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The Case Against Despair

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The Case Against Despair

The last two weeks have been among the scariest for liberals and for the broader anti-Trump, pro-democracy coalition since Donald Trump descended the golden escalator and accused Mexicans of being rapists and drug dealers in announcing his candidacy in 2015. President Biden's disastrous debate performance on June 27th was what kicked off the collective alarm and widespread calls for him to withdraw from the race in favor of someone younger. The Republican majority's decision in Trump v. United States, which gives presidents near total legal immunity for official acts during their presidency and which defines official acts so broadly as to make it functionally impossible to ever hold a president legally accountable for lawless or corrupt behavior in office, only added to the pro-democracy coalition's freakout.

The net effect of these two events has been to stoke panic among the friends of freedom both in America and abroad with many succumbing to nihilistic doomerism and despair. While this is a very understandable impulse—I myself had probably my worst mental health day since 2016 this week—despair is neither the right response, nor one we have any right to indulge.

There is, as the writer John Green has observed, a certain seduction to despair. This is because despair can always seem like a viable choice—'the good old days' are famously a myth and at no point in history have humans ever faced a shortage of problems. And despair can also seem like a viable choice because of the certainty that none of us are going to make it out of this thing alive. Moreover, our entire solar system will eventually be swallowed by Andromeda. In that case, why bother to struggle for or against anything at all? Why not embrace nihilism? 

I offer two reasons. First, because despair is a lie. It says that we know for certain that nothing will ever get better. Not only is that not something anyone can know, all the evidence of modern human history strongly contradicts it. Humanity's last 500 years is the history of an accelerating and dramatic improvement in the wellbeing of almost everyone alive compared to our ancestors. The second reason to refuse the poison chalice of nihilism is that doing so dramatically improves one's subjective experience of life. Maybe someone else somewhere has met a happy, fulfilled nihilist, but I certainly have never heard of such a person. On the other hand, there is a large body of very well-documented evidence that a sense of purpose is one of the core requirements for mental health and human flourishing. 

Returning to a more temporal plane and the situation American liberals and democrats are now faced with, there are more practical reasons to take heart. In politics sometimes you’re in government, sometimes you’re in the opposition, and sometimes you’re a dissident. As of this writing, some combination of the latter two are looking more probable than not for the next 4 years in America. One of the worst and most common tropes in most people's thinking about authoritarian regimes is the idea that democracy and dictatorship are binaries. Countries are either liberal democracies, or they're Nazi Germany or North Korea. Christopher Hitchens used to like to say that one benefit of studying history is that you have other metaphors in your toolkit besides Hitler and the Nazis. And as anyone who has studied authoritarian regimes and democratic backsliding knows, there is never a single inflection point where democracy dies and the flame of freedom is extinguished, never to burn again. What tends to happen instead is a deterioration of democratic conditions over time. Sometimes this process culminates dramatically in a successful coup or the election of an authoritarian leader. But sometimes it happens quite gradually, as was the case in Orban's Hungary, Erdogan's Turkey, and the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte. All of that is to say, nothing that happens in the United States is going to make resistance impossible and certainly nothing that has happened yet has done that. 

Many doomers argue that there is little to no difference between another Trump administration and another Biden (or Harris) administration. It should be difficult for anyone who hasn’t been in a coma since 2015 to take this argument seriously. On every single policy issue, Trump and the Star Wars cantina of crooks, grifters, and true-believing fascists he has around him are vastly, vastly worse than the Biden administration has been. This is even true on Israel-Palestine, where I share many of the doomers’ exasperation with Biden’s reluctance to aggressively use America’s considerable leverage to strong-arm the Israeli government into allowing in sufficient aid to the 2 million starving Gazans and ending what very much looks like it will turn into an endless war. Trump has recently begun to use Palestinian as a slur. He appointed a virulently rightwing, anti-Palestinian U.S. Ambassador to Israel and upended 70 years of American policy by officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Where the Biden administration has been timid and inept in trying to reign in Netanyahu and his goons, a Trump administration would be eager enablers of them. 

The final reason to take heart is that we are blessed with wonderful examples of liberal and democratic resistance to look to both from our own history and from our friends and comrades around the world. The two that have been cheering me up the most the last several months are Polish democrats uniting to oust a deeply entrenched PiS government last fall which had been in power for eight years and which, going into the election, showed every sign of having Poland on an express train to becoming a second Hungary. This dire state of affairs in Poland under the former PiS government was detailed brilliantly by Anne Applebaum in her book "The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism." Applebaum, an American historian and journalist, happens to be married to Polish politician Radosław Sikorski. Sikorski and his fellow Polish democrats went from being the subjects of a concerted campaign of incitement and defamation by the PiS-controlled state broadcaster a few months ago, to now being the government of Poland. That doesn't mean the threat disappeared. PiS still holds Poland's presidency and is fighting with everything it has against the new government's efforts to rid the judiciary of the loyalists who were installed on the bench during PiS's rule. 

The other rich vein of inspiration I've been mining during the Trump years is the struggle for African-American citizenship and equality. W.E.B. DuBois's is maybe the most useful life to look at here. DuBois was born in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War that ended slavery, near the start of the ill-fated Reconstruction regime in the American South. For a brief few years under Reconstruction, black American men were able to vote freely in the South, with this right being protected at gunpoint by thousands of federal troops. For a glorious few years between the late 1860s and the late 1880s, America saw not only blacks able to vote in the places they had so recently been in chains, but it even saw black U.S. Senators, black state governors, and black state legislators. This changed in 1877 when a contested presidential election led to Northern Republicans ending Reconstruction by withdrawing federal troops from the South in exchange for their guy getting the presidency. Even after 1877, African Americans clung on to some vestiges of their former political power and rights up into the 1890s, by which time Southern whites had retaken political power in all the states of the former Confederacy and began implementing the apartheid-style political and economic system known as Jim Crow. Jim Crow lasted the rest of DuBois's adult life, not even showing so much as a crack in its edifice until well into the 1950s. DuBois died in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, but shortly before its crowning achievements, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

As DuBois's life illustrates, neither victory nor defeat are final in politics. And as if to demonstrate this point further for us, lawless Republican hacks in robes—including three of the six lawless hacks responsible for the Trump V. United States ruling that turns presidents into unaccountable kings and equality before the law into a cruel joke—gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder. 

Resistance isn't just possible when faced with a cabal of insurrectionists and crooks who are urinating on the Constitution from a great height. It is the only moral response and is the duty of every person who loves liberty and values the rule of law and not of spray-painted felons and extravagantly bribed judges who have stopped pretending to care about anything other than their own side's power. 

Featured Image is Dissent is Patriotic, by Joe Flood

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8 days ago
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Democracy Demands Open Borders

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Democracy Demands Open Borders

President Biden’s executive order to limit asylum access to people crossing the US border ignited a rebuke from progressive Democrats and a minor furor on social media: how is this different from Trump’s border policies that inspired so much fear and rage? Biden claims “I will never demonize immigrants. I will never refer to immigrants as 'poisoning the blood' of a country. And further, I’ll never separate children from their families at the border.” But in the same speech Biden says that “if the United States doesn’t secure our border, there is no limit to the number of people who may try to come here, because there is no better place on the planet than the United States of America.” 

This, following a long history of restrictionist policies and rhetoric, betrays a zero-sum understanding of immigration and of America itself. There is some “limit” to the number of immigrants beyond which current Americans must defend their better way of life, and “the good will of Americans [is] wearing thin right now.” This closed border thinking views immigrants as presumptively suspicious and, in large numbers, threatening. 

