You Can’t Keep the Red Flag Down

LotsofRedFlagsYay

The People’s Climate March 2017, Washington, DC. Seven red flags wave above a crowd of people packed shoulder to shoulder.

“The people’s flag is deepest red.

It shrouded oft our martyred dead

when ‘ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,

their hearts’ blood dyed in every fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high!

Beneath its folds we live and die.

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,

we’ll keep the red flag flying here!”

–Billy Bragg, “The Red Flag”

Excuse me for this very long and rambling May Day post, but I’m trying to relinquish my slavish devotion to elusively perfect writing in the hopes that doing so will encourage me to write more frequently. (Also excuse me for the purple prose. I tend to be more verbose, not less, without substantial editing.)

Unfortunately, I worked this May Day. I wish I could have taken off to participate in the protests and march in solidarity with immigrant workers. Instead, I vicariously followed the action on Twitter, as my camrades across the country posted photos and videos of the demonstrations taking place in their cities.

My initial impression, without having been there, is that this year, May Day was a Thing.

I went to a May Day march last year. It rained. The crowd was sparse and only thinned as the march started and people peeled off to go home, out of the bad weather. I distinctly remember a white girl with dreadlocks, which made me roll my eyes, marching in front of me and carrying a terrified looking pit bull puppy, who seemed overwhelmed and fearful of the chanting and clapping and occasionally whoops of police sirens. (For the love of Dog, camrades, do not bring your furbabies to protests, please. I have seen far too many scared puppies, especially at direct actions involving civil disobedience. Find a pet sitter and leave your dogs at home.) Despite some of the obnoxious company taking part in activist tourism, there was also a vocal and energetic cadre of Wobblies (but when are the Wobblies not vocal and energetic?), along with some very earnest Brazilian activists. Someone showed up with more picket signs reading, “Boycott Driscoll’s berries” than there were people to carry them, so myself and a couple of friends ended up taking a few of them. We were then asked by a passer-by to explain the boycott, and we sort of helplessly stared at each other until one of us whipped out a smartphone, Googled the boycott and began scrolling through the site with the interested onlooker so that they could learn about it together. I admire him for studying up on the issue in less than a minute and then managing to speak about it relatively intelligently.

All of this is to say that last year’s May Day march was like many Left demonstrations–mainly made up of small, deeply committed activists, mixing with a few students looking for something to do on a weekend, who came together for a cause that felt rather fringe, given that most people were staying inside and dry with Netflix or a good book or whatever else one does on a Sunday afternoon. There’s something comforting about being surrounded by such an eclectic and oddball group. As someone who’s always been something of an outsider, when I found Democratic Socialists of America, I felt immediately at home with the scrappy, ragtag group of former SDS members and hippies, along with the younger Occupy converts and Jacobin subscribers. Yes, we were all a little eccentric, but we were united in our quirkiness. The fringe is sometimes an awkward place to be, but with my fellow fringe dwellers, I felt as though I belonged.

Unfortunately, fringe doesn’t build mass movements. Fringe doesn’t leverage people power to spur a political revolution. Fringe doesn’t mobilize the masses to take action to oppose injustice. Much as many of us on the Left are at home on the fringe, we can’t stay there, especially now. There’s too much at stake for us to risk losing our civil liberties and what little gains we’ve made for healthcare and the safety net for us to stay ensconced in our comforting cocoons of reading groups and small demonstrations.

We also can’t stay there because our fringe is expanding so rapidly that it suddenly doesn’t seem so fringe. Thanks to Bernie Sanders, we may actually become–gulp–the mainstream. I know, I know. What will Leftists do with actual numbers? What will we do now that–gasp–we actually have a little bit of money? The possibilities seem endless, and yet some of us are still to shocked at this unexpected turn of good fortune to do much more than stand in awe.

And awe was truly what I felt this past weekend at the People’s Climate March and then again today as I looked at the May Day posts on Twitter. Rather than a damp handful of marchers trodding down the DC streets, this year’s May Day demonstrations looked huge! My Twitter feed had exploded with a sea of red flags emblazoned with roses.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person. I scoff at people who wrap their identity around Apple versus Android (although, seriously, Android is better) or Macbook versus Microsoft (#TeamMicrosoft). I don’t care what brand of shoes I’m wearing. I think designer purses are dumb. And I am bored to tears by the PlayStation and Xbox arguments. But goddmanit, I almost cried a couple times this weekend at the People’s Climate March when I looked up and saw myself surrounded by red flags.

RedFlagsAtPeoplesClimateMarch

The People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington, DC. Six red flags wave above a crowd of people. In the middle of the photo is a sign reading, “Invest in Earth’s Future–Nationalize the Banks.” The middle flag features the Democratic Socialists of America logo: a white rose with white and Black hands shaking in solidarity beneath it.

