the resistance

The Democratic Party Is Wasting Its Grassroots Energy

Photo: Victor Twyman/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

When I was young, my activist friends and I would often speak of something we called the movement. “This will be good for the movement,” we’d say.” Or, “They do good movement work.” He was a “movement lawyer”; she, “an artist dedicated to the movement.” I assumed this expression referred to something real: international socialism, maybe, or trade unionism. I wasn’t sure. Surely, I thought, there must be a movement out there to which we all belonged, and to whose future victory our meager efforts — as environmentalists, labor organizers, anti-war activists — were contributing. But that wasn’t so. Later, I realized the term was more like an incantation, the expression of a wish that all this various activism might one day coalesce into something worthy of the name. For the time being, “the movement” was a linguistic gesture with no referent, a half-ironic shibboleth with which we signaled our belonging and our willingness to nurture each other’s precious illusions and beliefs. Playfully we toasted “to the movement,” unsure whether our cheeks reddened out of shame at our cynicism or our sincerity.

I’m reminded of these episodes when I contemplate the sorry state of the Democratic Party. No doubt, the Democrats’ gruesome midterm prospects are, as the social scientists say, overdetermined. Midterms tend to punish the president’s party anyway, and basically every other input is bad: Biden is unpopular, inflation soars, and Putin’s war has pushed food and fuel prices even higher. It’s a bad hand, and none of the plausible last-ditch, Manchin-approved policy interventions or executive orders seem like aces.

But surveying the landscape from a few hundred feet higher, another striking deficit looms into view: There appears almost no grassroots energy or urgency of any kind on the Democratic side. After four years of fever-pitched marching and movement-building by anti-Trump resistors, antifascists, Democratic Socialists, and Black Lives Matter militants, the sudden quiet from the country’s left flank has been deafening. Where, I find myself asking, is the movement?

By contrast, the conservative grassroots are ablaze. The parents, pundits, and propagandists behind the “critical race theory” crackdown, and now, the moral panic over LGBTQ educators, have been startlingly successful — not only at creating media spectacles, but at recruiting activists, electing school board members, and passing laws. Anti-abortion measures, meanwhile, sweep the country in anticipation of a possible repeal of Roe v. Wade. And, all along, one-term president Trump has defied political gravity, attracting crowds to his rallies and playing de facto party boss from his spray-tan Tammany Hall in Palm Beach. The right, in other words, is on the march. The left is nonexistent.

In one sense, there is no mystery here: Most of the recent popular energy in American politics has been oppositional, buoying the party out of power. The Tea Party energized the Obama-era GOP just as the Resistance fueled the Democrats in 2018 and 2020. Trump’s elaborately disturbing presidency fertilized a rich movement ecosystem from which several arose. They have dissipated since he left the White House.

It isn’t difficult either to provide a more textured tick-tock of their respective dissolutions. In a Twitter thread, Matt Yglesias provided a partly plausible account of the failure of the women-led “Resistance” to consolidate into a durable movement — faulting, at once, overeager progressives for attempting to supercharge its admirably minimalist strategic goals and overcautious moderates for blanching at its “tactical aggression.” The socialists, meanwhile, sublimated anger over Bernie’s 2016 defeat and despair at Trump’s 2016 victory into a wave of org-building, electing comrades down the ballot and providing a clearinghouse for millennial activism in many U.S. cities. But when Sanders lost for a second time — undone by the superior party discipline of the moderate wing — he proceeded to embrace Biden, largely abdicating his role as an insurgent leader. Sanders may have envisioned a future for the socialist movement as a loyal opposition, but his embittered followers wouldn’t follow him there.

Democratic efforts to capture the energies of the 2020 BLM uprisings were similarly demoralizing for all involved. Mayors made fitful, largely self-defeating gestures at constraining their police forces, while party leaders gave a pathetic half-hug to the movement and tip-toed around its politically inconvenient slogan. The abolitionist critique — that the problem is not merely police departments, but a social order that requires them — was then metabolized by elite liberalism into a surfeit of yard signs, nonprofit donations, and various Robin DiAngeloisms of the board room. (Not to mention a $6 million house for a few of the BLM movement’s most savvy self-promoters.)