The truth is that MAGA is right about Democrats and open borders. The deepest values any true Democrat holds point ineluctably toward open borders and freedom of movement for all people. We as Democrats must stop cringing from this core truth, and we must stop kowtowing to anti-immigrant rhetoric that only serves reactionary causes. Only an open border is consistent with freedom, democratic government, diversity, and racial justice.


In a very real sense, migration just is freedom. We move across borders to choose where we live. We move to meet and mingle with the people we’d like, to be with family and friends or to make new friends and join new families. We move to work in the jobs and careers we desire. We move to experience the culture, the cities and the natural landscapes that inhabit our dreams. In short, we migrate to live the lives we want to lead. Migration is choice, self-determination, and self-authorship.

This is all the more true in the case of refugees fleeing oppression. Enslaved blacks struck for freedom by fleeing to the north. European Jews fled Nazi death camps, and were all too often turned away by proto-MAGA antisemites in America, to our everlasting shame as a nation. There is no more powerful image of freedom in recent decades than the joyous destruction of the Berlin Wall, which had confined millions of Germans in unfreedom with its concrete, barbed wire, land mines, and snipers. Uighurs, Palestinians, Sudanese, Venezuelans and others can attest that the world today does not lack in oppression and horrors from which to flee.

But we make a mistake to draw a line too sharply separating “merely” economic migrants from refugees and asylees. Natural disasters, destitution, and decrepit political institutions can smother freedom as surely as repression and violence. And refugees are necessarily also economic migrants, who must repair their often shattered financial condition and pursue work in their new country. Differentiating between refugees and “ordinary” immigrants only incentivizes politicians and officials to cynically define the conditions of asylum ever more narrowly.

Consider what it takes to stop immigration. There are no gentle ways to deny entry, detain, or deport. Barring entry to a country means forcefully compelling a person to return from whence they came. Closed borders erode civil liberties even for citizens: federal border enforcement agencies have arrogated the power to search anyone within 100 miles of any US border—about two out of three people—without a warrant. As long as our borders remain closed, even under administrations who don’t conspicuously delight in pornographic cruelty, we will be confronted with images of separated families and drowned children.

Detention is incarceration—literal, physical unfreedom. If we are uncomfortable imprisoning human beings without trial and for victimless misdemeanors, then we should be outraged when armed agents of the state throw people into cages for the “crime” of crossing a border to shape and improve their lives.

Deportation rips an individual away from their lives and forcefully ejects them from society. Dreamers, immigrants brought to the US as children by undocumented parents, make an especially sympathetic case because they didn’t immigrate of their own volition. But all immigrants—documented and otherwise—have lives, families, friends, communities, careers, obligations, bills, plans, and projects associated with their homes. The human connections that make Dreamers so sympathetic are common to all immigrants, and their forceful severance is always devastating to the human beings involved. Deportation ultimately consists of men with guns frog-marching a fellow human being onto a plane and dumping them in a place they would prefer not to be, and may even fear. Banishment and exile are not freedom.


Americans rebelled against the British crown with the demand, “No taxation without representation.” It was self-evidently unjust that taxes and other matters of law could be imposed on people who had no say in their composition. When legislation affects our lives and welfare, we deserve some voice in the matter.

But what voice does the immigrant have? The strong, violent arm of government bears down far more harshly on the crosser of frontiers than do any taxes or ordinances. But the immigrant cannot vote to influence the forces that so profoundly shape their life. In our electoral discourse we take no account of the immigrant’s manifest desire. We poll citizens who have no skin in the game about how much immigration should be tolerated. How much, as if immigrants comprise a formless mass, as if each immigrant is not a distinct person with unique dreams. 

But every immigrant has already voted in the most profound possible way—with their feet and their lives—in favor of their chosen country. Every immigrant is a vote for America. Every deportation is a vote against America.

Democrats rightfully rail against the Senate and the Electoral College because they violate the basic democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Republicans since the Civil Rights Movement have schemed to gerrymander and election-rig Black Americans out of political power. But non-citizen immigrants are completely disenfranchised, no chicanery even necessary. Immigrants, despite living among us as Americans in all but legal status, are in a similar situation as women before suffrage, or Black Americans before the fall of Jim Crow. Such a profound asymmetry in power demands courage and unwavering commitment from Democrats to dismantle. 

Racial justice

Racial justice is incompatible with closed borders. It’s clear enough that white supremacy animates the MAGA mission to close our borders to immigrants from “shithole” countries. Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was exactly what it said on the tin: a ban on Muslim and/or Arab immigrants. MAGA threatens public peace and our democratic form of government to forestall the “Great Replacement,” the conspiracy theory that Jews are coordinating the systematic replacement of white people in America and western Europe with black and brown foreigners.

But MAGA white supremacy is hardly unique. American immigration was first restricted in the nineteenth century for the explicitly racist purpose of excluding immigrants from China. Constricting the American border to target certain races or nationalities—Mexicans, Haitians, Arabs—for exclusion and to privilege access for whites and Christians has been the norm throughout our history. 

It is, of course, possible to carefully massage and prune the language of border policy to be fastidiously “colorblind” so the racism is merely systemic and not evident beyond the shadow of a white man’s doubt. But Democrats are not obligated to play make-believe as if they were on the MAGA Court. The closed border has been and will only be the ally of white supremacy. Efforts to degrade and destroy racism on which Democrats have prided themselves since the Civil Rights Movement will come to naught as long as they affirm the unquestioned right of the government to detain, deport, and discriminate against immigrants and people who look like they might be immigrants.


In affirming the principle of closed borders, of “border sovereignty”—that the individual has no freedom of movement that the state must respect—Democrats cede the narrative to the MAGA worldview. We concede that moving across frontiers is an inherently suspicious act and immigrants inherently suspicious people. 

But this is alien to the Democratic vision of what America is and can be. We celebrate diversity not merely as an ideal but as a firm, visible fact. People from different ethnic backgrounds, different religious traditions, and different cultures can and do live together in close proximity and in peace and prosperity. People who look different, dress differently, eat differently, and pray differently can live together, dispersed as well as in overlapping communities. This makes America richer, stronger, and livelier.

This is no mere fantasy. American cities from the California coast to the Atlantic seaboard, from the industrial Midwest to the deep South, are living, breathing centers of boisterous diversity and cultural and economic dynamism. Like so many features of American politics, the apparent hostility to immigrants is a product of our lingering undead antidemocratic institutions, such as the Electoral College, the Senate, and an artificially shrunken House of Representatives. These privilege white folks and empty land over the diverse, heavily urban American tapestry as it actually exists.

Democrats betray our commitment to—our faith in—diversity when we condone shutting down the very mechanism which produced our diversity. If Democrats would have America be the multihued, polyglot cosmopolis we advertise on our yard signs and bumper stickers, then we must condemn closed borders. We must press the case for open borders and freedom of movement. 

Essays like this usually include facts and figures to allay the concerns ordinary people—the denizens of midwestern diners and rural Americans—have about immigration. Immigrants don’t increase crime and they don’t take away jobs and they don’t lower wages and they don’t bankrupt social services and they do integrate and they do enlarge the economic pie. These aggregate facts are easy enough to confirm if you’re curious. But the essential truth is that immigrants are simply human beings, with all the foibles, frailties, passions, and brilliances to which our species is heir. We should not single out those humans we call immigrants for higher (or lower) expectations because of some accident of their birth. We are Democrats, and we are against that kind of thing.

Instead I will close by showing how in welcoming immigrants with open borders and open arms, we affirm a patriotic American tradition.

