By George Lakey
I have friends who admire Bernie Sanders and what he stands for, but are worried that if he’s nominated Trump will be re-elected. The same is true for some whose favored choice is Elizabeth Warren.
Despite their personal preferences, these friends are pulled toward what seems the more pragmatic priority: stop Trump by voting for a more centrist Democrat.
The trouble with pragmatism these days is that our country is becoming less predictable by the minute. What is going on among the 40 percent of the electorate that didn’t bother to vote in 2016’s general election? How about the new voters who’ve become naturalized citizens in the meantime, or the many who’ve turned 18? How much will the Russians skew the results?
Because a lot can happen between now and November, it’s hard to measure any primary candidate’s chances in November with confidence at this time.
I believe I’ve found an outside-the-box way of thinking about this which makes the choice easier.
The forgotten opportunity
Strategizing includes assessing risks and opportunities. The more risks and opportunities we can identify, the better choice we can make. There is an overlooked opportunity that shows up in 2021 for progressives — and it needs to be part of a truly strategic calculation.
Why? Because that opportunity becomes even larger depending on which candidate we support right now.
Outside the ballot box is a source of political power that people easily forget to take into consideration: “people power.” Mass nonviolent direct action is arguably more powerful than elections, sometimes even overthrowing right-wing governments that claim legitimacy through elections.
We easily forget to factor that opportunity into our thinking. Mainstream mass media keep us tightly focused on the U.S. elective “horse race,” failing to show the bigger picture and the need for what some scholars call “a force more powerful.”
If we leave out the potential role of mass nonviolent direct action in 2021, we invite an opportunity cost that weighs heavily on our chances for justice and even survival in the climate emergency.
How the primaries affect mass direct action in 2021
Trump may be re-elected in November no matter who the Democratic opponent is. At that time, direct action immediately becomes a major option for millions of progressives who tend to hold back as long as it looks as though the election process will work.
But we’ve been there before — in 2017. What can we learn? An estimated four million joined the Women’s March the day after inauguration, which was a historic milestone for the United States. But, it’s important to note, we weren’t given our marching orders. There was no plan for a sustained campaign with specific demands; we did not go on the offensive.
Alarmed by the missed opportunity, I went home and wrote a 10-point plan for defeating Trump, which the national organizers of the Women’s March then shared on Twitter.
The pattern, however, was already set: one-off protests that simply give voice to an opinion. Our opponent knows, when watching us do our march, that we’re going home at the end of the day — while they continue doing what they’re doing.
One-offs, however large, will never generate the power of sustained campaigns that give us a chance to win.
Most movements in 2017 went on the defensive, which any basketball coach (or military general, or Gandhi) will tell you is no way to win. Trying to romanticize the response to Trump by calling it “the Resistance” only made its defensiveness more obvious to our opponent.
Many activists became reactivists, trying in vain to plug holes in the dike. Loss followed loss. Few — and no leading Democrats that I noticed — seemed to remember the folk wisdom about strategy: “the best defense is a strong offense.”
Sanders and Warren, on the other hand, paid attention when they took Strategy 101. They are fighters whose instinct is to go on the offensive. This is a big difference from establishment Democratic candidates: If Sanders or Warren gained the 2020 nomination and lost to Trump, they would join the offensive, offering their coalition-building skills and credibility to social movements.
Picture some of those on-the-ground formations that would lead us in going on the offensive in 2021: The Dreamers who previously mobilized effectively and used nonviolent direct action to force President Obama to create DACA. The young people in the rapidly-growing Sunrise Movement and Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, who count on direct action to deliver the goods even while participating in electoral campaigns. The growing edge of the union movement that forced their Democrat-connected, foot-dragging leadership to initiate strikes that won concessions for teachers, auto workers and others. Some of these forces — DSA and Sunrise — were early endorsers of Sanders, and all of them respect him.
