timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

Two years after organizing the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin made the following arguments in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” (Commentary, 2/39, Feb. 1965). By calling these points “timely,” I don’t mean that they are necessarily correct; I mean that they are usefully provocative in our moment.

1. Racial justice is impossible without a new economy, because the current economy is too unequal and too limited to accommodate many newly enfranchised people. For example, there are too few decent jobs, and the people who have them will hold onto them unless the supply is expanded.

My quarrel with … moderates is that they do not even envision radical changes; their admonitions of moderation are, for all practical purposes, admonitions to the Negro to adjust to the status quo, and are therefore immoral.

2. The goal is not to confront racist attitudes (which would assume that, deep down, racists and hypocrites can have benign motives). The goal is to change institutions; attitudinal change will follow from that.

[Meanwhile, a second group] pursues what I call a ‘no-win’ policy. Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts–by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flaggelants, they may gleefully applaud (though not really agreeing with) Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes–a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions–social, political, and economic institutions–which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let those institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

3. Radical change does not require violence.

[The] term revolutionary, as I have been using it, does not connote violence; it refers to the qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions, more or less rapidly, to the point where the social and political structure which they comprised can no longer be said to be the same.

4. But to change institutions does require power.

There is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.

5. In a democracy, power requires numbers–indeed, a majority of the whole electorate.

A handful of Negroes, acting alone, could integrate a lunch counter by strategically locating their bodies so as directly to interrupt the operation of a proprietor’s will; their numbers were relatively unimportant. … But in arriving at a political decision, numbers and organizations are crucial, especially for the economically disenfranchised.

6. Coalition politics is inevitable, and it implies the right kind of compromise.

[The] effectiveness of a swing vote depends solely on ‘other’ votes. It derives its power from them. … Thus coalitions are inescapable, no matter how tentative they may be. … The issue is which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program. Necessarily there will be compromise. But the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones. The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense.

7. The coalition must include everyone with reasonably aligned interests so that they can marginalize their real opponents, the Donald Trumps of the day.

It has become fashionable in some no-win Negro circles to decry the white liberal as the main enemy (his hypocrisy is what sustains racism). [Thus] the Negro is left in majestic isolation, except for a tiny band of fervent white initiates. But the objective fact is that [Dixecrat Mississippi Senator James] Eastland and [GOP Presidential nominee Barry] Goldwater are the main enemies–they and opponents of civil rights, of the war on poverty, of medicare, of social security, of federal aid to education, of unions, and so forth.

tools for the #resistance

I was in Eau Claire, WI, on Sunday and honored to present to a large group of active citizens convened by a local Indivisible chapter and other parts of the #resistance. I offered five tools for thinking about political movements. My presentation went into somewhat more detail, but this is the gist.

First, the question for citizens is “What we should do?” — where “we” means a concrete group of people like the folks convened in a room in Eau Claire on Sunday.

The hard part is to avoid a shift into “What should be done?” or “How should things be?” Those questions evade responsibility. They are also excessively easy. Carbon should be taxed; Trump should resign. Those points may be correct but they don’t tell us what we should do.

Second, any functioning political group, network, or movement should combine deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships. Deliberation means discussing what to do in diverse groups. That makes us wiser. Collaboration means actually getting work done together, coordinating voluntary action. And civic relationships are the reasons that people participate.

That framework is central to my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, which I wrote while Barack Obama was president. I have considered whether this framework is obsolete when a man who threatens the republic occupies the White House. I still believe it applies. For one thing, people learn to value deliberative and collaborative styles of leadership by participating personally in decent groups. When only 28 percent of Americans report belonging to any group that is inclusive and accountable, no wonder many tolerate Trump’s style of leadership. Besides, every large-scale social movement, no matter how adversarial, needs deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships to move forward. These are scarce but renewable sources of power.

Third, try to maximize four goods that are often in tension. “Scale” means involving a lot of people. You can’t win without numbers. “Depth” means transforming people, building their skills, confidence, wisdom, and leadership. That’s necessary because we must all grow to be effective. “Pluralism” means encompassing a diversity of ideas and identities. Groups that fail to be pluralist get stupid and are unable to appeal to outsiders. “Unity” means coming together for one cause. Together they spell “SPUD,” which is a handy acronym. The challenge is that Depth trades off against Scale, and Pluralism against Unity. But the best movements achieve a bit of all four.