Her Right Foot

When Emma Lazarus penned The New Colossus, the poem we associate with the Statue of Liberty, she bestowed upon the nation a new Founding document to accompany the new monument.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

America’s most iconic monument is a statue proclaiming world-wide welcome. The Mother of Exiles welcomes not only the rich and powerful, but pointedly the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. These words and the Statue of Liberty herself have so impressed themselves onto the civic religion of America that they rival “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” Our most deeply held ideas about who we are as Americans are that we fight for freedom and against tyrants, that we are willing to risk the blood and unity of the whole nation in order to liberate those held in bondage, and that we lift the lamp of welcome beside our golden door of liberty.

The New Colossus is well known. Less well known is its sequel, written in the form of a children’s book by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris. In Her Right Foot, Eggers alerts us to the fact that the right foot of the Statue of Liberty is upraised, her heel lifted off the pedestal, broken chains close by. She faces southeast, outward to the world, and she is on the move. Why?

If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, if the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still? Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest ... In welcoming the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free, She is not content to wait. She must meet them in the sea.

Look to the Statue of Liberty and act. Break the conventional chains of closed borders. Defend the right to move freely across borders. Welcome all who would become Americans and fight for their right to do so. Defend, shelter, and advocate for the immigrant with all the fire and passion you can muster. This is our commitment as Democrats and as Americans. Throw open the borders and break the infernal locks. Free them all.

Featured image is Liberty Enlightening the World, by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi

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36 days ago
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Only One Candidate For President in 2024 Has Made and Will Make a Mockery of the Law

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Only One Candidate For President in 2024 Has Made and Will Make a Mockery of the Law

Taking their cues from Trump, every prominent Republican politician (with the exception of Larry Hogan) now regurgitates the same lines about the former president’s conviction on 34 counts of falsifying business documents. Ask a dozen elected Republicans about last week’s guilty verdicts and a dozen different voices will echo back that the rule of law is a farce now.

Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise: “Today’s verdict is a devastating defeat for any American who believes in the critical legal tenet that justice is blind.”

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley: “This ‘trial’ has been from beginning to end a complete and total sham, a mockery of the criminal justice system, and one of the most dangerous abuses of our political process in American history.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: “In America, the rule of law should be applied in a dispassionate, even-handed manner, not become captive to the political agenda of some kangaroo court.”

“Political prosecutions like this are unprecedented,” they shout. “Anyone else would never have been found guilty for forging documents to cover up the hush money payment they made to hide an affair,” they cry! After all, it’s been eight years since 2016 already — plenty of time to forget all of those “lock her up!” chants.

Over the past few years of Biden’s America, conservative politicians and intellectuals have contorted themselves into some especially strange knots. They now simultaneously call for regime change and an end to liberal neutrality while crying wolf whenever a member of the in-group faces potential legal consequences. They remain always fearful that Biden is the leader they so want Trump to be.

But for good and for ill, the Biden administration has chosen to wage its battle for the soul of America solely in the sphere of democratic politics. Elected by a margin of less than 100,000 votes in 2020, and currently flagging in the polls, unlike his predecessor Biden has been remarkably reticent to use every available lever to secure his re-election.

Trump may have eventually faced legal consequences for his rampant illegal behavior (we won’t know what the sentence is until July) but it took more than two years after he left the White House for him to be indicted for the first time. As a reminder, that’s more than two years after Trump marshaled an assault on the Capitol building that almost ended in the deaths of members of Congress and his own vice president. Biden evidently wasn’t turning the screws on Attorney General Merrick Garland, or any state level prosecutors, to charge Trump as soon as possible.

When states’ attempts to remove Trump from the ballot under the 14th Amendment were shot down by the courts, Biden just said “it’s fine.” He certainly never stumped for that ragtag campaign, or openly made the case to the American public that insurrectionists like Trump should be constitutionally barred from running for public office.

In The New Republic, journalist Ken Silverstein recently detailed a group chat, “Off Leash,” started by private warmonger Erik Prince and containing hundreds of business leaders, politicians, and former members of the military. One member, CEO Scott Freeman, called for the group to “apply all tenets of warfare internally against the many enemies living among us.”

In the sort of illiberal, Hobbesian state that Biden’s critics dream of, every member of that group chat would be punished for threatening the dominant regime. But none of them will ever see any consequences. Beyond just that, companies run and owned by Prince and other far-right extremists, like Elon Musk, will continue to receive lucrative contracts from the federal government while they plot to overthrow it.

Rather using every tool in their toolbox, the Biden administration has instead adopted Trump’s flagship policies, hoping to win over marginal voters and Nikki Haley supporters. Just look at the new round of anti-China sanctions (once Trump’s much-maligned trade wars) or Biden’s executive order squashing asylum seekers’ hope of having their case heard in the US (once a stark sign of the Trump admin’s inhumanity).

The conservatives’ post-verdict cry that the real decision will be made in the ballot box, not the courtroom, has already been quietly accepted by the Biden administration. They will publicly defend the decisions made in the courtroom, of course, but the White House has largely failed to treat Trump as an extraordinary threat to the American political order. No jaw dropping extralegal measures have actually been taken, no glass has been broken in case of emergency.

If the Biden administration isn’t shredding the Constitution, if Democrats haven’t truly crossed the Rubicon, then why are conservatives complaining so vociferously? To quote Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell of the Know Your Enemy podcast, “what are they giving themselves permission to do?”

Well, while conservatives decry the Biden administration’s supposed political purges, they’re planning to cleanse the civil service of the insufficiently loyal. Every accusation of illiberalism, of political persecution and legal warfare, borders on proof positive that conservatives are planning something similar.

For one example, conservatives have taken to calling prosecuting Trump for the crimes he committed “lawfare.” Surely that term would be much more aptly used to describe the laws in states like Texas which deputized private citizens to file lawsuits against abortion providers before Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Oh, Biden was too radical when he called MAGA Republicanism (not even the whole Republican Party) an “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic”? It was the “most vicious, hateful, and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president” according to Trump? I guess he should know, as the man who pledged to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” God forbid a president hate his political opponents and divide the American people.

The Trump campaign, and the candidate himself, have hardly been shy about their plans to deport tens of millions of immigrants Trump accuses of “poisoning the blood of our country.” As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has pointed out, in practice this would almost certainly be “an indiscriminate roundup of anyone who might appear to be an immigrant.” And bless your heart if you think the second Trump administration would really try to spare American citizens. 

Trump has already pledged to issue an executive order overturning birthright citizenship, a constitutional guarantee under the 14th Amendment. During a second Trump term conservatives would assuredly continue trying to make American citizenship synonymous with support for Trump.

In the wake of the 2020 election, Claremont Institute research fellow Glenn Ellmers wrote in the American Mind that “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” The distinguishing factor between Americans and fake Americans? Not immigration status, he argued, but whether they voted for Trump.

If you aren’t a Trump voter, if you somehow decided to pull the lever for Joe Biden, the argument goes, you aren’t a real American. And only real Americans should get to cast votes that matter.

The Texas Republican Party’s new platform calls for all statewide elected positions to be awarded to whoever wins a majority in the majority of counties. 64 people voted in Loving County in 2020 (90.9% for Trump). 1.64 million people voted in Harris County (56% for Biden). If the Texas Republican Party platform was enacted, Loving County and Harris County would both have the exact same amount of say in who becomes governor.

While conservatives decry the prosecution of Trump for the crimes that, again, he very much committed, they are continuing to conspire against that most basic tenet of American democracy: one person, one vote.

The Biden administration so far has refused to challenge long-standing norms, whether that be the shrine upon which we place the Supreme Court or the customary reticence to prosecute political opponents. If Trump is elected in November, his second administration won’t be so cautious.

