With the right-wing Supreme Court claiming the role of the country’s shadow legislature, the results of the midterm elections on Tuesday are less a referendum on Joe Biden and the Democrats’ two-year congressional majority and more a test of how well they can hold back the Right’s momentum. Meanwhile the Left, which was driving much of the political conversation just a couple years ago, is now buckled up tight in the back seat.
It’s not just this election cycle. The past few years have been a strange time for the American left. After a thrilling half-decade that witnessed a socialist come closer to the presidency than ever before, as well as the formation of a small but vocal democratic socialist congressional bloc, there’s now a pervasive sense of being stuck.
One major reason is that while it has become increasingly possible for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to get popular “engines of solidarity” like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal onto the political agenda, there remains virtually zero chance of enacting even part of those programs.
That is especially true in the current moment, when the Left’s electoral influence has plateaued. Our ability to gain attention for our proposals without remotely enough power to carry them out has given the neoliberal center and the Right — both of them far better funded and more organized — plenty of time to launch a counterattack before the fight has really begun.
To be sure, the fact that programs like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are even under discussion is a big step forward. But there’s no realistic way to take the next step without making the status quo uncomfortable for those with the power to change it. How do we get unstuck?
Give People Something to Fight For
Parallel to the growth of Democratic Socialists of America following Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, there was a welcome discussion on the Left regarding the distinction between organizing and mobilizing. Paraphrasing renowned labor organizer Jane McAlevey, Michael Kinnucan explained the difference this way:
Leftist organizing . . . addresses itself to the apolitical, the disillusioned, or those actively hostile to the Left and attempts to persuade them to join organizations and take collective action for their own betterment. Mobilizing, in contrast, seeks out those who already agree and asks them to make their support visible.
Organizing brings new constituencies into the Left, while mobilizing demonstrates existing support.
The quintessential act of organizing is forming a labor union or a tenants’ organization, while the height of mobilizing is a march on Washington, DC. The pre-2020 discussions were generally cast with those two scales in mind. But what if these two paradigms are no longer in as sharp a conflict as they once were? What if it’s time to try something in between?
The Right has effectively used a similar hybrid tactic for years — a loosely coordinated “swarm” model that brings supporters to many local-level demonstrations around the same theme within a relatively short period of time. The contemporary iteration goes back to the Tea Party and continues to this day, drawing in an increasingly surprising set of supporters.
These “swarms” are often more coordinated at the national level than they appear, though it’s not clear how aware most demonstrators are of the groups organizing behind the scenes, nor whether they care. For many leaders, no specific issue is of paramount importance; rather, the idea is to find the issue that will bring people out at that moment. By doing this over and over, the Right draws attention to its causes and keeps up a sense of momentum. It shows unorganized fellow travelers that there are people out there who feel like they do. These fellow travelers, who they might otherwise never have encountered, can then be further organized.
Local protests like these are not very organizationally taxing, asking less of participants than a national-level protest at a single location. Because they can be repeated in place, they enable leaders to create a “hot” environment for organizing. And the lower level of commitment required of most participants means such events allow organizers to identify supporters who are willing to take action but are not yet activists. Combining local-level organizing with a moderate degree of coordinated messaging and timing creates a feeling of authenticity while also demonstrating broad support. The model makes it easy to get started while giving the sense of being part of something big. And it gives people who are upset something to fight for.
The Left should copy the Right in experimenting to find issues that will motivate both the disengaged and supporters to take action, thus potentially transforming them into activists.
To some extent the summer 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd and police violence show the potential of this model, though the demonstrations of that summer were both more spontaneous and far larger than those of the Right. That degree of intensity is never going to be sustainable in the long term, but the protests show that the model of local organization and national messaging is not inherently the domain of the Right.
Obviously this won’t be easy, but it isn’t clear what other option there is to shift out of neutral. There are only so many congressional districts susceptible to AOC-style primary insurgents. Bernie and the Squad are simply too weak to move the political needle on their own, however valiant their efforts. It’s time to experiment with new tactics, or we’ll never get unstuck.