An American Uprising: Assessing Opportunities for Progressive Political Change

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0


We live in a time of tremendous instability and change. Concerns about growing authoritarianism in American politics – as reflected in the rise of corporate power in politics, the intensification of militarism, and the diversion of the masses from political participation – are legitimate. There’s always been negativity on “the left” regarding American politics and society, and for good reason. We live in a time of ecological unsustainability that threatens human survival. Record inequality means a growing number of Americans are economically insecure and struggling to pay for basic goods such as health care and education. The threat of militarism is real, with the Trump administration’s saber rattling against Russia and North Korea. Militarism was a problem under Obama as well, although many Americans held out hope based on Trump’s rhetoric that he’d cool relations with Russia.

Progressives are right to spotlight the dangers to democracy and human survival we face, and to condemn a political-economic system that’s engaged in an all-out assault on the public. But these dangers are far from the whole story when we talk about American politics today. There’s also a pathology that defines much of left discourse, marked by a fixation on condemning the political system, independent of any constructive effort to develop positive suggestions for transforming politics. This negativity suggests a refusal to recognize the unique moment we find ourselves in regarding the rising intensity of social protests over the last decade. Simply put, we are in the middle of what I’d call a second renaissance of social movement activism, equaled only by the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. This earlier period was a time of rapid change. Activists came together to protest state repression on many fronts, in opposition to America’s racial caste system, to resist an imperialist, murderous, immoral war in Asia, in support of challenging misogynist patriarchal norms, in opposition to environmental degradation via air pollution and nuclear power, and in pursuit of basic consumer protections.

We find ourselves in another critical and historic juncture today. Post-2008, we see movement after social movement emerge to assault a political-economic status quo that is rejected by the vast majority of Americans. Citizens are realizing that U.S. political system is working only to benefit the wealthy few. Gallup found in 2015 that less than one-in-four Americans trusted the national government “a great deal” or a “fair amount” – a record low since the organization started tracking this question in 1972. Just one-in-five Americans said in 2015 that government was “run for the benefit of all,” rather than for the few. As the Washington Post reported that year, “across party lines, Americans believe our economic system is rigged to favor the wealthy, and big corporations, and that our political system is, too – so much so that by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, Americans believe their ‘vote does not matter because of the influence wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process.’”

As a young, idealistic undergraduate college activist 15 years ago, I would have died if this many Americans had articulated such distrust of government. This is fertile ground for organizing, and progressives should rejoice at this historic opportunity. Young Americans are increasingly estranged from an economy that provides income gains only to the top one percent, while assaulting the rest of the population. This anger was on display in a 2016 Harvard Survey finding that just 42 percent of Millennials expressed support for capitalism. Young Americans aren’t stupid. They can read the writing on the wall, and they recognize that our economy is broken, functioning for the affluent few at the expense of the many. And young Americans will be vital to producing structural political or economic change in the coming decades.

We don’t have to wait to see growing pressure for change. A mass public uprising has been going on for years. I’m reluctant to say it started with the “Tea Party,” since polls demonstrated that these protesters were largely nativist, racist reactionaries who were preoccupied with preventing future tax increases and stifling efforts to repair our country’s broken health care system. Polls from the early 2010s found that Tea Partiers were quite privileged economically speaking, earning incomes well above the national average, and benefitting from high education levels. And there was no evidence that these individuals were more likely than other Americans to have been hurt by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. Since the decline of the Tea Party, however, many progressive waves of protest have emerged. Some are now gone, others remain. These include the Madison uprising against Governor Scott Walker (2011); Occupy Wall Street (2011), “Fight for $15” (2013 to present); Black Lives Matter (2013 to present); the Sanders uprising within the Democratic Party’s base (2016), and the anti-Trump protests (2016 to present), not to mention the environmental movement, which has remained relevant on numerous fronts over the last few decades.