Featured image is Two's company, three's a crowd! by Udo J. Keppler

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41 days ago
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Contributing to the Liberal Project as a Writer: A Primer

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Contributing to the Liberal Project as a Writer: A Primer

Let us say that you, a typical reader of Liberal Currents, are worried about the rise of illiberal politicians and parties across the world. You have read the extensive coverage of what a likely Trump second term would look like, grounded largely in his words and the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025. You are, perhaps, anxious that the polls show the current race to be a toss-up. And of course, globally, the far right has made significant gains, to say nothing of the influence of outright authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping.

You, like me, are not a head of state of any nation, nor a mover and shaker in the circles of power. You’re just a guy, who reads political media and intellectual magazines, and much more than that, you read posts on social media, and perhaps post yourself. The Republic of Letters once served as a crucial nexus for the advancement of Enlightenment ideas. Where then does our contemporary Republic of Posts fit into the defense and advancement of the liberal project in our times? What role can a writer of words play, be they an anonymous social media account or a high profile columnist at the New York Times?

In a recent essay, Adam Gopnik seems to ask this question about books in particular, but can’t quite seem to decide on his answer. He praises Robert Kagan’s Rebellion for “relevance” but notes its lack of “contemplative depth.” Alexandre Lefebvre’s Free and Equal, a more meditative work, though “excellent as a spiritual exercise,” is “scarcely more likely to get us through 2024 than smoking weed all day.” Lefebvre’s book, alongside Daniel Chandler’s Liberalism as a Way of Life, fails to provide “any real study of the life and the working method of an actual, functioning liberal politician.” This is rendered confusing by Gopnik’s concluding remarks that Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism has aged well by comparison, given that this work is no more a study of concrete political tactics than the rest.

Gopnik is not alone in being unclear in what exactly it is he wants from a piece of writing on liberalism. Often enough the authors themselves lack a sense of what they are attempting to achieve, an uncertainty quite apparent to their readers.

A piece of writing can correct common errors or advance a bold new understanding; it can delight and entertain or provoke. A skilled writer can accomplish multiple objectives in a single piece of writing. The range of what can be accomplished in writing in general is too great to enumerate, and indeed we should not even try to set limits on it, any more than we ought to try to set limits on art in general.

For those writers attempting to advance the liberal project, however, we can be more picky. Some general points can be made about the core aims to choose among for a given piece of nonfiction writing

I will discuss writing along a spectrum of generality and abstraction, from the manifesto on one end, with its abstract list of principles, to the plan of concrete, specific actions, on the other. Works in the large middle range of the spectrum can in general be said to provide useful interpretative frameworks. Thus we can divide the relevant public writing into four broad categories:

  • Fiction
  • Statements of values at high levels of abstraction, such as manifestos
  • Interpretative frameworks, providing generalizations from empirical foundations
  • Specific proposals, be they policies or actions

In what follows, I will focus on non-fiction, but by no means should this be taken to discount the persuasive power of fiction.

Movement building

In her insightful exploration of why some movements succeed, Samantha Hancox-Li highlighted the “inside/outside strategy” developed by the LGBTQ movement.

The movement had two components. The first was the outside component. This was protest, die-ins, the AIDS quilt—dramatic public acts that worked to raise awareness of the issue and create a sense of urgency—that something must be done. The inside strategy was more boring. It was the people who would show up at city hall at 3pm on a Wednesday to explain the specific policy changes they wanted to regional hospital management.  Presentations to the FDA explaining the ethical calculus behind allowing AIDS patients to access experimental medicines. White papers and pocket protectors, speaking the language of policy and evidence. "Something must be done?  Here is something you can do."

Hancox-Li argues that the inside component fails when they “are oriented around maintaining in-group cohesion” rather than at addressing the real problems that real politicians must address in order to “do something” in response to a successful outside component. Left unsaid is that some strategy for “in-group cohesion” must be pursued; we must simply make sure that it is not done at the expense of a viable inside component. In a world  in which “neither horizontalism nor hierarchy works” as a movement strategy, where movements as such tend to be “a chaotic mess of different factions, groups, and ideas,” other tools for coordination and a degree of group cohesion must be employed.

Many of these will be cultural in nature rather than organizational. Much as it wounds my pride to admit this as someone who almost exclusively writes nonfiction, the bulk of this cultural work is almost certainly performed through art and fiction rather than essays and philosophy books. But these latter do have their place as well.

At the high end of abstraction, the manifesto or list of principles is mainly aimed at an audience who largely agree with the author already. Sometimes everyone has a sense of what they want but a muddled sense of why it matters; clarifying the values at stake can be a valuable service to provide. Sometimes the author may feel that a reprioritization of values is in order. Moreover, it need not only reach fellow travelers; a well written statement of principles can serve to persuade detractors to join up, or at least to moderate their views.

The broad function of these works is to promote group coherence through shared commitment to publicly articulated values. This helps to produce a base of people who can be mobilized at key tactical moments by the more traditionally organized wings of the movement, laying the groundwork for a successful outside component.

Tools of analysis

Hancox-Li’s essay is neither a list of specific policies to implement in particular jurisdictions nor specific actions to take in order to navigate the politics of enacting policy. Instead, it is an analysis of successful movements in general. It is an interpretative framework that can help readers better understand specific movements for themselves. And it draws for examples on cases where success or failure is understood in liberal terms: criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, and the YIMBY movement.

Hancox-Li insists that “Functional inside strategies are grounded in reality.” From a pragmatist point of view I would reframe her statement as follows: an inside strategy has to provide politicians, administrators, and judges with actions they can actually take within their institutional and political constraints. Insiders must be able to answer the questions such authorities will actually have to ask.

In order to provide actions and answers of that nature, insiders must be able to understand the roles performed by politicians, administrators, and judges; the institutions, political and social systems of which they are a part.

Writing that is closer to the specificity side of the abstraction spectrum will focus on these institutions, this political system, this society. Perhaps an essay about the political dynamics of a particular state, or the structure of the legislative process in a particular city council. Hancox-Li’s essay is naturally more general than that, talking about movements overall. I have written about the strengths of representative democracy in general or the weaknesses of non-democracy in general, but also about America’s federal government specifically and how it might be reconfigured. The third essay is certainly much more specific than the first two, but none approach the level of a specific plan of action in a specific political moment; all are relatively zoomed out to the level of a system and how to understand the manner and significance of its operations.

Good interpretative frameworks are prerequisites for formulating more specific plans of action, at least if we are to avoid being merely reactive and if we wish to draw generalizable lessons from specific successes and failures. By explaining how real-world systems and situations either promote or suppress liberal values, the stakes are clarified to a greater degree than might be possible by discussing those values in the abstract. Finally, by demonstrating that liberal values can be anchored in a realistic analysis of the world as it is, such writing may persuade detractors or people on the fence about liberalism or aspects of it to either join up or moderate their views.

Authors of this kind of writing need to have invested time familiarizing themselves with the relevant empirical social science work for their topic. Although reading about the specific systems and societies they wish to write about is the most important step, investing in a foundation of comparative social science knowledge is very valuable for avoiding a very provincial sense of the possible. Along those lines, knowledge of history is also very valuable—indeed most of the real world examples of social systems in operation simply are historical—but it is important not to generalize too much from very specific events and circumstances.

This kind of writing is in many ways the most challenging. It is relatively easy to list off your values in the abstract or even to call for some specific action. Providing a general framework that allows the abstract to be used to judge the merit of the specific takes a great deal of time and thought.


