Prior to November 11, 2016 things were looking really bad for democracy. After November 11, 2016 things have looked a lot worse. Washington is dismantling what remains of public discourse, worker rights, and environmental protections, all at the same time. The wealthy can blatantly get away with anything, and it feels like we are powerless to stop them. Not is the Democratic Party impotent and spineless, unable to develop a strategy to fight back, but they are actually part of the problem. Some of them are great, but several of them vote with the Republicans on key votes, and most of them focus more on Trump’s ties to Russia, which I admit could possibly be very important, than on building a long term strategy to salvage our democracy.
I have spent most of my adult life watching this train wreck happen in slow motion. I was optimistic that the tide would turn any day now, most likely when Obama was elected. I was not sure how I could help, but I maintained political awareness, ready to share my opinion. If nothing else, I thought that was my responsibility. It was not until recently that I started to realize the scale of the problem, and understand what a possible solution to the train wreck would look like.
This is not the first time this has happened. The wealthy have used our democracy for their ends before. In the past the solution has been mass, organized grassroots movements. On some level, this is nothing surprising. We know there is something dysfunctional about getting politically active every four years, and then going the sleep, waiting for our elected representatives to represent us. This is the problem. Voting matters, so keep voting, but do not forget that your elected official is probably a lot more wealthy than you. And do not forget that once they go to Washington, they probably have very little face time with 99%. They spend most of their time fundraising from the 1% (because that is how things are done these days).
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown us that politicians can win elections with small donations only (rather than large donations from the 1%) by widening the voter base. This is very exciting, and should be adopted in all 50 states. At the same time, there are not enough progressive politicians like her to save us. Each of us have to remain politically active.
And being politically active isn’t enough. We cannot just protest at rallies in the streets on the weekends, and believe our anger will be enough. We have already seen that most of the time Washington is able to ignore our massive marches. The Women’s March after Trump’s election was incredible, about 5 million people marched worldwide, and it has helped us build a movement, but on its own it changed nothing in Washington. Voting and mass protests will not save our democracy.
The real answer involves getting organized. We need to organize social infrastructure and technology that can mobilize people to behave in such a way that actively shows Washington we will not be complicit anymore. They have to truly believe the people are able and willing to stop the system from functioning. Things will only change when we see fear in their eyes. The system requires our complicity. We recognize this, but feel powerless to make a difference. If individuals resist, we have found over the last four decades, the system keeps functioning without any hiccups. If we join together in collective action, we have the ability to make important changes that would dramatically improve people’s lives.
We have seen this happen many times in history, but rarely recently. Workers in England in the 1800’s regularly worked 15 and 18 hour days (or more) in dangerous factories, so they joined together in strikes. During the Great Depression in America people were unable to feed their families, so they struck together. The boost into the middle class that white families received after the New Deal and the economic prosperity after World War II highlighted the threat of violence and disproportionate poverty people experienced merely for being born Black in America, so they strategically protested non-violently together, enduring violence and hatred while the whole world was watching. Each time people’s life, dignity, and well-being was in danger, and they were no longer willing to be complicit. Each time all kinds of people inconvenienced their normal lives, sometimes even putting their lives on the line, in order to develop organizations and strategies to inconvenience those with power (and money). Each time the powerful got a glimpse of fear. They realized they had no choice but to make a deal with the people- they had to pass important legislation, giving democratic power and protections to the people.
Since the 1980’s Americans have been comfortable, and the uncomfortable have been sufficiently marginalized. Income inequality is resulting in a dismantling of the above mentioned legislation, transferring power back to the wealthy, leaving the rest of us more vulnerable. Normal people are feeling the pain, I am feeling the pain, economically and otherwise, and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Many are channeling their anger towards each other (immigrants, refugees, minorities), looking to authoritarian leaders for solutions. This is misguided, but understandable, because authoritarians talk tough, as if they’re not going to take shit from anyone anymore. The rest of us feel that way. I can see why that would be appealing, but we have to take power back from the elites ourselves. We can’t wait for authoritarians to pretend to do it for us.
One last comment. The reality is that the globalized world we live in is radically different than it used to be, so what worked before will not work today. For example, unions will probably never be what they once were, but people will have to find new opportunities for collective action in order to turn the tide of authoritarianism. That being said, as long as we remember we can never turn back the clock, the more familiar we are with the history of collective action, the more we will know how to behave in the future.