Fourth, work at several levels of power. The discussion of  “faces” or “levels” of power goes back at least to Stephen Lukes and John Gaventa in the 1970s; I borrow from the recent version by Archon Fung. The basic idea is that you can challenge a particular wrong, or a rule or policy, or who makes the rules and policies, or what’s on the public’s agenda. For instance, you could help an individual vote, change voting laws, change who makes the voting laws (e.g., who draws district boundaries), or change how the public thinks about voting.

I venture the generalization that right-wing leaders are much better than the left at the third level of power. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has relentlessly attacked public sector unions (except police) so that union leaders can’t help determine policies; and he has passed restrictive voters to change who participates in elections. The left is better at the first and second levels of power, but those levels have limits.

Finally, I reposted my “How to Respond?” chart, which I first released on this blog a couple of days after the November election. (Click to expand it.) It offers a set of strategies for activists in the current moment.

You can do more than one of these things. Probably some people should be doing each of them. But the eight options in the bottom row are too many for any one person or group to undertake, and they are in some tension. It’s hard for a group devoted to winning the 2018 election also to convene ideologically diverse conversations to bridge the gap between right and left. So most of us need to choose.

Note that I didn’t write, “How to respond to Trump’s victory.” This diagram doesn’t pretend to be nonpartisan or politically neutral. It offers options like winning the next election with a Democratic coalition and resisting the administration. But it is meant to be somewhat open-ended and subject to various interpretations. Genuine conservatives might take it to mean, “How to take our party back from a big-government chauvinist.” And leftists might interpret is as “How to respond to three centuries of injustice, in which Democrats are complicit.” As always, a plurality of views is an asset.

One way to use these tools might be to brainstorm concrete actions and then ask which cells in the last table you are filling, which levels of power you are addressing, how you are doing in SPUD, and whether you have deliberated and collaborated well. This process will not generate The Right Answer but it may help inform your strategies.

Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis by Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman

About $3 billion was contributed to influence 2016 federal campaigns. In a new paper entitled “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis,” Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman suggest a much better way to spend some of that money.

I realize, by the way, that political donors want candidates to notice their support. It would nevertheless make all the difference if they gave one percent of their $3 billion to activities that strengthen democracy–compensating for irradiating the body politic with polarizing and demoralizing messages. Progressive donors would also build the base for more progressive policy by investing for the longer term.

Russon-Gilman and Rahman argue “that today’s populist moment emphasizes the need to create a genuinely responsive, participatory form of democratic politics in which communities are empowered, rather than alienated.” They advocate investments that “self-consciously strive to build constituencies and identities that are more inclusive and accommodating. Think of this as ‘us’ populism, as opposed to ‘them’ populism.”

That basic stance supports two strategies:

  1. More investment in community organizing, especially the types that build “new bridges across racial, gender, and geographic divides.” Russon-Gilman and Rahman advocate broad-based, long-term organizing instead of mobilizing people around specific issues.
  2. “Reforming our institutions of governance” so that agencies offer citizens more “hooks and levers” to influence power, and so that public sector workers have skills and incentives to engage the public better.

These strategies imply (as the authors note) a broad understanding of democracy. It is not all about elections, nor even about the official government. It’s about how people come together and exercise power.

The paper offers valuable case studies. For instance, under the heading of organizing:

  • “The Center for Rural Strategies (CRS) … based in Whitesburg, Ky. in the central Appalachian coalfields, provides rural communities and nonprofit organizations with resources on innovative media and communications strategies in order to strengthen their work.” CRS provides information, challenges stereotypes about its communities, and lobbies for better access to the physical infrastructure for communications, because both content and conduit matter. (See “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country’” by Ben Fink for a similar case.)
  • “Coworker.org (Coworker) is a digital platform for workers’ voices founded in response to the decline of formal institutions organizing workers and geared towards building a twenty-first century model of worker power. The organization provides tools directly to workers to self-advocate within the workplace, usually where no labor structure or organizing already exists.” Like CRS, Coworker invests in people who develop as leaders.

Examples under the heading of institutions include:

  • “The Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) was established as a permanent city agency in Richmond, Va., in 2015 to provide anti-poverty strategy and policy advice to the mayor and to implement municipal poverty reduction initiatives and systemic changes around housing, education, and economic development.”
  • “The Public Engagement Unit (PEU) is a division in New York’s city government started in 2015 [is] devoted to knocking on doors and making calls to hard-to-reach constituents to enroll them in city services, as well as foster long-term individual relationships with city staff.”

