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How Overattention to Elections Undermines Long-Term Organizing


I am having my students in my Protest and Resistance in America course tomorrow read and discuss work by the Rev. William Barber, the minister who leads the Moral Mondays movement. I want to emphasize something he said in this interview. It’s really something that LGM readers need to hear and act upon.

Well, down through history, we’ve never won anything with one march, one tweet, one speech—that is a misreading of history. We’ve always won progressive and revolutionary growth in this country through campaigns. Through 381 days of having a Montgomery bus boycott, for example, or through years of the abolition movement. Persistence in a movement is a ritual you must have. You must have a deep commitment to civil disobedience and be willing to put your bodies on the line in a nonviolent way, rooted in love and justice, to dramatize the ugliness of what’s going on.

What too often happens in the United States today, particularly with some progressives, is we put too much of our actions into electoral campaigns. And when the campaign is over, and we lose, we go home until the next campaign. Even extremists don’t do that. Even when they’re in the minority, even when they lose a vote, they continue to organize. In some ways they’ve stolen from us what people such as King instructed us to do. 

Now, when the Republicans took the majority in 2013, we found that they were extremists on steroids. In the first fifty days, they attempted to undo everything that we had won and pushed for since 2008. They denied Medicaid expansion to 500,000 people in North Carolina—342,000 of whom, by the way, are white. They went against immigrants, the gay community, and women. They denied a minimum wage increase, even though we had won an increase earlier. And then they went after voting itself. 

So we decided then that if they were going to crucify the poor, crucify women, crucify children, crucify the sick—every crucifixion needs a witness. And they needed a consistent witness. People told us, “Well, there’s nothing you can do. They have the majority. You just have to wait until the next election.” But we looked at history and saw that people who made change never waited until the next election. For instance: the Voting Rights Act of 1965—there was no election that year. None of the politicians changed in Congress that year; many of them never even intended to support a voting rights act. But King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the others—they changed the political atmosphere, which forced the change in the politics. 

We couldn’t wait for the next election. We decided with the Moral Monday Movement that we needed to have a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign every week to drive home for the public what was happening and to ensure that what the politicians did didn’t happen in the dark. We believed that a lot of people didn’t actually know what was going on and holding just one protest or march would not politically educate them. Doing it every Monday gave us a stage to address the issues; it created a following with the media; it created our own social media. It allowed us to shift the narrative, and let people see what was going on. 

This is a really important message. In some ways, liberals make the kind of inverse sort of mistake around elections as third party wankers do. The latter think that general elections are the place to make a stance about your own personal beliefs and misunderstand the critical roles that elections have in actually shaping policy and determining life and death for a lot of people. They are rightfully shunned.

But it’s also true that too often liberals see those elections as the only place where those changes take place and that’s equally damaging in their own ways. Just electing Democrats is never enough. It’s barely a place to start, though it is necessary. Making real change requires playing a very long game and the 24-hour news cycle with its constant focus on elections is a really damaging barrier to creating that change. The fact that mass protests against the Trump administration have completley disappeared since the 2018 midterms is a sign of just how people don’t understand this. If a protest doesn’t work after one or two attempts, people just give up on it. But as Barber points out–and as a study of American history clearly demonstrates–it takes years to make these changes. Years of hard work, years of continually screaming into the void. Being “tired” or whatnot, as some people sometimes claim here after just a few years of Donald Trump which probably hasn’t materially impacted most LGM readers, doesn’t even make much sense except to the extent that people are obsessively watching cable news instead of actually doing anything. And I get why electoral politics are one place to do things–in fact, that’s a good place to do things. But it’s also by no means the only thing that we can and should do.

Rev. Barber’s methods and his message is something we need to take very seriously, not just as a vague inspiration, but as an actual guide to our actions.

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