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The One Thing About Politics Every Liberal Must Understand

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Liberals often have a very shallow understanding of how political change works. They think it is only about voting. We see this all the time on the liberal internet and in conversations with other liberals. All that matters is registering people to vote, running for office, and paying attention to electoral politics. For them, that’s how change is made. Protest is a waste of time, a distraction of hippies getting in the way of real change.

Now, there’s no question that electoral politics are in fact critical to the creation of social and political change. But they are no more important than organizing outside of electoral politics. Social movements and protest are just as important and the entirety of American history demonstrates this. You need an inside-outside game and that will inevitably include people who have effectively no interest in electoral politics. That’s OK. Unfortunately, liberals too often denigrate all of this.

The historian Charles McKinney provides a useful corrective that all liberals must read:

Politics has never just been about the electoral — especially for black folks.

At no point in our nation’s history have black people gained their constitutional/political rights without having to expand the traditional boundaries of “the political.” When applying this traditional and limited notion of politics, we reduce almost three centuries of black political thought and action to background noise tolerated by the white folks engaged in “real politics.” By this calculation, black people had no role to play in the destruction of slavery, due to the fact they could not vote on the issue — before or after the Civil War.

Erasing the sisters: Throughout our time in this nation, black women played a central role in expanding the traditional boundaries of political engagement. However, the expansive role black women play in our politics often bumps up against what many scholars call a “master narrative” of the freedom struggle, a narrative that centers the thought and actions of men, while subordinating the varied efforts of their female counterparts.

According to historian Jeanne Theoharis, black women — even celebrated ones like Rosa Parks or Coretta Scott King — are consigned to the margins of political action. Parks, the fierce social justice advocate, becomes “meek.” Scott King, an activist in her own right, becomes known simply as Martin King’s wife. In this process, the histories we create strip women of their agency, leaving them, in Theoharis’ words, “shrunken versions of themselves.”

Given the gendered ways we view both the narrow and more expansive versions of politics, women who take prominent positions in either of these male-dominated spaces are often characterized as transgressive or disruptive. This view not only diminishes the crucial impact black women have had in the pursuit of black equality; it further reinforces the false dichotomy between the explicitly electoral and other political processes. Perhaps most important, this gendering obscures the dynamic, complex analyses and actions undertaken by black women engaged in these struggles.

In Memphis, Maxine Smith, a legendary civil rights activist, understood the dynamic interplay between electoral politics and mass-based direct action struggle. Smith’s five decades of effort on behalf of black folks stands as a testament to the power and efficacy of blurring the lines between the ballot box and the street. The Black Monday protests played a direct rolein creating space for black elected officials on the city’s Board of Education. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’d get a healthy side-eye these days if you suggested Smith’s freedom work didn’t “really start” until her election to the Board of Education.

Similarly, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer has blazed a trail in the pursuit of greater freedom that replicates some of the best facets of the civil rights movement: building broad-based, politically intentional coalitions in the pursuit of justice. Guided by Sawyer, the #TakeEmDown901 campaign cultivated one of the most diverse coalitions in recent memory to contest the presence of the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis monuments in two city parks.

Anyone who would suggest that the broad-based mobilization Sawyer helped organize is somehow disconnected from electoral politics is engaged in a cynical game of omission and subordination.

For Sawyer and other activists, the successful effort to remove the statues also represented an opportunity to highlight other crucial conversations around issues such as living wages, police brutality, immigration and LGBTQ rights. Like Smith before her, Sawyer ran for office expressly motivated by the very issues she’d been advocating over the past several years. The progressive agenda she pursues was shaped in large part by her grassroots work. Anyone who would suggest that the broad-based mobilization Sawyer helped organize is somehow disconnected from electoral politics is engaged in a cynical game of omission and subordination.

McKinney is talking about one form of protest politics, but this is more or less true for much of our politics, both in the past and in the present. A laser-like focus on electoral politics actually erases and denigrates a lot of critical political work that gets done. Moreover, you have no push for victory in the electoral world without social movements in the streets laying the groundwork. Just because you don’t like how the hippies smell or whatever is no reason to ignore the political importance of what is going on out there.

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