Building a Progressive Populism

June 11, 2018 in Olympia, Washington (PC: Clancy Dunigan)

An excerpt from Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s “The Establishment is not a Viable Candidate,” originally posted on The New Internationalist site in April 2017 (the entire article is very much worth reading–more relevant than it was fifteen months ago!):

Compared to half a century ago, we are a weakened and fragmented civil society, unaccustomed to large-scale organized collective action. What remains of the US Left is paralyzed by an unprecedented class-based insularity. In both liberal professional and edgy radical subcultural circles, this insularity typically manifests as a kind of ‘enlightened elitism’ that tends to repel the uninitiated. Over the past few decades a new category called activism has emerged in place of civics and politics. Civics and politics imply a public sphere, a common terrain, and a shared responsibility. Activism, on the other hand, may concern itself with public issues, but it organizes itself along the contours of neoliberalism’s designs – as a private space for self-selecting individuals, typically from middle-class backgrounds. As such, activism often becomes more concerned with maintaining itself as an enclave than with actually mounting a political challenge to contest the direction of society and the state. Labour unions remain an important exception to this pattern, and their decline has added profoundly to the weakening of progressive political power in the US over the past half-century.

In broad strokes, Democrats are not well positioned to lead the populist charge, but neither are existing grassroots progressive institutions or radical subcultures…

…Our best hope for mitigating the damage of a Trump presidency is to embrace the political project of building a progressive populism – one that has both economic and racial justice at its core. We have to study and orient ourselves to the current populist landscape. It will be tempting for liberals to keep talking only to themselves, spending the next four or eight years cathartically bonding over the backwardness of half the country; if that’s our story, we lose. It will be tempting for professionally staffed progressive organizations – as well as more radical lefty groups – to try to fight Trump only with the relatively small numbers they have mustered in the past; those forces were too feeble to stop him from getting into office in the first place, and they will likely be too feeble to stop him now. Everything we do in the coming months and years should aim to connect with, inspire and activate larger social forces into aligned political action. We will need to provide training, coaching, resources and support at a national scale: how to organize and facilitate a meeting, how to do effective outreach, how to plug volunteers into tasks and ongoing roles, and so on. We will need to relearn the ‘skills of democracy’ (whose atrophy sociologist Theda Skocpol has lamented). Ultimately, we will need to unleash a massive populist force that involves the active ongoing participation of millions of Americans. It will be messy and unwieldy. But that is the scale of mobilization that the dangerous present situation calls for.

It is under way. And that is a very good thing.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a political organizer and strategist and director of Beyond the Choir. He is author of Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals@jonathansmucker

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