We who believe in democracy are going to have to get very serious about the practice of democratic politics over the months and years to come. And we’re going to have to be smart about it. Protest matters, but protest will not build the structures that can secure democracy against the intensified assaults that are coming its way.
Being smart about democratic politics begins by recognizing that it takes multiple forms, each a necessary part of the whole. None of us can perform all the needed roles. We need an intelligent division of democratic labor. We each need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on the piece we’re best positioned to perform. And then we need to make sure that in working on our part of the challenge, we’re supporting and not undermining people who are working on other parts.
At least three kinds of democratic politics became more urgent on Wednesday. First, we need a politics of defense and solidarity with the most vulnerable in Trump’s America: racialized minorities, sexual minorities, women, and the earth itself. Second, we need a politics of resistance: actively blocking the moves that will do further damage to constitutional democracy and civil rights under law. Third, we need a bridging politics: finding zones of cooperation around policy agendas that could generate real benefits for significant segments of the population and mitigate the forces that drive inequality and polarization.
What do these three forms of democratic politics look like, in practice?
The politics of solidarity begins with reinforcing the defenses we still have. That means supporting mainstream liberal organizations that have been fighting in the trenches for decades to defend the most basic liberties of the person. The ACLU. The NAACP. Planned Parenthood. We need these organizations to be strong going into a Trump presidency.
But making donations from the comfort of our living rooms (for those among us who have that luxury) is not nearly enough. We need to go local, strengthening networks of solidarity at ground level, beginning with advocacy and movement organizations that already exist. Schools, faith communities, and local food movements can also be nodes in networks of local democratic resilience. We can and should increase our involvement in local government, building more robust structures of democratic responsiveness close to home. Strengthening local accountability for policing was already a top priority, as Black Lives Matter has taught us. It will be even more important in Trump’s America, where we can expect heightened pressures to use militarized police forces to suppress dissent.
We can strengthen translocal networks that share knowledge about what works and what doesn’t to deliver basic protections at the local scale. When we think translocally, we can also think transnationally. The food sovereignty movement is an exemplar here, linking urban communities, rural independent agriculturalists, Indigenous peoples, and environmental protection. It could be a conduit to connect protections for the most vulnerable human bodies to protections for our vulnerable planet. Trump’s economic agenda will hasten global warming by pushing pipelines across the landscape and pulling oil, natural gas and coal from the earth. As we’ve seen in Standing Rock, this will come at the expense of Indigenous peoples, their lands, and their water. A politics of solidarity means standing with them.
Which brings us to the second form of democratic politics, the politics of resistance. Whereas the politics of solidarity is about building resilient relationships, the politics of resistance is about strategically mobilizing those relationships to block the most damaging actions at well-chosen moments. Solidarity politics is slow, long-term, and future-oriented; resistance politics is in the now. Effective resistance politics requires smart judgments about where to set up the barricades. We should give priority to blocking further damage to our constitutional democracy, the condition of possibility for any progressive politics. That includes blocking Supreme Court nominees who would overturn women’s right to control their own reproduction. It includes blocking further moves to disenfranchise minorities through the tactics that helped to elect Trump and a Republican House and Senate, while also fighting to reverse existing voter suppression laws. It includes blocking political trials, should Trump follow up on his promise to try to “lock her up.”
The politics of resistance will also need to take to the streets from time to time. The post-election protests have sent the vital message that Trump faces a serious legitimacy deficit going into the presidency. He did not win a majority of the popular vote. His claim to represent “all Americans” is not credible given the racist and misogynist divisions he actively sowed throughout his campaign. These protests are crucial in setting the stage for other forms of democratic politics. But we also need to think hard, and critically, about which modes and rhetorics of protest can underwrite democratic possibilities in the days ahead, and which will generate anti-democratic backlash. It’s hard not to sympathize with the “Not My President” chant, but it will be used by Republicans to charge Democrats with hypocrisy: Weren’t they outraged when right-wingers said this about Obama? That wouldn’t be a fair retort (no one is claiming that Trump was not born in the United States), but it is a predictable one. And we can be sure that every rock thrown through a window, every effigy burned, every punch thrown will be used to rationalize phalanxes of riot police arrayed against peaceful protesters. Baton Rouge and Standing Rock, among so many other stand-offs, have taught us what this looks like. This is a strategic claim, not a moral one. Even if destructive modes of protest are sometimes effective in generating a constructive response from government, as was arguably the case in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray, in Trump’s America we can predict that they will not be effective. They will simply be put down with as much violence as necessary (or perhaps more), and they will alienate the citizens whose votes Democrats need in the next election.
What about a democratic politics of bridging? What does that look like in practice? First, it means finding those few planks in Trump’s platform that might actually benefit a significant segment of American citizens. Renegotiating trade deals to yield greater benefits to American workers; securing affordable child care; reducing the influence of special interest lobbyists in Washington: these are areas where it might be possible to find common ground. Second, some progressives have joked that instead of moving to Canada they should move to red states. It’s hard to take that seriously, but the wisdom in it is that we must break out of our resonance machines and find ways of engaging with citizens who voted for Trump. Of course that doesn’t mean indulging the ideology of white supremacy that lies at the heart of the Trump phenomenon. But many – I dare say most – who voted for Trump would not avow that ideology. The first bridge we can build is to invite them to stand with us in condemning the hate crimes against African Americans, Latinos, gays, trans people, and women that have already been committed in Trump’s name.
There is a real danger that those who engage in the first two kinds of democratic politics will condemn the bridge-builders for cooperating with the enemy. They will argue on strategic grounds that cooperation with Trump and the Republicans will only increase the odds of policy success and Republican re-election. They will argue on moral grounds that cooperating with Trump betrays the majority of American voters who did not elect him and grants legitimacy to a repugnant political ideology.
These are tempting arguments, but I believe that vilifying bridge-builders would be a grave mistake. That’s because the defining illness of the American polity is political polarization. As Jane Mansbridge has stressed, polarization erodes popular faith in democracy not only because it makes civic enemies of fellow citizens but also because – especially in the American context – it produces legislative deadlock. It makes government incapable of producing policies that promote any reasonable account of the common good. And this makes citizens willing to abandon core democratic institutions and accept authoritarian strong men to “fix it.” We have rightly condemned Republicans for an obstructionist politics that deepened political divisions and blocked constructive policy-making. Refusing cooperation with Trump’s Republicans on issues where common ground is possible will not remove Trump from office. It will not increase votes for Democrats in the midterm elections. It will intensify Americans’ disgust with their democratic institutions and make them even more quiescent in the transfer of powers from the legislative to the executive branch. If we care about democracy, we have to be willing to muster our greatest powers of toleration: putting up with what we detest in the other, swallowing the bile, and finding zones of compromise and cooperation.
Defend. Resist. Bridge. None of us can do all of it all the time. But we can recognize as allies those who are doing what we are not. When the democratic work they’re doing is undermining the work we’re trying to do, we can draw their attention to it and try to negotiate solutions instead of treating one another as adversaries. We can resist the moralizing temptation to claim that our democratic way is the only truly democratic way. Democracy is on defense, now, and it needs all of us to do our chosen work on its behalf.
2 thoughts on “Democratic Politics in the Time of Trump”
Brilliant! Well done.
Unfortunately, finding common ground is not usually possible with people who feel you would be better off dead than living in their country. We need to stop treating these people like humans when they don’t extend the same courtesy to most. They aren’t people, they’re an obstruction that should have been wiped out a long time ago.