Progressives Need a Clear Strategy for 2020 and Beyond—Here Are 5 Guidelines
We have significant numbers. But we need to continue to build our ranks, and mobilize behind a winning political strategy.
Max Elbaum and Calvin Cheung-Miaw
The unending stream of horrors coming from the White House, combined with the looming 2018 elections, is keeping social justice activists working around the clock. The past few weeks have brought us Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination hearing, John Bolton’s all-out attack on the International Criminal Court, the Environmental Protection Agency’s rollback of methane emission regulations, the Department of Education’s renewed intimidation of pro-Palestinian student activists at Rutgers, and Homeland Security’s proposal to indefinitely detain migrant children. The demands of fending off one attack after another can be overwhelming — and there is no relief in sight.
Before things get even busier, and home-stretch electioneering accelerates to warp speed, it’s useful to take a step back to gain some perspective on what we are doing. We need to assess the terrain on which we are fighting, and to figure out how our day-to-day efforts can contribute to an effective strategy for beating back the racist authoritarians now running the country.
Toward that end, we offer the following thoughts for advancing a discussion among progressives about political strategy. We are especially concerned about the intense level of polarization — up to and including the potential for violence — in the coming period, as well as the long-term and complicated nature of the struggle against the far right.
1. The policies and narrative of the Trump administration are every bit as dangerous as feared, and the nature of the country’s polarization is both unique and dangerous. The resistance to Trump offers hope because of its scale and developing political savvy.
Trump has captured the GOP and transformed it from a conservative party into a party driven primarily by white nationalism and authoritarianism. The current program of the GOP is “whatever Trump says.” Those politicians who want a future with the Republican Party have shied away from consistent and principled criticism of Trump’s policies or statements. As Jonathan Swan has written at Axios, “The majority party in America is fully defined by his policies, his popularity with the base, his facts-be-damned mentality, his ability to control and quiet virtually all Republican elected officials.”
The new dispensation — Trumpism — has been financed and anchored by right-wing billionaires, sectors of capital rooted in the fossil fuel industry, low-end retail, and the military-industrial complex. It is also rooted in the most racist layers of white middle-class and working-class people, and those gathered in white Evangelical Churches. The glue keeping the less-well-off sectors within the coalition is the narrative of “hard-working white America as victim of globalist elites, dark-skinned barbarians and uppity women,” resulting in the need to “take our country back” by pretty much whatever means are necessary. Support for Trump has ranged between 38 and 42 percent. According to our best assessment, a number close to the lower end of that scale – roughly a third of U.S. adults – likely represents the hard-core pro-Trump camp. Buoyed by a strong economy, his support has not dipped below 40 percent since mid-January and includes the overwhelming majority of Republicans.
What about our side? The majority of people in the United States are opposed to Trumpism, but many only passively so. The energized resistance is driven by a grassroots upsurge from below but also includes the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, layers of the federal bureaucracy, and even a thin layer of Bush-style conservatives (some of whom have left the GOP). The progressive, social-justice wing of the resistance is considerably weaker than the corporate Democratic sector financially and institutionally, but is driving the opposition to Trump with its energy and capacity to mobilize people for both street protests and electoral work. The progressive forces have also matured politically. Many have taken big steps to break out of previous silos; groups that have shunned electoral efforts in the past have thrown themselves into electoral battles, and others who played only the ‘inside game’ have shifted to support and direct involvement in demonstrations, marches and even civil disobedience.
It’s no surprise that we face an intensely polarized society. But, the racial and political polarization is exacerbated because the current media environment has produced two sides that are divided in new and dangerous ways. Even basic facts about the world are in dispute, and the two sides largely live in different realities. With Trump constantly ginning up his supporters with dehumanizing messages about “the other” and implying — if not stating outright — that violence against opponents is justified, it is only prudent to expect that more acts of violence will be forthcoming from law-enforcement agencies, right-wing groups and so-called “loners” going forward — including threats and acts of violence at polling places.
2. The 2018 elections offer the possibility of dealing a serious setback to the GOP’s drive toward a racialized authoritarian state. Whatever the outcome, the balloting will cast a spotlight on the relative strength of the Trump and anti-Trump camps, as well as that of the different political tendencies within each camp.
Demonstrations, marches and rallies have been crucial to keeping a spotlight on the outrages committed by Trump and the GOP — and energizing the opposition. These forms of resistance must continue. At times, after Trump’s first attempt at a “Muslim ban” or when separation of families at the border first got significant publicity, large-scale of public protests combined with court rulings have forced the administration to backpedal. However, the Trump administration has been able to act through executive orders while disguising its repressive policies just enough to pass legal muster. As the courts continue to fill with conservatives, our hard-fought victories can at best slow down Trump’s juggernaut. The upcoming 2018 midterms offer the first chance of translating grassroots energy into a tangible shift in the balance of power between the contending camps. Important contests are taking place at the state, local and federal levels, but the most important fight is the effort to break GOP control of both houses of Congress by ending its majority in either the House, the Senate or both.
Shifting the balance of power within the federal government will affect the trajectory of U.S. politics. For instance, the relative strength of Trump and anti-Trump camps will take on more importance as the Mueller investigation continues. The investigation has provided a glimpse of the corruption Trump is enmeshed in, and it has had remarkable success in obtaining convictions and guilty pleas. These developments have already somewhat weakened support for Trump among voters and elected officials. However, we can expect that Trump’s hard-core supporters will defend him regardless of the revelations of the Mueller probe or the actions he takes to suppress it. The ultimate outcome of the investigation and its impact on the Trump administration will be the result of political struggle rather than legal maneuvers.
