Power Matters

Social movements, both left and right, abounded during the Obama years. And while some faded, others flourished.

By Todd Gitlin

Tagged Barack Obamablack lives matterCharles KochDavid KochOccupy Wall StreetProteststea party

There are three essential differences between the social movements of right and left during the Obama years. One is money. The second is media. And the third is seriousness about winning and holding power, a necessary condition for both winning and holding power.

The most impressive movement on the right in decades, not counting the apocalyptic evangelical Christians (with which it partly overlaps), the Tea Party, is, first of all, wealthy. This wasn’t always the case; it was in some ways, at first, diffuse and grassroots, unified (if at all) by opposition to government—government mortgage assistance, government-financed health care, taxes, etc., and overarching, the devil’s own Barack Obama. However, quite early on, the Koch brothers jumped in to help, along with with their tax-hating, deficit-hawk, union-busting, climate-change-denying Americans for Prosperity (AFP). To their minds, the essence of the movement was simply to make the rich richer. The Tea Party proceeded to pig out on the assistance of these very deep pockets, which supplied training, intelligence, and assistance in crafting policy ideas. Soon, AFP was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into right-wing Republican campaigns, not least of which included paying for staff in 17 states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina, both of which went hard-right in no small part because of AFP’s anti-union campaigning.

The AFP plays the long game. That the Koch brothers were unable to find a suitably thrilling candidate to represent them in the 2016 Republican primaries does not detract from their importance in the current political constellation. Their intertwined goals, after all, have been to weaken the federal government and to bring corporate power to bear on democratic components of state government, not least through voting rights restrictions drawn up by the Koch-financed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They should be popping a lot of corks nowadays. Even though the Kochs were suspicious of Donald Trump, their New Hampshire director, Corey Lewandowski, was his first campaign manager. And their common interest was clear: in the short run, demonizing Hillary; in the longer run, trashing regulation and lowering taxes for the wealthy. To the Kochs and their allies, the ravaging of public-sector unions was not only a victory in itself for savage capitalism, but a nifty way to undermine Democratic funding.

By contrast, Occupy Wall Street scrounged for nickels and dimes. The United Federation of Teachers, National Nurses United, and other unions donated meeting space, sleeping bags, and tents—in thousands of dollars, not millions. So far as I know, their largest contribution came from Vermont’s Ben Cohen (he formerly of the eponymous ice cream), who reportedly donated $65,000 for a sort of “Batmobile” to project progressive messages onto surrounding buildings. Black Lives Matter, for its part, has no known big donors. Community organizations are not comparably favored by big foundations. And however rancid runs the crackpot right’s fervor against George Soros, there is no left-wing equivalent to Americans for Prosperity. The closest thing is the Democracy Alliance, a liberal ensemble whose investments go toward conventional political techniques, not the funding of organizational infrastructure that lasts past the next election.

It is perhaps of little surprise that the Tea Party was, from the start, well connected to the media galaxy—not least Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which promoted their rallies gratis. Even more, by many accounts, the Tea Party was inspired by a CNBC commentator, Rick Santelli, who in February 2009—one month into Obama’s first term—took to the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange to denounce Obama’s proposal to help homeowners refinance their mortgages. There is simply no equivalent on the left. To call MSNBC a left-wing equivalent of Fox News is a bad joke. Where on Fox are the equivalents of “Morning Joe” or the anodyne Andrea Mitchell, Brian Williams, and Chuck Todd?

The final important distinction is that, from early on, many Tea Party groups set out to conquer political power, and did rather well at it. The AFP’s money took over the Tea Party and turned it into a party-building and party-changing institution. The AFP and other Koch brothers enterprises, are, as Theda Skocpol has written, “parasites who depend upon the continued life of their host”—the Republican Party. The Koch network, she explains,

has been primarily focused on pulling the GOP policy agenda to the right by manipulating careers as well as money….AFP not only engages in electioneering and lobbying, but also offers very attractive career opportunities to Republicans. AFP is virtually a parallel political party set up to the right of the GOP, especially in the states below the level of the self-enclosed Koch directorate. AFP state directors very often come from GOP staff positions and, after working for the Kochs, go on to hold even more important posts directing Republican campaigns or running legislative or executive staffs that set policy agendas.

