Preparing for a Season in the Political Wilderness

Photograph Source: Nenad Stojkovic – CC BY 2.0

Many of us view the future with dark foreboding.  The sense is all too grounded in fact. A hard-right turn in U.S. politics in 2022 and 2024 seems in the cards. Meanwhile, the climate catastrophe intensifies, while action to turn it around lags and many trends are in the exact wrong direction. At the same time, great powers clash, and war drums are beating louder.

Times to try our souls. And to prepare for darker times ahead.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’ve worked for progressive change most of my life. Today it feels as if dark forces are overwhelming efforts to leave our children a world that is not a dystopian nightmare. What can we do facing such a bleak situation?

I have to go back into our history, to look at people who fought uphill battles against seemingly insurmountable odds, and in the end won, moral minorities struggling against powerful institutions and systems backed by majority consensus. Abolitionists working to end slavery. Women battling for the right to vote. Blacks fighting for civil rights. People who came from the margins, who put their lives on the line to change the majority consensus and win justice.

They were people who lived in the political wilderness, away from the comfort and support of just going along to get along.  My sense is that we who hold progressive values face our own season in the political wilderness, and we had better get ready.

One virtue of dark times is that they bring things to light. We hear a lot about losing our democracy, how Trump’s attempt to overturn the election and the January 6 Capitol invasion were clarions warning how close we are. Radical gerrymandering and vote suppression laws in many states intensify those fears. We could well see far-right domination of the Congress and the White House after 2022 and 2024. Reactionary control of the Supreme Court is already a fact.

But we have to ask how much democracy do we have anyway in a political system governed by the golden rule – those who have the gold make the rules. An explosion of political donations by corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals was unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision. But that was only the capstone of a long trend that began with the 1971 Buckley v. Valeo ruling that independent political donations are covered under the First Amendment. In other words, money equals speech. It’s obvious who speaks with the loudest voice. And why measures with broad public support such as those for health care, increased minimum wages, equitable taxation, clean energy and climate stabilization can’t gain traction. The moneyed interests and their lobbyists rule the roost.

The reality is that the U.S. was not designed to be a democracy. The framers of the Constitution adopted many measures to stave off democracy, to them a bad word, including the Senate, the electoral college, large House of Representatives districts, and a strong Executive Branch.  They were responding to actual democratic aspirations aroused by the Revolution. State governments were diluting payment of crippling war debts in order to cut taxes in the post-Revolution depression. The states were issuing their own paper money rather than paying in precious metals! The financial powers that spurred the Constitutional Convention, led by Alexander Hamilton, could not have that. They drew up the Constitution to constrict democracy in the states, and insulate against democratic upsurges.

That we have anything approaching a democracy in the U.S. can be credited to people working in popular movements. Senators are no longer appointed by state legislatures, but elected by a vote of the people, thanks to the populist and progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. The suffrage movement gained women the right to vote. That took until 1920 to achieve nationally. Most Blacks could not vote in the South until the 1960s, after a hard struggle by civil rights workers on the ground, a number of whom lost their lives in the process.

Similarly, we would not have even our limited social safety net, most of which dates to the 1930s, without the advocacy of socialists and labor groups. Protections for labor organizing, also dating to the 1930s, were won by labor struggle in factories, on rail lines, and in city streets. Environmental struggles in the 1960s and ‘70s gained us legislation for clean air, clean water, and wilderness and species preservation.

In other words, most of what is decent in the U.S. was won by people organizing for change. If the ruling powers had their way, we would still live in a land where only white men could vote, the unemployed and elderly had to fend for themselves, labor had no right to form unions, and corporations were completely (rather than only partially) free to make rivers and the air open sewers. That is only a selection of many instances that could be cited. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States provides an encyclopedic record. Courageous and committed people joining together in common cause made the difference. That kind of courage and commitment are what it is going to take in coming years.

We could see heartbreaking reverses on many progressive gains. In the case of Black voting rights, we are already seeing them, fueled by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holden decision, which repealed Voting Rights Act protections in effect since 1965. Our experience of the Supreme Court as an expander of rights dates largely to the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The court is now returning to its role as a reactionary bastion. In coming months, it could dismantle key climate and clean air protections, and begin to unravel much of the “administrative state,” lifting whatever restraint government regulatory agencies still place on corporations.  Meanwhile, what a Republican Congress and White House could do after 2024 to roll back progressive gains can only be described as horrific. Trump 1 gave us a foretaste. Trump 2 is almost unimaginable. The 19th century Gilded Age state of absolutely unbridled corporate power could be back with us quickly.

We must face the fact that a coherent and consolidated right is moving in concerted fashion to take us there. Funded by wealthy reactionaries, shaping public opinion through a network of think tanks and right wing media outlets, promoting a libertarian free market philosophy, this rightist force seeks nothing more than the pursuit of wealth unchecked by any social, political or environmental restraint. It is ruthlessly pursuing this goal at every level, employing culture wars hysteria over phony issues such as Critical Race Theory to mobilize its ground troops and distract from the real issues, such as the growing wealth gap and climate destruction.

