I’ve heard the phrase “we’re at a unique moment in human history” so often that I’ve come to expect to hear about a self-serving crackpot agenda.
I have an agenda that is also likely crackpot, but I think worth considering.
Trump’s election horrifies liberal democrats because, for among other things*, it is a wholesale rejection of that approach to the world.
There were struggles, but the US was moving in that direction: marriage equality became law, people at least talking about climate change, improving women’s rights, the scope of inequality and social disparities. People were reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and talking about the opioid epidemic and how to bring poor white males into the modern workforce.
Now, there is no large scale leadership in that direction.
If Hillary won, the blue states would basically entrust her with continuing this agenda- she’s going to fight for women, and minorities, etc. They’d entrust her to carry the torch, and they’d say “Go Hillary!” on facebook, but they really wouldn’t do all that much. Sure, many people would do the good work of policy, would be state and local leaders, would try to innovate more equitable healthcare delivery methods for example. But the vast majority of would support this work in name only. They’d root for the Obama and Hillary team and talk it up to friends, but it would largely end there. (Even in defeat, they’d still have hope.)
Now, that is trashed. The blue states are adrift. They feel (and are) threatened on all sides by a rejection of that vision, seeing it replaced with something that, at least appears, appalling. Shockingly, the losses look like victories, not just for the typical bogeymen of the left — the corporations — but for the KKK.
For the moment, let’s put aside analysis of “how this happened,” just “how bad it really is,” and “what it all means.”* These questions are critical, but in the tumult of the moment, they can obscure the way forward.
The blue staters still have the issues that we care about, issues that are basically unassailable: womens’ rights and reproductive rights are human rights, marriage equality is not negotiable, racial inequality is unacceptable, we should have a plan for the increasing likelihood that the atmosphere will not sustain us, we need to support the war-ravaged populations of the world, and on and on (I’m not running the long list of issues for the sake of brevity and clarity, not out of my priority or preference). These issues transcend politics, they connect with the basic dignity of all people.
And they deserve full-throated support. In fact, they are so important that the figure at the top (Obama or Hillary) matters far less than the means and degree of our engagement at the bottom. (This is a standard piece of Obama’s stump speech since 2008.)
Just because we have no large scale leadership in these areas does not mean we collapse to:
1- The democratic party: The party’s power has been gutted, not only of leadership, but also of trust that it is truly serving the mission of the left. Tens of millions of people, who’d had their trust and faith in the democrats, just got burned. I think they’re justifiably suspicious. I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of the democrats’ relationship to Bernie Sanders; again, this is crucial, but I don’t think we should wait for it to play out before we engage with next steps.
2- A simple list of organizations: Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, etc. These groups are essential, they’re doing much of the real work of moving society forward. By all means, support them. But it’s not enough to scramble around and throw some money at these groups wily-nilly. We can do something more sustained and organized than that.
I think there is a middle ground for a leadership infrastructure that basically supports this vision, but doesn’t rely on the a major political party or a collection of organizations to manage it.
I’m imagining the electoral map, you’ve essentially got half the population that cares deeply about this stuff (or at least has no problem saying they do). If they did something akin to taxing themselves, they could support a huge chunk of this agenda in an organized, reliable way that would provide durable support for these issues.
For example, consider a small slice of women’s issues:
Planned Parenthood receives $538 million from the government. Can blue staters essentially tax themselves to make up the difference? Can they create their own means to provide free universal contraception? Can they create a watchdog group that systematically identifies and litigates violations of equal pay for equal work?
Obviously, certain issues would be very hard to support in this way, like climate change. I don’t have a solution to how we’d do this, but 1- I bet there are ways, and 2- we don’t need to wait for an approach to climate change before we can implement something that is important and helpful.
This proposal is a colossal undertaking. However, I think it could start small and grow, rather than require it to be implemented in final form all at once.
Imagine how much time has been spent in the past week in writing things on facebook and twitter? What if these people were given a real digital structure to interact more productively? The fact that everyone is digitally connected to everyone else is reason for optimism.
I think a very small, simple way to start would be to create something I’m calling a “Big Picture Coach.”
The idea is that people are upset right now basically because they fear for the big picture, they can no longer rely on Obama etc. to carry the torch. They’re looking for ways to get involved, and the best they’re seeing are lists of “organizations that are combatting hate, environmental degradation, etc.” This is important, but haphazard. We’re basically running around like scared deer, and in the confusion we’re losing an important opportunity.
The “Big Picture Coach” would help people reflect on the issues they care about (and propose some that they should consider, like nuclear war). This process of reflection could lead to specific methods to get engaged and support the issues. Giving money to certain organizations would be a big one, but the site would suggest high yield organizations with strong infrastructures that are ready to scale with large donations. It would also suggest effective donation patterns. The site would support more than money- it would provide ways to get educated, ways to donate time or community investment. It would connect local actions as well as long-term actions.
There are many “lists of good organizations” being passed around facebook. I know many people who have taken an informal leadership role in guiding others about “what to do.” A web based “big picture coach” could be a powerful step in engaging in the big picture that could be shared and grow reasonably fast.
If this generated some real interest, it would obviously require some full time staffing and some real money. But it might also appeal to large companies, especially those engaged with digital media and have somewhat progressive leadership like facebook and apple. And, it might adapt from addressing “what can I do” to really forming a robust mid-level political infrastructure that is not a party, but is effective for that platform.
Lastly, and perhaps most compelling to me, is the thought that this could be truly bipartisan. Many republicans voted for Trump but support abortion. They may be inclined to support womens’ issues in a way that is less about their political identity and more about simply connecting with the issue.
An effort like this does stand to undermine the democratic party’s political clout, diluting funding and resources to some third party. However, it may also bolster democratic leaders by providing a way to break up liberal complacency and support leaders who are addressing the important issues.
Please give your feedback and feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
*I absolutely acknowledge the very real and immediate harm this election poses to the targets of bigotry, and I do not mean to diminish the importance of recognizing and advocating for those people. In addition to pontificating about the big picture, we need to support those under immediate threat.