Yglesias had a piece yesterday on the decline of the so-called “Resistance,” the movement of liberal activists to take to the streets to protest Trump. I have many thoughts on both the essay and on what is happening in protest politics right now. I agree with Yglesias that the seeming decline in protest and an increased belief that things are going to be OK now that Democrats control the House is alarming. These are big problems. There are lots and lots and lots of liberals who want to believe that everything is going to be OK, just because we elect the right people in a given election. But this is demonstrably false. It goes far to explain the reaction of people to Obama’s election in 2008, when his voters basically thought he would fix things and then didn’t know what to do when he did not or could not. This attitude is usefully summed up in the many images we saw at those 2017 protests of people with signs reading things like “I’d Rather Be Having Brunch.” Well, perhaps you would and, hey, who doesn’t like brunch, but that is part of the problem in a world where the fascist hate machine is moving forward nonstop 24/7 with lots of money behind it. One election doesn’t change much at all.
But I don’t think Yglesias represents how protest happens very well. He focuses on a supposed demobilization coming from leading Democrats. But that’s not how protest happens. Nancy Pelosi’s office simply doesn’t have the capability to get people out to protest. Politicians encouraging it can help, but only around the margins. He speculates that leading Democrats may be downplaying protest now to avoid talk about impeachment. And maybe that is true. But it’s not particularly relevant. Protest is an organic beast that is hard to control or shape. People protest because they decide that, at a given moment, a matter is so urgent that it requires their personal intervention. Sure, there are leftists who know the power of protest and use it effectively. That’s at the core of the labor movement for instance. Organizers teach and train for this. And while that leadership was critical in the 2017 protests, a lot of people just came out because they were furious. The Women’s March gets the most credit, and it deserves much, but the most important of all the early Trump-era protests was the occupation of the airports after the Muslim ban, because that gave judges courage to act and showed the world that liberals and the left were not going to be cowed by Trump’s fascism. It was throwing sand in the gears, to quote the great Francis Fox Piven’s reply on how to resist Trump. It seriously slowed down his agenda.
But what was more organic than that airport protest? It came out nowhere, built immediately by left-leaning people who are awesome with social media, convincing others that RIGHT NOW was the time to get off your butt and act. It was brilliant. And Democratic Party leadership had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Yet, all that said, it is slightly concerning to me that a new moment of complacency seems to have set in, especially in terms of political protests. There are other forms of protest happening all the time right now–the strikes that are getting national attention, especially from teachers. That’s great. But in terms of protesting Trump and Republicans and taking it to the streets, well, that has largely disappeared. Worse, it’s been replaced by obsessing about the Democratic Party primary, which is not good politics. Yes, the primary is important. It is also 10 months until Iowa. There is lots we can do between now and then. Yet, because Democrats, from average voters all the way up to candidates, vastly overrate the power and importance of the presidency, it is all anyone is talking about. This is actually people taking power out of their own hands and seeking a savior, which is so similar to 2008. Moreover, while 2019 special elections are a small sample size, the 2018 domination of Democrats has absolutely not held up and, as Yglesias points out, in 2019, Democrats are running 1 point behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. That’s complacency in a world where no one who is not a fascist has any right or reason to be complacent. Win one midterm election and millions of people think that’s engagement enough. It’s not.
The problem with that is that the only savior against fascism is you. Elections are a critical part of taking back our nation. But they are no more important than street-level protest, organizing, and other forms of mobilization. This is something liberals do not much want to engage with. They would indeed rather be having brunch and hope that House Democrats can do enough. But they can’t. It takes all of us to do enough and that includes actually resisting Donald Trump and the Republican Party in an active way. They never sleep in stripping everything from you that leads to peace, justice, or dignity. You have to respond in kind.