The significance of these uprisings shouldn’t be underestimated. While Occupy Wall Street protesters never developed a comprehensive plan for policy reform, the movement never seemed interested in doing so during its brief rise to national prominence. Rather, it sought to create a national dialogue, to draw mass attention to the issues of corporate greed and record economic inequality. It seems clear that OWS succeeded in this goal, considering the growing salience of inequality in American political discourse in the 2010s. The Madison protests, while failing to stop Governor Walker’s reactionary, anti-labor agenda, could be viewed as part of a larger resurgence of American labor, when coupled with the “Fight for $15” living wage movement. Due to federal inaction on raising the minimum wage, labor activists have turned to the state and local level to push for change. The growing frequency of minimum wage increases across the 50 states is hard to miss these days. As someone who’s long studied labor activism and the minimum wage, huge changes are afoot: while it was typical for only 5, perhaps 6 states to raise their minimum wage every year in the early-to-mid 2000s, it is now common to see nearly 20 states do so annually. This shift is astounding, and likely relates not only to the liberal politics of some state legislatures, but to grassroots pressure. “Fight for $15” activists have been organizing, and pressuring state legislators for years. Most recently, these activists organized across hundreds of cities in November 2016, in the largest protests yet demanding increased pay for low-wage workers. Their highest profile successes are now seen in New York and California, where laws were passed to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared in early 2016 a “Drive for $15” tour across the state, as part of the broader “Campaign for Economic Justice.” In April of that year, he announced a raise in the state’s minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour by 2020, in front of an audience of labor activists, labor leaders, and fast-food workers. Cuomo’s efforts were an obvious example of a politician reaching out to constituents in his campaign for re-election. There’s nothing surprising about such campaigns. Officials have long appealed to organized interest groups and social movements to improve their electoral prospects. And workers were courted throughout the campaign to raise the minimum wage, not only at rallies, but in the legislative process. As the New York Times reported in July 2015, “When lawmakers in Albany balked at the idea [of raising the minimum wage], Mr. Cuomo convened a board to look at wages in the fast-food industry, which is one of the biggest employers of low-wage workers in the state, with about 180,000 employees. After hearing testimony from dozens of fast-food workers, the board members decided the state should mandate that fast-food chains pay more.” A similar scenario played out in California. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown was initially reluctant to consider a large minimum wage increase, but pressure from below from service workers and the broader public, changed his mind. As the Sacramento Bee reported in April 2016: “Brown, a fiscal moderate, had previously expressed reservations about a wage increase. But amid growing concern about income inequality in California and the national thrust of the labor-backed ‘Fight for 15’ campaign, his hand was forced. Public opinion polls showed strong support for increasing the state’s mandatory minimum beyond its current $10.” The cases of New York and California suggest that progressive reforms are possible when citizens elect progressive politicians and pressure for those officials to adopt progressive legislation.

Black Lives Matter is another example of how positive change is possible because of social movement activism. Whether it be the protests surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, or the Ferguson protests following Michael Brown’s shooting, or New York protests following the death of Eric Garner, Black Lives Matter has sent a powerful message to the American people and to national, state, and local governments that racial profiling, police brutality, and institutional racism are no longer tolerated. The continuation of these protests is even more important now that Trump is in power. The administration prefers willful ignorance when it comes to problem of institutional racism, and is resisting any significant role for the Department of Justice in spotlighting racial discrimination or pressuring local police forces to address it.

With tremendous effort, Black Lives Matter has succeeded in pressuring the national and local governments into acting. During the Obama years, the Department of Justice became a useful tool for civil rights activists, who pressured the DOJ to investigate local police forces and complaints of discrimination. Negative DOJ reports against Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson placed pressure on these cities to address discrimination. With Ferguson, various reforms followed the 2013 protests and DOJ pressure. These included: 1. replacing the old city police chief and city manager with black officials, in response to protesters’ opposition to a largely white police and city hall political structure that was running a revenue-making scam explicitly targeting African Americans in order to increase city revenues via excessive ticketing; 2. The replacement of four city council members with new representatives, in an effort to root out old-guard supporters of the city’s racist police system; 3. The firing of a top court clerk for the city, and the removal of nearly two dozen police officers, to root out government employees with records of racist behavior; 4. The passage of sales and utility taxes to help the city offset a budget deficit that emerged after Ferguson pulled back on its previous policy of discriminating against city residents as a source of operating revenues. Pressure from protesters had a clear impact in terms of reducing discrimination, as municipal court revenues from tickets and fines fell dramatically from $2.7 million in 2014 to $500,000 in 2016.

