We’ve had our first year of tweets and leaks from the White House, complete with reactions and outrage in the United States and abroad. The tsunami of words and feelings about Trump has dominated the media and is likely to continue. The question is: Will reactivity to Trump continue among activists, or are we ready to channel our passion into more focused movement-building for change?
Not long ago organizers and activists were telling each other that “another world is possible.” It still is. Based on history, however, that other world can’t be reached through protesting what we don’t like. I can’t think of any countries that transformed simply because movements reacted against injustice.
Movements are successful when they fight for something. Like athletes who improve when they visualize a higher jump or more graceful dive, movements also improve their game by imagining a better world, one with alternatives to the current systems of injustice.
In 2015, 60 Canadian indigenous, labor, environmentalist and social justice leaders came to this realization. They spent two days outlining the major features of an alternative Canada that would put justice first. After a period of additional clarification, a subgroup jelled the agreements into “The Leap Manifesto.”
They called it a “leap” because Canadian political discourse had fallen into the death of creativity known as “next steps,” an incrementalism that rules the Democratic Party in the United States. The Canadian leaders knew that only an evolutionary leap would enable their country to face its gathering crisis and turn it into an opportunity for justice and environmental sanity.
By acknowledging the rightward drift of Canadian political parties and choosing to create an independent platform, the Leap Manifesto injected new energy and possibility into Canadian political life. The New Democratic Party, or NDP, a disappointment to Canadian progressives in recent years, was itself inspired to reconsider its retreat from its legacy.
Why the Resistance doesn’t have a winning strategy
Polls show majorities opposed to much of the agenda of Trump and the right; the tax bill is one recent example. Many liberals and progressives have gone on the defensive, trying to hold on to previously-achieved gains.
In the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and the right wing attacked gains for justice, liberals and progressives also went on the defensive. All the major movements – labor, women, school reform, seniors, civil rights, environmentalists – lost ground. They tried to hang on to women’s reproductive rights, for example, and the civil rights movement tried to retain integrated schools and voting rights, and slid backwards. Labor, environmentalists and the other movements lost ground.
These days, despite majority support for liberal and progressive policies, the defense by movements is at best a holding action. As in the period after Reagan assumed office, losses are accumulating.
This is odd. It’s appealingly romantic to describe oneself as part of “the resistance.” Resistance is a political identity that seeks to unleash passion, hard work and boldness, and it often does. Nevertheless, going on the defense increases the chance of losing! To understand why, we need to turn to the world of strategic thinking. Gandhi is one of many successful strategists who said that in order to win it’s necessary to take the offensive and stay there. If you trust military generals more than Gandhi, you’ll hear the same thing: No one ever won a war by being on the defensive.
Even folk wisdom agrees: “The best defense is an offense.”
The only major U.S. movement that has won major gains since 1980 did so by refusing to go on the defensive. Instead of trying to hold on to previous wins, the visionary LGBTQ movement went on the offensive. Despite a backdrop of thousands of years of oppression, the movement continually set new goals. In its most critical period, the AIDS crisis, ACT-UP and others stepped up their level of nonviolent confrontation. When I first came out as a gay man in the early 1970s, I could never have imagined the change that has been catalyzed by our campaigns.
What a vision can offer
A well-crafted vision offers a connection point for unity, an attractive means of outreach, and a source of positive energy in a degraded political environment. Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign was attractive partly because many people who were previously in a silo, in this or that campaign, co-op, campus or community group, experienced the fact that “We are many!” Unity releases energy, contradicts despair and invites boldness.
The advantage of a widely-shared vision over a candidate is a vision’s staying power and explicit linking of multiple dimensions to each other. The Leap Manifesto shows how the interests of rural indigenous people, urban workers and students intersect in the vision of an alternative Canada. As any one of various movements makes a gain, it advances the struggles of others as well because visionaries take the time to show how the new model we are fighting for is synergistic, greater than the sum of its parts.
Instead of long, involved analyses on intersectionality, a well-crafted vision cuts to the chase and offers a positive means of outreach. A vision supports us to “see ourselves in each other.” It can be written in common sense terms, touching base with positive American values.
Because a vision shows what we want, rather than railing against what we don’t want, it attracts people to us and our positivity. America’s polarizing trend includes ugly and violent fallout. The right kind of vision is a magnet for people who see the need for action but are repelled by extremist and violent rhetoric.
Putting together a vision paid off for polarizing Sweden and Norway, both of which experienced rising Nazi movements in the 1920s and ‘30s. The democratic socialists found people flocking to them because they raised a vision for an alternative social and economic order with justice, shared abundance, individual freedom and real democracy. The once-small movement became a mass struggle, using nonviolent direct action to force the 1 percent out of dominance and implement what economists call “the Nordic model.”
How hard will it be to agree to a widely-shared vision?
As Naomi Klein points out in her book, “No Is Not Enough,” when times get tough, creative people often offer utopias and support dialogue about visionary alternatives. We saw that in the United States during the 1930s, when vision helped the New Deal make strides forward. In recent decades, however, we’ve seen our political class, including the Democrats, work hard to lower the aspirations of people who don’t happen to be rich. Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Bernie Sanders’ reference to Denmark’s equality is typical. All the more remarkable that the Movement for Black Lives broke ranks in 2016 and offered their vision of an economy that would give the United States a chance to reject the inequality that locks in racism.
At the moment, popular culture prefers dystopia to visions of liberation, but my just-completed coast-to-coast book tour suggests a way forward in what may still be a vision-averse culture. I found standing-room-only bookstore crowds inspired by the sheer practicality and good sense of the Nordic model. There is an old theme in U.S. culture of reverence for pragmatism. When people hear about the pragmatic nature of how the Nordic model works, they get excited.
A Google search establishes the modern Vikings’ place at the top of the international charts for equality, economic well-being, justice and individual freedom. Their innovativeness is so well supported that Norway has more start-ups per capita than the United States.
Those countries were in bad shape a century ago. Their cultural homogeneity did not produce progressive economies. They had high rates of inequality, massive poverty and a pretend democracy. A century ago the diverse United States was way ahead of them in technology, progressive cultural liveliness and innovative education.
Once they made their power shift and ditched the 1 percent as their countries’ leadership, the Nordics were free to implement a vision based on non-capitalist assumptions. One principle was that of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal: An economy should focus on the well-being of the worker instead of on the profits of the owner. Scandinavians then surged ahead of the United States and remain so — while, in the meantime, becoming far more diverse. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Norwegians have a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens than the United States.
The U.S. movements’ vision needs to be broader than our version of the Nordic model, but using their proven track record is one way to start. Going beyond Bernie Sanders’ laundry list of policy items to an actual model grounds us and adds credibility to our vision for practical Americans. It then gives us a chance to build a massive movement of movements as U.S. political legitimacy continues to decline.
If historical lessons add up to anything, an appealing vision of some kind is a must-have to transform the United States.