Liberal activists need to level with their base
When I was very young, I participated in a several-month training in community organizing taught by the great Fred Ross, Sr., whose previous students included Cesar Chavez. As it became apparent that the demand for introverted community organizers was not great, I settled for a career in law. But much of the wisdom Fred imparted continues to guide me.
One point he made over and over was the distinction between organizing and mobilizing. Almost anyone, he said, could stir people up and get them to show up at a march or demonstration. By itself, however, that kind of mobilization rarely changes anything: Those responsible for the problem simply keep their heads down until the mobilization concludes — and then keep doing precisely what they were before. Real power, Fred said, comes from organizing. And organizing takes time, developing trust, and understanding one person at a time.
Fred also emphasized the importance of always being truthful with the people one is organizing. No matter how awkward, embarrassing, or discouraging the answer may be, community members deserve an honest response when they ask an organizer a question. Without candor, trust is impossible. When an organizer would gloss over the difficult parts — or make up something she or he did not know — Fred was incensed.
Although the Industrial Areas Foundation, for which both Cesar and Fred worked, is alive and well, I fear that too much of today’s political work follows the alluring expedients of mobilizing rather than the transformational path of organizing.
I am particularly struck by progressive activists’ repeated insistence that “the Democrats” have to deliver on this or that demand or their base will become disillusioned and stop voting. If that is true, it can only be because the activists mobilizing them to vote in the last election failed to level with them about the political situation the nation is in.
Thinking of “the Democrats” as a unitary body susceptible to coercion, and capable of delivering if it “really wants to,” is simply false. Those who voted Democratic in 2020 included progressives, liberals, moderates, and some very conservative people who could not tolerate President Trump — and yet President Biden still carried just 51 percent of the vote. Preventing a resurgence of Trumpism requires the Democrats to maintain a very big and welcoming tent. That cannot work if the welcome evaporates immediately after the election: Progressives do not have sufficiently strong voter support for the Democrats to be viable as a narrowly ideological party.
The feel-good arguments that this country is somehow more progressive than is commonly understood do not bear close examination. Yes, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but far-right candidates won significantly more votes combined than liberal and leftist candidates did. Overall, polls consistently show self-identified conservatives substantially outnumber self-identified liberals. And although polls often show substantial majorities supporting this or that progressive policy, a segment of those liberal voters are nonetheless wedded to the Republicans because of their strong feelings about abortion — particularly as opposition to abortion becomes less tolerated within the Democratic Party.
And anyone who mobilizes voters by suggesting that coming out to vote once will bring victory on this or that issue is not being honest. They are building not power but cynicism. Only organizing people for the long struggle ahead can remedy deep injustices.
Our greatest leaders frankly acknowledged the obstacles their movements faced. As massive as the March on Washington was, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr., was under no illusions that victory was at hand:
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
Had the massive mobilization swept him into declaring that victory was at hand, the brave men and women of the Civil Rights movement would have become disillusioned, lost trust in him, and fallen away. King knew better.
Five years later, on the day before he was killed, Dr. King again preached candidly about the need for perseverance:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Cesar Chavez, too, was candid about the obstacles the farmworkers’ movement faced and the hard, sustained work that would be required for success:
“Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose us are rich and powerful and have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.”
We are now half a century beyond when Dr. King and Cesar Chavez spoke, and yet true victory remains elusive. It is not fair or just that people who have endured so much already are still having to endure more. But promising quick fixes that cannot be delivered will only prolong that injustice by feeding cynicism and division within the progressive movement.
Since the ballots were counted in November 2020 — and, indeed, in earlier elections when Democrats lost too many winnable seats — it has been clear that progressives would have no congressional majority but, at best, could scrape together enough votes with much more conservative members to form an anti-Trumpist coalition.
Anyone who has led the base to believe that victory was at hand on crucial but hotly contested causes if only they pushed Democrats hard enough was deceiving that base and sowing the seeds of future cynicism.
To build the kind of power that can genuinely rescue this country, we need organizing that levels with people about the obstacles ahead, just as Dr. King and Cesar Chavez did. Anything else — the sugar high of short-term mobilizing or seeking some parliamentary magic that can deliver what the voters did not — will only postpone the day when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1
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