In Chicago, protests exploded after a video surfaced of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting a black city resident, Laquan McDonald, in cold blood. Van Dyke is awaiting a trial in which he is being charged with murder. But the scandal goes well beyond Van Dyke, with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel implicated in covering up the murder video. As USA Today reported in March of 2017, “The video – which came after decades of simmering mistrust and allegations of police brutality and misconduct in some of Chicago’s predominantly minority neighborhoods – also led to widespread public outrage and weeks of protests in the city. The public backlash led to the Obama Justice Department launching a year-long probe of Chicago police’s pattern and practices.” As USA Today reported, amidst growing public anger at city officials, the Chicago Police Department’s superintendent Eddie Johnson introduced plans “to bolster community policing, implement a field training officer program for new cops, and revise the departments use of force policy and other changes in the months ahead.” Only time will tell if Chicago’s police department institutes serious reforms to combat police brutality. But pressure up to this point has at least forced the city to articulate a plan for change.

Looking at the cases of Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, change was achieved by mobilizing the mass public in opposition to corrupt, out of touch, and discriminatory political structures that had lost the support of the publics they were supposed to serve. That social movements can mobilize public opinion, thereby pressuring government to institute policy change, is not surprising to scholars who study social movements. But this finding is important, nonetheless, for those who depict the American political system as beyond reform, and American politics (and elections) as impervious to democratic public pressures. These case studies demonstrate that this is not the case. Citizens and social movements have an uphill battle in fighting for change, but changes can, and do occur with enough sacrifice and effort on the part of communities, activists, and organizers.

The rise of mass protest in the last decade suggests there are opportunities to fight for progressive transformation, culturally, economically, and politically. Progressively-minded people should not squander this moment by engaging in petty bickering and infighting. Those who think they will be part of a meaningful uprising against our political-economic system by engaging in cannibalism against “lesser” protesters are sorely mistaken. The “where were you when Obama was in office?” nonsense, to put it bluntly, is a loser’s game, played by those who are content to poison the well of potential recruits in the battle for democratic change. It does us no good to single out “worthy” and “unworthy” protesters based on individuals’ previous commitments (or lack thereof) to protest. This is the work of egotistical blowhards.

No one is going to follow so-called organizers who hurl insults at new recruits and older progressives who are deemed not “hard core” enough in their politics by self-appointed leftist “revolutionaries.” Such pathological thinking must be abandoned if we are to build a meaningful mass movement. If “perfect” politics are the prerequisite for membership in this uprising, then we’re already doomed to failure.

Furthermore, caustic attacks on protesters who were/are pro-Democratic or pro-Hillary are also counterproductive. Nothing of value is gained by classifying demonstrators as “good” or “bad” based on their previous voting preferences. This is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. It’s ultimately incumbent on progressives to seize the reigns and guide this uprising. If we’re unhappy with the Democratic Party’s neoliberal agenda and the possibility that contemporary protests may be co-opted, that’s all the more reason to work even harder to win over new supporters who will transcend pro-corporate, neoliberal politics.

Fortunately, we’ve already begun to see movement past self-destructive ideological purism, and a rejection of efforts to make the perfect the enemy of the good. To provide just one example, I attended an April 15th tax-day rally in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this month, which was clearly comprised of a mix of progressives, independently-minded activists, and Democrats. I didn’t appreciate the electioneering of various local Dems, who sought to co-opt the protest for their own personal political ends, but it was also obvious that the crowd was an eclectic group of people, and for most, their politics were far to the left of corporatist Democrats. The greatest applause was reserved not for Democratic officials running for office, but for the speakers who addressed substantive progressive issues and proposals.

Dominant themes at the tax-day rally included: opposition to militarism, seen in resistance to Trump’s bombing of Syria and his threats against North Korea; opposition to a plutocratic tax system that allows the wealthy to avoid paying their share of taxes via infinite corporate and business loopholes; and opposition to an initiative from state Republican legislators to eliminate property taxes entirely, dealing a huge blow to the state’s k-12 education system. I was proud to participate in this rally based on the merits of the issues raised, regardless of whether other protesters there were Democrats or independents. A mass movement requires strength in numbers, and “the left” will be far stronger when we realize we need more unification, rather than further division. Contrary to the holier than thou politics that has infected much of modern progressive politics, tactical alliances are not only possible, but desirable and necessary if we are to achieve meaningful political change.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.