Darkest Before the Dawn? Building to the Next Great Progressive Era

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By Richard Kirsch |

When we look at American history, the great progressive eras follow the darkest, most conservative times. As deeply painful as a Trump presidency will be, if we continue to build the emerging progressive movements of our day, we will accelerate the coming of the next powerful burst of progressive change in our country.

The Dred Scott decision was laid down three years before Lincoln’s election. The gilded age of the robber barons created the conditions for the Progressive era of the early 1900s. The Great Depression preceded the New Deal. The multiple progressive advances of the 60’s through early 70’s came on the heels of McCarthyism.

The ground for every one of these progressive eras was laid by decades of organizing leading to the emergence of movements. From the abolitionists, to the suffragettes, the Populists, the labor movement, the civil rights movement and environmental consciousness, we saw organizing in what seemed fallow ground, followed by vibrant movements and then – when all seemed lost – enormous progress towards justice.

To be sure, the excesses and contradictions of the dominant regime of the time – whether it be slavery, patriarchy or capitalism – created the conditions in people’s lives for them to be demand major change. Today excesses of capitalism and the continuing forces of racism and patriarch drive our movements: the fight for $15 and a union; Black Lives Matter; climate justice; LGBTQ equality; welcoming immigrants.

What must we do now to assure that Trump and the next four years of Republican control of government becomes the doormat to the next great progressive era? The short answer is to continue to build movement and to connect those movements to resisting Trumpism, championing bold ideas nationally and moving those ideas in states.

As President Trump moves much of the Republican priorities in Congress, there will be too many opportunities to fight back. Different parts of the progressive movement will prioritize different issues, but all must do three things.

One is to aggressively resist the proposals and refuse to engage in discussions of compromise; we need to make the harm they will do to people crystal clear, always asking whether Republicans are on the side of the rich and powerful of working families and the middle class.

Two, resist through mobilizing large numbers of people, through bringing movement tactics to legislative work. Part of our task is to shape the national narrative, which movements do with bold action. And part of the task is to set up for the 2018 and 2020 elections, to defeat Republicans while emboldening Democrats and promoting champions. While we run national campaigns, intense work needs to be in the districts of Republicans who are vulnerable. In stopping Democrats, particularly in the Senate, who might go along with the Republican agenda.

What that means is rather than just doing conventional tactics – petitions, in-district meetings, letters to the editor – we need to organize big marches on offices, hold sit-ins, clog up phone lines, relentlessly bird-dog legislators wherever they go. This is hard work and will be better accomplished if groups coordinate across issues and alliances.

Three, we need to build movements for bold solutions nationally and in the states. We’ve seen the power of the Fight for $15 to transform the minimum wage movement from incremental to significant. We saw how Bernie’s call for big ideas energized people.

Nationally, at the same time we vehemently protest Trump-Republican actions we should lift big progressive ideas. When they vote to dismantle the ACA, we should both point out the extraordinary harm it will do to millions of Americans and organize instead for Medicare for All. When they vote to give mammoth tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations, we should fight for raising taxes on the rich and big corporations. If they vote to build a wall we should demand a quick pathway to citizenship.

We should work with our champions in Congress in to promote a progressive vision and agenda on issues that Trump and the Republicans will ignore: raise the minimum wage to $15; free public college; public financing of elections; ending mass incarceration.

While the national battles will advance progressive ideas we should continue to make those ideas into reality in states and cities. It is true that states have historically served as laboratories for many progressive ideas that eventually became national policy. Local campaigns are fertile opportunities for movement building, as people feel it is possible to make change locally and transcend the gridlock and powerful forces in Washington.

Today we see states and cities enacting higher minimum wages and paid family leave. Voters in two Ohio cities approved tax increases for pre-K. Voters in a Maryland and California approved county and city laws to set up small donor campaign financing.

State and local elections are the best opportunity to elect new progressive leaders, as we saw this year as more young and diverse champions were voted into office. We need to build partnerships with these newly elected leaders and with other progressives in office, many of whom have felt isolated.

In the aftermath of the election, progressives are trying to understand the implications of Trump’s support from white, working class voters for our strategy. A key goal of the work above is to make it clear to many of these people that Trump and the Republicans will deliver for Wall Street, not for them.

We should not kid ourselves that the loss of white status and racism are not also driving forces or that we will be able to overcome that for many people with an economic appeal. But we do not need all of them – we need those who can be moved. I have seen in my own life’s work how multi-racial organizing on economic issues can build relationships that transcend racial barriers. We should do that throughout our campaign work wherever possible.

But we should also remember that we saw with Bernie’s campaign that a progressive who makes it absolutely clear which side he or she stands on, can attract many more of these voters that we will be able to reach through our organizing.

Over the last two years I have often said to colleagues that the quickest way to a new progressive moment is probably also the most painful, by being forced to fight rightwing control of our government. I would never have wanted that to happen, because the cost to people’s lives is too great. But it has.

Clinton’s election, her hands tied by a Republican Congress, would have meant more years of gridlock and attempted compromises and rightwing blaming everything on the Democratic president. It would have led to more public confusion and despair.

The door is now wide open to the next progressive era in American history. It’s up to us to build the growing movements of our time to march through that door.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States, published in February 2012 by the Rockefeller Institute Press.