In theory, very specific and practical public writing is meant entirely for those who can act on it; policymakers, for example. In practice, it is typically written for a wider audience than those who are likely to see it through, and therefore can be seen as at least partially focused on influencing the conversation rather than merely providing a blueprint to be implemented.

A book which provided Gopnik’s desired “study of the life and the working method of an actual, functioning liberal politician” would still be largely food for thought; a framework to use by people to devise specific actions for “actual, functioning liberal” public officials today. A strong recent offering in this field is Maxwell Stearns’ Parliamentary America. In it, he proposes three specific amendments to the US Constitution, complete with the text of the amendments themselves and detailed explanations of how they operate. Yet if all Stearns sought was just to make a proposal, he needn’t have written a book in the first place. Instead, Stearns builds up his own interpretative framework, grounded in an analysis of American social, political, and media history, as well as comparative political science. This serves as the basis of his justification for his proposal, both in its intended effect on the system and in the political practicalities of whether or not it could realistically get ratified. It combines an incredible amount of the general and the specific in a relatively concise work; it is, in short, a valuable contribution, even if its proposal is never picked up.

Closer to the point of action are the numerous think tank white papers aimed very much at promoting a particular inside strategy. And of course, activist organizations often circulate plans to march at a particular time or attend a particular town hall. Even with our wide-open media landscape and our low barriers to political participation, this end of the spectrum is still in general the purview of organizations, whether they be relatively decentralized and local chapter based, or large hierarchical nonprofits.

Their success, however, largely hinges on being able to mobilize a large movement beyond their formal membership to pursue some outside strategy, and on the existence of competent insiders supporting that movement.

The Republic of Posts

There is a long, long debate about the extent to which persuasion in general and public writing in particular are capable of moving events in the world; the extent to which they matter from a purely practical perspective. In a 2010 iteration of this debate, Malcolm Gladwell dismissed the role of social media in coordinating mass protests in Iran. In response, Clay Shirky noted that “the best practical reason to think that social media can help bring political change is that both dissidents and governments think they can,” something that Linor Goralik echoed in her discussion of managing the Resistance and Opposition Arts Review.

A year after the Gladwell-Shirky debate, the Arab Spring occurred and seemed to vindicate Shirky. But Gladwell had already misunderstood the history on which his argument rested. It is undeniably true that the Civil Rights movement and others like it relied heavily on organized coordination among groups of people with close ties to one another. But what this misses is that their success depended ultimately on the response they elicited from the larger society. In a thoroughly illiberal and ethnically polarized society, the very same well coordinated and peaceful actions that carried the day in America can simply be taken as a threat and stoke intergroup fears, often leading to a violent and repressive response rather than a sympathetic one. The reason that ABC’s broadcast of the events in Selma on March 7, 1965 led directly to the passing of the Voting Rights Act is that a national supermajority of Americans reacted with horror at the violent repression that local Selma officials were willing to visit upon the marchers.

It is easy to draw a line between action such as mass protest and mere words. But all outside strategies such as protests are acts of rhetoric. What matters is the manner in which they are received, and to be received well requires the cultivation of support for particular values and ways of looking at the world. Whether protesters are seen as threatening or as sympathetic depends a great deal on the preexisting cultural environment, something that is primarily influenced by cultural products—such as writing. To extend Shirky’s observation, it is not just that dissidents and governments think that social media and public speech in general matter; every single non-democracy censors public speech, and indeed the first step away from democracy is in nearly every case the implementation of a censorship regime.

The written word matters. Here at Liberal Currents, we aim to publish works that help to cultivate the community of liberal fellow travelers, as well as to put specific policies into discussion within that community. In our own small way, we hope to move us to a world that sees Black Lives Matter as an inspiring movement to be paired with a package of concrete and effective criminal justice reforms, rather than the dangerous threat that unhinged conservative outlets would have us believe. We seek to dispel the cloud of prejudice and fear that has led to a century of reactionary immigration policy. We want, in short, to do our part to create a more liberal America, and world.

And we want you to be a part of that. You can do so by sending your pitches to, or by supporting those who do.

Featured image is Death found an author writing his life, by E. Hull and C. Hullmandel.

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How Movements Win

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How Movements Win

On May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin knelt on the back of George Floyd's neck until he died. The murder was recorded by numerous bystanders on cell phones. Protests began within hours in Minneapolis; within days, they had spread across the United States and into other countries. Depending on how you count, the protests would last for twelve months and involve between fifteen million  and twenty-five million American citizens. The goal most closely associated with these protests could be heard chanted at any rally: abolish the police.

It is now not quite four years since the murder of George Floyd. The protests have faded away. The police remain unabolished. Their record of brutality and murder appears to have been little affected; if anything, the main long-term result has been a large-scale work slowdown on the part of police, leading to increased violence and murder in the communities they purportedly protect.

The George Floyd protests are not the only high-profile failure of a high-profile mass movement in recent years. Occupy Wall Street energized people across the country to overthrow the dominance of the 1%; more than a decade later there is little material change to show for it. Tahrir Square put millions in the streets and threw out Mubarak; fewer than three years later Mubarak's carbon-copy successor Sisi was again entrenched in power.

All of these movements were in practice "horizontalist," lacking leaders, organization, discipline, hierarchy. In his If We Burn, Vincent Bevins blames their failures on this fact (reviewed and discussed in these pages here). In Bevins' telling, the lack of defined leaders and organizations allowed these movements to be co-opted by better-organized and more hierarchical right-wing organizations; in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood and shortly thereafter the military. In America these movements were not so much co-opted as outlasted—police and police unions, notably, were able to simply weather the storm of George Floyd and outlast any pressure for change.

This suggests an answer to the problem: "organize like they organize."  If the right wing has disciplined and hierarchical organizations, we simply need to have our own, capable of beating them over the long haul. "Articulate our goals, organize our members, impose costs on the powerful until they accept our demands."  And here is the first core claim of this essay: this won't work. Modern liberal democracies—with free speech, reasonable prosperity, relatively non-corrupt government, and ubiquitous social media—make it easier than ever for anyone to participate in politics. Paradoxically, it is this very freedom that makes it harder than ever to create disciplined political organizations.

As Mancur Olson notes, hierarchical organizations can only function when they can selectively provide rewards or punishments to their members based on compliance with the organization's goals. But this is hard to do in a modern liberal democracy!  The river of money pouring through crowdfunding sites like ActBlue has created a source of funding that parties can't control, access to party organs like publications and printing presses means little when anyone can talk to everyone for the low cost of free, and if I want to leave your reading group and form my own, it's not like you can stop me—it's a free country, after all. Witness the near-total inability of the Democratic Party to bring wayward senators like Joe Manchin or Krysten Sinema in line: there is simply nothing the party could plausibly threaten them with. The same is true of nearly any political organization today.

But wait. Didn't I just say that police effectively organized a disciplined collective response to the George Floyd protests?  They did—but they were able to do this because police are a union, and unions have unusual features that enable them to act like disciplined political organizations. Closed shop unions can selectively distribute benefits to their members, whether that's employment or legal representation. However, the structure of unions inherently limits the scope and goals of such organizations. The inherent limitations of their membership allows them to exert a great deal of pressure over their employer on specific subjects, while also tending to limit their political goals to the specific conditions of their company or industry. Thus, while unions remain a core part of progressive movements, they are unlikely to form a general model for organizing and action.

