Apocalypse Cabaret, Part 2: What tools do we have left to change the world?
It’s vital to recognize that as they enter a period in which they are the minorities in all branches of government, liberals and progressives only have two kinds of power at this point: the power to persuade, and the power to organize.
Neither has anything to do with the favored tactic of the left at this time: coastal virtue signaling. Protests aimed at communities that already support them, “rallying the base,” and symbolic victories. Surely by now — surely, please — we can acknowledge that these actions are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.
Instead, we need to engage in the only two meaningful ways we have.
Outside of pop culture and academia, where they have been phenomenolly successful, liberals have been exceptionally bad at persuasion for the last several decades — I think this is very much a result of the arrogance and self-righteousness that steeped into liberal culture as we forcibly confronted others with their guilt in the very sins that we ourselves were happy to live with.
A host of radical academics made it their life’s work to condemn American businesses for their rank consumerism, while living in perches paid for by colleges who used every marketing trick in the book to increase applications, and exploited their custodial and graduate student labor.
John Oliver recently pointed out that the New York City school system is more segregated than any school system in a red state. The south, in fact, has the least segregated school systems in the nation. Liberal, cosmopolitan New York was also the home of “stop-and-frisk” … and can claim Donald Trump as a hometown boy.
The Chicago police department has likely been far more brutal to black bodies than any contemporary red state system — they had an off-the-books torture sight, for Christ sake. Similarly, liberal Silicon Valley has perhaps the highest degree of income inequality in the nation, and the diversity hiring record of its flagship companies is absurdly close to “zero.”
The idea that progressives have in fact built a better mouse trap by making it vegan, gluten free, and conscious of micro-aggressions, seems difficult to prove when faced with the messy reality of the results it gets. I say this, absolutely, as someone who supports the majority of progressive policy ideas — but surely we can pause for a moment to acknowledge the irony of liberals whose cities are full of segregation, police brutality, and income inequality lecturing conservatives on the evils of institutional racism. After a certain point this doesn’t look like improving society so much as building a higher horse on which to sit and lecture.
If both research and practical experience has taught us anything it is that, especially in a hyper-polarized environment, partisan polemics do not persuade anyone of anything they’re not already inclined to believe. Rather, the most effective approach to changing someone’s attitudes on significant issues is sustained human contact, over a period of time. (It’s no accident that the urban areas with the greatest diversity of populations are also the least likely to have voted for either Trump or Brexit, while the communities most likely to are the ones with the least direct exposure to minorities or immigrants.)
Effective persuasion depends on creating and sustaining a relationship with the people you want to convince: holding high standards and refusing to back down from honestly held moral positions are compatible with that. Rank obstructionism and harsh condemnations over personal traits are the worst conditions in which to persuade.
It is not just that Democratic lawmakers in the minority must keep open channels to the Republican majority; to be effective in the times ahead, Democratic activists have to move their operations out of the urban centers where they are strongest and into red state strongholds, and instead of holding their noses at the people and culture they find, they have to learn to connect with them.
In Trump’s America this could be terrifying, but it is the work that needs to happen, and it’s where it needs to happen.
The other capacity that liberals have is the ability to organize. Again, “organization” in this context goes far beyond rally participation in safe areas and virtue signaling. It means creating communities that are capable of acting in their own improvement and defense, be it political, physical, or economic. Think “labor movement” instead of “consciousness raising session.” We’re not trying to enlighten anyone: we’re trying to be helpful. Fast food workers should continue to be organized; service industry workers, organized; Uber drivers and independent contractors: organized. The ability to apply strategic pressure to businesses, to activate communities in red states to put pressure on police departments on behalf of the victims of white nationalists, and to get out the goddamn vote, is an absolutely vital tool in the defense of the public good.
Economic cooperatives, housing cooperatives, and other means of community economic support should also be investigated — and if the assaults on minority communities continue, we will need to organize groups dedicated to mutual self-defense. Put simply: if we don’t organize across multiple sectors, in diverse communities, we cannot defend ourselves.
It is likely that a Trump administration will force many of these organizations to act without government sanction, and even attempt to arrest or sue the leaders and members. These communities are no less vital for it — and if they have persuasive advocates in the various communities in which they operate, they can be formidable.
The key to success is both endeavors is humility: it is impossible to persuade or organize people you look down on. Righteousness must be harnessed to service, rather than demonstrated through lifestyle.
This combination, of persuasion and organizing, will not only serve us in good stead (to the extent anything will) during a Trump administration, it will be a critical set of tools for whatever comes next in Western culture.