Written by Wade Rathke
These are contradictory times. The establishment and elites are under attack in countries all over the world, much of it fueled by working class demands and resentments, questions about the value of trade and the devastation of lost jobs, and anger over being ignored and unheard. These are the issues of progressives and unions. These are our people. We are populists in the classic sense of being committed to the best interests of the majority of the people. Yet, this time we are somehow not the barbarians at the gate, but uncomfortably caught on the bridge between these new forces of change while we are standing on the bridge over the moat, even as fortifications in the castle are being strengthened by the supporters of the status quo.
But, status quo, splatist-quo, almost everything we care about seems under attack. Healthcare for more than 20 million people, housing for millions more, urban policy, banking and consumer protections, minority safety and rights, women’s and workers’ rights, immigrant rights, voting rights, public schools, clean air and water, and, oh yeah, the future of the planet and even the semblance of social equality, and, here’s the kicker: that’s not even the whole list. I don’t even want say “war and peace,” because it might give them ideas!
Do we have an offense? Can we muster an effective defense? Frankly, I’m not sure. This is a corporate and institutional takeover, and we don’t even have our guerrilla bands mustered in the mountains yet.
I hear various plans and schemes on the political front, some of which are very intriguing, but almost all of which are some version of tapping the gold mine of small donors that were activated by the Bernie Sanders Campaign. I have a feeling he’s going to want to use his pickaxe for the hard rock of his own resistance in the Senate, making me more skeptical of how many times we can go back to that rich vein.
I’m also pretty convinced that any political superstructure has to be constructed on top of an immense grassroots infrastructure, and I’m not hearing many plans for those desperately needed building projects. The lessons of the Trump victory point to our need to be deeper and more effective on the ground where we have strength, and where too many voted with their feet by staying on the couch. Furthermore, an equally painful lesson we learned is that we need to be organizing in a whole lot of places where we have not been doing the work both in cities and suburbs. These are targets for significant investments in capacity, which, sadly, in this transactional time has become less interesting for many funders, but also for many organizers given the commitment of years in the vineyards required to see the results.
Elsewhere in this issue the argument for a strategic rethinking was made (see Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah earlier), which might include closer partnerships and coalitions between existing networks in order to stretch our existing capacity farther and allow us to deploy our resources more effectively, perhaps even more rationally. The argument has merit, but is unlikely to gain traction, exposing our weaknesses and needs more dramatically.
In working with organizers to potentially map out a campaign to stop predatory contract-for-deed home purchases by lower income and working families (see Macnamara article earlier) one weekend recently in Chicago, I found myself scrolling through the affiliates and location of existing community organizing networks. Contract-for-deed sales are for families with less than perfect credit and less than robust income. Even as I was making the pitch to some of our network colleagues and comrades, I was unsure how many saw this issue as something that intersected their base constituency. Even where there was interest, or least polite civility and sympathy for the issue, there were frank expressions about limited capacity and fears that they were already strained by the need to resist incoming threats. It quickly became clear that the best prospects for a national campaign were likely to be a “coalition of the willing” that included some members of this network or that one and some of the old ACORN state operations where the base was directly impacted along with whatever else we could muster. Would that be enough to win nationally? I doubt it, but perhaps we could win in some states with such a campaign and build upon that until a national victory was possible. Dare to struggle, dare to win, if you follow me.
For all of our moaning and groaning about our disappointments compared to some of our more outlandish hopes for the Obama presidency, eight years with an administration that at least was not coming after us, seems to have left us somewhat out of shape. We’re not in fighting shape. No one got fat and happy, but our infrastructure and capacity was left fallow and relatively unsupported, more about mobilizations and social media campaigns, than boots on the ground and members in the streets. Now that we are called on to protect and defend on innumerable fronts, while trying to advance wherever there is weakness or we can find leverage, we are forced to come to grips with our lack of readiness for these battles.
I would argue endlessly that we have to have a dynamic offense and first strike capacity in these coming years, if we are going to inspire and move our constituencies forward. We can’t win by relying only on defense, especially because with our reduced capacity, we will be picking our battles carefully, which means conceding countless, critical defeats which undermine our credibility and demoralize our people. At the same time, this is the classic organizing problem of expansion versus maintenance. We have to keep what we have, which means maintaining the resistance among other things, but we can’t build power to win without expanding our numbers and the fields of engagement. These are all hard problems without any simple solutions. The only thing that seems clear today is that if the cry is “ready or not,” we’re really not quite ready.
Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).