Due to my 2020 role in the Choose Democracy effort – aimed at saving the US constitutional process of presidential succession – I received a flood of letters seeking advice on whether to dive into the ongoing fight for integrity elections.
I am known as someone who has always worked to build progressive social movements rather than follow their impact in the legislative and elective arena. Yet I made an exception in 2020 when I saw the threat of a Trumpist coup attempt. People ask me: since Trump’s attack hasn’t stopped, shouldn’t the work of building movements for equality, climate justice and peace give way to the priority of “saving the Republic ?
I see the strength of this argument, but Trump is not the immediate threat he was when he was president. Yet his lies have had a huge impact on the future of free and fair elections – from emboldening Republican gerrymandering efforts to pass voting restrictions in dozens of states over the past year. While I applaud the work people are doing to protect and expand our voting rights, there are other issues that deserve our attention because their neglect also jeopardizes our future. Therefore, we all need to discern where our time and energy are best spent.
To begin to understand this, let’s take a step back and consider the larger historical picture (while exhaling).
There are two main things that appeal to people like us:
1. The dysfunction of the state/electoral system, which sometimes reaches emergency proportions.
2. The underlying conditions that are causing the dysfunction and which will continue to wreak havoc if left untreated.
This becomes clearer during periods of political polarization, such as the 1930s and 1960s-70s. Both left and right, many more people were activated, violence increased, society seemed to be collapsing with conflict everywhere you looked. The political center has shrunk in size and internal cohesion while the right and left have grown. The mass media mainly focused on violence and the state of the political center (since it is much easier to report on the activities of political parties), but by the end of the period it turned out that the major changes that lasted resulted from the struggle between left and right movements.
In both the 1930s and the 1960s and 1970s, the result was a shift in a progressive (left) direction – substantially and on many fronts.
In the 1930s and 1960s-70s many thoughtful, creative and energetic people chose different roles to play, some working on what was happening in the political/legislative/electoral party arena while others worked in the arena of the social movement.
In times of perceived emergency or crisis, there were sometimes crossovers, when people postponed what they were doing to help the arena that was in trouble or had a particularly attractive opportunity. In 1932, many members of the movement rushed to help Franklin D. Roosevelt become president; in 1967, many election-minded people threw themselves into the action of the national peace movement, precipitating what authors Mark and Paul Engler call a “whirlwind.”
Choose Democracy was the 2020 brainchild of some movement activists like me who saw that the integrity of the electoral apparatus needed a helping hand; most leaders in this field did not seem to recognize the danger. So we nudged them into starting to create the movement infrastructure they would need to defend the Constitution, if necessary – if, for example, Trump-induced action on January 6 were to succeed in delaying Biden’s installation. .
Once leaders in the electoral arena had a real picture of the threat to the state and the danger subsided, we in Choose Democracy were able to return to what we felt called to. To do. For me, personally, that preference has always been to go to the struggles that the media fails to cover – struggles that I believe explain the major progressive shift in the history of this country: the abolitionists, the movement for women’s suffrage, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the 1970s environmentalists who stopped building dangerous nuclear energy, and the climate justice movement.
Even in this polarized time that we live in, I see particular ways of using the strategies of social movements. This is because social tension brings us more people. We can grow faster if we know how.
So, yes, although I was a social movement guy, I moved into the arena of “defending the constitutional state” – but only when it seemed like too many people needed a boost. A year later, I am back to follow my strong calling in the face of the climate crisis.
Perhaps you have a strong global inclination like me, feeling called to work in the electoral/political party/constitutional state arena or, alternatively, in the social movement arena. Or maybe you are quite open to one or the other. If it’s the latter and you need help deciding, consider your skills and talents. Consider where you can make the greatest contribution. Your geographic area and position in the social structure (race, ethnicity, class, generation, etc.) also matters. Some works may be less present in your locality and your efforts to strengthen them could have a greater impact. For example, maybe the Democrats in your geographic area haven’t realized the immediacy of the threat to the integrity of the electoral process and need someone to “play Paul Revere” to get them to block an anti-democratic Republican initiative.
I generally find that people do their best when it’s “right” for them in some way – where their skills and talents are needed, where the spirit calls them, where they are most aligned with their analysis of what needs to change the most, or where they have the most to learn, and it’s the learning that wakes them up excited in the morning.
I know people who are happy as clams to work in the Democratic Party, even if its goals for change are limited, because they accept it. I know others who resent working in the Democratic Party because its goals fall far short of theirs.
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Increased polarization requires increased support
Polarization brings anxiety to everyone, and anxiety is hard on us. Although I know from study that polarization increases the opportunity for the major changes I want to see, I always feel the anxiety – it’s the ocean I’m swimming in. All the more reason why we pay attention to the type of work that brings us joy or at least satisfaction, even when goals are not achieved as quickly as we would like.
Ideally, our choice will see us working alongside people who can be teammates and develop a team spirit. We need and deserve collective support.
If your choice of other ways leads you to work in a field where you can’t find people who support you, there is a fallback. Continue to work in this area with these people and form your own “coming home” support team – among your friends, your religious congregation, your former classmates, your loved ones – by asking three to six of them them to be your “welcome team”. which will support you while you do this hard work. Ask one of them to be the organizer, facilitating the group via Zoom if necessary to listen to you — not to advise you. Their job is to be a sounding board. They are the cheerleaders of the home football team, cheering you on and asking for your sad and crazy stories as well as listening to your good days.
Either way, by finding support in your volunteer work or “home,” you can safely embark on making a difference as the United States journeys into 2022 and beyond.