Ever since Election Night, Donald Trump and his incoming administration have been met with resistance. I have been — and continue to be — impressed by the vocal public outrage, spontaneous grassroots organizing, and dramatic direct and indirect actions that have already been mobilized in response to a man and an administration that have embraced a form of neofascism.
The longer this resistance lasts, the more I start thinking about long-term solutions. How do we sustain and grow this progressive resistance? And what is our constructive vision and strategy for the future?
The Progressive Resistance
This popular uprising against Trump has its roots in what I would describe as the American progressive movement. Broadly defined, the American progressive movement includes all people and movements that seek to make major progress on concerns of social and environmental justice. Their beliefs and political affiliations vary greatly, but they share many of the same overlapping core values: feminism and womanism; racial justice; indigenous rights; LGBTQ rights; immigrant rights; workers’ rights; environmental justice; climate justice; religious freedom (including freedom from religion); and other broadly humanistic positions. Progressives reject various forms of systemic oppression and embrace liberation struggles rooted in these progressive values.
There are many divisions, disagreements, and power differentials between and within these various progressive movements, so much so that viewing them as a single cohesive movement at all is problematic. However, on a good day, there’s also a shared sense of purpose and solidarity among the various progressive communities and factions — a recognition of their many intersections and a willingness (and eagerness!) to work together as allies in some way for the progressive improvement of our society.
Most if not all of the core values espoused by the progressive movement have become popularly accepted in the United States. If you ask the average American if women should have equal rights, or if Black Lives Matter, or if we should do something about climate change, and so on, chances are they will say yes. Sometimes, it may be a narrow majority, depending on who you’re asking and how you’re framing the question. And sometimes, their actions and policy choices may not actually reflect their stated values. But in many places, and in many instances, these are at least popular values to claim.
That wasn’t always the case. But it does seem to be the case today, especially in certain states and just about any large urban area in the nation. This broad shift of cultural values in a more progressive direction is a remarkable achievement that should not be overlooked or forgotten. It was brought about through tremendous sacrifice by grassroots activists in frontline communities, and it is always at risk of being reversed by reactionary cultural forces that seek to re-establish the various forms of historical oppression that the progressive movement has actively resisted and supplanted.
These progressive values have been taken to heart in some form by a majority of Americans. What we lack, though, is a similarly broad agreement on how exactly to turn these seemingly abstract, idealistic concepts into lived realities here and elsewhere. This often leads to endless, bitter feuding among progressives who share many core values in common and might otherwise be working together.
Establishment or Anti-Establishment?
When people who hold institutional power espouse progressive values, as the Obama administration often did, it ironically tends to divide progressives. Some progressives throw their full support behind the system and try to push through as many progressive reforms as possible while the power of the executive and/or legislative branch is in the hands of people who they believe are on the side of progress. Other progressives take the exact opposite approach, rejecting the administration or the entire system because of its failures to adequately address some (or most) progressive concerns. In many cases, these “establishment” and “anti-establishment” progressives actually have a surprising number of core values in common. But when the time comes to discuss the details, or the path from here to there, the result is vehement debate that leads to active strategic and tactical struggle against one another, or at least a failure to support one another’s struggles in any meaningful way. The vitriolic arguments between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters are a classic example of the active antagonism that erupts between establishment and anti-establishment progressives in the presence of an opportunity for some degree of access to institutional power.
On the other hand, when people who hold institutional power explicitly reject progressive values and instead advance an openly regressive agenda, as the Trump administration and Congress are doing, there is a golden moment when a broader unity among progressives becomes not merely possible, but absolutely necessary. This defensive alliance between previously antagonistic progressive factions is often mutually desired by both establishment and anti-establishment progressives. Regardless of whether you’ve spent the past eight years with a lovely portrait of the Obama family hanging over your mantle, or you’ve been out in the streets smashing corporate property and punching fascists in the face, you can (hopefully) agree with your fellow progressives that we must all resist the nascent fascism of the Trump administration (and the reactionary Congress that facilitates and shares his agenda).
The progressive resistance to the Trump administration has already begun. As far as I can tell, it began spontaneously on the very night of the election. It continues to this day. And while there are certainly powerful institutions trying to use the resistance to their benefit, it seems to be driven primarily by an interesting mix of establishment and anti-establishment progressives who are all upset at what Trump is doing and the regressive cultural and political shift that his administration represents.
Part of what has enabled this resistance to mobilize such a large and politically broad base of support is that its emphasis has been on what we are opposing. The Trump administration is taking numerous dramatic actions that strike boldly and decisively at our core progressive values, often causing immediate harm (or threat thereof) to people who we care about personally or stand in solidarity with politically. Our resistance is not (currently) motivated by any mutually agreed upon vision or strategy for the future. It’s a defensive response to an outside threat. Most people who feel threatened are willing to band together with unlikely allies in response to a threat, even if they usually wouldn’t have anything to do with one another in times of peace and comfort.
For the time being, that may be enough. We may be able to sustain a resistance against the Trump administration indefinitely based on this purely defensive, reactive impulse. But sooner or later, we’re going to have to talk about constructive strategies beyond resistance. I’ve already seen those discussions starting, both within and between the establishment and anti-establishment progressive factions. We’re going to have to find ways to consider this question and yet continue working together in spite of our differing answers. Otherwise, we’ll keep fracturing in ways that divide us against one another, and the progressive resistance will be easily crushed by more unified and institutionally empowered authoritarian forces.
Reform or Revolt?
When it comes to constructive long-term solutions, there are vast differences between establishment and anti-establishment progressives.
