Don’t leave politics to the politicians
Standing up for your beliefs works
It’s funny sometimes to observe pundits’ amnesia and watch them contradict themselves. In the wake of last month’s historic Women’s March and on-going nationwide protests against Donald Trump’s immigration order, many liberal pundits seem to suddenly forget what they said about movement politics and mass protests just a few months ago.
In an about-face, they are now in awe of the sheer force and multitude of protesters and unequivocally sing their praises. Jonathan Chait, a prominent blogger for “New York Magazine,” wrote a piece called “Don’t let anybody tell you the marches didn’t matter” and tweeted “…the Women's Marches were more than a statement but a major event that changes the political landscape.”
Solid take, except that he dismissed the very concept of protests and marches just under a year ago. Back then, in the heat of 2016’s Democratic primaries, he bashed Bernie Sanders for believing “a sufficiently large crowd outside [Mitch] McConnell's window would make him support campaign finance reform.”
To be fair, Chait is probably right that a protest outside Mitch McConnell’s window in itself would not suddenly persuade him to back campaign finance reform. However, when Sanders talked about bringing millions of people to Washington, he was really talking about a new- or rather, old- approach to politics that is centered on popular political power and mass political mobilization.
Under this framework of grassroots politics, or in Sanders’ own words, “Political Revolution,” millions of protesters in Washington would only be a manifestation of the progressive movement’s power. The real struggles, meanwhile, take place locally across the country 24/7, with workers organizing for higher labor standards; progressive candidates challenging conservative Democrats in primaries; constituents flooding Republican legislators’ town halls and phone lines demanding accountability and working class people turning out to vote en masse. Indeed, when a political movement like this emerges, Mitch McConnell’s window in all likelihood could only be that of the minority leader’s office.
Of course, pundits, journalists and liberal politicians alike laughed at this idea at first. To them, politics is just another elite sport. Its players include only those who rose through the ranks of meritocracy and are supposed to know better, and it takes place solely in the hallowed halls of Congress, fancy Floridian retreats with big-money donors and comfortable reception rooms of K Street lobbying firms.
The people, what an annoyance, just come out and vote for us every two years and leave us everything else. Forget about participatory democracy and don’t ask for what you’re never going to get. We’ll take good care of you by making deals with Mitch McConnell. Be realistic. That’s how this thing works anyway.
This attitude was quite pronounced during an illuminating exchange between Chris Matthews and Bernie Sanders last year, during which the latter proposed bringing out millions of people to Washington to pressure the Republican Congress into backing progressive legislations.
Pressing Sanders on his method, Matthews repeatedly demanded: “What evidence do you have this has worked for you…what evidence do you have you can do it?” Well, just as Sanders responded, this is pretty much the only method that meaningful, lasting changes ever took place.
It is how the labor movement established labor standards like the minimum wage and 40-hour work weeks. It is how the suffragette movement won women the right to vote. It is how the Civil Rights Movement tore down segregation and Jim Crow laws, and it is how the LGBTQIA movement secured marriage equality.
None of these changes happened because Washington politicians woke up one day, sat down with one another, and suddenly decided to do the right thing. No. They happened because the people- yes, the ignorant, “unrealistic” people- organized and struggled for them.
When they go out and protest the injustices and talk to their neighbors, they create public support for their causes. When they engage their elected representatives and turn out in high numbers to vote, they make sure their voices are heard.
As Congressman Keith Ellison, a top contender to be the next DNC chair, said when addressing a labor rally outside of Trump hotel: “politicians see the light when they feel the heat; so when you guys bring the heat, that’s when we are going to win!”
Of course, if you live in D.C., read Politico all day and study court intrigues in the White House and on the Hill for a living, you might not see it this way. But Washington does not reflect the real America and career politicians are never the real change makers.
Notice how Hill Republicans are standing up to Trump’s immigration order and backtracking on “Repeal and Replace”? Congressional Democrats didn’t make this happen. Protesters and thousands upon thousands of angry constituents did.
So yes, grassroots organizing and mass mobilization are messy and time-consuming, but they work and are in fact the only way to create real change. In the era of Trump, it is especially important to remember this and not let the same politicians and operatives who lost the election to Donald Trump be the official face of “the resistance”. You are the resistance. Your voices and actions matter.
And finally, always stand up for what is right and never let pundits tell you that your demands are “unrealistic.” After all, what did they say about Trump becoming President of the United States?
Frank Yuwen Chen is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service and is a columnist for The Eagle.