The Big Tent: Social Justice Builds It Better

Kiteo, His Eyes Closed* (refusal to understand)

Democrats have long used the “Big Tent” metaphor for the varied sometimes shaky coalitions that make up the party. In the past, Big Tent has not always meant “take the needs of marginalized people seriously”, in part because we have assumed that rights are a zero sum game and if we give them to some people, we remove them from other and in part because privilege by its nature makes those with privilege blind. But neither of these is excuses going forward. If we want the Democratic party to succeed, we need to make sure that all of our social justice and national defense goals include all Americans and residents, not just those who have privilege on one or more axes.

I wrote last week on reaching rural and Rust Belt white Americans. Today I’m discussing the other piece of the Big Tent, reach and retaining people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ folk, immigrants, and other folk who are a natural “fit” for the Democratic party, but have become disillusioned, because too often “reaching out to rural and Rust Belt white Americans” has translated to “get in line behind rural and Rust Belt white Americans and maybe we’ll get to you.”

Shaka When the Walls Fell* (failure)

We must do better. We can do better. FDR and LBJ (edited to clarify) got Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security passed by deliberately appeasing Southern white racists by eliminating some categories of employment that were traditionally Black jobs from eligibility. Mass incarceration, including “three strikes” laws and other laws that made the United States the world leader in prison inmates per capita, which has been applied disproportionately (and predictably) against Black people was allegedly intended to support Black communities and had the support of many Black leaders in the 1990s. The framing of affirmative action fails to make transparent in the implementation of the law that it was modeled after and designed to offset the pre-existing “affirmative action” available to white people, especially white males, due to social relationships and the accumulation of wealth and power, leaving it vulnerable to pushback as “unfair advantage” by people who are unaware of its history.

The Beast at Tanagra* (a problem to be solved)

And now we’re faced with a rift that was deliberately torn by outside forces, with the aid and abetting of forces within, of the Big Tent. We have white Americans and Black Americans truly believing that their social justice concerns are at odds. White Americans believe that if Black Americans get a fair shake, white Americans will lose out, and Black Americans have largely stopped believing (with some good reasons) that the Democratic party takes their concerns seriously.

This is an old game, but with the new tools of big data and bots and paid on-line agitators, it is played far more effectively than ever before. The players are rich (mostly white) (mostly male) oligarchs, and the game is: “Get the peons fighting over scraps so they don’t notice we’re taking even more away from them.” This game doesn’t *just* pit Black and white middle- and working- class folk against each other, it also sets up immigrants and LGBTQ folk and Christians and Muslims and Jews and women (with the exception of docile oligarch wives and spokeswomen) and NDNs and Asian Americans and other folks that *aren’t* rich oligarchs. For simplicity in a short essay, I’m calling it a “Black and white” issue, but it’s really not. It’s really intersectional and complex, and as you keep reading you need to stay aware of this.

So. We have well-trained agitators stirring up racial resentment in rural and Rust Belt white Americans. We have well-trained agitators stirring up distrust of Black leaders and white allies in the Democratic party among Black activists. And we have sometimes well-meaning and sometimes craven or corrupt Democratic members of the House and Senate confirming the worst fears of both groups, usually but not always inadvertently.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra* (cooperation)

What the fuck do we do now? We get some people to hold the rift in the tent together with whip stitches and duct tape while others run to the store for good thread for canvas as well as a strip of canvas fabric for a patch. We hold classes on how to sew. We check and double check the seams. Designers start sketching out new rooms for the tent, and figure out how to attach them. Other teams of people scan the perimeter for threats, discuss and debate whether or how we can afford to upgrade from a tent to a stockade, from a stockade to a fort, from a fort to a city so powerful no one dares attack it. Still others learn languages and customs foreign to them and reach out for alliances.

In the end, we create the biggest tent, the biggest *city* ever seen, where justice is not an empty world, and there are no children hidden in a dark room to keep the city beautiful**. We do it by not by walking away or giving up, not by giving in, and not by letting anyone divide us, even ourselves. We do it by holding ourselves and each other to a terribly, magnificently high standard, the sort of high standard that means that we leave *no one* behind as we fight for a world where everyone, even former oligarchs and enemies, can find a way to fit in. We create a world where mass incarceration, as well as crimes of desperation, are a thing of the past. We create a world where interdependence is the norm and cruelty is socially unacceptable. We create a world where justice and consent are centered as the twin pillars of society.

Darmok and Jalad on the ocean* (new friendship and understanding gained through a shared challenge)

*The cryptic phrases and their translations between parts of this essay are from the invented Tamarian language from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, written by Joe Menosky. You can find more about this episode here:

**”Children under the city” is a reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K Le Guin. For just under two bucks, you can make Ms. Le Guin’s (semi-)retirement a shade nicer by ordering the ebook here:

This is part two of a series that started with Building Rural and Rust Belt Progressivism Through Social Justice . As I get deeper into it, I will start talking more and more about specific interventions we ordinary Americans can do to save our democracy and why it is crucial to save one of our existing political parties and build on it to do so. There will be discussions of sociological and psychological implications, because I’m a social worker and I roll that way. You can support my efforts at my brand spanking new Patreon or through tipping me at PayPal.

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Originally published at on September 14, 2017.