Ever since I first listened to Billy Bragg’s “The Red Flag,” I dreamed of a day when Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) might wave a red flag in marches. In the days after the presidential election, the thought that one day we might see a red flag waving as a symbol of hope and resilience and revolution was a thought that kept me going. In times of despair, symbols suddenly become more meaningful. As I was casting about for any source of hope or optimism, the idea of a bright, beautiful red flag carrying the promise of socialism and justice and equity was an idea that gave me strength. It’s silly, of course. A flag is just a piece of cloth. But in that moment, I wrapped up all of my ideals for a better world, a world in which people have democratic control over the economy and their own working conditions, a world in which people have freedom and dignity and safety because they live in a society that takes care of them rather than working them to death, a world in which everyone is equal regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation or identity or ability. I took these ideals, and I placed them into the image of a red flag.

DSARoseFlag

A red flag featuring the Democratic Socialists of America rose waves in the wing at the 2017 People’s Climate March in Washington, DC. A protest sign on the left reads, “Control your hands and control the climate.” Another protest sign reads, “People over profit.”

This weekend, that dream became a reality.

Today, that dream became a reality.

This May Day, red flags didn’t just wave over the flags of DC, they waved in Chicago and New York City and Boston. There were red flags in Los Angeles, in Pittsburgh and in Atlanta. Today, the United States was blanketed with red flags in cities across the country.

We are already legion, and we are growing.

We are building a movement.

We have the momentum, and you will not stop us.

We’re no longer a few fringe die-hards shuffling through the rain on a Sunday afternoon. Today, we were hoards of people converging in the streets in a mass show of solidarity with immigrants and all exploited workers. Today, we were the mainstream.

Today, we waved the red flag over this bastion of capitalism in a show of defiance.

This weekend, we waved the red flag over what was once the beauty of nature, now turned into concrete and exhaust fumes in the name of profit.

You can threaten us. You can blacklist us. You can interrogate us. You can call us slurs like “pinko” or “commie,” and we don’t care anymore. We’ll just keep waving our red flags.

They’re red because our blood boils now that we know you lied to us and told us you were representing us, acting in our best interest, when really you served your own greed and the interests of your corporate donors. They’re red because we remember the blood of the strikers who died for our right to march in the streets today. They’re red because our own blood is pulsing through our hearts with a fire and a life that we never knew we had until now.

Since the presidential election, I’ve often felt defeated and alone and scared. But I didn’t feel that way this weekend and I didn’t feel that way today.

You can’t keep the red flag down because you can’t keep the people down. The people will always rise to raise the red flag as a symbol of our hope and endurance. The people demand justice, and we will not be beaten down or intimidated or lied to any longer.

DSABanner

A crowd of Democratic Socialists of America members carrying a black and red Democratic Socialists of America banner raise their fists at the 2017 People’s Climate March in Washington, DC. The banner reads, “Freedom, Equality, Economic and Social Justice.” People also carry red flags and signs that read, “Change the System, Not the Climate” and “This Planet is for Everyone.”

April: An Apology and a Reflection

 

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By Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA (Unfurling) via Wikimedia Commons

“It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,

April

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”

    –Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Spring

I had very grand plans for this month. April is National Poetry Month, and my goal was to publish poems (because, true to this blog’s title, I do actually write poetry) about the current political moment and the movements to resist Trump. I had some drafts of poems ready to go. I had everything organized in a file on my computer…and then my father died. I took a week off to be with my family. I barely checked Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t really respond to email. I was unplugged for a week, mired in the bureaucracy of death, because nothing brings into stark focus just how bureaucratic our lives are like death. There is grief and pain and confusion and there are also mountains of papers to sort out and errands to run and official sorts of people to speak with. My mother, unfortunately, is still dealing with all of that, while I have returned, though not quite the same–never quite the same again–to my life in DC.

Because even in death, life goes on. Time marches on. The projects on my desk at work piled up, as I knew they would, over that week, and when I returned I found myself inundated with a deluge of projects that all had deadlines of now. A move that I’d scheduled weeks ago to a new apartment happened. Some other aspects of my personal life are tumultuous and uncertain. So the drafts continue to sit in a folder on my computer. I still don’t really respond to email. I’ve resurfaced somewhat on Facebook and Twitter. I’m slowly plugging back in, but I’m not really back yet. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, really. I’m tired. I’m depressed. I’m overwhelmed. And I write all of this not out of some desperate cry for pity but more as an apology to any of my friends and comrades who read this blog. I know I’m not myself. I know I’m not around. I know I’m nonresponsive. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please understand that I’m trying. I want to get back to you all, I’m just not sure how to yet. But when I figure it out, I promise I will.

