for the authoritarian, right-wing politics he embodies.
If we do not advocate for peace, for ending US direct military engagement in numerous countries throughout the African and Asian continents, reject the maintenance of imperial power through NATO, through the OAS, through unequal trade treaties, through the propping up of the aggressive militarisms of Israel and Saudi Arabia, we will fail to challenge the ideological and structural basis of the dominance of corporate power and undercut our ability to pose a clear alternative to neo-liberalism. So too, if we fail to aggressively combat climate change, if we fail to advocate the aggressive measures contained within the Green New Deal, we cede ground to corporate “answers” that will worsen the existential crisis, while leaving a generation facing the future with ever less hope of a solution wrought by mass engagement, and, eventually, ever less hope of a future at all. Finally, if we do not advocate for racial justice, for the rights of those most marginalized, for the rights of those most under siege, we will demobilize those communities suffering most from current economic and social policies. And failing to challenge the racism and sexism being promoted will not lay a basis for the needed unity cited above; to the contrary, it will strengthen the politics of division and hate, and allow such politics of hate to make further inroads amongst working people.
All that can be said, but any strategy that ignores the need to defeat Trump in the name of purity will only serve to strengthen those already in power.
How difficult it is to square this circle was starkly brought home by the defeat of the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, for Labour’s election manifesto spoke to the concerns and hopes articulated by Sanders. A direct comparison between Britain and the U.S. would be false; differences exist on the other side of the Atlantic that don’t easily translate. Brexit divided Britain’s working class in a manner that allowed no obvious solution and stands as one of many reasons for Labour’s setback that don’t easily translate to our country. But that is not the point; resolving the contradictions they faced is for British activists to resolve. The issue for us is to recognize that the politics of demonization and division so effectively employed to attack Corbyn and Labour’s progressive manifesto will be employed here with an equal lack of restraint, with an equal excess of vitriol and contempt for truth and people, with the goal of creating confusion and disunity. The organizers of Seed the Vote recognize that challenge can be met only with a combination of moral vision, strategic politics and direct organizing to build bonds of trust and community.
Still it will be an uphill struggle and a sense of its possible futility may lead people to either look to unity without independence within Democratic politics or fall prey to the pretense that popular movements don’t need such unity at all and consign all those with whom differences exist to enemy status. Yet it is possible to build a movement that breaks down walls of division in ways unimagined; to recall such a one, we need only think how impregnable legal segregation seemed in the South in 1960-61 when sit-ins and freedom rides had an impact that reached millions. So too, it is useful to recall how deep-rooted support or passive acceptance of the U.S. assault on Vietnam was when the war began in earnest. I was recently reminded of the transformation that can take place when organizing gives people the tools and framework to express discontent in a form that builds solidarity.
By coincidence, the evening when the depressing news of Britain’s election was being reported we went to an exhibit held at George Washington University and cosponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, Waging Peace in Vietnam, about the anti-war movement of active duty soldiers and veterans. Containing photos, posters letters, testimony, memoirs, poems and more, the traveling exhibit and book (edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright and Barbara Doherty) reveals the moral clarity that overcame the amoral cynicism of Cold War liberals and conservatives alike through a movement built by many who went to war believing it was right, who went to war without thought of the politics behind the orders. A poem in the book by Vietnam veteran Jan Barry expressed how this combination of lies combined with official hypocrisy led to resistance by those who never saw themselves in those terms:
Regarding the latest bombing
that destroyed a friendly village
here is my medal for good conduct.
For yet another operation
That devastated so many lives,
Here are my campaign ribbons.
If that is not enough,
I’ll protest until my death
this murderous machine.
Barry’s words speak to an awareness and self-awareness that leads to action and is part of a history that serves as testament of the truth of King’s assertion that the arc of history bends toward justice. Once the question of “why war?” moved from doubt to resistance, further questions followed that began to challenge all injustice rooted in blind acceptance. Christian Appy in Waging Peace in Vietnam’s concluding essay highlights the critical importance of reclaiming the history of the GI anti-war movement as a movement that sought and found commonalities as a reminder for what is needed today:
“There are also signs that progressive movements today are increasingly attentive to their commonalities with other groups at home and abroad. A new generation of activists is seeking to identify and explain how militarism, imperialism, nuclear weapons, environmental degradation, gross economic inequality, and dehumanization by race, religion, gender, and sexuality all reinforce and legitimize each other, and many have concluded that none can be effectively opposed without addressing them all.”
The search for what binds us in action is what we need to break out of our present-day political impasse. Organizing around commonalities, as Appy suggests, is precisely the place where Seed the Vote begins by implementing an organizing strategy that goes out into communities beyond what conventional politics, pollsters or tweeters ever think of reaching. It is an approach that should guide all of us who fear fascism, who look toward socialism. To conclude with the perspective they are offering:
Defeating Trump and the GOP at the polls in November 2020 is an absolutely crucial step in the fight against the racist authoritarian right. This means Left organizers need to engage in the electoral battle, and since participation in the electoral battle to oust Trump is also galvanizing the vast majority of people in the sectors of the population that are crucial for building a strong left (communities of color, the hardest-hit layers of the working class, women, youth, the LGBTQ community), engagement alongside these millions sets the best conditions for building a durable, rooted and influential left.
Building the independent institutional/organizational strength of those with a holistic social justice, peace and environmental protection agenda is a task that must be taken up on the local, state, and nationwide levels in the thick of the 2020 campaign.
Social justice forces need to pursue a complicated unity-and-struggle approach within the broad front against Trump, and doing so effectively requires us to differentiate the challenges that exist in the “primary” stage which lasts until the Democratic Party National Convention from those that move center stage in the general election period from then through Election Day.
For more information:
Seed the Vote site:
Seed the Vote Assessment/Strategy document:
And for more information on the anti-war movement among those in the military: