How to Build a Progressive Movement in a Polarized Country

By George Lakey

Whether it’s assault rifles, racial justice, immigration or fossil fuels, the country is rocked by conflicting narratives and rising passions. In a recent national poll, 70 percent of Americans say the political divide is at least as big as during the Vietnam War.

In December, I completed a year-and-a-half book tour in over 80 towns and cities in United States. From Arizona to Alaska to North Dakota to Georgia, I heard a worry in common from people active in struggles for justice. They talk about the political polarization they see around them.

Many assume that polarization is a barrier to making change. They observe more shouting and less listening, more drama and less reflection, and an escalation at the extremes. They note that mass media journalists have less time to cover the range of activist initiatives, which are therefore drowned out by the shouting. From coast to coast activists asked me: Does this condition leave us stuck?

My answer included both good news and bad news. Most people wanted the latter first.

The Bad News about Divisiveness

We are not dealing with a passing fad or temporary trend. The research of a trio of political scientists found that political polarization follows the curve of economic inequality. For decades after World War II, white male inequality in the United States was relatively low and governance was largely bi-partisan in spirit. But, as income inequality began to polarize, so too did our politics. Not surprisingly, perhaps, by 2015, income inequality was greater than at any other point in U.S. history, according to economists Jeffrey Gale Williamson and Peter Lindert.

The tax bill passed in January will add even more fuel to the fire.

Progressives need to breathe deeply and make our peace with the reality. Division expresses an economic arrangement, and it’s not something we can fix through urging more civil discourse. Even though we’ll want to use our conflict resolution skills in order to cope, we can also expect more drama at the extreme ends of our polarizations, and more ugliness and violence.

Even some of the people who carry progressive values like anti-oppression can be expected to become harsher and more dogmatic, as if inspired by the witch-hunting Massachusetts Puritans of yore. The dynamic of polarization is contagious — it doesn’t confine itself to tweeting public officials, radio talk shows and political junkies. I believe there’s little point in blaming our progressive movement comrades who pick up the infection around us. Instead, it helps to remember that this trend is much, much bigger than we are. We might as well forgive ourselves and each other, and focus on the positive openings that are given to us in this period.

The Good News about Polarization

In the 1920s and ‘30s, the United States and European countries polarized dramatically. In Italy and Germany, fascists were marching and communists were organizing for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even on Europe’s northwest periphery, Sweden and Norway faced the most extreme polarization they’d ever had, complete with Nazis marching in the streets.

The outcomes of polarization for those four countries were, however, very different. In Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini came to power. In Sweden and Norway democratic socialist movements pushed their economic elites off their pedestals and invented the egalitarian Nordic economic model. Saying goodbye to their old class-ridden days of poverty, Swedes and Norwegians generated historically new levels of equality, individual freedom and shared abundance.

The contrasting outcomes could not be more dramatic. All four countries experienced extreme polarization in the 1920s and ‘30s. Two fell into disaster, and two climbed out of poverty and oppression to the top tier of progressive national achievement. From these examples we can see that polarization may guarantee a big political fight, but it doesn’t determine whether the outcome will be dictatorship or democracy.

U.S. history also shows that polarization does not determine outcomes. In the United States in 1920s and ‘30s, the Ku Klux Klan was riding high as well as a growing Nazi movement. On the radical left, movements grew as well. The outcome was not fascist dictatorship, but instead Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Out of that polarization came the most progressive decade of the first half of the 20th century in the United States.

Fast forward to the divided 1960s, which boiled over into the ‘70s, when environmentalists, feminists and LGBT people joined the ferment initiated by the civil rights and other movements of the ‘60s. Once again the Nazis grew along with the Ku Klux Klan, while on the left we remember the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Nevertheless, in the midst of strong polarization, the United States made its greatest progress in the second half of the 20th century.

Letting the Heat Work for Progress

While book touring in England, I stayed with a metal sculptor who showed me his blacksmith’s hearth, essential for creating the beautiful designs that filled his studio. I saw a useful metaphor: Progressives need polarization like blacksmiths and artists need heat to make cold hard metal flexible enough to change its shape.

Heat creates volatility, in metal and in society. It breaks up crystalized patterns. It makes possible something new to replace the rigid oppressive structures that express themselves through sexual and racist violence, endemic poverty alongside extreme wealth, environmental destruction, political corruption and militarism.

