What Next—For Us and At Us

February 6, 2017

The recent women’s marches prompted pundits and participants to raise a question that’s undoubtedly been on the minds of progressives since November 8. Now what?

One thing seems depressingly clear. We must shift even more of our energies and other resources to protecting gains achieved over many years.

This needn’t mean shelving recommendations for improvements. But it would seem we must, in some cases, reframe them lest we seem to take those gains for granted.

Beyond that a lot seems to depend a lot on whom we listen to. Some columnists of a left-leaning sort have advised Democrats (more or less equated with progressives) to adopt the Tea Party model.

That, say three former Congressional staff members, means organizing locally, targeting one’s own members of Congress and playing defense, Not of the sort I’ve just mentioned, but defense against anything the President supports.

The last of these is apparently a live issue among Democrats in Congress. They reportedly concur on building a mass movement, which will mean reaching out to and/or creating groups outside their usual constituency.

Those groups, one gathers, include the disaffected white, blue-collar workers now conventionally identified with the Rust Belt, though some analysts say the proper scope is rural and suburban, rather than geographic.

This sort of reaching out will involve more than better messages—and better messengers, some say. The Democratic party has allegedly sold out to — or become captive of — Wall Street and an intellectual elite. In other words, the wholesale revolt against our federal government had merit, though the main instigator and beneficiary didn’t.

Joshua Holland at Rolling Stone says forget it. The Democrats just had a bad candidate. That, however, fails to explain how the Republicans wound up with the candidate who’s now causing all sorts of commotion with executive orders — and again Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.

At this early point, opposing everything the President has set in motion seems the only reasonable response. The reported divergence among Congressional Democrats is forward looking.

Some don’t buy opposing everything Trump proposes as a strategic principle. They hold open the possibility of working with him (and presumably amenable Republicans in Congress). Developments of the last week or so seem to have prompted second thoughts about this.

Wonkblogger Steven Pearlstein argues for a somewhat different strategy. Democrats shouldn’t be “whipping up their own base up into a frenzy.” They should instead focus on getting a “handful” of Congressional Republicans to “defect” from the leadership’s agenda.

Now, all this is politics at a very high level, but it has bearing, I think, on what’s next — or ought to be — for advocates. Different roles for different folks, as seems always the case.

We do, I believe, have to look to national organizations and some state affiliates for reliable hard data and analyses. Some evidence notwithstanding, we’re best off with sound, fact-based arguments.

But they alone won’t win the day. We clearly need mass constituent pressure — calls, letters, demonstrations, etc. And we need stories — personal profiles and testimony on how policies we’re defending have made a difference, how what we’re opposing would cause harm.

At the same time, we do need continuing involvement in state and local policymaking. Among other things, state and local governments remain seed beds for progressive change. And at this critical moment, they can reasonably fear the practical consequences of more flexibility to cope with less money.

Nothing really new here, of course. But I perceive larger challenges — most, at this point, launched from the White House. One is keeping a focus on core principles while responding to outrages perpetrated here and there.

We won’t ourselves lose touch with these principles. But can we protest — even sometimes advance alternatives — without descending altogether into the particulars?

In other words, we need a coherent, compelling message to counterpoint and overarch our protests and other defensive actions.

If we’re against barring people more likely to be Muslims than not, repealing the Affordable Care Act, abandoning civil rights enforcement, [your choice here], what’s the vision we’re for?

Does that vision both speak to large swathes of the population and, at the same time, imply an actionable agenda that goes beyond the imperiled status quo?

The other big challenge I feel is burnout. New York Times columnist Charles Blow hints at it in saying that people already “feel deluged by a never-ending flood of national damage and despair.”

He’s optimistic, however. “American are not prone to suffering in silence,” he says. But can the grassroots activists sustain their demonstrations, petitions, telephone calls and the like for an extended period of time?

Can those most concerned about one issue or another come together in sustainable movement? Will advocacy organizations have the resources and strategy to engage with them and vice versa?

My inbox constantly reminds me that they’re trying. I get frequent emails from advocacy groups and coalitions urging me to contact my representatives in Congress, complete with tools and opportunities, e.g., hashtags, talking points, upcoming tweet chats and/or rallies.

We’ve got some bona fide grassroots organizing too. The Washington Post recently profiled a freelance writer/stay-at-home mom who sends daily text messages urging and equipping subscribers to call one of their members of Congress and tell him/her to oppose this or that pending action.

No shortage of fighting spirit now, that’s for sure.

Followers will note that this is far from my usual posts. I started it simply because I was (and am) wondering what next. Some of the high-level challenges I’ve cited pull me here and there — and sometimes exhaust me — as I think about what I should blog on.

Not, as I’ve suggested, an affliction peculiar to bloggers. We all, I think, face a what next for us and from the White House.

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