A strategy beyond marching
These are signs of America in distress:
Not My America
…This American carnage stops right here and stops right now…
Impeach the Traitor
…the crime and gangs and drugs…
If I wanted the government in my pussy I’d fuck a Senator
Who are we as a people?
What coherence exists now in these divided states of America?
What hope is there for coalition, sound governance, good faith, even peaceful coexistence?
These are questions President Obama asked implicitly in his Farewell Address two weeks ago. Since then we’ve seen more anger, vitriol, pettiness, mutual hostility and bitter distrust.
Both sides are guilty and no one is winning.
Still, the main rally cry on the losing side of the last election boils down to a single word and strategy:
* * *
When I saw it the word hung like a banner declaring war. Except in this case it hung above a high-end bike shop in downtown San Francisco. On the day of the Women’s March.
Just below the brazen letters, there was a smaller series of ads announcing which models were on sale.
I passed by the shop on my walk to the rally. It reminded me of another more polished sign I saw in a shoe store recently. It said, “Stand with Standing Rock.” An admirable sentiment, in this case enlisted to help sell more shoes. “Stand with Standing Rock wearing our shoes” would have been more honest. But the radical chic effect may then have been lost.
I was walking with a contingent of Zen Center residents; draped across several of their chests was a yellow piece of paper with a softer message: “Calling for those in positions of power to act responsibly and in a wholesome manner.”
The sentiment was certainly more gently put, but did this render it more effective?
When we got to the Civic Center the atmosphere was theatrical. Resistance as Saturday afternoon entertainment. People wore costumes, funny hats, carried big signs declaring strong opinions in simple language.
This is one expression of democracy.
In a city like San Francisco, a demonstration like this also serves as a kind of ice cream social for the collected affiliates of liberalism.
But what about tactics, purpose, intended effect? How will any of this connect with the people who put Trump in office? I wondered.
If the goal is to change the current drift of American politics, what strategy is on offer here?
As I stood around uselessly asking myself these questions, I was approached by two organizers. One carried a sign that read, “After the March / Knock Every Door.”
I listened to what they had to say. They were proposing a different form of direct action. Through grassroots organizing and volunteer efforts, Knock Every Door plans to contact voters in Red States — particularly Midwestern swing states — who either didn’t turn out in 2016 or voted for Obama in 2012 and then for Trump.
The purpose is to communicate with these voters, to show that they are worth listening to and to try to understand them.
“Why didn’t the Democratic Party earn your support?” is a valid question. By asking it with thoughtfulness and humility, we might learn something. We might even begin assembling a new strategy for Democrats to win back these voters.
Not surprisingly, Knock Every Door started with people who once worked for Bernie. Hearing echoes of Obama’s Farewell Address, I grabbed a clipboard and joined their effort to summon up other potential volunteers.
* * *
Earlier that morning, I watched Trump’s Inaugural Address on YouTube. What was clear listening to our new president is that he seems not to heed Obama’s warning that “reality has a way of catching up with you.”
Trump’s understanding of power is cartoonish, and his assertions about what he will accomplish (e.g. “[what] stops right here and stops right now”) should, in a reasonable society, hang him politically in a very short time.
Yet the president is currently banking on the loyalty of those who feel similarly condescended to by the mainstream media, by liberal elites, and by other such capacious (alternative?) media catchphrases.
He was elected by people who have felt unheard and left behind. And unless these same people are shown some measure of respect and concern for their experience, they are unlikely to budge.
This should matter to anyone who showed up at any demonstration this past weekend.
As Obama has said (I will go on quoting him; he ought to keep chastising us), we have to uphold democratic norms and institutions if we want liberal values to survive.
Principally, this means being willing to engage our fellow citizens in good faith, with scrutiny, with honesty and with genuine care.
Democracy depends on this willingness and its requisite discipline. Without one and the other, we are isolated fragments brimming over with self-certainty that only our side is right.
In this configuration, which is the current one, all sides lose.
* * *
Perhaps it’s worth remembering and contrasting this weekend’s events with an earlier March on Washington, this one in August 1963.
There, Martin Luther King Jr. put forth the following strategic blueprint:
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.
We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Can we make it our own again?