The inside/outside strategy

Hence the dilemma: if neither horizontalism nor hierarchy works, what are we left with?  The dilemma is not insoluble. Recent times are not just a record of failed movements. Rather, our age has included some tremendous successes in progressive organizing. Consider the LGBTQ rights movement. Even in my own childhood, "gay" was a ubiquitous slur. Gay marriage was illegal. AIDS was a death sentence. Today, despite vicious Republican attacks on my community, queer rights are a fact of life, enshrined in law and popular opinion. Whatever the queer rights movement did, it worked. There are lessons to be learned.

The overall strategy was best theorized by ACT/UP. They called it the "inside / outside strategy."  The movement had two components. The first was the outside component. This was protest, die-ins, the AIDS quilt—dramatic public acts that worked to raise awareness of the issue and create a sense of urgency—that something must be done. The inside strategy was more boring. It was the people who would show up at city hall at 3pm on a Wednesday to explain the specific policy changes they wanted to regional hospital management.  Presentations to the FDA explaining the ethical calculus behind allowing AIDS patients to access experimental medicines. White papers and pocket protectors, speaking the language of policy and evidence. "Something must be done?  Here is something you can do."

It is worth emphasizing here that even the outside component of this strategy was fundamentally based on persuasion. The queer rights movement did not "extract concessions" from a hostile straight elite. There are, to be blunt, not very many of us, and we are often poor and marginalized. We do not have some mass base that could bring society to a halt; indeed society spent a century grinding us down without really being too bothered about it. If we threw every one of our bodies onto the gears of an uncaring society, all we'd achieve would be some bloodstained gears and a society that kept on churning without us. Rather, the various colorful protests—and every individual act of being out and proud—served to persuade straight society that we were neither a threat nor a danger, but simply ordinary people like everyone else, looking to live our lives freely and with dignity.

And this all worked despite the fact that there was no one running the place. Yes, there are a few high-profile LGBTQ organizations such as Human Rights Watch, but they are not exactly a disciplined party that organizes and directs The Queers everywhere. Rather, the LGBTQ rights movement has since Stonewall been a chaotic mess of different factions, groups, and ideas. Discipline and hierarchy were not necessary.

The fact that a movement shaped like this succeeded is not an accident. Rather, it worked because it synergized with certain core features of modern liberal democracies. Under conditions of liberalism, strategies of extraction and coercion are difficult to implement. The state is very, very durable, and it will outlast you. The state is not composed of a brittle, exclusionary minority, ready to shatter at one blow from the disenfranchised many. Material conditions are pretty good and few people want to die for the revolution. There is a great diversity of people, identities, and opinions, not some waiting-to-be-woken-to-action 99% of homogenous thought and feeling. Fundamentally, the LGBTQ rights movement succeeded because our pitch was pretty good, and it convinced most people. The success of our movement can't be disentangled from the fact that in fact we are not rapists, perverts, and pedophiles, and that what we wanted was simply the same rights as everyone else.

Police abolition is a weak inside strategy

Now for an unpleasant assertion: this is why the George Floyd protests failed. Their cause was righteous. Their outside component was extremely strong. Their inside component was not. In the heat of the moment, in the face of a roaring crowd, they convinced a supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council to commit to abolishing the police. But once that moment had passed, once they were no longer standing at the head of a roaring crowd but sitting in some fluorescent-lit conference room, they could not persuade the council to go beyond empty slogans and actually abolish the police. The outside component was as potent as anything we've seen in decades. But the inside component could not get the movement over the finish line.

What police abolition failed to marshal was the kind of evidence that could convince the very boring ordinary elected officials on a city council to pull the trigger and abolish their police departments. They could provide stories and dreams and hopes, but little in the way of evidence that abolishing the police would lead to those dreams and not directly to vigilante killings, as it very much did at CHAZ/CHOP, and as it very much has in most other modern states that have, for one reason or another, lacked a functioning police force. The inability—and unwillingness—of police abolitionists to answer very basic questions about murder and rape, to move immediately to whataboutism did not serve them well when it came time to actually wield power.

Another unpleasant assertion. The George Floyd protests failed not because of events on the streets of Minneapolis, but in the halls of the ivory tower decades earlier. Ideas are not distilled from the air. In many cases, they are developed over decades by intellectuals and academics laboring in obscurity. The idea of abolishing the police was not invented on the streets of Minneapolis in 2021. The theory of police abolition was developed over decades by intellectuals and academics such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariam Kaba, and others. These authors have done the world a profound service in making plain the abuses and failures of the American police-prison system. But they also gave us a program for change that proved unsatisfactory when it came time to enact it.

Ideas are not simply determined by material conditions. Police abolition is hardly the only solution to the problem of police brutality that has ever been proposed. There are always choices to be made, theories to be weighed, ideas that win out and ideas that lose. To return to the example of the queer rights movement, the push for marriage equality was not foreordained; there were thinkers in the movement who wanted to push for marriage abolition—notably, Michael Warner, but others as well—but these ideas lost in favor of ideas about normality and equality.

Building a good inside strategy

Hence the second core claim of this essay: if you want to win, you need to have a good inside strategy, and you need to develop it ahead of time. If you want to be ready to seize the moment when it comes—if you want to not waste a crisis—then you have to have a strong inside component ready to go when that crisis arrives. The question therefore is: what makes for a good inside strategy?  And what makes for a bad one?  The answer is simple, if not easy. Functional inside strategies are grounded in reality. Non-functional ones are oriented around maintaining in-group cohesion. Two examples illustrate the point.

Police abolition succeeded in capturing the imagination of leftist intellectuals not because it was sound policy based in evidence, but because it served wonderfully well to maintain in-group cohesion. Embracing the most radical position was a way to keep oneself in good odor with the rest of the crowd—and no one wanted to be a filthy liberal who hadn't gotten on board with the radical cause du jour. Thus, questions about empirical matters—like how best to reduce police brutality and corruption—were transformed into questions of group standing and moral character. If you weren't on board with the most radical proposal, then obviously you were in favor of police brutality and the system exactly as it exists.

Another way of maintaining social cohesion while retreating from reality is simply to equivocate on core terms and slogans. "Abolish the police" itself has gone through this process rather dramatically since 2021, with the slogan undergoing a complete trifurcation of meaning. When the moment came to actually seize power, police abolition had to finally directly confront the question "what do we do about the rapists and the murderers; what happens when a guy with a gun just goes house to house raping women."  The hard-core police abolitionists will advise you to lie back and think of the revolution. This answer is unsatisfying to most, including most police abolitionists. The more liberal among them simply redefine abolishing the police—witness, for instance, the bizarre case of San Francisco City Supervisor Hilary Ronen claiming that she is all for abolishing the police, before immediately explaining that she just means funding social services more. The more radical instead will be quite explicit: "after we abolish the police, me and my friends with guns will simply run lynch mobs enact communal justice."  By ignoring the material contradictions between these three very different policies, by hiding that disagreement under the single now-multivocal phrase "abolish the police," in-group cohesion is maintained—but only by retreating from practical politics, retreating from any situation where the material contradictions would rapidly come to the fore.

These are examples of inside strategies that serve only to maintain group cohesion instead of confronting reality and standing ready to use power. Reality means being explicit about the intended policies and providing empirical evidence to suggest that they would in fact achieve your intended goals and change things for the better. In a functional movement, the ideas that win out do so at least in part because they are based in reality, and the ideas that lose out do so at least in part because they are not.