Overall, “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis” helps make the case for investments that are less short-term, less oriented to immediate efficiency, less split between government and civil society, but more experimental, more open-ended, and more truly inclusive than we normally see (especially, I would say, on the left).

See also: why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; and community organizing between Athens and Jerusalem.

the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts

I can’t recommend too strongly Hahrie Han’s New York Times piece entitled “Want Gun Control? Learn From the N.R.A.” Her argument is important not only for gun-control advocates but for everyone who has a political cause in 21st century America.

Han notes that the NRA does not win because it deploys more money than its opponents do. Funding is substantial on both sides of the issue. I would add that most political scientists doubt that money has much influence on high-salience legislative battles.

Rather, the NRA has “built something that gun-control advocates lack: an organized base of grass-roots power.” Han identifies three characteristics of the NRA that I believe have always been the main ingredients of vibrant civil society in America:

  1. Through gun clubs and gun shops, the NRA offers a wide range of activities and benefits, not merely opportunities to express one’s opinion on a policy issue. In that sense, the NRA is like the traditional bulwarks of 20th-century civil society: religious communities, unions, grassroots political party organizations, and metropolitan daily newspapers. All offered packages of non-political benefits (worship services, employment contracts, social opportunities, comics and box scores) while also steering their members into politics.
  2. The NRA recruits people who do not necessarily agree with its positions but brings them into a community that has strong norms and cultural resonances. Belonging then changes people’s opinions about issues. Again, this was true of religious denominations, unions, 20th-century parties, and newspapers.
  3. The NRA may be centrally run, but it offers lots of opportunities for leadership at the local level.

In contrast, most gun-control groups draw people who already agree about their issue. We join because we want to regulate guns, and only for that reason. Our relationship with the organization is transactional. They ask us to send them money or contact members of Congress, and we take these actions as individuals. Han recalls:

When I joined gun-control groups, I got messages about narrowly defined issues like background checks and safety locks. These messages were a pollster’s dream, tested down to the comma to maximize the likelihood that I would donate or take action. But they never challenged me to rethink who I was or what my relationship to my community was.

A community of people organized around a whole way of life and capable of developing relationships and leadership–that is a fearsome force in politics. A list of people who already vote in a given way and agree to send money or make phone calls–not so much.

One result is that the NRA beats the gun-control groups. The other is that many people lack opportunities to become effective and well-networked citizens because they don’t see organizations around them that offer any opportunities for belonging. They perceive their communities as what my colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan named “civic deserts.” (The analogy is to food deserts: places where nutritious food is not for sale.) In an era of civic deserts, a robust membership group like the NRA has awesome power. If you admire their structure but despise their lobbying agenda, then the solution must be to build alternative structures.

See also:  Civic Deserts and our present crisisthe Hollowing Out of US Democracy; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth). And see this new article by CIRCLE: Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do

Democrats as technocrats

This web search takes you to a whole stack of good recent writing about the Democratic Party as the technocratic party, with headlines ranging from Twilight of the Technocrats? to The Triumph of the Technocrats. In lieu of a critical review, I’d pose these questions:

