With the election of Donald Trump and the delivery of the House, Senate, and eventually the Judiciary to a Republican Party that has shown itself to be actively hostile to the interests of the vulnerable, it is time to examine the lessons that social movements have to teach us about challenging power holders and resisting repression. To that end, there are both affective and strategic lessons that will enable us to weather the trying times that are to come and build a movement that has the strength to preserve our country and advance the causes of justice.
The most important thing that we must understand is that we are in for a long haul. The task we have before us will not end in the next two or four years, rather, it is essential to realize that while the political failures that led to the win of the President-elect can be debated, the root causes have been persistent and decades in the making. These are the decline of trust in and strength of our political institutions, combined with the rise in inequalities of all kinds, and the near dissolution of civic associations, with the knowledge-sharing and activism that arises from strong social ties turned to a purpose. In other words, we have been “bowling alone” for so long that we have nearly forgotten how to form leagues and other organizations, political or civic. Community associations are important for the purposes of political mobilization, but they are also essential for creating strong affective ties to an array of people who bolster our experience of living in the world and whom we learn to work with to get things done. Community groups, civic and political, teach us how to be active citizens, and this moment calls for the cultivation of a habit of active citizenship rooted in a culture of resistance.
Building a collectivity that can act is a deliberate endeavor. We must do so by first, simply getting together. Assemblies have power. Many of us have never developed a habit of meeting, except in professional contexts. If there is a book group you’ve been meaning to start, or a gaming group you have been on the verge of putting together: do it. If you think it would be a good idea to gather with your neighbors in order to get a stop sign on the corner, or to put together a child care co-op in which families trade babysitting duties, then call that meeting. If you have thought that you’d like to do something to show your political resistance, but you don’t know what, then get yourself to the next local meeting of the cause of your choice. Or, do as friends of mine did, and commit to getting together once a week with people in your area for an “activist devotional” — a meeting in which people share the efforts that they are already apart of or discuss campaigns they would like to join or start.
Embrace your own light.
If we are about building a movement for the long term, it cannot be ascetic. We must take joy in ourselves and the people we come to know and expect to work with. That means, if you knit, knit in groups or for causes and for your own simple pleasure. If you cook, teach others or cook for a meeting. If you take pictures or play music, keep doing those things and find ways to integrate those pleasures into the work we will all be doing in the days ahead. The stakes we face are high, but we should remember that joy is a resource, and one that would be a strategic mistake to deny ourselves. So, give yourself permission to keep exploring your private passions and geeky obsessions to whatever degree will sustain your optimism and energy at levels that allow the cup of your spirit to bubble over with enough to share.
Let’s be dangerous together.
Building a broad movement is difficult, not only because of the challenge of standing up to power holders, but also because it is difficult to agree across multiple, intersectional differences in both lived experience and ideology. For this reason, it’s important to take the lesson from contemporary social movements that we need not build one or even several large hierarchically structured organizations. Instead, we must allow ourselves to be communicatively tight, but organizationally diverse. That means we should conceive ourselves as a broad left — from Bleeding-heart Libertarians, to Pantsuit Nation liberals, to Contemporary Abolitionists and Communists. For such a coalition to be possible, we must be kind to each other. We are on the same side — against authoritarianism — though we are fighting different battles. We must do this because we are facing a powerful and unpredictable coalition of forces both governmental and social that will reap power from our division. If we are to be dangerous to those amassing the power of authoritarian nationalism, then we must be together. If we are not dangerous together, then we won’t be dangerous at all.
As we get together, we must remember that we are not, as the movement for black lives teaches, only in the process of making a moment, but of creating a movement. That means that as we are imagining and practicing new ways of being in community for action, we understand ourselves as developing knowledge, tactics, ways of communicating and organizing, that can be replicated elsewhere in the country and the world. We must, talk, analyze, plan, discuss means & ends, experiment and strategize with the knowledge that history has its eyes on us, to take a phrase from Lin-Manuel Miranda. Individualized, charismatic leadership is not the goal in our endeavors. Instead, we have to develop a knowledge base and a fund of tactics and practices that allow each of us to bring the leadership, facilitation, and communication skills we have to the table and to work on and develop those we may not have yet.
Listen for understanding.
In his essay “On Not Giving Up,” Patchen Markell wrote that as we go forward, it is essential to listen to both our fellows on the broad left, and to those who oppose us, with understanding. Understanding, in the sense that he employs the term, borrowing from Arendt, is not merely “empathizing,” or worse “acknowledging others’ preferences as fixed points in the political universe which you must accommodate in order to win.” Instead, understanding is listening with the intent of figuring out why people feel as they feel so that you are aware of and can speak to the problems that matter to them from your own perspective. Listening for understanding is not about accommodating or ignoring the views of others which you find repugnant, unjust, or based on fundamental misunderstandings of the world as it is, but instead of developing an “enlarged mentality” that allows you to make better political judgements and communicate your own beliefs as to the means and ends of the political project before us, more clearly.
Have a pragmatic imagination.
In this moment of upheaval, we are absolutely called to “dream a world” as Langston Hughes put it, where more just ways of living, relating, and governing are possible. However, it is important that as we imagine the best world we also build the better one; making our decisions about tactics and goals with the intention of creating a practical and practicable path from the world as it is to the world as it might be. To be clear, having a pragmatic imagination does not mean having a limited imagination. The horizon of our striving and the radicalism of our politics is not proscribed by the need to be practical — a pragmatic imagination is not a call for moderation. Instead, it is a caution that critique of the “actually existing democracy,” as Nancy Fraser puts it, is not enough to build whatever comes next. Instead, what our critiques must do is open up real avenues for practical experimentation with new ways to bolster community, arrange power, and govern ourselves.
Do what you can where you are on the issues closest to your heart. Remember though, that you are fighting one battle. It’s important to stay connected to the conversations going on in the lager movement. What a civic group, political assembly, art collective, or direct action is undertaking in another town or city or part of the world can inform and enrich your own activities in important ways. Such awareness also makes coalition politics for mass action both more likely, and more effective.
Speak up, speak out, speak plain.
If you have learned in the wake of this calamity of an election, that you have too long been silent, then you have learned the right lesson. Talk to your people — your friends, family, acquaintances, and comrades about what you’ve learned and are learning. About what more there is to discover. About what you believe and what you want to do. Write and speak to the wider world about your heartbreak, and resolve, and resilience, and determination. The freedom of speech is not just about Twitter tirades of narcissistic mad men, soapbox diatribes, or the rights of the organized press. The free speech that matters most now, is that of communicative association. We have to talk to each other, honestly and plainly, about what we fear, what we hope for, and how together, we will defend each other and build something new.