In a nation supposedly premised on “rule of law,” it wasn’t unreasonable to expect Congress and the justice system to hold the President’s crime family accountable for their actions. It’s becoming clear that this isn’t going to happen.
We don’t know what’s in the Mueller Report, but we know what it doesn’t contain – an explanation of legal actions filed against the President, his family and businesses. The President and his Republican collaborators have turned the federal government into an engine for personal enrichment, dismantling our capacity to use it toward the public interest or hold powerful people accountable for crimes. No help is coming. What now?
We could plow yet more energy into the national political process. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but done at the expense of local engagement it will become a tarpit. A massive investment of time and money might produce another Democratic wave in 2020. Under the present order, that accomplishment by itself will deliver little progress. No realistic outcome from the next two elections would grant Democrats the 60+ Senate seats they would need to bring meaningful change. Even then, so much of the federal infrastructure has been degraded over the past 20 years that rebuilding it will likely take a generation.
That’s work that needs to be done, but if it’s the only goal we pursue, then that effort will probably fail. We will not rebuild democracy in America by focusing on Washington DC. We will not regain influence over our government without recognizing the severity of our circumstances. Americans no longer share a common core of values binding us together. Instead, what lies ahead is a winner-take-all struggle to control America’s future.
We happen to hold all the best cards in this game, but we aren’t playing them. We continue to expect the best from rivals who continue to sink to the worst. While we still have time, Americans of conscience must consolidate their political power and use their leverage to defeat our enemies.
This can be accomplished in a mostly peaceful manner if we’re smart, strategic, and realistic. However, if we continue to wallow in Pollyanna fantasies, electing officials who promise “compromise” and “outreach,” we’ll lose enough ground that we can be swept away in a fight. Here are a few simple rules for the next stage of the fight for democracy in America.
While Democratic figures like Corey Booker yammer on about “the ties that bind us,” Republicans are hoarding guns and circulating political porn about a civil war. Find political figures who do not shrink from a fight. That’s your clue that they haven’t been bought yet.
Focus on State and Local Government
Repairing the federal government is a long-term project in the midst of a short-term crisis. It should be deprioritized in favor of a focus on state and local politics. Cry about it if necessary, but then take action where you live. Residents of California, Illinois and New York don’t already have universal health care for two reasons, 1) we’ve forgotten the power of state governments, and 2) thanks to #1, our state governments have become fabulously corrupt.
Are you bothered by Citizens’ United? Force your state government to impose even more draconian curbs on political spending and adopt new transparency rules. They can do this. The Affordable Care Act was born as a state program in Massachusetts. It remains far more successful there than it has been anywhere else. This is not an accident. Our system was designed for state initiative.
As the conflict over our federal government reaches a head, we will need government institutions we can trust. We’ll have to build them, because they don’t exist today. If we can’t build competent representative institutions at home, then Washington will never rescue us.
Know Your Local Leaders (and make sure they know you)
Does your police force collaborate with ICE on immigrant detentions? Does your town have policies in place that keep housing segregated? What are your county and your city doing to cut carbon emissions and promote renewable energy? Don’t attend another rally for a Congressional or Presidential candidate until you know the answer to those questions. Abandon the fight for our values on our own block, and the effort we pour into Washington is just pounding sand.
Build Local Networks
Despite all the hand-wringing over the dangers of social media, it has handed us the most powerful tool in history for ordinary people to balance the power of money. It costs $0 to build a local political network on social media. Find people in your community who share your values and take the simple step of connecting with them. Have a mailing list, or a Facebook group. If you can mobilize 20 people in a city ward, then you’re practically a political party. Join forces with a dozen other similar groups and state candidates will have to pay attention.
Know Your Leverage
In a dark moment, one can be tempted to wallow in defeatism. The reality is that we hold the high ground across the battlefield, we just haven’t engaged yet. Much as they did in 1861, your enemy has lots of guns and enthusiasm, but poor intelligence and surprisingly little money. Trump’s support is concentrated among the worst 40% of our culture. That’s right, the big money is on our side, along with the brains.
Our side can muster such overwhelming financial influence that no one can publicly support Trump and remain competitive in the marketplace. Fox News has been stripped of advertisers. Breitbart and The Federalist survive on donations.
Don’t do business with a Trump-supporting accountant. Use social media to pressure companies out of relationships with Trump-supporting entities. Burn down all the comfortable spaces from which this rot emerged. In a supreme irony, Republicans today survive by pandering to the dumbest, poorest and worst Americans. Make them pay for that vulnerability.
Most of All, Prepare for a Fight
It should be clear by now that there is no bottom, there is no moral core around which we can align with Trump’s supporters and his Republican collaborators. Nothing he might do in the future, no matter how heinous, will bring these people to their senses. When Trump’s gone, Republicans will promote another Kleptocrat to take his place. Defeat them, or be defeated.
That does not mean resorting to violence. In fact, violence would almost certainly be counter-productive at this point. What we must do is consolidate our power around institutions we can leverage if violence ever becomes necessary.
When the Black Panthers embraced a violent self-defense ethic in the 1960’s, they were out-gunned and out-organized. Without the benefit of political legitimacy and a strong organization, they were quickly neutralized through a campaign of murder by white police, with cover provided by local elected officials.
Survivors remedied the central failure of the first generation of Panthers, focusing on building a local political core capable of organizing resistance. Violence without organization is the difference between a firecracker and a bullet. Police may have wiped out much of the first generation of the Black Panthers, but their political heirs made a huge impact on Oakland, South Chicago and Harlem. Through a core developed in these places and others, they have gradually changed America. Former Black Panthers now sit in Congress and state legislatures. Violence without organization is noisy and showy, with no meaning. Defiance backed by organization can change the world.
Democracy is not easy. It is not cheap. It is not automatic or guaranteed. Just a few years ago it seemed the most powerful force on earth, now democracy stands at the brink of irrelevance. Tears won’t save it. Those who seek to replace democracy will not surrender to a fine speech or a well-crafted campaign ad. Our enemies are weaker than we realize, but we have slept through their advance. We will learn to leverage our power for good in just the next few years, or we will lose that power for the foreseeable future.