Turning resistance into power: What’s next for progressives after the Women’s March?

After the catharsis of the Women's March (and the backlash), progressives hope to turn that energy toward victory

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 29, 2017 5:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Mario Tama)
(Getty/Mario Tama)

What next? That is the obvious question in light of the unprecedented success of the Women’s March, although it was obvious to march organizers well in advance.

This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up,” the Women’s March mission statement said. And it’s already doing that. “[T]here was no shortage of organizing — small-group organizing, large-group organizing, mass organizing — taking place on Saturday, and every day following,” Adele Stan noted at the Prospect. “Connections made between activists from across the country in these spaces are likely to last and flourish, especially in the age of social media.”

Onstage at the march, actress America Ferrara concluded her early remarks by saying, “This is only day one in our united movement,” and asking participants to “take out your cellphone and text ‘women’ to 40649 ... so that we can continue to work together.”  The theme was echoed repeatedly by others after her.

But the big question, really, goes well beyond hypothetical solidarity: How will all these efforts will come together? It seems certain that there won’t be just one single answer. Resistance is crucial, and the Women’s March has raised the level of resistance to Nixon-era levels in just a matter of weeks — a truly astonishing feat. But the crucial challenge is how to move from resistance to governing power, and that’s where things grow far more complicated, as any veteran activist will tell you. But a number of paths forward have already become clear.

First, the Women’s March has clearly established mass public resistance as the new normal, which is absolutely vital. When Republicans held their retreat in Philadelphia a few days later, protesters flooded downtown’s Thomas Paine Plaza “until they packed every inch of concrete,” local legend Will Bunch reported on his Attytood blog. He noted “a cacophony of hundreds of signs” including one saying "This Is Not Normal."

Except that slogan is not exactly operative anymore. Actually, less than a week into the terrifyingly frenetic 45th presidency of Donald Trump, today’s wild scene on the streets of Philadelphia of several thousand people marching, chanting and protesting Trump’s speech at the Loews Hotel to congressional Republicans has already become practically routine. ... In terms of numbers, the anti-Trump movement has in mere weeks surpassed a scale that it took the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s years to reach.

Second, mass resistance must become repetitive, building power over time. Along these lines, MoveOn.org, along with People’s Action and the Working Families Party, has initiated a series of #ResistTrumpTuesdays demonstrations intended to last through Trump’s first 100 days. In the first action, over 10,000 people in more than 200 cities rallied outside congressional offices urging senators to “Stop Trump’s #SwampCabinet.”

Targets included Democrats as well as Republicans, in line with Amanda Marcotte’s argument here that Democrats should unite in opposing all Trump nominations. “If every person who marched [in the Women’s March] were to visit their Congress member’s office one time this week ― on their way to work or after school ― we would be unstoppable,” MoveOn organizing director Victoria Kaplan said, dovetailing with the next point.

Third, resistance must be intensely and intelligently targeted. This is the message of the wildly popular Indivisible Guide — downloaded more than a million times — that has brought together more than 4,500 local groups who have signed up to resist the Trump agenda in almost every congressional district. Initiated by a group of progressive former congressional staffers, the guide's strength lies partly in its laser focus on pressuring Congress, based on the example of the Tea Party:

We saw them organize locally and convince their own MoCs [members of Congress] to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism — and they won.

If the Tea Party could do that against “a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress,” then it’s possible to do the same against Trump. That’s the argument. And the response has been overwhelming. They’re now in the process of forming a nonprofit “to do two big things better”: First, to continue demystifying congressional advocacy in an ongoing fashion, and second, to support local groups involved in putting guidance into practice. The response so far is overwhelmingly positive.

But there’s a hitch. This argument implicitly assumes some degree of symmetry between the two major political parties, and the philosophies that animate them — a problematic assumption at best, as I discussed last August. Democrats are the party of government in America, responsive to the needs of diverse coalition of groups. They are the ones who believe government can and should work “to promote the general welfare,” as it says in Constitution, and thus they feel obligated to make it work, even in compromised form. Republicans are the party of obstruction and destruction, and have been so openly since at least the time of Newt Gingrich’s speakership. That difference made it much, much easier for Tea Partiers to influence the Republicans to adopt a stance of total resistance than it could be for progressives to get Democrats to do the same.

To make a similar strategy work, progressives will have to do more than the Tea Partiers did. They must advance a positive agenda, in addition to calls to resist Trump and the GOP, and they will have to message it effectively in the face of a media that is conditioned not to listen. This brings us to our next point.

Fourth, people have to have a realistic hope of regaining power nationally, which means the 2018 midterms. It’s a seemingly unsurmountable task, as explained by former Salon editor David Daley’s book, "Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy" (Salon interview here.)  Republicans’ strategy for hijacking the redistricting process in 2010 has produced entrenched GOP legislative power (both in Congress and state legislatures) which sees itself as largely immune to public opinion and only beholden to the most extreme elements of the Republican base. But Trump, and the unprecedented level of resistance he’s generated, may have changed that as well -- or at least created an opening.

This is where the another new group with an audacious goal comes in. Swing Left appeared virtually out of nowhere, asking people to sign up to focus on winning swing districts in Congress in the 2018 elections, and got 100,000 people to sign up in four days around the time of the Women’s March. It has since doubled that number. But there are serious questions about how well a new organization can turn such a fantasy into reality.

One diarist at Daily Kos was profoundly dubious, starting off with a tweet from an old friend, “Not impressed with this site. Put in my Seattle zip code, told me two nearest swing districts are in Alaska & Nevada.” I can understand how he felt, but if you look at Swing Left's map, you’ll understand. Swing districts aren’t to be found everywhere: There are only a smattering from the Dakotas clear across to the West Coast, and none north of Colorado, Utah and Nevada.  