Anyway, after an unbearably stressful week at work in which I seriously contemplated though never followed through on quitting on the spot, something in my brain just kind of shut off. When I was in college and then later graduate school, I’d reach a point at the end of the semester in which everything became endlessly funny. I physically could not be stressed anymore, so I would become hysterically amused instead. I was sleep-deprived and over caffeinated and constantly listening to German hardcore in an attempt to stimulate myself enough to finish all of my papers, complete my classes and ace my finals. This combination of exhaustion and overstimulation somehow created an attitude of existential absurdity that colored my perception of the world for the final week or so of the semester. Everything was ridiculous in how much it simultaneously didn’t matter at all and mattered all too much. The feeling was unpleasant, but it was also a welcome relief to the unbearable panic and anxiety that would always plague me for the weeks preceding it.

Since graduating, I’ve experienced extreme stress, but it’s always had a different flavor than the end-of-the-semester stress that I learned to expect in school. What I’m feeling now, however, is something very much like that stress I felt in graduate school. I’m unable to sleep, even if I go to bed on time, so I’m always exhausted, but manically so. I’m consuming considerable quantities of caffeine. I’m even rekindling an interest in television shows and movies that I loved when I was in my early 20’s, likely in a fit of escapism to a simpler period of my life. I’m listening to the same songs I’d blast on repeat as I frantically finished papers at 2am, only this time instead of papers, I’m trying to knock out copy for various work projects, which somehow feel even more esoteric than Foucault and Derrida. At least the college papers had rubrics for me to follow. At least they were assigned early on in the semester and I could check in with my professors periodically to have drafts reviewed.

So I find myself on the spiral staircase of life in which I am occupying a space that is both familiar and new. 2017 Me returns to meet 2011 Me, and her resemblance is uncannily recognizable and strange. She is both me and not-me. I am both a negation of her and an off-shoot. She never would have imagined leading campaigns or going to protests every weekend. She barely understood what unions were, though she was even then vaguely anti-capitalist. She resented the men in the geek subcultures she inhabited who viewed her as an outsider, an interloper to their fun who had no real place there, much like I now resent the men on the Left who constantly demand that I prove to them that, yes, I really do belong there. There isn’t much difference between quizzing a girl about Spider-man’s backstory or quizzing her about Marx’s The German Ideology. Both lines of inquiry are a posturing that positions the man as a superior, as knowledgeable, as a gatekeeper. So many men on the Left are no different than the Gamergaters they claim to criticize, but I digress.

It’s both unsettling and comforting to be unexpectedly confronted with 2011 Me. I’m not sure if she’d be happy with me or disappointed. She was a workaholic who planned to build a career for herself and center her life around it. I’m still careening from job to job with no real sense of direction and only knowing that I want time to have fun outside of work. I live in the DC area and work for a nonprofit, which was her plan, but it hasn’t turned out quite the way she envisioned. I think she’d be proud of me for being a socialist, since she was righteously indignant over every form of inequality she learned about though she had no real coherent ideology to productively direct that anger. She never thought of herself as an activist, and she’d probably be disappointed at 2017 Me’s disgust with postmodernism. She liked intellectual puzzles and talking over problems and abstract thought experiments. I’m much more focused on getting real shit done and don’t have time for philosophical musings detached from material reality. She’d be disappointed, I think, that I don’t go out to clubs or concerts more often and that I haven’t traveled as much as she thought I would have by now. She’d be saddened that I don’t write poetry every day anymore and that I’m not even trying to get my writing published. She’d want me to wear fishnets and corsets and interesting hats and short skirts and big chunky boots more often. She’d tell me to start sketching again. But she’d be pleased that I’m more social than she was, and I think she’d understand that her favorite pursuits–writing and drawing–are solitary activities that take me away from other people and make me depressed and lonely, because they made her depressed and lonely. After a certain point, I decided that I’d rather live life than write about it or draw it, and while I’m mostly happy about this decision, I sometimes regret it.

