By Woody Woodruff
When they had geared up to talk about how the Left will bring pressure on a Hillary Clinton administration, but history intervened just the day before, how did a panel of left activists convened at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington D.C. shift gears on the Morning After?
Like many progressives, they were stunned by the magnitude of the catastrophe—not only a Trump victory but also a failure to change the Senate to Democratic control, leaving the entire government and future Supreme Court nominations in the hands of an exultant (if also temporarily stunned) Right.
The conversation at IPS Nov. 9 quickly switched to the terrain that could still be contested—state and local actions, both governmental and movement-oriented, and the overarching global scene, all of which a Republican administration would have to deal with.
The attendees also mentioned that the Sanders campaign, despite its having fallen short against the Clinton foothold in the Democratic establishment, was transmuting into a permanent Left presence: Our Revolution, that gave progressives far more structure and substance for such efforts, electorally and in terms of social-movement development.
The panelists represented the issues and concerns IPS has championed in good times and bad: Steve Cobble, a co-founder of Progressive Democrats of America; Flavia Jimenez of the Advancement Project, an immigrants’ rights group; Alan Barber of the Center for Economic and Policy Research; Jonathan Hutto, an activist on economic and social justice issues in a black-majority neighbor county in Maryland; and Phyllis Bennis, who directs several international-focus areas for IPS, currently stressing refugees and the wars that create them.
Despite the diversity of the panelists, themes emerged: the problems and prospects of the current US electoral landscape for progressives; opportunities to work at the local and the global levels when the federal level is entirely—if temporarily—in distinctively non-progressive hands; potential weaknesses in the coalition uneasily assembled around Trump; and the importance of social movements beneath the electoral stratum.
Cobble led off by asserting that the final failure of the old Democratic Party establishment “cleared the decks” for millennials to fill the space progressively: “A better world is still possible, no matter how far away it seems this morning.” The Right would not stay on top “because their ideas make no sense,” but the white-identity aspect is connected to austerity and racism and it’s not going to go away. Nevertheless, Cobble said, “the decks are cleared” for a “flat-out fight” in 2018 and 2020.
Cobble, who echoed TV pundit Bill Maher in calling recent events a “slow-moving right-wing coup” lamented especially the loss to the Right of the “poisonous internet…we progressives used to be in control of” but no more.
Jimenez said there’s “never been a more important time to build a strong multiracial movement” because of the white supremacy threat. Trump, she projected, will continue and expand on the program by which Obama has already deported 2 million people. “We have no option but to build a wall of resistance…There’s no time for paralysis…we have to start working outside of our comfort zones” in building alliances.
Barber focused on the persistent income inequality and stagnation of income for most working families, and opportunities for local campaigns for paid sick leave and higher minimum wage. The higher wage, he said, would provide more economic activity for local businesses, who should be included in the coalition. Working at the local and state level, Barber said, the left can “maybe claw back some of the losses we saw yesterday.”
Hutto, coordinator of the Prince George’s County People’s Coalition, said that by midnight Tuesday he had “totally discarded” his remarks about contesting a Clinton administration, and was reminded of his student days at Howard University when Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) told Howard students that for those in the margins of society “the struggle is eternal.” Name-checking a series of civil rights movement victories, he repeatedly said gains came even though “we did not have the most votes…We’ve got to get back in the street and organize for our survival…We have to have a deeper analysis of how to use the vote…how the vote is used for our survival.“ In Prince George’s, he said, a black political culture (the County Council is majority black, the county executive black) has been unresponsive on social justice issues so “we have to fight with those who claim to be our allies.”
Bennis took the long view that, elections aside, “movements are what change history, and the movements around the Trump candidacy are more dangerous than the candidate himself.” We have to remember that on the other hand we progressives are part of a global movement, she said. “Most of our work is going to be local but we have to remember the planet and the people of the planet…We are not the only people who have elected shocking people.”
Bennis continued “we have to focus on defending the most vulnerable among us…work to stop wars is connected with protecting our comrades in our communities. “ She called for a return to organizing cities as sanctuaries. “Demand an end to the wars that put these people [refugees] at risk.”
Moderator John Cavanagh, the IPS director, summarized that state and local fights we win “build national resonance” and that IPS had in the past built a “Cities for Peace” movement. He indicated that the flow of the commentary pointed to building power at the local and global level to counterpoint the current roadblocks at the federal level.
Once the overflow audience had stopped wincing at hearing progressive panelists say aloud the phrase “Trump administration,” the crowd chimed in with plenty of questions and not a few statements.
Many wondered how Trump voters could be reached—what other factors besides white identity and racism were in play. Questions were raised about the potential for the Sanders backers’ next stage, “Our Revolution,” and the value and prospects for third parties as opposed to working with Democrats. And a significant number of questioners wondered aloud if the loss of Clinton and the advent of Trump were distinctions without a difference. Some, inevitably, had come to tout their own ideas and their websites, or announce their events.
Audience members of color were often caustic about the dominant gloom. “What if Trump voters and African American voters were both making rational decisions” about who has and has not acted in their interests? asked a young man from Baltimore. Another, less young, agreed that “we really weren’t that much disappointed at last night’s results” because neither Democrats nor the GOP had much impact on communities of color.
A final observation from an attendee: there’s a power vacuum now that the electorate has done us all “the favor of taking the Clintons out,” providing “a golden opportunity to create a really viable alternative.”
The panelists had a final round on the audience’s concerns. Cobble noted that recent events showed the institutional power of the two parties was more effective when taken over (Trump and, nearly, Sanders) than the top-down impact of third parties. Until some other institutional power comes along, “the Democratic Party is our vehicle.” Jimenez countered the “what’s the difference” sentiment by saying that Trump will definitely make a difference for those subject to deportation or harassment, “that’s just a matter of fact.” And under the GOP, “the right to vote is in peril.” Barber reiterated the value of local movement-building around health care alternatives, possibly developing a public option at the state level. Hutto said the Democratic Party was good as strategy, “not as a question of principle,” and that “the people we back should be based in our movement.” He also noted that “the Trump voters were Bernie’s base!” Bennis added that progressives “have to engage with power, and sometimes that means parties. And there is a difference between the parties.”
Cavanagh addressed several audience questions about how to regain the trust of Trump voters, who are “not all militia.” He noted IPS sends regular op-ed columns to 1,700 small newspapers around the country and invited audience members to submit their own. And he said IPS had “a deep alliance” with People’s Action, a national coalition of mostly state-level progressive organizations such as Progressive Maryland. Leaders of People’s Action circulated a post-election statement praising the victories in which they had a hand, including the four women of color who will be in the new Senate.
The IPS event was broadcast on C-SPAN the same day.
Woody Woodruff, Metro DC DSA member since the 1980s, is production coordinator of their monthly email newsletter, The Washington Socialist.
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