USA Election: A Movement Can Always Beat A Machine

socmvmtcollage1New Orleans   The election was over early, just not the way many had expected. I had always argued that regardless of the polls and pundits the election was going to be close, but I had also argued that I thought Clinton would win. Now, I will have to substitute the word “thought” for “hoped.” I had always argued that I hoped Trump would be the Republican nominee because he might be the only candidate Clinton could beat. I now may have to rethink that and revise my analysis, because Trump and his unique campaign may have been the only candidate that Clinton could NOT beat.

The bottom line is pretty clear: a real movement can always beat a machine. When you have almost vastly unpopular candidates in the contest, making everything relatively equal in that regard, a genuine movement can always beat even the best financed and well-oiled machine.

As progressives, we have to understand the simple facts. With courage, this could have been us. In fact given the closeness of the contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, it almost was us.

As organizers, we have to give Trump credit for his willingness to unabashedly embrace a movement and his place in it. He argued a case for the abandoned and left behind by the economy. He railed against the adverse impacts of trade and globalization. He argued for jobs for the jobless. He made a better case against Wall Street and the Washington establishment. These are all our issues. A populist is someone who puts the people first, and as unlikely as Trump was as the bearer of that message, this was our message.

The contest in coming months on the right and throughout the establishment will be to see who can best capture Trump’s heart and soul to make him fit the usual mold better. We actually need to push him on the claims he has made to deliver change to our constituency, if we want to reclaim it. We need to push the demands of huge blocks of those who will feel suddenly disenfranchised by this counterattack by the white and rural and too much of the working class: women, Latinos, and African-Americans. These are also our constituencies and Trump is vulnerable to all of them in trying to convert his movement to governance.

We know these problems and their fragility, because we have faced it repeatedly. We saw how rapidly the movement behind Obama dissipated. Trump may be a horse less easily broken to the bit, and in that space the effort is being made to corral him, we have huge opportunities, if we are able to seize them. Make no mistake this new world order in America will hurt millions if allowed to settle and concretize or be usurped by the far right, so we really don’t have much choice. This is ride-or-die time.

Disruption forces realignments. Chaos provides opportunities, but only to those moving hard and fast to take them and create change out of the turmoil. We have to engage the struggle where we find it, and Trump has now created the new conditions for engagement, and we now have to adapt quickly and organize the alternative paths for new movements to take hold and win, before the door closes and the opportunities are once again lost.

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Obama is Wrong about Social Movements and Activists

 “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

New Orleans   President Obama is on his farewell tour. Speaking to a young, university audience in London while trying to drum up some support for Britain to stay in the European Union, he offered what has to be seen as totally gratuitous advice to them – and of course all of the rest of us – about what he sees as the proper, underline “proper,” role for social movements and activists. And, not surprisingly, he is totally wrong, but here was what he had to offer:

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.”

In the New York Times story about his remarks, they predictably added that something that they felt, equally gratuitously, would help give an extra dose of credibility or street cred to the President of the United States, arguably – and temporarily – one of the powerful people in the world. They offered that,

Mr. Obama began his career as a community organizer working on local initiatives in poor neighborhoods in Chicago. Sometimes, he said, solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions.

Now, certainly if you are a big whoop, or the biggest whoop of them all you, want the rowdies out there to get the message that if you lean down from your perch and deign to listen to them for a hot minute, they are supposed to understand that they are supposed to behave, thank you, and then go and shut the heck up. But, as Obama surely must really know, regardless of the claptrap he’s selling right now, the role of social movements, and many activists, is exactly the opposite. The role of social movements in fact is to speak “truth to power,” not to make the deals and settle for the incremental changes, but to chant, “more, more, more,” keep the heat on that continues to create the pressure and push to create the space for the deal-makers to do their thing to get closer and closer to the mark, and not stop until the job is done.

Obama knows from his time in Chicago that an organization has to accept “half a loaf” frequently to deliver to its members. Good organizations get more, and weaker organizations get less, but it’s a social movement’s job to continue to raise the banner for truth, justice, and the whole loaf. There’s a different between seeking power and putting on the pressure. The Alinsky tradition, that Obama shared, was always uncomfortable with social movements because they were too easily appeased by applause, rather than being thankful that social movements enlarged the space to allow organizations to win even greater victories. Sadly, but once again not surprisingly, Obama knew this seven years ago when he challenged activists to push him – and the country – if they wanted more change, but now that he’s more worried about his past legacy, than his future accomplishments, he sitting too comfortably on the throne.

It’s worth respecting his position, but for the sake of all of us working for change, when it comes to social movements, we need to adamantly decline to follow his advice.

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