2011 Me supported Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act, even though she’d prefered Dennis Kucinich in the 2008 primary. She was more politically aware than most of the people around her, yet she barely understood politics. She consumed a lot of media and built her identity around it–she was first and foremost a fan constructed by her various fandoms–so she wrote reams of essays about women’s representation or lack thereof in popular culture. Now I still care deeply about representation but I want representation accompanied by equity. I don’t just want to see more women of color in movies–I also want women of color to receive wages equal to those of white men, and I want paid family leave and a higher minimum wage. Furthermore, unlike 2011 Me, I understand that any attempt to achieve gender equity will require more than just a cultural shift but that it demands an economic and political revolution that fundamentally shifts power from the wealthy to ordinary people. Unlike 2011 Me, I have a sense of urgency about the need to alter our political landscape. In 2011, I had a vague sort of hope that social progress would happen, however slowly, all on its own. While the fear that the US could descend into fascism wasn’t unthinkable to 2011 Me, it wasn’t an idea she took seriously or worried about. If I met 2011 Me now, I’d probably scoff at her and call her a liberal, depending on whether I’d met her before or after working at a Dollar Store and the Occupy movement, two points in my life that significantly shaped my current politics in ways that I only realized in retrospect.

I don’t miss 2011 Me’s lack of political awareness, but I miss her endless potential. She could have become anything. She was hanging suspended on the precipice of life, which demanded that she become something, and she was excited for what she could become. She became me. It’s not a bad thing that she became me. Most of the time I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but as I find myself confronted by situations of horrifying permanence, whether it’s the finality of my father’s death or the irrevocable harm that the Trump administration is inflicting on people both within the US and abroad, I long for the amorphous nature of potential and uncertainty.

I seek the simplicity of discussing such banal topics as whether the Borg or the the Cybermen are more badass–topics which ultimately don’t matter and have no real bearing on anyone’s lives, unlike debates around US military activity in Syria. I have just as much power over the Borg as I do over US military actions–none–but the former is inconsequential while the latter is deadly serious. The science fiction and fantasy that I obsessed over in 2011 was simple, and the good guys were almost always assured to win. Real life is sadly and frustratingly messy and success is not assured. I can’t stake the bad guys, so I have to go about trying to help other people build social movements with enough clout to vote them out of office instead. And unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am just a regular human being who needs a solid 7 hours of sleep to function. If I could stay awake all night fighting the bad guys and then jump into real life without even needing to fix my hair, I would. But real life has demands that the characters in television shows can conveniently disregard. (How did Buffy find time to do her make up?)

Ultimately, I went into writing this post with the assumption that my unexpected renewed interest in some of my forgotten, nerdy pursuits that I hadn’t revisited in years was a form of escapism from the crushing reality of my current predicament. It is absolutely escapism. But perhaps it’s not as unproductive an escapism as I assumed. My love for The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so many other stories has shaped my morals. You always fight the bad guys. You never give up. There are casualties. There are losses. There are setbacks. But you keep going because the alternative–to not do anything at all–is abhorrent. The Ring must be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom because otherwise the world will be destroyed. Tyranny is to be fought. Unfortunately, I don’t know how I can muster the energy to fight it right now, but maybe by going down the rabbit hole of some of these nerdy pursuits I can come out the other side with some renewed vigor and inspiration.

Again, I’m sorry I’ve been AWOL. I’ll try to come back soon.

Solidarity for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017

WomenWorkesoftheWorldUnite

Signs at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, reading, “Working Women of the World Unite!”

A friend asked me to write some remarks to be read at an International Women’s Day Rally on March 8, 2017, since I couldn’t attend the rally in person. Here’s the longer version of what I wrote. It’s a little choppy since I imagined it being read as a speech, giving it a different cadence than writing for the page, but I still think it’s worth sharing.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, unions were part of the background of my life. Both of my grandparents had been members of unions, and my grandmother even served as the shop steward of her union, until they both retired, on a pension guaranteed by my grandfather’s union. Thanks to unions, my mother was able to get a college education, where she was exposed to the ideas of the Second Wave Feminist Movement. My mother raised me to have feminist values—to question and critique the society that teaches that women do not deserve a voice, that teaches that women should only identify themselves as wives and mothers, and that teaches that a woman’s worth is based upon whether men see her as beautiful. Growing up, the importance of the labor movement and the importance of the feminist movement were like water—I was surrounded by these ideas and I absorbed them without realizing it. They fostered a deep distaste for inequality and injustice and a desire for all people to be treated equitably, to be treated with dignity and respect simply because they were human beings, and that is what all human beings deserve.

Unfortunately, the world that we live in does not always see the inherent worth of human beings. In our capitalist society, the majority of people are denied basic needs that should be human rights such as food, clothing, housing, healthcare, an education, a sense of economic security, and a sense of fulfillment and purpose in their work, all so that a small number of people can become exorbitantly wealthy. We also live in a patriarchal society in which women’s work is devalued and underappreciated, whether a woman is working for free in the home or working outside the home where she is paid less than her male counterparts. Often women play both of these roles by working both within and outside the home, and the burdens of both spheres are exacerbated for single-mothers. The United States still does not guarantee free childcare or paid family leave, which leaves many families struggling.