Since we can expect more polarization ahead, how can we use its heat and volatility to create something as serviceable as a horseshoe, or even a sculpture of beauty? We can give ourselves a head start by learning what worked in previous periods of polarization and strengthening them for our context.

Because planning is an empowering practice, I’ve organized what’s worked for others into a kind of roadmap, consisting of five stages. There is some reason to the sequence, but not enough to be rigid about it.

A Roadmap to Transformation

1. Tell people you meet that we are creating a plan. Acquaintances may believe you are simply “a protester” or like to hang out with your activist friends — they may not know it’s even possible to create a plan to work together to get ourselves out of this mess. According to the American Psychological Association, 63 percent of Americans say that concerns about the nation’s future are a major source of stress in their lives.

Planning is on the side of positivity, capability and empowerment. Tell people how those are showing up in your life by participating in the plan.

2. Build the infrastructure of the new society. Governmental dysfunction in the United States is becoming ever more obvious. Tourists come back with tales of wonder from Scandinavia, while people stateside see inept responses to disasters like lead poisoning and Hurricane Katrina. The Pew Research Center found that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing.

A century ago the Nordics also had low trust. Organizers supported them to work together through cultural groups and co-ops, empowering themselves to meet each others’ needs. Americans may be ready for this: The same Pew study found that 55 percent believe ordinary Americans would “do a better job of solving problems” than elected officials.

Make the most of this opportunity to reach “beyond the choir,” building groups and institutions with people who didn’t previously know each other. Increasing your range of connection may be easier if people know you are thoughtful about everyone.

3. Build movements through bold nonviolent direct action campaigns. The teenagers in Florida instinctively knew what most adults in the gun control lobby refused to accept — it takes bold direct action to open doors. To keep the doors open, the teens will learn, it takes direct action campaigning. In the process they may turn the lobby into a movement.

Most Swedes and Norwegians came to realize that the economic elite ruled their countries and that their parliaments were pretend democracies. Loving efficiency, they preferred to skip the middlemen and go straight to the top, by focusing their campaigns on the owners rather than the politicians. Making this shift in the United States will help each movement to become sharper and clearer, more visionary, and — by refusing to be co-opted by a political party — more ready to align with others to build a movement of movements. They may also, as did the Nordics, stay close to the alternative infrastructure being built on a local level.

4. Gain unity among movements around a broad vision of what will replace dysfunctional and unjust institutions. Many Nordics understood that politicians’ promises of small reform steps were inadequate, even insulting — something incrementalist Hillary Clinton discovered in the 2016 U.S. election. The large majority of Americans who tell pollsters that the country is “headed in the wrong direction” increasingly match their words with their deeds and stay away from the polls.

The Nordic democratic socialists succeeded because their vision was radical, showed deep respect for the people and made sense at the same time. One example was promising universal services instead of programs for the poor.

Few people want to go with you if they don’t know where you’re going. Nordic movements grew partly because organizers explained the destination. By sharing the vision, organizers showed they respected people more than manipulative politicians. Fortunately, in the United States, the Movement for Black Lives has already offered a vision, and more are emerging. When there is vision, stronger movements may grow out of nonviolent direct action campaigns.

5. Build a movement of movements powerful enough to dislodge the 1 percent from dominance. That’s what the Swedes and Norwegians did. Movements worked together to raise the level of nonviolent struggle to that point, even though their opponents tried to repress them with violence. Movements cooperated because they saw that their individual goals were opposed by the same force — the economic elite.

This is just as true in the United States, where the aspirations of both white and black workers, women and sexual minorities, immigrants and activists for climate justice, students and gun reform activists are all frustrated by the 1 percent. Cooperation for deep struggle becomes more likely when we create a vision in common that speaks to diverse interests.

So, where are we with this roadmap? The good news is that people are hard at work on the second and third steps already. As we gain confidence, we’ll tackle the fourth as well, which will increase our credibility and invite the gain in numbers that makes the fifth possible.

What about Polarization?

I lived in Norway 25 years after the struggle that resulted in a power shift. I observed a remarkably peaceful society with a high degree of consensus. The whole political spectrum had shifted significantly to the left — the politics of the Norwegian right-wing was to the left of America’s Democratic Party. The overall direction of the economy was decided by the people as a whole. They enjoyed lively debates about the issues of the day, confident that the majority’s decisions would be carried out without corruption. And they hoped some day, without spending much money on it, to win a lot of Olympic medals

George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just recently won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of Strategizing for a Living Revolution in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining. This article appeared on March 16 at Waging Nonviolence.

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