If the Democratic Party Won’t Take Risks, It’s Up to Us

Now is not the time to play it safe.

Christopher Hass February 21, 2017

(MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)

I think we should march.” That’s the mes­sage a grand­moth­er in Hawaii, with no pri­or pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence in pol­i­tics or activism, shared with 40 or so of her friends on Face­book the day after the elec­tion. Two months lat­er, the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton had snow­balled into the largest demon­stra­tion in U.S. history. 

People are ready to do meaningful work, now. We don’t need an offer of symbolic action when there is real action to be taken.

It’s no acci­dent that the first major act of resis­tance to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion didn’t orig­i­nate with any par­ty or insti­tu­tion. Rather, it reflects just how whol­ly unpre­pared most D.C. orga­ni­za­tions were for this polit­i­cal moment. 

In 2009, at the height of the health­care reform fight, grass­roots activists repeat­ed­ly pushed to orga­nize a march on Wash­ing­ton as a pub­lic show of force, only to be stymied again and again by the Belt­way lead­er­ship call­ing the shots. The con­cerns then would be famil­iar to any­one who fol­lowed the hand­wring­ing in the run-up to the Women’s March: What if it gets out of con­trol? What if it sends the wrong mes­sage? What if no one shows up? 

That type of think­ing hasn’t held back the launch of a wave of new orga­ni­za­tions and actions to resist the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. At last count, near­ly 100 of these efforts have sprung up in the past two months — includ­ing groups focused on pres­sur­ing law­mak­ers (Indi­vis­i­ble — see page 8), con­nect­ing peo­ple to their near­est com­pet­i­tive House race (Flip­pable, SwingLeft and Sis­ter­Dis­trict), and recruit­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates (Our Rev­o­lu­tion, Brand New Con­gress and Run for Some­thing — the lat­ter of which iden­ti­fied 2,000 poten­tial can­di­dates in its first nine days). 

These are the types of efforts that both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and well fund­ed advo­ca­cy groups should have been lead­ing all along. Over the past decade, par­ty com­mit­tees like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee have built a ruth­less­ly effi­cient fundrais­ing sys­tem, but lit­tle else. Mean­while, vir­tu­al­ly every lib­er­al advo­ca­cy group in Wash­ing­ton was caught flat-foot­ed on Novem­ber 8, when their well-laid plans went up in smoke along with the Clin­ton presidency. 

The loss of the pres­i­den­cy, and the absence of any clear leader to ral­ly around, didn’t cre­ate an orga­niz­ing vac­u­um on the Left — it revealed one. Now it’s up to the par­ty, as well as pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions, to learn from these new­ly engaged activists— many of whom are also their mem­bers— or be left behind. That means toss­ing aside slow-mov­ing and risk averse insti­tu­tion­al cul­tures, because in today’s environment: 

• Peo­ple are ready to do mean­ing­ful work, now. We don’t need an offer of sym­bol­ic action when there is real action to be taken. 

• Things move fast. If it takes an orga­ni­za­tion more than 30 min­utes to decide whether to sup­port an action, it’s time to stream­line the deci­sion-mak­ing process. 

• We’re all in this togeth­er. If you’re not will­ing to part­ner with orga­ni­za­tions and peo­ple whose mes­sage or means you may dis­agree with at times, we’re all going to lose. 

Some groups are already adapt­ing to the new real­i­ty. The Green­peace ban­ner drop at the White House on Jan­u­ary 25 was a risky but coura­geous act of resis­tance. Even MoveOn​.org has begun to focus on mov­ing sup­port­ers offline and into the streets. 

As for the rest of us, now is not the time to wait for orders. Our lead­ers are gone, and it is glo­ri­ous. Let’s march. 

Christo­pher Hass is the exec­u­tive pub­lish­er of In These Times. Before join­ing ITT, he spent eight years work­ing on polit­i­cal and advo­ca­cy cam­paigns, includ­ing both the 2008 and 2012 Barack Oba­ma pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. He is also the for­mer edi­tor and pub­lish­er of P8NT Mag­a­zine.

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