However, for women who are burdened and underpaid in the workplace, there is a form of redress—unionizing. Typically, when we think of union workers, we think of men in factories or at construction sites. We think of stereotypically masculine, blue-collar jobs. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that organized labor’s ranks are growing the most quickly among Black women. Women in unionized workforces experience a smaller pay gap than their unorganized sisters. They are more likely to have paid time off to take care of their children. They are more likely to have better benefits that let them provide for their families. The labor movement and the women’s movement are closely linked, and they each strengthen and reinforce each other.

In the United States, the gap between the rich and poor looms ever larger and larger, leading some men to seek validation and status by putting women down. Patriarchal capitalism blames the feminist movement for men’s unemployment, even as it shames women for going into the workforce to become primary breadwinners because they are supposedly taking a man’s place. As workers, both women and men need to be empowered, to know that they are worth more than the paycheck they bring home or fail to bring home and to be freed from the constraints of gender roles that may or may not fit their current situations or their personal dispositions. Unionizing workplaces, including white collar and pink collar workplaces, contributes to that project of economic and social liberation. It gives both women and men a voice in their workplace, and raises up the work and the efforts of women workers in particular by allowing them to put in place workplace policies that will benefit themselves and their families.

Of course, securing equity for women, especially poor women and women of color, is a much larger project that just unionizing. But giving women a voice in their own workplaces must be part of that project. The importance of democracy in the workplace became very personal to me in my experiences working in the nonprofit field. Many of my co-workers were women, and we frequently found our ideas and voice being dismissed and silenced in staff meetings. Our suggestions were ignored, until our male colleagues offered the same suggestions. We were not taken as seriously as our male co-workers, and when we asked for accommodations in the workplace, we were denied. This sexism wasn’t so tangible or concrete that it could be covered in a harassment policy, but it was palpably real to us. For this reason, among many others, we decided to organize a union drive in our workplace. Working for a nonprofit, we believed in the greater good, and we hoped that we could implement the values that we fought for as part of our jobs in our workplace itself.

Sadly, we did not win our union election, but for those of us who led the campaign, we gained a sense of our worth as workers, as women and ultimately as human beings. Rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by our situation, we attempted to take control of the situation ourselves and exert our own agency in the workplace. This agency is what empowerment for women looks like, moreso than the watered-down feminism that consumerism peddles to us in the form of advertisements promising empowerment through products. True empowerment is radical and transformative and it involves confronting the injustices in our lives head-on and refusing to back down to them. Across the country, women continue to find this empowerment through organizing their workplaces, from the hotel workers at Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica, California, to the writers at the popular women’s blog Jezebel.

Now, Donald Trump and the Republican Congress are attacking both women and workers. Any resistance to them must include protection for women and workers as well as explicitly for women as workers. We need a strong women’s movement and a strong labor movement, and a strong socialist feminist movement can bring these two groups together to make them unstoppable. As a chant Democratic Socialists of America gave at the Women’s March on January 21 went, “The women united will never be defeated! The workers united will never be defeated.” I would add to it now that the women workers united will never be defeated! Solidarity to all of you on International Women’s Day!

 

Do We Stay or Do We Go?: A Progressive Inside-Outside Strategy

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The feelings of those advocating for #DemExit.

Tom Perez is now the chair of the Democratic National Committee. I was disappointed that Keith Ellison had not been elected chair, though when the Democratic Party voted against a ban on corporate lobbyist donations, I knew that Perez would win. The Democrats, it seems, have learned little from their failures in the 2016 Presidential election. Still, I knew when the news officially broke because Twitter erupted, almost half with cheers and the other with jeers. Suddenly every other hashtag on my feed was #DemExit, calls for a #PeoplesParty and demands that we #DraftBernie to run for President of this newly formed political party.

Many progressives have been calling for a mass exodus from the Democratic Party for years. Rather than championing truly progressive policies, the Democrats have favored cutting the social safety net almost as strongly as Republicans. Both parties advocate for growth of businesses at the expense of regular people. Such basic change as a single-payer healthcare system or a living wage or free college tuition seem unthinkable to the Democratic Party, and more and more people, particularly young people, are growing disillusioned with the Party. Surely, if all of those disillusioned people abandoned the Democrats en masse, they would have to take notice, right?

