In the wake of the historic Women’s March on Washington, a cascade of new marches are planned for the coming months, including a march for scientists, a march for LGBTQ+ issues, and a march for climate change.
Professional activists and longtime civic leaders are surely thrilled at all this new participation. It is inspiring to see so many new voices activated. But marches are ephemeral. A hundred marches will never alone result in policy or social change. Instead, marches must be conduits, like a riverbank channeling a flood, directing social momentum into actions that can directly result in policy and social change.
So the questions for organizers of all these marches are:
+ How can we funnel this new energy into direct policy and social change?
+ What should we compel marchers to do the day after the march?
Sustaining civic energy depends on building groups with strong social cohesion. The most successful movements are those built on a shared sense of purpose, shared value systems, shared goals, shared struggle, and time spent together. In short: group cohesion.
Labor unions have been among the most politically powerful social change groups. Unions have been instrumental in bringing about some of the most important human rights expansions in the nation’s history, including passing the fair labor policies and social services initiated at the beginning and middle of the 20th century. This is at least in part due to the strong group cohesion unions are able to achieve, given that their members often work in the same jobs or even in the same buildings, share goals and a sense of purpose, and, often, share value systems.
But groups with strong cohesion are not enough. We must build something capable of challenging the Republican Party in the halls of power. And it is the Republican Party – not Trump, not homegrown Nazis – that ought to be our main target of opposition over the coming years. It is the Republican Party – in Congress, in governor’s mansions, in state legislatures – that is bent on killing healthcare, denying climate change, dismantling the federal government, accelerating wealth inequality and wage stagnation, destroying the environment, denying racism, banning safe abortions, privatizing Social Security, and eliminating Medicare and Medicaid, and on and on.
The only entity capable of challenging the Republican Party is the Democratic Party.
Whether we like it or not, the dynamics of our two-party political system make it impossible for any other entity capable of achieving a platform or decision-making power to challenge the Republicans except the other major party. But for the last thirty-five years, the Democratic Party has been a losing party. The 1980s were dominated by Reagan’s neoliberal tyranny that introduced radical right-wing policy into mainstream politics. Far from challenging the Reagan revolution, the Democratic Party of the 1990s embraced it and institutionalized many of the ideas the Republicans made mainstream, like rolling back government participation in society, gutting social services, cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and deregulating the financial sector.
By adopting Republican policies as their own, the Democrats saw themselves as clever operators triangulating and co-opting Republican strategy. They ended up passing a right-wing agenda and calling it a victory. Meanwhile, with the election of George W. Bush in the 2000s, Republican politicians moved ever rightward to distinguish themselves from the center-right Democrats. They waged a wasteful war, halted action to prevent climate change, increased wealth inequality with tax cuts for the rich, cut spending on social services, and rolled back environmental regulations. And the Democrats, for the most part, went along with it all.
The policy centerpiece of Obama’s administration, the Affordable Care Act, was a Republican-inspired policy in the sense that it closely resembled Romney’s health care policy in Massachusetts and included a major market-based handout to insurance companies. The Democratic Party has held it up as a historic achievement rather than a deeply flawed compromise. While ACA is preferable to no healthcare reform, it is far from the social progress achieved by FDR’s New Deal or Kennedy’s New Frontier or LBJ’s Great Society. Instead of launching his own grand progressive project, the Obama administration continued the center-right, neoliberal technocracy of the Democratic Party, with elite, corporate-friendly domestic policy and hawk-friendly foreign policy.
The Democrats have been on the defensive for nearly forty years, and what has that defensive stance achieved? Today, of the 98 state legislative chambers in the country, Republicans control 67. Of the 50 governors in the country, 16 are Democrats, 33 are Republicans (and one independent). The Republicans enjoy a majority in the US House and Senate, now control the White House, and may soon dominate the Supreme Court for years.
The best way to harness the massive new energy funneling through these marches is to rebuild the Democratic Party and go on the offensive.
This doesn’t mean we register marchers to vote as Democrats. Most of them probably already vote Democrat. Instead, it means organizing these marchers to help rebuild the Party from its foundation. We must turn it once again into a vehicle for propagating our values and turning them into law, rather than a tool by which to compromise our values for cheap political points. The challenge to define the Democratic Party’s values began in earnest during the primary battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. It is far from over. If we maintain the center-right values of the Clinton side that we have been following since the 1980s, we will continue to lose. The Sanders side values may not be exactly what we need, many may be outdated, simplistic, and limited, but they’re closer to where we should be heading.
A few years ago when I was visiting my small hometown in Northern Michigan, I attended a talk given by a US Senator. The median age of those attending the talk? About seventy-five years old. The Democratic Party chapter in my town is devoid of young voters (and by “young” I mean not retired). My town is not alone in this.
March organizers ought to be inspiring young people and new civically active citizens to get more involved in their local Democratic Party chapters. These new participants ought to host Democratic Party meetings, volunteer and fundraise for the Party, run in elections to lead the Party, take over leadership of the Democratic National Committee, and then run in elections to represent their districts and states at every level of government. Fundamentally, the problems we face now are at their heart a crisis of government. If we want a better one, we need to build it.
Local Democratic Party chapters can develop strong group cohesion, they can unify diverse citizens, they can offer a shared sense of purpose and direction, and they can propagate shared values. With a new generation of citizens taking the helm of the Democratic Party, we can change the stagnant culture long dominating the Party. United, with strong national leadership, a reinvigorated Party can challenge the Republicans at every level and every branch of government. With this new civic energy directed into a restructured Party, we can once again champion social progress and win.