  1. What would a technocrat support and do in our context? It’s possible to be a socialist technocrat or a technocrat who works for a huge, for-profit company. I presume that a technocratic Democrat today is someone who believes in optimizing GDP growth, environmental sustainability, and reductions in tangible human distress (e.g., disease, homicide) through efficient governmental policies. These desired outcomes often conflict, and then technocrats are fine with compromise. To qualify as a technocrat, you can’t be too enthusiastic about working with ordinary citizens on public issues, and you can’t base your agenda on controversial, challenging moral ideals.
  2. Do Democrats present themselves as technocrats, in this sense? Some do and some don’t. It seems fair to read the positive agenda of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as largely technocratic (she promised to govern competently and continue the balanced progress of her predecessor), although her critique of Donald Trump was ethical rather than technical. I also think that Clinton was in a tough spot because she didn’t believe that she could accomplish transformative change with a Republican Congress; thus managerial competence seemed a workable alternative. The 2016 campaign does not demonstrate that she–let alone all Democrats–are fully technocratic. However, consider a different case that is pretty revealing: the Josiah Bartlet Administration. This is an informative example just because it is idealized and fictional, free of any necessary constraints. The Bartlet White House is staffed with hard-working, highly-educated, unrealistically competent, smartest-guy-in-the-room, ethical people who strive to balance the budget while making incremental progress on social issues. Hollywood’s idealized Democrats are technocrats in full.
  3. Do Democrats choose technocratic policies? Again, I’d say “sometimes.” Both the Clinton and Obama Administrations definitely showed some predilection for measurable, testable outcomes; for behavioral economics; and for models that were consistent with academic research about the economy and the climate. They weren’t particularly good at empowering citizens to govern themselves or collaborating with social movements. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act has a moral core (aiming to cover people without health insurance), even if many of its tools and strategies are best defined as technocratic.
  4. Are Democrats good technocrats? There has been more economic growth under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the sample is small, several Democratic presidents faced conservative congresses, and any correlation with a small “n” can easily be spurious. A deeper point is that Democrats are currently more committed to the mainstream findings of climate science, social policy research, and academic economics than Republicans are. Their accomplishments may be affected by sheer chance, but their strategies tend to be consistent with positivist, empirical research.
  5. Is Democratic technocracy consistent with justice? No. Almost any theory of justice, from libertarian to strongly egalitarian, would demand fundamental shifts from the status quo. Certainly, I would favor deeper changes in our basic social contract. On the other hand, compared to what? Managing our existing social policies in a competent way delivers substantial, if inadequate, justice. It beats incompetence or deliberate assaults on existing social institutions. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a center-left technocratic party would play an important role. I would be open to voting for it, depending on the circumstances and the alternatives. In our two-party system, a technocratic and centrist component competes for control of the Democratic Party. It shouldn’t be surprising that this component receives constant criticism from within the Party, because the Democrats represent a broader coalition, and there is plenty of room to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton. Whatever you think of her, I don’t think you can complain that she was criticized from her left.
  6. Is Democratic technocracy good politics? That’s not a question that will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. Clinton lost to Trump but also won the popular vote. She was technocratic but not completely so. She faced many contingencies, from Fox News to Bernie to Comey, and handled them in ways that we can debate for the next decade. Again, the answer has to be: Compared to what? A compelling new vision of America’s social contract would beat competent management at the polls. But competent management may beat incompetence or a deeply unpopular vision (from either right or left).
  7. What’s driving the Democratic Party’s drift to technocracy? One could explain it in class terms: the Democratic coalition is now highly educated, including many people who make a living by demonstrating expertise. But I would propose a deeper thesis. Modernity itself is defined by constant increases in specialization and differentiation, plus radical doubts about our ability to know which ends are moral or just. In that context, people prosper who are good at applying technical reasoning to complex problems without worrying too much about whether the ultimate ends are right. Modernity has generated a white-collar governing class that is currently aligned with the Democrats, but more than that, it has generated a very high estimation of expertise combined with a leeriness about moral discourse. Religious conservatives monopolize the opposition to both of these trends. Getting out of this trap requires more than new messages and policies. It is a fundamental cultural problem.

See also: the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyvarieties of neoliberalismthe big lessons of Obamacarethe new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; and why the white working class must organize.

assessing the congressional town meeting protests, 2009 and 2017

In 2009, when Democratic House members went home to discuss the Affordable Care Act with their constituents, they faced disruptive questions and protests, often from people loosely affiliated with the Tea Party. The protesters cited such supposed evils as Death Panels. This year, when Republican House members go home to discuss repealing the same legislation, they face disruptive questions and protests from supporters of the ACA. In at least one case, a Member of Congress decried the Death Panels that are supposedly now in existence and was hooted down as a liar by his constituents. In both 2009 and 2017, many Members of Congress have decided not to hold so-called Town Meetings at all because of the prospect of protests that would be covered on mass media.

2009

2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was prone to lament the protests in 2009 but welcome them in 2017. That sounds like hypocrisy, but the comparison is more complicated. First, the same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on its purpose and content. Making such distinctions requires judgment, but judgment is essential in politics and is not merely a form of bias. In other words, the right judgment may be that the protests of 2017 are helpful even though those of 2009 were harmful. One reason may be that the protesters of 2017 are speaking truth, and those of 2009 were repeating lies. I acknowledge that’s a simplification, but it may be roughly correct.

Second, if we treat a political act (such as organizing or disrupting a public meeting) as a general category, without reference to its purpose or outcome, we still must weigh several values. Disrupting a meeting is bad for civility but may enhance free speech and agency. Only a purist about civil dialogue would automatically oppose any form of disruption.

