On the day that the AP finally called the election for Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, my family and I joined the tide of people in the streets, dancing and celebrating, as if a despotic regime had been toppled. When the celebration subsided, I wandered outside to sit on my front stoop, my shoulders relaxing, my head dropping onto my knees. I began crying. These were neither tears of joy nor sadness, but the kind of tears that come in the aftermath of visceral fear, as if we were survivors of a plane crash or a shipwreck. Bruised, battered, and worse for the wear, but alive. 

After the relief subsided, I began to notice an insidious disappointment among those around me. This election would not act as the Great Cleansing many had hoped for. Seventy million Americans voted for Donald Trump, knowing exactly who he is and what he stands for. There would be no multiracial blue wave to rise up and sweep out Trump and everyone who collaborated with him. 

But the notion that we could reclaim our innocence through this election was always naive. We inherited a knotty, intractable, bloody, painful, and, all the same, extraordinary political project of determining whether or not America will become a multi-racial democracy. It is a project that remains unfinished. 

Over the next few months, we will scour the data, diving into the voter file to understand who turned out to vote — and for whom. Such analysis is critically important. However, it won’t tell us why millions of Americans are so vulnerable to an extreme, anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian, authoritarian, abusive, proto-fascist movement. The heart of Trump’s movement is a surrender of power, politics, and responsibility in return for the false promise of  “Making American Great Again” through white Christian restoration — which can only be accomplished through a strong man. 

Authoritarian movements are cropping up in democracies around the world. But our country may be more vulnerable to proto-fascist populism due to 1) our very long history of using white supremacy and the daily production of racism to “manage” inter-white class politics, 2) the catastrophic erosion of democratic, civic institutions such as labor unions, PTAs, and community organizations, and 3) the failure of politics at every level to meet the ongoing crises in people’s lives, including deindustrialization, the financial crash of 2008, declining wages, rapid urbanization, and failures of market-based housing, healthcare, and retirement. 

How did we get here and, as organizers, what do we do about it? The first step is to identify and reject our own temptations to avoid the hard work of building multi-racial, democratic politics grounded in nurturing human freedom and agency. 


Centering Agency and Power

Most political philosophers begin with the question, “What is a human being?,” and then define citizenship based on their answer to that question. Their answer becomes  the principle around which an ideal politics or society should be formed. I am no political philosopher, but what made me believe in the discipline and craft of organizing was the assertion that human beings require agency to cross the bridge into becoming political. That agency is not innate; it is developed over time as we come to understand our own power.

But the majority of institutions rob us of our agency, fostering individualism, dependency, and obedience. The real reason that many grassroots leaders or union members stay involved in organizing for years is not a particular issue; it is about having power and agency, maybe for the first time. And yet, even organizers are consistently tempted away from centering people and their formation into public actors. If we believe that human beings need agency to experience dignity and freedom, then we have to design our organizations, movements, and campaigns around that principle. At ISAIAH, the organization that I lead, every program we run centers the development of our members’ agency. We are an engine of developing human agency, which unleashes people to be political and makes them powerfully resilient to bullshit of all forms. 


Organizing People through Democratic Organizations

It is time to get real again about organizing people. The greatest breakthroughs in expanding democratic life in our country have come from the long, hard, and very unsexy work of moving imperfect, un-woke, fearful, mean, insecure, broken people into a substantive political project to change relations of power. If our goal is to build a multi-racial democracy that centers the agency of human beings in our political life, then organizations and campaigns have to work to develop people to be responsible actors in multi-racial democratic politics. Organizations are spaces to rehearse and practice democracy — collective action, negotiation, aligning interests, understanding power, knowing one’s social position regarding race, gender, and class, learning to be in solidarity with others who are different. Building these kinds of democratic institutions requires time, discipline, care, and craft.  

In the last twenty years, our field has sought a whole lot of shortcuts, agency-destroying shortcuts that have led to a plethora of hollowed-out organizations; shallow, tactical field operations; online list building; and “posse organizing,” where a leader rustles up a crew of fellow activists rather than empowering and developing the leadership of those around them. The sum total of these choices is a nationalized, celebrity-driven, short-term, boom-and-bust cycle infrastructure that is all rushing toward the next Big Win or the next savior candidate. And the consequences are that there are very few examples of broad-based, muscular, membership-driven organizations that are authentic vehicles for working-class people to learn solidarity, have power, do politics, and experience agency. This is a terrible price to pay. 