Unfortunately not. While I’m sympathetic to those advocating for a #DemExit, if we want to bring about progressive change, we’re going to need to be more strategic than just rage quitting the Democratic Party, as tempting as that option is right now. And for anyone who thinks that I’m just shilling for the Democrats right now, please know that for most of my life, I’ve considered myself more of an independent than a Democrat, and even when I began supporting Democrats, I wasn’t so much as I was for Democrats as I was against George W. Bush. Even as a child, I was baffled as to how only two political parties could possibly represent all of the diversity of the American people. I knew that other countries had multiple political parties, and the notion of multi-party systems always appealed to me. Why force people to be one thing or the other when our ideas are vastly more complex? My allegiance to the Democratic Party in any meaningful sense has been something of a brief affair, with my buying into Barack Obama’s hope and change rhetoric in 2008. Then my living in conservative northwest Ohio pushed me into the arms of the Democrats for a while simply because in a region where the KKK still has an active presence, there actually is a difference between Democrats and Republicans, though it’s still not as pronounced as I wish it were.

Living in that region, however, did push me to consider why working class people supposedly voted against their interests for Republicans, so I did some research and discovered that of those working class people who vote (because most of them don’t vote), there really is no party that supports their interests. Bill Clinton severely cut welfare, a move that Hillary Clinton vocally supported, and even before that, the Democrats had sold out unions yet still expected their support because who else were they going to back? The Republicans? Much like the labor unions, we have all been taken for granted by the Democrats, who have not so much pushed a progressive agenda but played off the horror presented by Republicans. This strategy came to a head in the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton seemed to coast, confident that the country would not vote for a mad man, and while the vast majority of voters did choose Clinton—a fact that both progressives and the media seem to keep forgetting—she still did not muster enough electoral votes to win the election. The mad man is now in the White House. (Yes, the Electoral College is unfair and undemocratic, but it still exists, and winning it is the game our presidential candidates must play.)

Sufficient to say, I have no deep love for the Democrats and like many who are calling for a #DemExit, I wish I could wash my hands of them and be done. Unfortunately, while I am all in favor of people either forming new third parties or joining truly progressive parties like the Working Families Party or Socialist Alternative, among others, whether we leave or stay, the Democrats will continue to be a significant force in US politics that we must reckon with. As this Jacobin article explains, the United States is uniquely repressive in how many hurdles it places before third parties, so much so that it has more in common with authoritarian regimes than it does with other democracies. A mass movement away from the Democrats could gain traction, especially if it had significant enough numbers, but Democrats and Republicans both benefit from the two-party system, and they’ve both done a lot to consolidate that power and prevent challenges from outside parties.

And then, of course, the question of spoilers is always raised. While I roll my eyes at Democrats who blame Jill Stein for Clinton’s Electoral College loss, I do understand the fear of spoilers on a local level. In socialist and progressive circles, we often refer to Democrats and Republicans as just two factions within one big corporate party, but on a local and state level, the difference between a Democrat and a Republican can mean a lot to individual people. A bad Democrat might not implement any new progressive policies that will help you out, but the Democrat is also less likely than a Republican to go after what little gains you’ve already won. Better to hold on to what you have than risk losing everything, right? It’s an unfortunate position to be in, but I can’t blame many people for thinking that way.

So are we stuck with the Democrats? Absolutely not! We are already facing a fascist regime head-on and the neoliberal policies of the Democrats are squarely to blame. We simply cannot afford to acquiesce to the lesser of two evils anymore. Hillary Clinton promised to be the lesser of two evils, and we ended up with the worst evil anyway. A political party, any political party, must actively court voters and present a vision of the future worth voting for. It cannot take votes for granted. If third parties offer policies that align with what voters actually want, then those third parties, not the Democratic Party, deserve the loyalty of the people. People do not owe parties their allegiance or their voters. Rather, allegiance and votes must be earned. Any votes given to third parties should not be seen as stolen from the Democrats but rather thrown away by the Democrats who failed to put forward convincing policies.

Looking at the situation, there is merit both in remaining within the Democratic Party and attempting to make it more progressive from the inside out—from realigning it to a more progressive vision—but there is also merit in leaving the Democratic Party and growing third parties that put forward truly progressive and even radical policies. So why don’t we take the best of both strategies?

Specifically, I’m advocating for an inside-outside strategy similar to that of the Working Families Party, which has gained traction in New York, though some of that traction is made possible by New York’s unique political system. However, the Working Families Party has managed to run its own candidates in safe districts while also supporting progressive Democratic candidates in riskier districts. In the safer districts, the third party candidate does not act as a spoiler for the election, and in the riskier districts, the hope is that the progressive Democratic candidate will at least nudge the establishment Democrat leftward, even if the progressive Democrat does not manage to win. Democratic Socialists of America, though not a political party, has also seen some success at the state level with a similar strategy, in which it has supported Greens and progressive Democrats who also identify as democratic socialists. Under this strategy, progressives have a way of making their voices heard, Democrats must earn votes, and third parties have the ability to gain traction without being spoilers.