I took a somewhat unusual position in ’09. I argued that deliberation–i.e., genuinely listening and being open to changing one’s mind–plays an important role in a democracy. When protesters shut down events sponsored by Democrats, or when Democrats stopped holding open meetings in fear of protests, deliberation suffered. This was a shame because we are all badly limited, morally and cognitively, and we need opportunities to hear from the other side.

However, I said then, a major cause of the disruption was the design of these events. In a truly deliberative event, such as a classic New England Town Meeting, the participants make a collective decision that is not pre-determined by the organizer. To make such a discussion go well requires rules that give people and arguments equal time and organize the debate. An event that is billed as a “Town Meeting” is a fake deliberation if the politician-organizer has already made up his or her mind and just wants to persuade the audience. Giving members of the public a chance to react for a minute at the mic. is a recipe for angry responses. Such meetings are so predictably bad that they provide frequent moments of comedy on Parks & Rec:

The solution would be to reserve events that are billed as deliberative for genuine deliberations. Citizens would be invited to discuss and design solutions, and the organizers would be open to any outcomes. An example is our successful recent experiment with a Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts.

When, on the other hand, a representative already holds a position on an issue and wants to persuade the public, she or he is entitled to screen the audience, to talk only through the media, or otherwise to control the format. At the same time, opponents are entitled to exercise their rights of assembly and petition to argue the opposite position. If the politician chooses to speak in an open room, then she should expect disruptions. If the politician screens the audience, she should expect people outside with signs.

Several additional issues arise for me:

  1. What should matter to protesters is winning. You win if you get more than 50% of the public to support you actively, e.g., by voting in 2018. A protest that may inspire your side and even encourage more participation may also alienate the undecided. Everyone involved in a social movement should read Bayard Rustin’s 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” to remember the difference between moral purity and political effectiveness. Perhaps “What would the median voter think about this?” is not the only important question, but it is always one question to consider explicitly.
  2. The number of people who are present at these events is trivially small in a nation of almost 320 million. The protests matter because they are covered by mass and social media. Controversy and outrage are profitable for media companies. That means that moments of disruption will receive disproportionate attention, and most moments of actual dialogue will be lost. An effective protest may have at least two mediated audiences: supporters whom it inspires, and opponents whom it outrages. They will see the same event in different media contexts. Smart political activists think their way through to the media coverage in all channels.
  3. Listening is a political virtue, even if it’s not the only virtue. Speaking out of turn at a meeting, or drowning out the main speaker, may be the right thing to do. It allows other people to hear you and it honors your right to a voice. But it does have a cost: the audience can’t hear the person you have drowned out or preempted. It’s appropriate to reduce that cost by (for example) interrupting briefly and then yielding back the floor.
  4. Politicians who appear at open public meetings before hostile audiences to defend their settled positions are not strictly deliberating. They have made up their minds and they seek to use their influence to affect public opinion. However, by physically appearing before their critics, they demonstrate vulnerability. As Danielle Allen argues in Talking to Strangers, democracy requires vulnerability. It is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for valuable interactions between people who are strong and weak. Therefore, Republican Members of Congress who continue to face protesters in open meetings deserve some credit–which takes nothing away from the protesters who challenge them.
  5. A protest is a moment of potential, but only if the protesters find other ways of acting together politically. In turn, that requires members of the protest movement to form durable relationships and to develop and extend their skills, usually in the context of organizations to which they belong. In a very important recent interview, Marshall Ganz says, “Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership.”

responding to the deep story of Trump voters

(Washington, DC) This is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s now-famous “deep story” of Louisiana Tea Party supporters, their “account of life as it feels to them.” It’s become famous because it’s also the “deep story” of at least some Trump voters:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

One response to anyone who holds this story is basically: Drop it. The people you believe have moved ahead of you on line are actually still behind, in the sense that they still face unfair disadvantages. For example, an applicant with an identical resume is much less likely to receive a job interview if his name sounds African American rather than White. (My own team is replicating this finding now, as part of a larger study to be released later.) To the extent that some people are moving forward on line, it’s because the most blatant inequalities are being to some extent remedied.

This is true, but I don’t believe it will work politically. I can’t think of any group in history that, upon being informed of its unfair advantages, has responded by yielding them willingly.* The standard response to being told you are privileged is to realize that you have something to defend. And I think that’s an especially likely response if you actually face hardships and disadvantages–which is true of White working-class rural Louisianans.

