In Michigan’s tight-knit world of progressive politics, the most interesting aspect of the presidential contest isn’t the contest at all — at least not exactly. It certainly isn’t the two contestants — one altogether underwhelming (Biden), the other a sociopathic scam artist (Trump).
Instead, the most interesting story is unfolding across the wider landscape of political organizing. Rather than obsessing over the manners or absurdities of the candidates, left-wing organizations are marching in to fill the void left, as Time reports, by an “invisible” Biden campaign. And they have done so through highlighting: 1) defeating President Donald Trump, and 2) centering the long-range aspirations of working-class people while framing the election as just one weapon in a larger arsenal that progressives can use to achieve those aspirations.
In a recent Michigan Get Out The Vote virtual rally, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D‑Mich.) called for a level of voter turnout that makes the election “too big to rig,” with our unified voice becoming “a bullhorn” loud enough to promptly force the current goon squad from office. Besides a call to arms, Tlaib also highlighted the technical stuff: Michigan’s relaxed voting laws, including no reason absentee voting, same-day registration, and Detroit’s 23 satellite voting locations, encouraging anyone eligible to grab their pals for a day of civic duty.
It’s not just Tlaib: An entire constellation of grassroots organizations are mobilizing their bases to impact the outcome in Michigan, where 10,704 votes swung the Mitten State to Trump four years ago.
Groups like Detroit Action, Michigan Liberation, Mothering Justice and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition are running various calling, texting and door knocking programs, communicating with tens of thousands in the Detroit area. And We the People Michigan (where I work in communications) is several months into a “deep canvassing” program that, as Andy Kroll writes at Rolling Stone, engages people “in extended, empathetic conversations, with the goal of combating prejudice and shifting beliefs.”
Under the larger We Make Michigan coalition, we’ve linked arms with 482 Forward, Detroit Action, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, SEIU, and Rising Voices of Asian American Families to help build progressive power in the state. With leadership from 482 Forward, an education justice organization, and Detroit Action, the coalition has run a series of “Freakin’ Vote Fridays”: weekly youth-led rallies to encourage young people’s ability to impact both elections and the fights that will continue to shape decision making long after those outcomes are decided.
Conservatives are usually much better at hitching schemes for long-term power, but the Left is catching up. Tlaib offers a prime example. She has emphasized the need to “beat Trump and make way for transformative change.” Notice that she doesn’t say that beating Trump will lead to transformative change. Progressives understand that the first does not guarantee the second. It merely clears an obstacle to it, bringing the possibility of a better world — including policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal — within clearer view.
Take the Movement for Black Lives and calls for the Breathe Act—a sweeping set of reform measures to begin, in Tlaib’s words, tearing “down those systems that have been set up against our black neighbors.” Tlaib does not tie the success of popular movements to the good graces of powerful politicians, but to the muscle that popular movements can exert on them. “Transformative change really happens on the streets,” she adds. “That’s how the labor rights movement happened, the right to vote happened, the Civil Rights Act — all happened because people on the streets” forced Congress to act.
Tlaib is uniquely positioned to yank voting off of its pedestal, and place it among a vast set of tools available to help clear the path to better days. “If we’re lucky, our movement will produce and continue to produce folks like Rashida Tlaib,” Michelle Martinez, president of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, recently told me. Martinez is pointing to the fact that Tlaib emerged from Detroit’s broad progressive ecosystem. It’s a world where voting is not a be-all-end-all when it comes to politics, but one where you occasionally pause to cast a strategic vote for a slightly more favorable candidate, and then hurry back to organizing in your neighborhoods, schools and workplaces to improve the world.
Thinking of it this way, voting may be strategically necessary, but not sufficient. As the Obama years demonstrated, without extraordinary interventions, America’s vast machinery will carry out the tasks it’s been set to: bombs will rain on civilians, sanctions will disrupt the flow of medical supplies, corporations will move freely around the globe while families are torn apart for daring to cross imaginary lines, incomes will remain flat, medical debt will bankrupt millions and fossil fuels will boil the planet.
The hero in this story is not powerful people whose speeches bore you to tears, or the party leadership that gets teary-eyed at the boardroom diversity of weapons manufacturers. Deep, lasting change has a thousand and more authors — the product of popular movements exerting enormous pressure on the nation’s shot callers, while building an alternative to the corporate class that dominates our politics.
Which is why progressive groups in Michigan and across the country are doing the grunt work usually anchored by campaigns, setting themselves up with the most favorable terrain possible for the fights that must come next. Because, even if Biden wins, the Left must still organize independent sources of political power to “haunt his dreams,” as writer Anand Giridharadas put it in an interview with Noam Chomsky.
As we learned from Obama’s 2008 organizing juggernaut, retaining independence is the only way to prevent being absorbed into a party known for boiling grassroots movements into merchandising vehicles for campaign mugs. Landis Spencer, co-chair of the Black and Brown Alliance of the Metro Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America says, if Biden pulls this off, “the Left needs to be an opposition party at every level” in order to “push the agenda left… That’s our homework.”
If Michigan voters tell Trump to bounce on Nov. 3, taking ghoulish white nationalists like Stephen Miller with him, we will, in large part, have the efforts of these independent left-wing groups to thank.
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.