The right is outplaying the centrist forces that control the Democratic Party. One cannot help but think of those words from William Butler Yeats’ Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .  The best lack all conviction. While the worst are full of passionate intensity.” A party that under Clinton moved to capture the corporate money stream, pushing its traditional labor base to the side, and now dominated by funders and consultants, seems incapable of matching the passion generated by the right. The progressive elements that do have passion are largely marginalized in party networks.  They have local strength in urban centers that have elected Progressive Caucus members such as Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Omar in Minneapolis, Tlaib in Detroit and Jayapal in Seattle. But at the national level it’s the corporate-funded centrists that prevail.

If the Democrats experience electoral slaughter in 2022 and 2024, those could be clarifying events that shine the light on these dark realities.  In reality, if coming elections push much of the party’s professional political class to the margins, they will only be joining the grassroots which largely lives there already. People who have been pushing for progressive political, social and environmental change against the powerful interests that dominate the party machinery. One could hope a time in the political wilderness would have a cleansing effect, finally discrediting the centrist trend that dominated the party from Clinton on. An asteroid strike that would extinct the centrist dinosaurs and allow the progressive mammals to emerge from their urban burrows and evolve a new party capable of making real changes. Or maybe it will just be a fundraising opportunity.

In any event, the current geography of progressive strength suggests how we all might prepare for a time of hard right rule. We root in specific places, major urban regions. We can and must continue to move forward with progressive change around social and environmental issues in those places, and push at the state level where that is possible. In most cases, that will be in states where progressive urban areas are dominant. In reality, cities and states are where most progressive change has been happening anyway, whether it’s higher minimum wages, improved voting access, or action to reduce use of climate-twisting fossil fuels. In the case of the latter, states have done the most to advance renewable energy with standards requiring its use. Cities are in the forefront of banning fossil gas in buildings. Cities and states, closer to where the people live, have greater democratic possibilities. They offer more leverage points to undertake people power initiatives.

At local and state levels, we need to build a movement of movements that draws together the broad range of progressive causes, from climate to criminal justice reform. Urban coalitions organized around broad platforms can build strength in cities and the inner ring suburbs where lower-income people and communities of color increasingly live. Crucially, they must move beyond metropolitan boundaries in both blue and red states, to link with organizers in rural areas largely abandoned by the Democrats, forwarding programs that provide jobs and ecologically sensible development. We must focus on what we can do in our cities and states, and on the obstacles that hold us back, particularly the lack of progressive taxation.

This is not a call to abandon national politics, but to build a new base to gain power at the national level. Progressive movements reflecting communities of place must link across the country to create communities of interest. We have the means of communication to weave together webs in our own states and regions and across the U.S.  Think of the mycelial networks created by mycorrhizal fungi running underground to link many different forms of plants. That should be our model.

Over the years of this decade, we could well face the dark times we fear. But longer term trends favor progressives. The millennial and zoomer generations are far more progressive than my aging boomer cohort or the Gen Xrs behind us. We olders experienced the U.S. in its halcyon and on the whole benefitted greatly. The youngers have experienced the rawness of neoliberal capitalism that took root in the 1980s. They are pressed to pay student loans and exploding rents on stagnant wages. Many have little hope of ever owning a home. The future is also far more ethnically diverse, a trend right wing reaction cannot hold back.

We also must expect the rightist regime to fail.  It may mobilize disaffected working class people to come to power, using cultural and racial issues. But beholden to the rich who only want to get richer, it will not address the economic roots of that disaffection, only drive them deeper. It can also be expected that climate chaos will intensify, with destructive storms, floods, heat waves and wildfires, in ways that affect more and more people. Part of today’s rising food prices can be attributed to climate extremes, draining pocketbooks everywhere. Crop failures that cause food price shocks can only increase. Public concern over climate is rising to unprecedented levels, and the planet will produce an escalating series of events that drives it even higher. Ultimately, failure to address critical issues such as climate disruption and the wealth gap will undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the rightist regime. It is toward that point that we must organize.

Dark times have the benefit of clarity. They bust comfortable illusions and move us beyond complacency by bringing to the fore the real crises that confront us. It may be that only harsh reality will bring together a sufficient mass of people to overcome moneyed interests and make the changes that we must. For that, we must prepare by building coherent movements in centers of progressive strength, movements that press for change in our cities, states, and regions, and link across the national landscape. We must recall those people from former times such as the abolitionists, the women’s suffrage and Black civil rights advocates, and the labor organizers, people who struggled from the margins to move change at the center. We must make their hallmarks our own. Courage and commitment. Our future and our children’s demand nothing less.

This first appeared on Patrick Mazza’s Substack page, The Raven.