Waiting in line is a perfect example of a zero-sum situation. Literally, to move one space forward in a queue is to move everyone else one space back. As long as people see themselves in zero-sum relations with others, politics will be ugly. Of course, people don’t have to see the competition in racial terms. If, for instance, White rural Louisianans saw themselves as part of the same group as African-American rural Louisianans, they wouldn’t count successful Black people as winning against them. As Jamelle Bouie wrote yesterday, “many white Americans hold (and have held) a zero-sum view of politics, where gains and benefits for nonwhites are necessarily an imposition on their status.” He adds that how to “fix this white voter problem … is a separate and difficult question.” Telling the people whom Hochschild interviewed that they are racists does not seem to me a likely solution (nor does Bouie suggest it).

A different approach is to attack the zero-sum framing of the situation. People should be asking why anyone must wait so long for the American Dream. White Americans have voted for progressive policies when they have come to think that maybe everyone could achieve a good, secure, prosperous life. The underlying rules could be changed so that everyone wins.

The immediate barrier to that kind of solution is distrust in government. If you don’t believe that government can be trusted to improve the social contract, then the existing contract may seem inevitable. Then your struggle with other people is zero-sum.

And people no longer trust the government much …

Perhaps the most common way to change this trend is to try to “sell” people on the government again– to persuade them that it offers solutions by outlining the policies that it can achieve and by using more effective rhetoric to defend it as an institution.

I dissent in part. People should not trust governments. As Jean Cohen writes, “One can only trust people, because only people can fulfill obligations.” Trust in the US government, as displayed by the American public ca. 1958, was naive. It often involved viewing presidents and other national leaders as friendly personalities, which reflected poor judgment. When it comes to governments and other large institutions, we ought to use one of these substitutes for trust:

  1. A sober assessment that the incentives are aligned to make the people who run the government also look out for our interests. I don’t think rural White Louisianans have much reason to make that assessment, even though, in my view, they would have been much better off with Clinton than with Trump.
  2. Personal connections to people who work in or closely with government. Because politics and government service are now the preserves of white-collar professionals, working-class people have few such connections. Consider, for example, the almost total absence of actual, current working-class people at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
  3. Intermediary organizations that tangibly answer to us and (in turn) influence governments. Unions [and grassroots-based political parties] were prime examples, but they are shattered.

I’d support anything that makes White Americans less likely to see zero-sum situations in racial terms. But I believe it’s most promising to reduce the zero-sum situation more generally. Improving the social contract requires large institutions. Governments are strong candidates, although unions, co-ops, and other nongovernmental structures can be effective as well. Any large institution must, in turn, have direct, human connections to the people whose support it seeks. That means that even if the government is our main tool for social change, we need more than the state by itself; it must come with a panoply of social movements and organizations that link people to it. The hollowing out of these movements and organizations is thus at the root of our problems.

See also why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election.

*Partial exception: the French nobility voted on August 4, 1789 to abolish the privileges of feudalism, spending all night eliminating one major privilege at a time by majority vote. It was a heady spectacle, but many of them lost their actual heads in 1793-4. Besides, they were voting for a new regime that promised all kinds of glories, not just moving themselves down the social hierarchy.

the Democrats and religious Americans

In The Atlantic just before the New Year, Michael Wear–an evangelical who helped Barack Obama with “faith outreach”–offered a critical assessment of the Democrats’ relationships with Evangelicals, 81% of whom supported Trump in 2016. Wear argued that it is a civic obligation to strive to engage all sectors of the society, and it’s a political necessity to engage religious Christians, given their large numbers. Wear wouldn’t expect Democrats to compromise on the substance of abortion, but he suggested that they could acknowledge the moral motivations of abortion’s opponents and look for common ground where it exists. He also decried a certain tone-deafness or ignorance about religious values and traditions, which sometimes verges implicitly on contempt. For instance:

[Wear] once drafted a faith-outreach fact sheet describing Obama’s views on poverty, titling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These,” a reference to a famous teaching from Jesus in the Bible. Another staffer repeatedly deleted “the least of these,” commenting, “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?”

Wear’s remarks are a bit anecdotal and could give a misleading overall impression. However, in The New Republic, Sarah Jones responded in a way that I thought vindicated Wear’s point. She argued that the Democrats should “frame abortion access as a moral good”; women suffer from any wavering on that topic. (Note that an outright majority of women have been against abortion in several recent years.) She added, “The country is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly liberal on issues like marriage equality. The Democratic party won’t win by catering to social conservatives, and it shouldn’t try.”