We all have our excuses for why we have resorted to shortcuts. We usually talk about “urgency” and “scale.” However, the solution to the sense of urgency or the desire for “scale” is always to take out the people part — industrialize elections to get the best ROI on cost per vote and micro-target constituencies so we can sell them our product, whether it be an ideology, a policy, or a candidate. Labor and community organizations at the state or local level could be our most precious building blocks for developing democratic politics grounded in human agency, but rather than investing in our people — expanding who is leading, developing our base — we say, we just have to win this next election or get through this next campaign. This is a false choice between depth and scale. What if depth is actually the path to scale? What if we are confusing the numbers of activities (doors knocked, texts sent, Facebook ads bought) with how much power we are building? 

To center the development of human beings in making change, the design of our architecture has to be human scaled. I may want to stop global climate change and transform the economy, but if my only option is to scream at the TV, doomscroll on Twitter, or, at best, volunteer to text strangers, I will not grow my sense of agency and power in the real world. On the other hand, if in every city real people were directly engaged in negotiating (with other stakeholders and interests) climate action plans backed with public resources, components of the Green New Deal become closer to actually happening. Equally important, hundreds more people would have the experience of politics and governing working and, therefore, have a greater stake in our shared democratic political institutions, becoming less alienated and increasingly behaving like stakeholders rather than spectators.


Multi-Racial Democracy Can Work

As hard as it is, we must embrace the fight for an American multi-racial democracy. It is our primary defense against right-wing antipolitics. Their chaos theory of politics is meant to sow confusion, fear, and cynicism. The reaction of most people to the Steve Bannon political theory of “flooding the zone with shit” is to become exhausted and inert. The strategy of modern authoritarians is not to exert violence directly but rather to barrage us with conspiracy theories and disinformation, perpetual scandal and chaos. The result is a depressed and exhausted public that has a hard time believing in anything at all. 

As organizers and movement leaders, our relationship to our history and our experiences of racial, gender, and class oppression can tempt us into our own version of a false innocence — that America is a bloody, corrupt struggle and, therefore, not innocent and, therefore, all bad and, therefore, will never work. It is tempting to build a framework that is all or nothing — that things are either good or bad, guilty or innocent, clean or unclean. This teaches people that engaging in public is about the search for purity rather than about leadership in the face of relentless ambiguity. This desire for certainty and purity can be our own version of antipolitics, and we don’t have the luxury to indulge it. 

We have to be the people who believe it is possible to build multi-racial democracy in America and, step by step, make it actually work. We have to wade into the political mess and form our people to have collective will and persistence to do whatever it takes to see things through — to hash through the details of a new Office for Violence Prevention out of funds from the police budget in MInneapolis, to pass the climate action plan in Northfield (a small town to the south of Minneapolis), to take on how St. Paul collects its trash. These kinds of victories won’t end up on the cover of Time magazine, but they should. It is here that we demonstrate the viability of democratic self-government, as we get out of the doom-scrolling and into real politics with real people in real places.  


Narrating Our Future, Not Our Demise

Finally, we cannot combat destructive nihilism with more nihilism. Willful cynicism is kryptonite to both democracy and organizing. Our addiction to narrating how terrible everything is makes us the worst, the absolute worst, at speaking to the wider public. If it was only ineffective, that would be one thing. But, in these times, given that what we are up against is precisely a proto-fascist, post-truth, “nothing matters” machine, our insistence on narrating the problem is actually very harmful, feeding a vicious cycle of never-ending alienation. Alienation is the opposite of agency. The narrative strategy of our opposition is to tell a story that can undergird authoritarian, minority rule, a story meant to confuse, alienate, and foster cynicism in everyone else. When we narrate the unending problem, we undermine the idea that our actions as citizens do matter, that there is a future we could share, that we can forge a multi-racial democracy that can work for all of us. In short, we play into the right’s hands.  

What gives me the most hope is that the extraordinary motivation of Biden voters had nothing much to do with the person of Joe Biden. No one believes that Joe Biden is going to save us. Eighty million people voted for Joe Biden, in spite of incredible efforts to stop voters from voting, because we were saving ourselves. The capacity of eighty million people to vote as an act of shared, collective responsibility for our future is a sign of some real maturity and resilience in the body politic. This pragmatism and determination tell us that there is still democratic potential in the United States of America. We can build on this foundation. 

Our organizing should narrate the agency and dignity of human beings. People who, with joy, are taking on the shared responsibility to make our future together. The post-truth, democracy-killing narrative machine insists that there is no future, or that we already know what will happen and, therefore, we should surrender our power to someone to save us. We must insist that nothing is predetermined. In fact, our shared story will be determined by our choices. We do not already know what will happen (the mantra of the cynic). History is not already written. We stand at the exact moment between the past and the future. Our actions today, now, are what will determine what happens next. 

When we use the word “liberation,” I often hear us say what we will be free from but not what we will be free to create. Our invitation to people is to be a co-creator and a protagonist in an extraordinary political project, to make the world and to make our future. 


Click here to read the entire Elections 2020: Strategy Debrief issue. 


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