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“To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives.”
– Jane McAlevey
If we’re serious about defeating the dictatorship of capital and the horrors of U.S. empire, left-wing activists, writers, and organizers should be very clear: there is absolutely no way to avoid talking and organizing with Trump supporters. It’s not easy, but in many contexts, it’s already happening.
Left Activism is Not the Same Thing as Left Organizing
If your version of political organizing looks like you and your friends working only with people who agree on virtually every issue, you’re not organizing - what you’re doing is called activism. While it’s true that activism and mobilization function as strategic components of any successful campaign or movement, it’s equally true that the left has spent far too much time mobilizing people who already agree with us.
And it’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of leftwing/progressive political mobilizations over the past 12 years: antiwar protests, Wisconsin, Occupy, Ferguson, Environmental direct action campaigns, immigrant rights campaigns, Standing Rock, Bernie 2016, MeToo, Parkland Kids, and the list goes on, and on. Yet, our electoral results keep getting worse and worse: Obama, Clinton, Biden…who the hell is next? Elon Musk?
Yes, it’s true that 20 or so DSA candidates won their elections in early November, and we should applaud and learn from those efforts. But we would be remiss if we didn’t also, and perhaps more importantly, recognize the overwhelming, broad, and deep nationwide defeat and disintegration of the Democratic Party, a process that’s been playing out for over a decade.
In states like Indiana, where I live, the Democratic Party is virtually nonexistent and keeps losing ground to an increasingly irrational and vicious GOP. The Democrats are also in freefall mode in states such as Ohio and Iowa.
It would be one thing if leftists and progressives had an electoral alternative to replace the Democrats, but that’s not the case, which leads to our problem: the electoral political vacuum left behind has been filled by right-wing lunatics and/or Neoliberals. This will continue to be the case until the left develops a serious electoral strategy.
If your strategy is ‘no strategy,’ I’m not sure what to tell you. Here, I vehemently disagree with Chris Hedges and others on the left who mostly encourage people to “get in the streets.” Of course, no one knows what, exactly, people will do once we’re in the streets, let alone if we had the numbers to take power, whatever that might mean in the U.S.
Unfortunately, concepts such as strategy and organizing are alien to most left-wing commentators, authors, and writers. I genuinely wish some of these folks would spend more time talking to those of us who are on the ground doing the work and less time speaking with fringe activists who virtue-signal their radicalism, and who, as a result, remain largely isolated, and ineffective.
I would’ve benefitted greatly if someone would’ve explained the critical differences between activism and organizing to me back when I first got involved with political movements. I largely came to these conclusions on my own, through years of participating in failed movements, organizations, and campaigns, and after stumbling upon Jane McAlevey’s book, No Shortcuts: Building Power for the New Gilded Age.
In hindsight, the primary reason I was never taught the difference between mobilizing and organizing is due to the lack of institutional knowledge on the modern left. The institutions that would’ve traditionally played that role — unions, the Communist Party, community organizations, student groups – have been decapitated by the militarized state, hence no one receives a proper political education in this country, including many of the people currently engaged in campaigns and movements.
Organizers Already Speak to Trump Supporters
Anyone who is actively organizing is likely already speaking and working with Trump supporters. This is why the title of my essay is somewhat misleading and utterly unprovocative. For instance, let’s say you’re organizing a tenant’s union, which might include a rent strike. Depending on where you live, there’s a very good chance that you will encounter people who voted for Donald Trump.
Of course, you can choose not to work with them, but in some parts of the U.S., that means not working with 40–60% of the population. In other parts of the country, where support for Trump is very strong, you’d be ignoring anywhere from 60–80% of the population.
Organizers understand that you can’t win big campaigns, big reforms, with only 20–40% support, no matter the context, which means if you’re serious about winning campaigns that will make a material difference in peoples’ lives, perhaps our only chance at bringing some of Trump’s supporters to our side, you’ll work with them. No one is arguing that it’s easy, but it must be done (if we’re interested in winning).
If what you’re saying is the left shouldn’t spend any time in the towns, counties, regions, and states that Trump overwhelmingly won, how do you expect to structurally change the political system in this country? Are you arguing that chaotic street protests will do the trick? Are you arguing that a violent insurrection is on the horizon, or ideal? Be clear about what you’re saying because hiding behind vague statements about resistance or revolution isn’t helpful, especially right now.
To those of you who argue that we shouldn’t organize Trump supporters, let me ask you this: do you think allowing rural and suburban white enclaves to drift further and further to the right is a thoughtful and strategic approach to our national political predicament?
If you don’t plan on organizing Trump supporters in the context of a housing-rights campaign, what about workplace organizing? What’s more important, your coworkers’ cultural habits and offensive language, or your shared economic interests? Hey, so-called woke Marxists (or anarchists), I’m talking to you.
If you think you’re gonna successfully conduct a workplace organizing campaign without speaking to people who voted for Trump, without speaking to people who might say sexist or racist things, you’re lacking experience, living in a social bubble, or completely unserious.
Organizers understand this on a deep and visceral level. Anyone who’s ever organized a serious campaign will tell you that it’s impossible to win meaningful reforms without spending most of your time converting the unconverted. Plus, you can’t block people in real life. That’s not how society works. That’s not how politics works. And that’s undoubtedly not how organizing works.
If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “Well, I live in Chicago/New York/Los Angeles/Detroit/Atlanta, so I don’t have to think about this” guess again: your MSNBC-watching, Obama-loving neighbors, coworkers, and family members aren’t necessarily budding revolutionaries. Are we not organizing them either? If not, who, exactly, are we organizing? Only the people who agree with us? That’s activism, not organizing.
The 80 million or so Americans who don’t vote or participate in political organizing or activist mobilization efforts are not closeted Maoists who are waiting in the wings for the right moment to strike against the Capitalist State. They, like most Americans, remain ideologically confused, apathetic, alienated, and disempowered. Their political views are rife with contradictions, as polls show, as organizers know.
Also, for the identitarians who might be reading this and thinking to themselves, “Screw this guy! He’s just another white leftist who thinks we should work with Trump supporters!” Grow up. Yes, I’m white, which means I know white (and black, and Latino) people who voted for Trump. Some of them are nuts, it’s true. Some of them are racists, no doubt. But many of them also (and rightfully) distrust the Democrats and/or hold populist views. Screw them too?
Trump’s supporters, like any other group in society, are not a homogenous entity. One overarching narrative does not explain their support for The Donald. There are multiple, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes complementary narratives underpinning every election. I don’t believe anyone has nailed down a solid analysis of the 2020 election, and I don’t think someone will for years, if not decades.
Here’s what I do know: leftists must organize Trump supporters. If we don’t, someone else will. Remember, organizing people who disagree with us is quite literally the essence of organizing. Honestly, this isn’t even a debate. What I’m saying is utterly uncontroversial.
Anyone who thinks this is a debate is stuck in Activism Mode and should quickly switch to Organizing Mode. We’re not here to create subcultures of people who agree with us on every little issue and follow our etiquette protocols — we’re here to change the political economy, remember?
If you’re stuck in Activism Mode, please read McAlevey’s work, then put those skills and knowledge to use in the real world. Stop writing articles and books about what the left should do and start building a left that’s capable of doing more than writing sharp-tongued books and articles. Right now, we need more organizers and fewer activists.