This inside-outside strategy isn’t going to win immediately, nor is it going to radically change the Democratic Party overnight. It must start at a local and state level to be successful, and the change it produces will be slow and incremental. It will see losses, like the losses of Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison, before it begins to see successes. But ultimately, I don’t see any other realistic way forward for the Left. Many of my more radical socialist friends will likely scoff at me for even engaging in electoral politics at all, which they see as inherently flawed, and I understand the frustration. Protests and direct action are just as necessary as they ever were, and I am not suggesting that we abandon our more radical tactics in favor of only seeking change through electoral politics. At the same time, however, electoral politics do have an impact on people’s lives in tangible ways, and the Overton Window will not swing Left instantaneously.

My hope is that we push hard enough leftward, eventually we can begin to realign the Democrats from within while also empowering truly radical third parties to begin implementing real change, first on a local level and then perhaps slowly, slowly on a national level as well. However, to even begin implementing both of these changes simultaneously, we must have a mass movement of people demanding that change. We are already seeing that movement, as disorganized and contradictory as it is, coalesce around resistance to Donald Trump. We see it in the hundreds of people who are showing up at town halls hosted by their Senators and Representatives, some of whom are Democrats. We see it in the tens of thousands of people who came out to Bernie Sanders’s campaign rallies, and we see it in the many people who campaigned for Keith Ellison to be DNC Chair. We see it in hordes of people who poured into Washington, DC, for the Women’s March and who attended local Women’s Marches in their hometowns, and we see it in the masses of people who surged to airports after the Muslim ban was introduced.

Both people within and outside of the Democratic Party realize that our fundamental freedoms, our precious civil liberties and our basic human rights are all at stake right now. People are actively looking for ways to resist, and as a result, they are more open change and to alternative ways of doing politics. Progressives must seize upon that openness to advocate for truly progressive policies within the Democratic Party, and we must channel that energy toward holding not just Republicans accountable to their constituents but also Democrats. At the same time, we must also build radical third parties that offer a way forward beyond the narrow confines of the liberalism of the Democratic Party, which sees single-payer healthcare as an outlandish idea. Both of these tasks are difficult, and working toward just one of them seems monumental, while fighting for both of them at the same time appears even more daunting. However, despite the fear and uncertainty of our present times, we are also experiencing opportunities to introduce new ways of doing politics. And never before have we had such a groundswell of people actively looking to create change. If we can quickly and effectively harness that people power, then we could implement the political revolution that Bernie Sanders called for in his presidential campaign while also paving the way for an authentically grassroots, democratic movement. If we seize this opportunity, we could break the chains of our two-party system to give people real choice while actively engaging them in the political process.

 

The Left Doesn’t Need More Writers…

intherevThe Left has more writers than we know what to do with. Seriously, we’re all opinionated and we all want to express that opinion and have everyone else tell us just how brilliant we are. I think we all secretly imagine that years from now, people will be hosting little reading groups to study our work, just like we pour over Marx and Engels. We think if we could just write convincingly enough, then we’d somehow silence the endless drone of the neoliberal media and awaken the proletariat to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Instead, however, we just end up talking to each other in a small, niche little circle that never seems to expand.

The Left doesn’t need anymore writers. Really, we’ve got more than enough of them. We all want to be writers, but for every one of us who wants to be writers, what we really and truly need is someone who’s willing to do the hard work of organizing. It’s one thing to write about the world and how it should be. Writing is, in that sense, easy. It’s neat and tidy. Construct an argument, get it published by a magazine or website in which the readership will more or less agree with you anyway, and then pat yourself on the back for having supposedly done something to help the world.

In reality, however, nothing is ever that neat and tidy. Organizing people involves crafting a strategy and then figuring out how people fit into that strategy. Organizing involves mobilizing people, encouraging them, thanking them, reminding them, and prodding them. Organizing is messy—people’s feelings get hurt, people don’t want to do what you want them to do, and there are frequent disagreements. Organizing involves reaching out to people who may not agree with you and attempting to work with them anyway. It isn’t always ideologically pure. Organizing also means working toward a desired outcome, and if that outcome isn’t reached, then there’s the risk of failure. The Left doesn’t need writers. It needs people to take on the tiresome, messy, thankless work of organizing.

And yet, here I am, writing.

My excuse is that I’ve done the organizing thing, and I’m absolute shit at it. And if I ever actually publish this article, I know that this is the point at which many of my comrades will disagree. They’ll tell me that I’m a fabulous organizer. They’ll remind me of all the leadership and effort I put into spearheading a Washington, DC, campaign for Bernie Sanders’ presidency. They’ll applaud me for creating flyers and posters and coordinating events. They’ll tell me that I energized the organization and gave it a sense of purpose and cohesion.

