Should the struggle for democracy come before the building of powerful social movements?

Because of my 2020 role in Choosing Democracy effort – aimed at saving the US constitutional presidential succession process – I have received a flood of letters asking for advice on whether to dive into the continuing struggle for electoral integrity.

I am known as someone who has always worked to build progressive social movements rather than following their impact in the legislative and elective arena. Yet I made an exception in 2020 when I saw the threat of a Trumpist coup attempt. People ask me: since the Trump attack has not ceased, shouldn’t the work of building movements for equality, climate justice and peace give way to the priority of “saving the Republic?” ? “

I see the strength of this argument, but Trump is not the immediate threat he was when he was president. Yet his lies have had a huge impact on the future of free and fair elections – from emboldening Republican efforts from gerrymandering to skip voting restrictions in dozens of states over the past year. While I applaud the work people do to protect and expand our voting rights, there are other issues that need attention because their neglect also puts our future at risk. Therefore, we all need to discern where our individual time and energy is best spent.

To begin to understand this, let’s take a step back and consider the larger historical picture (exhaling).

There are two main things that appeal to people like us:

1. The dysfunction of the state / elective system, which sometimes reaches emergency proportions.

2. The underlying conditions that cause the dysfunction and will continue to wreak havoc if left untreated.

This becomes clearer during times of political polarization, such as the 1930s and the 1960s and 1970s. Left and right alike, many more people were activated, violence increased, society seemed to be crumbling with conflict everywhere you looked. The political center has shrunk in size and internal cohesion as the right and left have grown. The mass media mainly focused on violence and the state of the political center (since it is much easier to report on the activities of political parties), but when the period ended it turned out that the major changes that have lasted resulted from the struggle between the left and right movements.

In the 1930s and the 1960s and 1970s the result was a shift in a gradual (left) direction – substantially and on many fronts.

In the 1930s and 1960s-1970s, many thoughtful, creative and energetic people chose different roles to play, some working on what was happening in the political / legislative / electoral arena while others worked in the arena of the social movement.

In times of emergency or perceived crisis, there were sometimes crossovers, when people put back what they were doing to help the arena that was in trouble or had a particularly attractive opportunity. In 1932, many in the movement rushed to help Franklin D. Roosevelt become president; in 1967, many electoral-inclined people launched into the action of the national peace movement, precipitating what authors Mark and Paul Engler call a moment “whirlwind”.

Choosing democracy was the invention in 2020 of some activists of the movement like me who saw that the integrity of the electoral apparatus needed a helping hand; most of the leaders in this arena did not seem to recognize the danger. So we pushed them by starting to create the infrastructure of movement they would need to defend the Constitution, if at all – if, for example, the action provoked by Trump on January 6 was successful in delaying the installation of Biden. .

Once the leadership of the electoral arena had a real picture of the threat to the state and the danger subsided, we in Choose Democracy could go back to what we felt called to do. For me, personally, this preference has always been to go towards the struggles that the media neglect to cover – struggles which I believe explain the major gradual change in the history of this country: the abolitionists, the suffrage movement. women, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the environmentalists of the 1970s who stopped building dangerous nuclear power and the movement for climate justice.

Even in this polarized time that we live in, I see particular ways of using social movement strategies. This is because social tension brings us more people. We can grow faster if we know how.

So, yeah, although I’m a social movement guy, I did move into the arena of ‘defending the constitutional state’ – but only when it seemed like too many people out there needed a bang. inch. A year later, I am now back to follow my strong appeal to the climate crisis.

Perhaps you have a strong global inclination like me, feeling called to work in the electoral arena / political party / constitutional state or, alternatively, in the arena of social movement. Or maybe you are quite open to one or the other. If the latter is the case and you need help deciding, consider your skills and talents. Think about where you can make the biggest contribution. Your geographic area and your position in the social structure (race, ethnic group, class, generation, etc.) also matter. Some works may be less present in your area, and your efforts to strengthen them may have a greater impact. For example, maybe Democrats in your geographic area have not realized the immediacy of the threat to the integrity of the electoral process and need someone to ‘play Paul Revere’ to get them moving. and block an anti-democratic Republican initiative.

In general, I find that people do their best when it is right for them in certain ways – where their skills and talents are needed, where the mind calls them, where they are most aligned with. their analysis of what needs to change the most, or where they have the most to learn and it’s the learning that wakes them up in the morning.

I know people who are happy as hell to work in the Democratic Party even if its goals for change are limited, because they accept it. I know others who are unhappy with working in the Democratic Party because its goals are far removed from theirs.

Increased polarization requires increased support

Bias brings anxiety to everyone, and anxiety is tough on us. Even though I know from study that the polarization increases the timeliness of the big changes that I want to see, I still feel the anxiety – this is the ocean in which I swim. All the more reason why we pay attention to the type of work that brings us joy or at least satisfaction, even when goals are not achieved as quickly as we would like.

Ideally, our choice will see us working alongside people who can be teammates and develop a certain team spirit. We need and deserve collective support.

If your choice in another way causes you to work in an area where you can’t find supportive people, there is a fallback solution. Continue to work in this arena with these people and form your own support team “at home” – among your friends, your religious congregation, your former classmates, your relatives – by asking three to six of them to ‘be your “welcome team”. ”, The one who will support you as you accomplish this hard work. Ask one of them to be the facilitator, facilitating the group via Zoom if necessary to listen to you – not to advise you. Their job is to be a sounding board. They are the cheerleaders of the home football team, to cheer you on and ask your sad and crazy stories as well as to listen to your good days.

Either way, by finding support through your volunteer work or “at home,” you can safely dive in and make a difference as the United States travels into 2022 and beyond.


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