Still, they are close enough to plenty of people who would like to get involved. There are three each within a short drive of Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, and two near Detroit, Boston and Tampa-St. Petersburg.  Moreover, every swing district represents an opportunity to build collaborative grassroots power, mobilizing thousands who would otherwise be sideline observers. Swing Left’s organizing model includes roles for people inside districts, near districts and outside districts, so even out-of-state volunteers can play a role. And, of course, where congressional swing districts are rare, there’s always state legislatures to consider. After all, those bodies will hold the keys to reversing the GOP gerrymander after the 2020 census.

More serious are questions of how well-conceived the Swing Left approach is, and how well it will mesh or conflict with other efforts. “The end goal of Swingleft, and ‘new websites’ that pop up for progressives could be to continue the ongoing party polarization by running unverified ‘progressive’ candidates against registered Democratic candidates in primary races,” the Daily Kos diarist wrote. “Such intra-party battles are often to the benefit of conservative candidates and to the Republican Party.” This seems unduly negative, but the desire for clarity is perfectly sound. So Salon reached out to Swing Left to learn more. Michelle Finocchi responded via email, on behalf of the Swing Left team.

GOP gerrymandering has created high barriers to retaking the House. Your plan is the first one I've seen that would seem to have a chance. That said, I have to ask how much thought and research you have devoted to this history. Or was it simply a math exercise, "OK, here's what looks possible”?

There’s no question -- taking back the House will require a massive effort from progressives all across the country. But the best way we can do it is by mobilizing countless individuals in all districts who have not seriously participated in the democratic process before. We saw the beginnings of that this past weekend when millions of Americans stood up for our values in marches all across the country, and we think at Swing Left that we can be a key part of the continuation of that movement. We now have a lot of volunteers who’ve made it clear they want to help and get involved in the political process. Our central focus is to organize and to fulfill the promise we made to these people -- to connect them with actionable opportunities in their closest swing districts, to flip the House, no matter where they live.

An old friend made the point that there were no districts within hundreds and hundreds of miles of him. I can understand why that happened, but  I also understand his reaction, and there's an obvious response: to add a focus on state legislative swing districts. Since state legislatures are key to redistricting the House, getting started on this in 2018 and going full bore in 2020 would seem to be a wise strategic addition. Have you thought about doing this?

We completely agree -- this is an incredibly important goal. However, as we just launched a week ago, we’re remaining focused on our strategy of helping to take back the House in 2018 so we can help build a better country on areas ranging from climate change to income inequality to civil rights and so much more.

Your initial outreach says little about the sort of politics you are trying to promote. Is it just taking back the House for the Democratic Party? There's a lot grassroots energy out there looking to support people on a more principled basis, even in seemingly challenging districts. I've written about Doug Applegate, the progressive who came close to beating Darrell Issa, and think of him as a good example of the latter. Have you given any thought about how you'll approach such questions?

We will be supporting all candidates who share the values of tolerance, democracy and equality and are committed to halting the radical Republican agenda in 2018. If a candidate in a swing district satisfies those qualifications, then we’ll be behind them in the general election.

I've encountered some concern along the lines of "Who are these people? Do they have any clear idea what they're doing? This could be a huge diversion of energy," etc. How would you respond to these sorts of concerns?

To take back the House, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach from progressives all across the country, targeted to the swing districts that need help the most -- and that’s what we’re working to help build. We don’t view that as a goal that takes anything away from other causes or organizations.

What's the biggest challenge you see for yourselves at this point, and what are you doing to meet it?

The response to Swing Left's launch and the explosion of growth we’ve experienced in the last week has been beyond our wildest expectations, and we have been racing all out since then to keep that momentum going. It’s been exhausting, but incredibly exciting and we’re powering on! In our first week, we’ve had over 200,000 people sign up to support their closest swing district and over 10,000 volunteers offer their time and professional skills to help build Swing Left through a form on the site. 

What's the most important thing you want people to know about Swing Left?

Our mission is to take back the House in 2018 and, whether you vote in a swing district or not, you can play a huge role in that effort. No matter how much or how little time you have, you can make a real impact.

None of the above locks anyone into concrete specifics on issues, strategy or ideology. There is plenty of breathing room for a bottom-up rearticulation of vision and values that grows out of local experience. It would all sound like a pipe dream, frankly, if not for the success of the Women’s March, which has dramatically energized progressive activists, veterans and newcomers alike. One thing is for certain, moving forward: the Women’s March example of inclusivity, engagement and dialogue holds the key to how progressives as a whole can bring together all these different forms of resistance.

In the Guardian, Micah White, a co-creator of Occupy Wall Street and author of "The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution," argues: “Without a clear path from march to power, the protest is destined to be an ineffective feelgood spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats,” citing his own Occupy experience as a warning and contrasting that with the crucial roles women’s mass actions played at key points in the French and Russian revolutions. The women’s march on Versailles “was the definitive point of no return for the French Revolution,” he notes, and “the Russian Revolution of 1917 was also initially sparked, as Leon Trotsky recalls in his definitive history, by a defiant women’s protest,” which began on Women's Day.

But those are rare exceptions, and I don't imagine White would argue that the revolutionary regimes that ultimately resulted were what the marching women whose actions made them possible really wanted. Hence the real difficulty of the question of “what’s next?” What’s happening on the ground right now points toward a much broader range of possibilities. There is no one answer to the question of what happens now -- rather, there are many, struggling to harmonize. These are only a few broad outlines of how things may unfold in practice. It’s only just begun.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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