In the midterm elections of 2010, the Tea Party supported 138 Republicans running for Congress. As of June 2016, they numbered 31 Representatives, one in eight House Republicans. Plainly, the groups in the Tea Party orbit have no aversion to politics as such; to the contrary. Once in the House and Senate, they sponsored a “Freedom” caucus in the Republican Party that was instrumental in the overthrow of John Boehner as House Speaker and in his replacement by Paul Ryan. No ambivalence about power here. Meanwhile, the Tea Party Patriots claim to hold “webinars every Sunday evening except on holidays with hundreds of local leaders participating, discussing how to move forward on our issues…along with dozens of Monday conference calls with local tea party activists during the congressional session and countless teletownhalls featuring various national leaders.” They backed Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries, but once he crashed and burned, they swallowed their pride and threw in their lot with Trump—anything to crush Hillary Clinton. Since the election, though, they’re crowing: “Our values prevailed.” We’ll see.

Occupy Wall Street, in stark contrast, endorsed no one and ran no one for office. Famously, it made no political demands. This rejection of conventional politics was, for its anarchist core, a matter of principle—to those in the inner movement, politics was nothing more or less than a dirty charade orchestrated by a corrupt establishment. Of course, many veterans of the Occupy movement went on to join other movements, including fossil fuel divestment, and the Bernie Sanders campaign. And the movement no doubt contributed to popular debates on inequality and corporate power.

As for Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to say what its impact has been on police practices, though many public officials have seemingly been influenced by the discussions that emerged since the movement’s inception. In 2015, as Clare Foran wrote in The Atlantic:

Obama called for an end to transfers of certain kinds of military-style equipment from the federal government to police departments. In December, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced a new effort to improve its tracking of fatal police shootings. And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake both fired their police chiefs amid protests over police brutality.

However, the only prominent BLM figure, Deray McKesson, to have entered politics—running in the Democratic primary for mayor of Baltimore—finished sixth, with only 2 percent of the vote. McKesson has 630,000 Twitter followers, and won 3,077 votes. This was not a sign of political organization, this was a sign of its absence.

This has been partly because, from the Sixties onward, the activist left has been suspicious of political power. Leadership is often anathema, horizontal is better than vertical, spontaneity is better than structure, hierarchy is the work of the devil, steady organizational work a drag. As for media, the right has Fox News, Limbaugh, Hannity, Alex Jones, and the rest of the booming heads; the left has the fragments of identity politics, toothless letterhead “coalitions,” the “people’s mic,” and finger-wiggling at Occupy general assemblies—but, at best, a knack for changing the discourse, as for example, with Occupy’s “We Are the 99 percent” and BLM’s, well, “Black Lives Matter.”

Changing the discourse does matter. For contemporary breakthrough examples, consider “build a wall,” “extreme vetting,” “get the government off our backs,” “China’s eating our lunch,” and nothing Hillary Clinton said loudly or consistently enough. But do left-wing activists offer the promise of organization on the ground in a way that can become a gravitational force? Some Sanders activists, like Becky Bond and Zack Exley, believe the Sanders movement can serve as a template for big organization through the mobilization of volunteers. Whether a model built around a presidential candidate can be extrapolated to leadership training to win local and state office is another matter. There’s no precedent for it in American history.

To be sure, Exley worked hard in the grassroots effort for Howard Dean in 2004, and then again for Bernie Sanders in 2016. But neither effort, let it be noted, elected anyone. Can there be any doubt, therefore, that power matters?

In 2017, according to the historian Gary Gerstle:

Prior to the 2010 election, there were only nine states in which the GOP controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature. In 2017, there will be 26, more than four times what the Democrats will have. If the Democrats had not seen a loss of almost 1,000 state-level representatives since 2008, Hillary Clinton may well have had a sufficiently robust political machinery to put her over the top in key swing states.

Talk about voter suppression in many states.

Think about the Republican-dominated redistricting that in Pennsylvania, in 2012, put 13 Republican Congresspersons in the House (total vote: 48.77%) as against 5 Democrats (total vote: 50.28%).

Leave Comey’s intervention, and Assange-Putin’s, out of account. And still:

Think about Hillary Clinton losing Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by margins less than Jill Stein’s totals.

Movements generate energy, but energy unchanneled scatters into the air. Elections are not won with righteousness, but with arithmetic. How many times must this refrain be sung?

Read more about Barack Obamablack lives matterCharles KochDavid KochOccupy Wall StreetProteststea party

Todd Gitlin is the author of, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. He is a Professor of Journalism and Sociology and Chair of the Ph.D. Program in Communications at Columbia University.

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