The truth is, however, that I’m not. I’m too timid to really push my views on people because I’m afraid of being seen as pushy or fake. I don’t trust people to carry out tasks competently, so I attempt to do them all myself, get overwhelmed, and then flake at the last minute. I procrastinate. I’m dreadful at convincing people to adopt my point of view, so much so that I doubt I could convince a starving person to eat a bowl of rice. I honestly don’t even particularly like people—they can be opinionated and rude and disagreeable and at the end of the day, I’d much rather interact with fictional characters in a book or television show than I would deal with the emotions and desires and needs of real, living people. I’m an awful organizer, but simply because I’ve stepped up and attempted to organize people, when otherwise no one else would have done anything at all, means that something was accomplished rather than nothing at all. In the sense that I did something, rather than nothing, I’m an okay organizer.

My point is, if I can be a somewhat competent organizer, that is, if I can attempt to motivate people and accomplish something rather than nothing at all, then anyone else on the Left can be an organizer. Seriously, yes, you reading this piece, you can be an organizer. I’m telling you that if I’ve done it, you can too. Don’t think that I have some sort of inherent ability that you don’t have or some sort of magical insight that’s not accessible to you. You are just as capable of being an organizer as I am. In all likelihood, you’d be better at it than me! And that’s a good thing!

It’s difficult, of course. I won’t lie and say that it’s easy or fun. Most of the time it’s a slog, and people will be much more likely to criticize you for what they think you’re doing wrong than thank you for what you’re doing right. (Note to fellow organizers: always thank everyone profusely and often for what they do, no matter how trivial it seems. A little “Thank you!” goes a very long way. And if you can make people feel appreciated, they’re much more likely to continue working with your organization and helping you out. Showing appreciation is one of the few aspects of organizing that I am actually good at, and it requires very little effort.) And most of the time, anyone who engages in organizing won’t feel like you are doing much right. Every campaign could have been run better. Ever action could have been better planned. Every event will have some small but vital detail that’s overlooked until the last minute. Looking back on activities and performing a post-mortem on them to see how they could be improved for next time is a valuable exercise, but it can also feel like self-flagellation, especially if you’re already prone to insecurity (like me!).

Being an organizer also means taking risks, the biggest of which being failure. I attempted to organize Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America’s campaign for Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic Primary. I also attempted to unionize my previous workplace, and we lost the union vote. Campaigns don’t always have positive outcomes. The good guys don’t always win. And justice doesn’t always rule the day. This demoralized feeling seems especially pertinent to the Left, which has a history of near misses and almosts and has-beens in the United States. We almost had single-payer healthcare—until we got the Affordable Care Act instead. We almost had universal childcare—but then Nixon vetoed it. We almost had the Equal Rights Amendment too, for all its flaws, but it’s still languishing in the ratification process. On the Left, most of our stories are of attempts rather than wins. We often find ourselves waiting rather than celebrating. We’re remarkably hopeful, given our background of being repressed and beaten down, but sometimes that hope can wear thin.

Perhaps we’re all so drawn to writing because it gives us hope. Maybe we think that if we can put our ideals and visions into words, maybe somehow they can become reality.

Writing isn’t enough, though. If we want to actually make all of our utopian writings reality, then we are going to have to act. And we’re going to have to act now, because we are currently living in the darkest era our country has perhaps ever experienced. Even the paltry gains and compromises that we’ve won are threatened. We’ve fought so long to take our government back from the pockets of the One Percent to give it back to the Ninety-Nine Percent, and yet now our Commander-in-Chief is the One Percent, and he’s lining up his Cabinet members to privatize what public goods we still have left.

Just writing isn’t going to save us. It’s not enough anymore to keep our ideas alive in little reading groups and academic enclaves. If we’re going to turn these ideas into policy, then we need action. We need to protest. We need to fundraise. We need to swallow our pride and actually engage in electoral politics to push moderate politicians to the Left and maybe even get some third party candidates elected in safe districts. We need to tell our elected officials what we think, and that means making calls and showing up at local government meetings. We need to have difficult conversations with liberals and moderates and, yes, even conservatives. In short, we need to organize.

It’s going to be hard, and there is the very real possibility that we will fail. But if we do something, then there’s a chance that we might achieve some of our goals. There’s the chance that we could build a movement with real political clout that could implement our agenda. If we act, there’s the chance that we might win, however slim a chance it may be. If we do nothing, however, we’re conceding our country to the wealthy, and we will fail.

I’d much rather sit in front of my laptop and write, but the Left doesn’t need more writers. The Left needs organizers. Will you join me?