Leaving aside Wear’s point that national leaders should always try to engage any significant group, Jones is also wrong empirically. It’s true that the proportion of Americans who do not believe in God has risen–to 10% in 2016. Still, 89% say they believe in God, 64% believe in Hell, 54% believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems,” 53% say that religion is very important in their own lives, and 55% claim to belong to a church or synagogue. The secularization trend is subtle and modest. I also fail to see a trend in the pro-choice direction:

Ed Kilgore offers a more interesting response to the Wear interview. He notes that whenever Democrats become concerned about losing “religious” voters, the conversation turns to White Evangelicals (see the Wear interview) or to “cultural conservatives” (as in Jones’ reply), with sometimes a passing reference to Jews. The discussion overlooks Catholics of all backgrounds, Protestants of color, Mainline Protestants (who number 36 million, mostly Whites), Muslims, Hindus, and other religious minorities.

Many of these constituencies see politics through religious lenses, at least in part. They are prone to be alienated by an aggressive secularist agenda, and they are likely to see issues like abortion as morally complicated, wherever they land. Often enough they vote for reasons other than religious ones. For instance, a majority of Mainline Protestants supported Trump, which I would attribute mainly to their race and class rather than their faith. Still, there are powerful faith-based reasons that they might oppose not only Trump but also Paul Ryan’s economics. Meanwhile, religious congregations remain sources of social capital and bottom-up political power that progressives ignore at their peril.

See also the political advantages of organized religion.

what activist movements will look like in the Trump era

Dave Karpf has a great piece entitled, “Cyclical patterns in activist politics: what do we know about the politics of opposition”? Karpf argues that opposing a government looks very different from the “politics of articulation” (trying to develop and promote an agenda). These are some key differences:

  1. Opposition unites. As Karpf notes, the Tea Party formed to oppose Obama before he had made any policy decisions. Its original rhetoric–and its very name–implied opposition to tax increases. But Obama mainly cut taxes. That was no problem for the Tea Party, which shifted to opposing the Affordable Care Act. It was nimble about policies because its raison d’etre was opposition to a person, his core values, and the institution he controlled.
  2. Rapid response becomes more valuable. Especially in the age of social media, activist networks are good at getting people out quickly. They are much worse at sustaining pressure, negotiating, and achieving new policies. When your side shares formal power, rapid response is relatively unimportant. But when the main goal is to block policies coming from the other side, rapid response pays.
  3. By the same token, it becomes harder to advance a positive agenda when a movement must spend all its time blocking new initiatives from the government.

I would add two hypotheses:

  1. I think activists on the left will shift from soft, proximate targets to confront their main ideological opponents. The global justice movement of the Clinton era criticized transnational corporations and the governments that supported them, yet it gained attention for protests outside the World Bank, which funds development projects. Occupy Wall Street claimed to target Wall Street, yet it got the most traction in conflicts with Democratic big city mayors and state universities that were simultaneously facing budget cuts from conservative legislatures. The environmental movement focuses on massive destruction caused by fossil fuels but achieved a notable victory by pressuring a Democratic president to block a specific pipeline that could be easily bypassed. The left tends to confront near-allies for showing hypocrisy or weakness, but that impulse fades when explicit opponents take control. (See Bayard Rustin’s absolutely indispensable and totally timely 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” for a similar point.)
  2. Maintaining political discipline will be an enormous challenge. As Rustin reminded his fellow Civil Rights leaders in 1965, the point is to win. That requires mobilizing and inspiring a majority of Americans, not just fellow travelers. National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted earlier today, “Anti-Trump protesters are gonna take the bait, aren’t they? They’re gonna burn flags, thinking they’re irking him, but alienating majority.” It’s very hard for any large, loose network to remember what the majority of people value, let alone maintain message-discipline. Whether anti-Trump movements can manage that task is enormously important.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)to beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election; and democracy in the digital age.

the different logics of class and race

It’s common to list racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia together. These are all important and bad phenomena, but they have different logics, and I’m not sure it’s helpful to put them in a single category. Here I explore the differences by focusing on racism and classism.

