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 September 19, 2018

Hundreds of protestors rallying against Donald Trump gather outside of Trump Tower, November 9, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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. 

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.

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.

Max Elbaum is author of Rev­o­lu­tion in the Air, recent­ly reis­sued by Ver­so Books, and an edi­tor of Orga​nizin​gUp​grade​.com Calvin Che­ung-Miaw is with the Left Inside/​Outside Project, and an edi­tor of Orga​nizin​gUp​grade​.com
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