Perhaps it couldn’t have been otherwise. You get the presidency or you get vital social movements, but you don’t get both. Well, that may satisfy the political scientists, but if you, like me, want the Democrats to control government as frequently as possible — overcoming the growing geographic bias against them to do so — and when they have it, to wield power to do a whole hell of a lot more for workers, and to stave off climate catastrophe, than Biden has managed, then you may wonder, as I do, whether we don’t need movements that transcend this boom-and-bust cycle. Movements that can mobilize, agitate, and organize even when — especially when! — there’s a chance of using that popular energy to get something done.

But wait. Listen. What is that sound? A growing crowd chanting “movement, movement, movement!” Who is that? By God, it’s the nonprofits!

Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it cannot be denied that nonprofits have taken the place of other civic or party institutions as the site of grassroots Democratic politics. And perhaps no single arena of American life is more replete with talk about “social movements” than the nonprofit sector. “Nonprofits have learned to speak like social movements,” says Daniel Schlozman, author of When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. And the foundations that fund them have learned to love “social movements” too. As an example, Schlozman directed me to an April 20 Medium post from Arabella Advisors, a consulting firm founded by Clinton White House alum Eric Kessler, which advises rich liberals about their political giving. It reads in part: “Movements matter … Donors must be willing to embrace direct-action tactics such as hunger strikes or civil disobedience that bring litigation and reputational risks. They must relax their insistence on measurable outcomes.” It concludes with great fanfare: “The dangers we confront will bring a reckoning, one that will be painful but will also create opportunities to imagine and build a more equitable and resilient society.”

The Marxist in me cannot help but wince at the idea of wealthy consultants advising wealthier elites to fling their money at whatever NGO promises to get the most college kids zip-tied by the D.C. police. Call me cynical, but I have my doubts that liberal billionaires are going to bring about the reckoning we need.

Reading through this and other self-congratulatory accounts of liberal philanthropy from the past few years, I couldn’t help feeling an itch of the old suspicion. When NGOs and their funders invoke “social movements” they seem to do so in the same wistful, self-soothing spirit that I did as a 19-year-old: as a prayer, not a reality. “If you’re your average foundation-funded NGO, you now want to say, ‘I am a social movement, not just a foundation-funded NGO,’” says Schlozman. But if you press down on this assertion, he says, “it turns out it’s all money from Ford and Open Society. And they’re not doing much of anything except talking to each other.”

Much ink has been spilled — by centrist popularists and socialist radicals alike — about the perverting effects of allowing nonprofits to lead the Democratic Party’s left flank. I won’t rehearse those arguments here. But what I do want to say is this: American political parties really are capable of transformational change when they are “anchored,” in Schlozman’s language, by movements. The Democrats and labor did it in the 1930s. The religious right and the GOP have done it since the 1980s. Movements that succeed and grow do so because they are built atop the civic and material association through which communities are already bound. They are not summoned by the wishes of dark money consultants or well-heeled nonprofit executive directors.

And the trouble is, at the moment, the right is doing it better. Movements of the right are reaching deeper into communities, finding people in the places where they already gather, and strengthening the solidarity they already feel for one another — in many cases, channeling it toward cruelty. As Schlozman told me, “the great rediscovery” of people like Christopher Rufo and Ron DeSantis “is that parents know other parents, and right-wing parents know other right-wing parents, and they can talk to each other, and that is a great reservoir of connection to be politicized.”

The civic bonds on which Trumpism is built are often the inheritance of past injustice (as Gabriel Winant once provocatively put it, “Whiteness itself is a kind of inchoate associational gel …”), but they are real. And while the right builds a movement, the Democrats attempt to call one into being — by giving more and more money to insular activist NGOs that speak an alienating language to people in places where they do not frequent, among people they do not already know.

The alternative — and you’ll be just shocked to hear me say this — is the only one that has ever worked. That is, the labor movement: a movement of the left that mobilizes and draws us together on the basis of our most basic associations and material interests. As Tammi and Marvin once put it, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing.”

The Democratic Party Is Wasting Its Grassroots Energy