Older meanings of racism were, I think, always attitudinal. To be a racist was to have negative attitudes toward a racial group, even if those attitudes were unconscious. We now speak of structural racism, which can exist even in the absence of racist attitudes. I sort of wish that we just called that problem “racial injustice,” because the “-ism” suffix connotes an attitude or mindset. But I can accept the linguistic evolution, and I certainly believe that both interpersonal racism and structural racial injustice persist and are destructive.

Classism can be made analogous to the older meaning of racism. You’re a classist if you hold someone in lower regard because of the status of her job, her working-class accent, her neighborhood of birth, or her parents’ social role. Classism of that kind is evident and harmful.

Structural classism would then mean some kind of advantage enjoyed by people due to their class. But this is where the analogy breaks down. Classes are differences in status, power, and advantage. If a society has classes at all, then it gives people different advantages. Put a different way: if a society differentiates among social roles, then it has classes, and that’s structural classism.

Racism is never justifiable, and it’s possible to envision a society that has racial diversity yet no racism. Indeed, I hope that’s where we are headed. In contrast, it’s impossible to imagine a society with classes that doesn’t have “structural classism,” if that means different levels of status, power, or money for different social roles. In theory, we could pay everyone the same salaries, but I’m not sure that would work in practice, and even if it did, it wouldn’t eliminate differences in the quality of work or the status of professions.

Further, classes may be justifiable or even good. Some argue that a classless society is the ideal. We haven’t seen one, however: communist societies produced powerful, detached social strata–the nomenklatura, etc. John Rawls argued that it’s right to pay heart surgeons more than carpenters if (and only if) that is necessary to serve the interests of cardiac patients–who would want highly skilled doctors. Rawls was not perfectly egalitarian, but he was more egalitarian than many Americans, who would make principled and sincere arguments in favor of different pay and status for jobs of different difficulty and complexity.

To say that structural racism exists is to make a critique. To say that classes exist raises the question of whether they are good or bad, and that is worthy of discussion.

One can see the analogy break down in educational settings. A university, for example, ought to be free of both interpersonal and structural racism. It should strive to be a place where your race doesn’t affect how well anyone else treats you or how you flourish. A university cannot, however, be free of class if it exists to provide the education that people need to enter certain desirable professions. If a university prepares people to be teachers, doctors, accountants, and poets, then it is producing a certain class. They could theoretically be paid the same as domestic workers and laborers; they would nevertheless form an advantaged group. A university can strive to reduce interpersonal classism, in the form of prejudice against first-generation students and its own blue-collar employees. But as long as it has blue-collar employees at all, it has classes; and as long as it promises good jobs for its graduates, it generates the class structure. Again, this may be necessary, justifiable, or even good–but it’s no use pretending that an advanced educational institution could be class-free.

Ending racism is theoretically possible and compatible with everyone’s legitimate best interests. You have no right to any advantage conferred by your race, and the very existence of such differences is caustic for all. In contrast, ending class differences might be just, if it’s possible, but it is not compatible with everyone’s interests. We like to talk about “social mobility,” because then we can focus on happy upward trajectories from poor to rich. But for everyone who moves up, someone else must go down. For instance, if the children of domestic workers have a decent chance of growing up to be doctors, then the children of doctors must have a good chance of cleaning houses for a living. Again, we could reduce the disparities in after-tax income and political power, but there will still be winners and losers as long as some people diagnose patients while others clean homes for a living.

Finally, the causation seems to be different. Presumably, interpersonal racism was an original cause (although maybe not the only original cause) of structural racism. We wouldn’t have had slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining if most white people had held most black people in high regard. But today the causal link may be weakened, for structural racism can persist even in the absence of interpersonal racism. For instance, assume that white college grads come to feel benignly and respectfully toward all other races. Still, if each college grad succeeds in getting his own children into a desirable college, those colleges will enroll mostly white students. As long as the distribution of goods in a society is racially unjust, you don’t need interpersonal racism to replicate the inequality; you just need unequal resources plus self-interest.

Meanwhile, interpersonal classism is mainly a consequence of objective differences in income, status, and power. It’s not that middle-class people are prejudiced against working-class people and give them bad jobs. It’s rather that people with bad jobs get treated worse. That pattern can turn into class prejudice, as when a person who has a working-class accent but plenty of money gets treated rudely at a snooty restaurant. But classism of that sort is not the main problem. The main problem is the real distribution of status, wealth, and power in the society. To change that is not a matter of improving attitudes but of redesigning institutions.