Establishment progressives — mostly supporters of establishment Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton — generally say that the solution is straightforward. Not easy, perhaps, but straightforward. Get the word out; get the vote out. The majority of Americans are open to some interpretation of our vision for progressive change. Therefore, all that we have to do is help the Democratic Party reclaim Congress and the White House from the Republicans and everything will be okay, or at least decent enough that we can stop matching every few weeks like we are now.
Anti-establishment progressives — a very broad category, from the mildly anti-establishment Bernie Sanders supporters, to the Green Party, to the various socialists and communists, to the anarchists — have a very different approach. They say that rather than backing the next slate of candidates put forward by the corrupt and neoliberal-oriented Democratic National Committee, we need to push for radical or revolutionary changes to the system itself. This may involve major systemic changes in how we elect representatives or decide on public policy: Instant Runoff Voting or similar; nonpartisan redistricting; campaign finance reform; etc. Or it may involve a revolutionary restructuring of political and economic life: abolition of nation-states; abolition of private property; abolition of the prison industrial complex and military industrial complex; organizing public assemblies and collectives to coordinate the details of political and economic life; etc.
On the surface, these two takes on what it means to be “progressive” seem irreconcilable. In fact, under usual circumstances, they often work in direct opposition to one another.
And yet, many members of both broadly defined progressive factions are currently calling for open resistance to the Trump administration and the Congress that enables it. So they must have some core values and interests in common that are being threatened by the Trump administration.
How do we turn that common impulse of resistance into a broad-based movement to create a society more in line with our shared progressive values?
There are no simple or easy answers to this question. If there were, we would have done it a long time ago. However, I would like to propose a simple first step that could serve as a launching point for all other broad-based strategies for progressive social change.
Organize popular assemblies.
Popular assemblies are a way for groups of people in a neighborhood, workplace, school, city, region, etc. to speak to each other about public concerns and make their own direct decisions about how to act on those concerns. They can take many forms, from the more moderate town hall meeting format to the more provocative street assemblies that progressives in the US may associate with the Occupy movement. There are also many other forms that these assemblies may take. Whatever form they take, they empower members of the general public to have their own political discussions and make their own political decisions rather than waiting for government or corporate bureaucrats to make those decisions for them.
Many of the resistance activities that have already happened — the Women’s Marches, the No Muslim Ban actions, the other planned marches, etc. — have included some aspects of popular assemblies. Many of them had opportunities for speakers to talk about what was happening and what we should do about it. And online communication helped facility discourse among large numbers of people in something approaching the social media equivalent of popular assemblies. These actions were mostly about marching, or conveying a pre-conceived message, but there was also a degree of mass public discourse involved, both in the planning and in the execution.
We need to follow through on this impulse. We need to create space for popular assemblies. This needs to happen both in digital reality and in analog reality. If we can only get a good turnout for such assemblies at protest events and marches, then let’s do them at protest events and marches. Any time large numbers of people gather to respond to some threat to progressive values, we need to create space for some serious public dialog about constructive long-term solutions. We need to get together and talk to each other about what we all plan to do, individually and collectively, to ensure that we live in a free society rooted in progressive principles such as voluntary cooperation, social and environmental justice, and human rights for all identities and communities.
For the establishment progressives, this popular assembly style of organizing would be seen as a temporary strategy. These popular assemblies would arise now in a moment of crisis, mobilize mass action for progressive causes, and disappear when they are no longer needed. They would essentially be the same as a general march, or a general strike, but with space created to discuss and organize more specific actions that are necessary to resist the administration and push for progressive change. They would be an opportunity to “take the offensive” and organize our own actions collectively rather than waiting to respond to the next awful administration policy.
For the anti-establishment progressives, these popular assemblies are the whole point, or at least a stepping stone toward the whole point. People should be making their own decisions about political and economic life. These assemblies could be the start of a revolutionary shift away from authoritarian power structures and toward a reality where we the people govern ourselves in a more direct and democratic manner. Popular assemblies challenge the legitimacy of existing institutional power and prepare us for the creation of something better.
These are two very different understandings of the purpose and potential of popular assemblies. Either way, now is the time to start organizing these popular assemblies. We can debate what our various approaches to progressive change should look like once we’re in our assemblies together. As long as we’re stuck in isolation in our homes, or reacting with mass resistance marches rather than advancing our own proactive solutions, we have no chance of creating progressive change for the better. If we come together, we can use our collective intelligence to develop new solutions that neither our institutions nor our smaller progressive factions are currently considering. Whether it’s online or offline, at a protest march or at a general assembly, in a town hall or in the streets, we must start having these conversations and planning proactive actions for change.
We have a massive amount of energy and attention pouring into progressive campaigns and causes right now. If we pivot from reactive actions to proactive, strategic actions, there’s no telling just how much we’ll be able to accomplish. But we must act now while large numbers of progressives are highly motivated and still feeling some semblance of unity in the face of adversity. If we wait until the next election cycle, then it’ll end up just being another series of bitter feuds among progressives, thus paving the way for neofascists to continue pushing our society in a more regressive direction.
So let’s organize. It doesn’t have to take the same form in all places. It can happen differently in every community. But let’s make it happen. Let’s hold town hall meetings. Let’s hold popular assemblies in the streets. Let’s develop the online equivalent of popular assemblies and use modern communication technology to the fullest. Let’s turn every hateful action taken by this administration into a call for popular assemblies and proactive grassroots solutions. Let’s work together in groups large and small to do everything we can to defend everyone who is threatened by systemic violence and to make our visions for progressive change a reality.