This sounds very much like I am proposing a vacuous and individualistic solution for a systemic problem. "Just choose truth!  Don't give in to group dynamics!  Kill the populist in your heart!"  It's therefore worth dwelling on the example of, of all things, modern science. "Science" is not some transhistorical force of nature. Science as we understand it is an idea and an institution that was developed relatively recently. Crucially, it is a self-organizing institution, one not imposed from above by some governmental authority but created by associational group dynamics that crossed the lines of existing institutions and even national borders and all too often stood opposed to existing organizations. It is not an institution that lacks group dynamics—as a former academic, I can promise you that. The great achievement of modern science was coupling group prestige and esteem with success at measuring and understanding the natural world—not perfectly or invariably by any means, but the achievements of science since 1543 speak for themselves. This was a choice by scientists to esteem not those who parroted the words of the dead masters but those who grappled with the world. Likewise, it is a choice on our part to esteem those who provide real solutions and grapple with the difficulties of reality rather than those who stroke our egos, our fantasies of righteousness and power, fantasies in which there are but a few villains oppressing the righteous many, and if we could but identify and punish those villains, utopia would ensue. This is satisfying in a story, but not based in the reality of contemporary America.

In the end, there's no one here but us, no outside force that could discipline and structure our political activities. Society has no outside, and we are condemned to self-governance. If we do it well, it will be because we choose to do it well.

I want to close with some reflections on another ongoing progressive movement, the Yes In My Back Yard movement. Like most contemporary movements, YIMBY is functionally leaderless, undisciplined, and nonhierarchical. Like most contemporary progressive movements, it is reliant on the scribbles of obscure academics from decades back. Unlike many contemporary movements, YIMBY has little to nothing in the way of the traditional trappings of a mass protest movement. You might say we have been insidemaxing. But YIMBY has its own outside component—for instance, the increasingly common practice of simply attending city planning meetings and recording what actually said by the people blocking new housing is, in its way, just a way of raising awareness of the problem. But more bluntly, we were not able to manufacture our own moment. The ever-increasing scale and scope of the housing crisis did that for us. More and more people started to say something must be done. When that happened, we were standing ready with a playbook of proposals and studies to show that this is something that can be done—this is something that you, specifically, councilwoman can do right here and now, and that it will almost certainly make things better for everyone. It turns out that ideas matter. It turns out that having a good inside strategy—works.

The application of these ideas to other contemporary movements is left as an exercise for the reader.

Featured image is City Council Hearing on Opioid Crisis 3-12-2018, by Jared Piper

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Why Movements Fail

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Why Movements Fail

Vincent Bevins' If We Burn asks a simple question: why did the mass protest movements of 2010-2020 largely fail to achieve their objectives?  Bevins is not referring to American protest movements—not the Women's March, not Black Lives Matter nor George Floyd, but rather to other protest movements around the world: the Arab Spring, the Hong Kong 2019 protests, Turkey's Gezi Park protests, the 2013 Brazil protests, Euromaidan, and still more besides. These protests mobilized and energized millions of people in each country to take to the streets and demand a better world. What they got instead was counterrevolution—Sisi, Bolsonaro, Poroshenko, the iron fist of the Communist Party closing down ever harder. Bevins' mournful book is an attempt to understand how this happened—and how we can do better next time.

Let's start with some of the basics of the major episodes. Going through the details of each would be impossible here; instead, consider Egypt and Brazil as paradigms.

In January 2011, these protests began as a reaction against the police brutality of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak's regime. But riding the wave of the Arab Spring they quickly exploded in size, and demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square, a central square in Cairo. After weeks of conflict with the security forces, Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, and the military agreed to an election. In June 2012, the liberal factions split the vote and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president (94). After Morsi attempted to ram through an Islamist constitution, a second wave of protests broke out in June 2013. In July, Morsi was deposed by his own minister of defense, Fattah el-Sisi, who would go on to establish himself as military dictator in the Mubarak mold.

An eerily parallel series of events would play out in Brazil almost immediately afterwards. On June 6th, 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) began a series of actions intended to prevent a 20-cent rise in the municipal bus fare in São Paulo (116). To their surprise and delight, this kicked off a broad-ranging national protest movement which would pull millions of people across the country onto the streets and, by June 17, storm the halls of Brazil's parliament (132). The government would accede to MPL's demands on June 19 (136). But the protests would not stop. Left-wing President Dilma Roussef's popularity would crater, going from 57% prior to the protests to 30% afterwards (147). Her popularity would never recover, and she would be impeached in 2016, paving the way for the election of far-right radical Jair Bolsonaro in 2019.

Bevins extracts from these and a dizzying array of other worldwide protest movements a surprisingly common repertoire of contention:

  • Occupying central squares of symbolic importance
  • Staged or natural symbolic moments for media consumption and reproduction
  • Fighting with the police
  • Property damage
  • Blocking of roads and highways

Now reader this may all seem perfectly natural to you—"what else could a protest consist of?"  But that is just a reflection of how embedded this specific repertoire is in our culture. Consider what it does not include:

  • Targeted assassination
  • Armed occupation of government buildings
  • Mass murder
  • Strikes
  • Boycotts
  • Writing letters
  • Seizing the means of production

You'll instantly recognize that these tactics are more closely associated with other traditions of political action—whether that's right-wing, liberal, or classically Marxist—which should just highlight more clearly that the mass protests Bevins analyzes shared a distinctive repertoire of contention and were drawing on a distinctive theory of politics more broadly. So what was that theory?

Bevins calls it "horizontalism." The term comes from Argentina's 2001 protests (43), but the idea goes back much further—Bevins traces it to the New Left of 1968 (17). This movement—animated by the questions of civil rights and the war in Vietnam—was equally a reaction against prior leftist organizations. These organizations were "Leninist" in that they endorsed "democratic centralism"—the idea that the central party's views would be decided democratically, but once decided would be enforced hierarchically. In practice of course there was precious little democracy to be found in the Communist Parties of those years. The New Left saw these organizations as themselves autocracies in miniature, hierarchically organized, captured by the Soviet Union, and not different in kind from the other authoritarianisms they opposed. Hence: horizontalism. No leaders, no hierarchy. Each person individually free to assent or not, group decisions only made unanimously (and therefore typically after hours and hours of discussion). Horizontalists can have organizations—they just tend to be extremely small. Only a dedicated group of close friends and comrades can make every decision by consensus (25, 201-202). It's worth quoting influential theorist Marina Sitrin at some length here.

These movements emerged in response to a growing crisis, the heart of which is a lack of democracy. People do not feel represented by the governments that claim to speak in their name. The Occupy movements are not based on creating either a program or a political party that will put forward a plan for others to follow. Their purpose is not to determine “the” path that a particular country should take but to create the space for a conversation in which all can participate and in which all can determine together what the future should look like. At the same time, these movements are attempting to prefigure that future society in their present social relationships.

But horizontalism is at most a principle of organizing; a repertoire of contention is a set of tactics. What of goals—what of strategy?  What theory of change ties together these components?  There's one model lurking nearby that seems like it might be an answer: "we impose costs on the regime until they give us what we want."  Call it coercive or extractive or concessionary or adversarial, the basic idea is simple enough. The trouble is that a horizontal leaderless organization would of necessity struggle to coordinate the kind of action necessary for this theory—and in practice very much did struggle to control the protests they unleashed. Only a disciplined, hierarchical organization has the capacity to turn protests on and off as a result of policy negotiations. This particular problem was on vivid display in several of these protest movements

Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) initially launched a highly targeted campaign with a well-defined goal (to stop a proposed fare increase for São Paulo's public transit); similarly Euromaidan began with a small protest against President Viktor Yanukovych blocking the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement. Both of these small groups touched off immensely larger protests, which they were totally unable to control.

