Turning Progressive Activism Into a Winning Social Movement

Why the left needs to build power, now.

By  ASTRA TAYLOR | MARCH 24, 2017 / This post originally appeared at The Nation.

In the wake of the catastrophic election of Donald Trump, we all know the left needs to get its act together. But how?

I posed this question to Jillian Johnson, L.A. Kauffman and Jonathan Matthew Smucker, three longtime activists well-positioned to provide some insight and advice to anyone ready to commit to the budding resistance. Jillian Johnson is a year into her tenure on Durham, North Carolina’s City Council, where she is uniquely poised to contribute to a progressive turn toward municipal and state-level politics across the country. Kauffman’s new book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, traces the history of a powerful strain of American dissent, and how it is being harnessed by a new generation of change-makers. Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, gets into the nitty-gritty of why movements fail, and how they can succeed. Our conversation lays out much-needed historical lessons and theoretical guidance for anyone engaged in grassroots organizing today. Astra Taylor: What is power to you?

Jillian Johnson: For me, being involved in city government is part of a larger project to build local power. I feel more and more that local government and local power is where we have a possibility of making real change and a material difference in people’s lives — something that seems less possible right now at any other level of government. City councils are dealing with decisions that can seem really small, but that have significant impact.

In North Carolina, where our state government has been in the hands of the far-right for the last several years, and now with our federal government shifting more and more to the right as well, I see more and more people turning to municipal government and local movements as the only place they really feel like their energy can make a difference.

I think we have an opportunity this year to elect a strong progressive majority on the Durham City Council, and that makes me a little bit more hopeful about this political moment. I’m excited about what we could do to fight back against Trump on a local level in the “rebel cities” framework that people around the world have been building. It’s a little bit harder for us here in North Carolina, since we will also be fighting our state as well as our federal government. If we are able to build more power locally, we will be able to provide an exciting model for this work in a progressive city in a red state under Trump.

J.M. Smucker: Power in the sense that we’re talking about is fundamentally about the capacity to accomplish things that are beyond the scope of what individuals can accomplish on their own. The ability to achieve policies, transform structures, to make changes that impact our lives.

Folks understand that it’s up to us to build the kind of people-power we need to turn this thing around. — JONATHAN MATTHEW SMUCKER

Over the past 40 years, capital has demonstrated its power by weakening regulations, by undermining social safety networks, undermining and attacking gains that were made by previous social movements. People power — the power of people organized into a vehicle that can navigate political terrain and win things — has been deteriorating. This is an incredible moment, right now. It’s high stakes. We’re seeing how bad things can get when the right consolidates power. We’re also seeing a huge change in everyday people’s relationship to politics. Folks understand that it’s up to us to build the kind of people power we need to turn this thing around. I’m based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Our state shares some features with North Carolina, where Jillian is organizing: a purple state, a very gerrymandered state. Like Jillian, we’re very grounded here at the local level. We’ve built up this thing called Lancaster Stands Up since the election. We turned out 2,000 people for a rally against Trump’s Muslim ban — unprecedented numbers for Lancaster. We’ve got a list of a couple thousand active folks now, and we’ve got progressives running for down-ballot races like school board. At our mass meetings we’re giving this rap about how we need a broad opposition that runs for every open seat. We’re not shy about calling out the Democratic Party for failing to fight visibly for working people — and we talk openly about primarying conservative Democrat incumbents.

People here aren’t interested in tired old debates about inside versus outside strategies — the ballot versus the street — as if they were mutually exclusive, rather than potentially complementary. This broad opposition moment is giving us the opportunity to intentionally blur the lines between electoral fights and in-the-streets social movements. At the national scale, we have the opportunity to recruit a huge crop of progressive candidates who emerge from powerful movements — who are accountable to movements. That’s why going into 2018 and 2020 we can do much better than deliver majorities back to corporate Democrats; we now have the opportunity to build an independent political force powerful enough to change the entire direction of mainstream politics.

L.A. Kauffman: To the question of building popular power in the Trump era, I think of that at two levels, one positive and one negative. There’s a level of building power in the protest actions that are happening that is hard to hold onto because it’s a negative power. It’s the power that we’re exercising to slow down and limit the scope of the damage from the Trump administration. That can feel amorphous, but it’s an important part of what our movements can achieve and are achieving right now.

We have managed to keep the Trump administration in a pretty remarkable state of crisis since the inauguration. We tend to think about building power purely in the positive sense of achieving what we want, as opposed to deterring what we don’t want. In this moment, it’s going to be both.

AT: L.A., your book is kind of a history of social movements in phases of right-wing reaction, whether the Reagan years or the Bush era. What lessons resonate with you right now as we enter this phase of protest under an intensely hostile administration?

LAK: There has been a temptation at times in the past during these moments of reaction to turn inward, to turn to a localism that is not expansive but that is more about building our communities and our visions of resistance outside of the messy business of trying to interact with institutions of governance and the legislative process. That’s a real contrast with what I see now.

If we don’t engage with institutions, the other side takes them over and leaves us in a defensive and reactive stance. — L.A. KAUFFMAN

The current turn to localism that Jillian was describing — of being robustly engaged with established institutions of power and governance — is happening in a way that so many of the local projects of the left really were not in the Reagan era, where they were kind of off in their own separate realm.

That turn away from engaging with the complex terrain of power is part of what got us in the place where we are. If we don’t engage with those institutions, the other side takes them over and leaves us in a purely defensive and reactive stance.

JMS: A lot has changed since the 1980s. A crisis of legitimacy has been brewing in this country since the Bush years, and I believe people are coming to understand intuitively that institutions are failing them — and that we’re going to have to take them over. The Trump victory really showed this institutional failure; the people who were supposed to protect us from this kind of insanity failed to do so. How are we going to do this now?

AT: How’s your conception of the opposition changed? Is Trumpism actually a continuation or an intensification of earlier trends, or something new?

JJ: I feel like we’re on shifting sands. We thought we knew what the problems were, and they were US imperialism and global capital and massive inequality and wealth accumulation. Now, we’re like, holy crap, actually the problem is fascism! The problem is neo-Nazis! All these terrifying people have been brought into the mainstream political conversation.

The other thing that’s happening, though, is that more people on the left are realizing that in order to fight back against this, we have to be stronger ourselves. We have to be willing to put forward a radically alternative vision of the world and back it up with action. People are talking about sanctuary now all over the country and building a movement to actually protect undocumented people, for example. We are putting out our own much stronger narrative in response to this really scary moment.

AT: Yeah, I think this dovetails with what Jonathan was saying. The people who were supposed to protect us from this failed, and part of it is because they had offered mealy-mouthed neoliberal policies as opposed to bold moral visions. There was a fear of naming the real enemy.

JMS: We can’t treat our opponents — let alone the people who voted for Trump — as a monolith. We have to break down and map our opponents. Doing so presents us with strategic dilemmas. For example, unapologetic white supremacists like Richard Spencer are intentionally shifting the window of acceptab