The elections will also be a test of the strength and flexibility of the anti-Trump front’s social-justice wing. While pushing for wins by progressive candidates wherever that is a serious possibility, breaking the GOP’s grip on Congress will require backing Democrats who do not support the full progressive agenda, including centrists, in some elections. A concrete analysis of the politics in different districts will be key to determining the viability of candidates and their platforms. How to make these judgments while at the same time strengthening the base and infrastructure in districts where we are currently weak will be a major challenge.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that we need to be prepared for the unexpected event. Even as the elections are likely to dominate politics from through November 6, there is also the possibility of a country-shaking crisis stemming from the Mueller probe, from moves by Trump to fire Mueller or Rosenstein or from some other action — such as launching an attack on Iran. Such a crisis could upend “election business as usual” and demand that we join everyone in the streets on short notice
3. The period between November 2018 and November 2020 promises to be a daily pitched battle between the Trump and anti-Trump camps, with serious danger of outbreaks of violence. November 2020 will almost certainly be the most decisive presidential election most of us have known in our lifetimes.
It is already the era of the “permanent campaign.” The fact that Trump prefers campaigning to governing, and that this is a key tool by which he fires up his base, means that the 2020 campaign has already begun. Further, 2020 will not be a normal election. Trump will do anything to win, including initiating a country-wide crisis along the lines described above, inciting violence against opponents, and encouraging followers to intimidate or attack voters of color under the guise of preventing voter fraud. He will also make every effort to de-legitimize opposition votes – meaning a potential campaign to invalidate the results if he loses and to exaggerate his margin of victory if he wins. Preparations must be made in advance to defend voters at the polls and provide for an honest election count that cannot be de-legitimized. We need to prepare for the possibility that, even in the face of a landslide electoral defeat that is recognized as such by most government agencies and media, hard-core Trump supporters will take to the streets, some armed, claiming that the election was stolen. The key will not be to respond in kind or to overreact by making everyone fearful — but to go on the offensive in the fight for public opinion and in the streets so as to further isolate the far right, link them to Trump and Trumpism, and to further mobilize the resistance.
We should also expect a struggle within the anti-Trump camp. The fight over who gets the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2020, what kind of message that person will run on, and which sectors of voters their campaign prioritizes will be at the center of contention between the party’s currently dominant corporate wing and its growing progressive wing. The Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have historically raised the bulk of their funds from business interests and narrowed openings for progressive challengers within the party. Progressives, however, can point to successful challenges by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ben Jealous, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Julia Salazar in party primaries. The wind, it feels, is at our back.
4. Even if Trump and the GOP are badly beaten in the 2020 balloting, the fight against the racist and authoritarian right that has been energized and expanded under his presidency will be bitter and challenging for many more years.
The roughly one third of the country that appears to be comprised of hard-core Trump supporters will not go quietly into the margins of U.S. politics even if Trump and the GOP are beaten by landslides in 2018 and 2020. This is true both of the right wing “we-are-the-rightful-rulers-of-the country” billionaires at the top of his coalition, and of the mobilized hyper-nationalist grassroots base. Even under a best-case scenario, the authoritarian racist right will control a majority of state governments, a large majority of county governments, much of the police, border patrol, ICE (unless it is disbanded), the Supreme Court and much of the federal court system. It will retain a large bloc in Congress that will likely be able to peel off conservative Democrats. We are not up against a historical fluke; blocs based on white supremacy and reactionary economics have a long history and deep roots in the United States.
There’s no way around it: We’re in for a long fight. Even with a victory over Trump in 2020, it would be dangerous to assume that the far right has been permanently relegated to the margins and that the battle over the country’s direction was limited to one between progressives and the traditional corporate elite. Many progressives and radicals made this mistake when right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater got drubbed in the 1964 election, only to see a renascent conservatism find its ground in the 1970s and define the agenda in the 1980s. In reality, the battle against those who are determined to turn the clock back 100 years will remain fierce and may well get more intense if Trump loses in 2020.
There is another danger as well — that the corporate Democrats will attempt a compromise with the Trumpists aimed at forging an anti-progressive bloc of a somewhat different character. As we’ve seen with Democratic senators facing re-election in states that voted for Trump, pressure to compromise with the Trumpists will be extremely high unless the Democrats win very large majorities in both houses anchored by a powerful progressive bloc. Thus, if we are able to electorally defeat the Trumpists, both the corporate Democrats and the social justice forces are bound to gain strength. The contentions between them over policy and power will likely sharpen in many areas. Only a progressive bloc that is both steadily expanding its base and strengthening its strategic acuity will be able to navigate the new challenges the next stage of struggle will bring to the fore.
5. In navigating through 2020, partisans of racial, economic and gender justice, immigrant rights, peace and a sustainable environment face dual challenges.
Our job isn’t easy. We have to inspire the millions of people of color, immigrants, women, young, poor and working-class people who want a major shift in national priorities to register and vote against Trump and the GOP in 2018 and 2020. We also have to accumulate sufficient clout for our own agendas and constituencies, regardless of their ability to vote, if we want to play a significant role in shaping the contours of a post-Trump government.
We have significant numbers, but we have to increase those numbers substantially and turn them into institutional power and coordinated action locality by locality, state by state and nationally — that is, operating on a scale that reaches, inspires and moves tens of millions. Otherwise we will always be “speaking truth to power” rather than wielding power ourselves. The social justice forces have more energy, more experience, more sophistication and more mass support than we had three years ago. But we have a long way to go to match our rivals and enemies. Building stronger political alignment in our ranks, and institutionalizing that alignment via sustained organizational cooperation and strategic collaboration, are the keys to catching up.