But there's a deeper point here. These groups were not even interested in negotiating or accepting concession to their demands. To quote Sitrin again: "The fact that the movements do not have the conquest of the state as their goal does not mean they do not want countless things changed."  In Brazil, even when city officials invited Movimento Passe Livre to negotiate with them over the state of public transit, they refused—and this points to the deeper issue (119).

None of these large-scale movements were interested in negotiations or concessions. The truth is that these protest movements were largely not operating with that theory of change. Rather, Bevins argues that they were operating with a teleological theory of change. Whether Whiggish or Marxist or Fukuyamist, teleological theories of history hold that history has a natural direction to it—and that that direction is a good one. As Bevins evocatively puts it, "Many people in my generation [] thought that if you simply gave the thing [history] a kick, it would come unstuck and move in the right direction" (259). This explains the oddly unspecified and open-ended nature of the repertoire of contention discussed above. Bevins' summary (258) is pithy:

1: Protests and crackdowns lead to favorable media (social and traditional) coverage
2: Media coverage leads more people to protest
3: Repeat, until almost everyone is protesting
4: ???
5: A better society

The idea was simply that these tactics will create disruption and more importantly create spectacle, the spectacle would create more protest and more disruption, and then the implacable structural forces of history would take over—no need for any Leninist vanguard party—and move society forward.

Bevins astutely notes the importance of modern media, social and otherwise, in this conception. Before photography, before newspapers, the idea that you could change a national government by having a big gathering in one city square would have seemed nonsensical. It is only in the capacity of these gatherings to be seen by millions around the country that they could possibly have the power supposed.

The funny thing is, this worked—sort of. These mass protests did unstick history, at least for a little while. The trouble is that history did not then automatically lurch into utopia. Rather, right-wing forces seized these moments and seized power—Sisi in Egypt, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine, Xi in Hong Kong. This is the fundamental horror that Bevins confronts—how did the Arab Spring go sour?  How did this moment of tremendous hope and liberation and real power lead to—more of the same old men in charge of everything?

Bevins has an idea. As both Mayaro Vivian (a leader in MPL) and Fernando Haddad (the once-mayor of São Paulo) both said to Bevins, "there is no such thing as a political vacuum" (263). Organized, violent right-wing forces—comfortable with hierarchy and violence—were willing and able to seize power. Meanwhile left-wing movements and leaders, consumed by horizontalist ideology, were unwilling to take power even when it was offered to them. The tactic of protest—>spectacle—>protest succeeded at mobilizing mass numbers of people, and it succeeded at creating the space for change. But it did not succeed at grasping the moment it had created. In one bizarre but illustrative example, the Brazilian protests became defined by the "Five Cause," issued by the hacker collective Anonymous (139). Except the "hacker collective" in question was just a guy who bought a Guy Fawkes mask, and the causes were just a grab-bag of different ideas he'd found on Facebook (146). Bevins quotes Marx's famous aphorism: "Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented" (143). Meaning can and will be imposed on mass protests no matter how chaotic and contradictory and leaderless they are.

So what is to be done?  Here Bevins begins to run out of steam. He gestures vaguely towards revolutions that change the "real structure" of society. He waves his hands at "Leninist" organizing, an embrace of hierarchical organizations. But there's a problem with this. The decline of hierarchical associations is not some problem specific to the left, but rather an endemic feature of modern society. As Mancur Olson notes in his The Logic of Collective Action, organizations can only be hierarchical at all when they can selectively distribute some benefit (or punishment) to their members based on compliance with that hierarchy. (This is why, for instance, so many political parties have been tightly linked with political graft and patronage systems at one point or another.) Of course, this reward does not always need to be monetary—access to party organs like newspapers or printing presses was once central to nascent political organizations. Here again we see the central importance of social media to the modern political landscape: the barriers to entry for political "competition" have never been lower. Anyone can talk to everyone for the low cost of a free social media account.

We can see this exact dynamic at work in the stunning weakness of American political parties qua hierarchical organizations. Witness the Democratic Party's near-total inability to enforce ideological conformity on its own members—or the Republican Party establishment's total inability to stop the Trump takeover in 2015 (indeed, his takeover was so complete it's easy to forget that Jeb was their man).

It doesn't matter whether Lenin-style "democratic centralism" is desirable or undesirable: it is impossible. Try to enforce ideological conformity on dissenting members of your organization and they'll just go form their own new one. It's not like you can stop them.

So is horizontalism simply an inevitable result of structural forces? I think not. There's something deeper here, something that can easily go missing in these dry political-economic analyses of protest movements, yet which is nevertheless central to understanding them. Bevins brings it up repeatedly: the experience of protest. The experience of protest is easy to overlook or ignore or subsume to some other more familiar mode of human experience. But consider the language Bevins repeatedly turns to to describe it:

"It felt like something had shifted in the nature of time itself. They had cracked open the structure of reality. ... Everything was possible."  (66)
"an escape from the alienation of everyday life" (113)
"deep, unmediated connection with another human being" (112)
"[She became] part of this giant, euphoric ball of people growing and pulsating and reshaping reality. Part of History." (249)

Protest is an ecstatic experience, in the properly religious sense: a bolt from the heavens that cleaves you from the shackles of mundanity and lets you see past what law and custom and power make "impossible" and touch the truth of a better world. In Fouche's evocative phrase, these ecstatic experiences allow you to "[hear] the Lord of Hosts marching through history and, in the footfalls of almighty God, [hear] that what was truly impossible has become intrinsically, if not readily, possible. What was available only in hypothetical rawness has become a real possibility that can be seized." The truth we moderns have forgotten is that ecstatic experience—religious experience—is a rare but very important mode of human consciousness.

But. This ecstatic experience is kind of like the blazing sword from a fairytale: powerful and essential, but dangerous to the soul. Power pretends to inevitability; ecstatic experience shatters the lie—and much of that power, in the process. But you can get addicted to the feeling, you can protest for protest's sake, without any further end. As one MPL activist would admit to Bevins, "the fight was the point," not the policy change it produced (286).

This underlies the allure of horizontalism. Horizontalism promises power without accountability, revolution without compromise. Give History a kick and it'll take care of the rest. "I'm not doing anything, it's the impersonal forces of history/the nation/class struggle." You can focus on that feeling you had out on the streets, everyone living and breathing and moving as one joyous whole—without ever having to have the moral courage to articulate what that better world would actually look like or how we might get there. Don't worry about the brutal comedown when the millennium once again fails to arrive, don't think about how reality will never match up to the dream because that's not a thing reality can do.

Horizontalism is not the solution to our problems. Horizontalism is a trap. And I want to emphasize rather strongly that this is not some academic point. As an unnamed Egyptian revolutionary puts it: "In New York or Paris, if you do a horizontal, leaderless, and post-ideological uprising, and it doesn't work out, you just get a media or academic career afterward. Out here in the real world, if a revolution fails, all your friends go to jail or end up dead" (270). We are therefore confronted with a critical problem: without either teleology or hierarchy to support progressive political movements, what can?  A real answer to that question is beyond the scope of this essay. But I want to at least gesture towards one.

Bevins' scope prevents him from reflecting on Volodomyr Zelenskyy's election in Ukraine in 2019 and the country's decisive turn towards the West. In the long run, that small group of elites and intellectuals shivering in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti got precisely what they wanted—and they got it by persuading a large majority of the nation to agree with them. The man who sparked it all off, Mustafa Nayyem, is now the chief of the State Agency for Restoration and Infrastructure Development. Show up and be ready to rule. Show up with a pitch that persuades. Show up with a dream—but show up with an answer too.

Featured image is You are glorious. Euromaidan 2014 in Kyiv, by Ввласенко

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167 days ago
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