Leadership helps us see the power dynamics in the United States
The mass willingness to use direct action depends on people’s understanding of who runs our country. When people believe democratic processes are alive and well, they are reluctant to “take to the streets.”
Americans have, however, been rapidly changing their minds about whether we live in a democracy. By 2018 a CBS News poll found only 28 percent of the U.S. public believes the country, as currently governed, operates for the benefit of the American people.
In this they are backed up by the Princeton University “oligarchy study” which did the empirical research — showing that it’s the economic elite who actually run the country, regardless of the political party that’s been elected to manage policy. Billionaire Warren Buffett was explicit when he told the New York Times that his class has been waging class war against the rest of us, noting that his class has been winning.
In the midst of turbulence it can be hard for people to stay clear-sighted. Leadership matters. A clear difference among the Democratic candidates is what they say about who runs America. The establishment Democrats do not acknowledge what’s actually going on. Only Sanders and Warren “tell it like it is,” and in that way they assist movements to form a clear analysis that supports going on the offensive during a Trump presidency.
What if Trump loses the election?
Again, we can learn from the recent history of a liberal Democrat in the White House. President Barack Obama was not able to achieve his own (and the majority’s) aspirations: a public option in the Affordable Care Act (which would have been a step toward Medicare for All), a stimulus package for Main Street (which would have matched the stimulus that bailed out Wall Street), a major climate adaptation initiative and more.
Why didn’t Obama “do it for us?” Among the complex number of reasons was the refusal of the Democratic establishment to back him and the lack of mass movements using direct action to “force” him to do what he wanted to do.
Obama’s eight years of governing under the thumb of the economic elite continued the neo-liberal economic policies that betrayed the working class and arguably led to the Trump victory in 2016.
If Trump is defeated in 2020 by a Democratic establishment candidate, we can expect “Obama, Act II,” because deferring to the oligarchy would remain the practice. Democratic office-holders practicing oligarchy-denial will continue to subsidize the fossil fuel companies that are killing us, and so on.
Growing mass movements would of course use nonviolent direct action, but would be continually hampered by the Democratic establishment. The historic role of the Democrats is to co-opt social movements, to pacify and domesticate them so they won’t threaten continued 1-percent rule.
In a statewide conference on climate in Maine I used my opportunity as keynote speaker to describe this behavior of the Democratic Party, and to warn the environmental leaders to expect it. When I was finished, an experienced Maine Democratic leader running for governor came up to me, smiling with confidence, and said, “About co-optation, George – you’re right, we do that, and we’re good at it.”
Electing an establishment Democrat means subjecting ourselves to endless manipulation that reduces our power and chance of winning victories. (Remember the Oval Office scene in the film “Selma,” when President Johnson tries to manipulate Martin Luther King?)
Sanders or Warren, on the other hand, might be our ally, using the “bully pulpit” and other kinds of power on behalf of movement goals to accelerate reforms on a range of issues, including health care, incarceration, climate, gun control, labor laws, tax policy, police accountability, and more.
Where does this strategy exercise leave us?
By doing these thought experiments, I’ve tried to show that factoring in the potential force of mass nonviolent direct action from 2021 on will help us evaluate today’s Democratic candidates for nomination.
We can’t know for sure whether a centrist Democrat has a better chance of beating Trump than Sanders or Warren. A centrist Democrat might be beaten by Trump. And Sanders or Warren might be able to defeat Trump. There are plausible arguments on all sides of this question, as long as we stay “inside the box.”
Outside the ballot box, however, is “a force more powerful,” waiting to be fully tapped to make badly needed changes in our society. The Democratic candidates’ differences matter: Some candidates would encourage our mobilizing “people power” — and some would not. And that’s true whichever way the November election turns out.
Whoever wins in the general election, I believe it will be easier to build successful social movements with Sanders or Warren as the Democratic candidate than with a centrist Democrat.
Such a perspective provides one more way to think about how to make a choice today.
George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)
This article was published on February 27 at Waging Nonviolence.