Midterm wins bought organizing time for pro-democracy forces, but MAGA authoritarianism still menaces US politics. In “Pro-democracy Organizing Against Autocracy in the United States,” scholar/activists Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks map the threat and steps that could help defeat it. Convergence interviewed the two and will be publishing reflections and responses to the report. Bill Fletcher Jr. kicks off the series with thoughts on the particular role for socialists in building the anti-authoritarian front. We invite readers to contribute to the discussion; please query us here.
I found myself watching the Netflix series Babylon Berlin over the last several weeks. Netflix has three seasons of this German-made look at 1929 Weimar Germany. Though technically a mystery revolving around a German police detective, this is a story of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the growing strength of the Communists as well as various right-wing currents within the republic, including but not limited to Nazism. As such, it is chilling and cannot but force a US viewer to reflect upon the growth of right-wing populism and right-wing authoritarianism in the US.
It was within this broader political and media context of the growth of right-wing authoritarianism that I read Pro-Democracy Organizing against Autocracy in the United States (PDOA for short). This is an amazing, comprehensive, and sobering look at what needs to be considered and undertaken in the face of virulent right-wing authoritarian mass movement.
By way of preface, it is important to be clear that the right-wing populist/authoritarian movement that has become energized since 2009 did not appear out of nowhere. The history of the US as a racial settler-colonial project laid very firm foundations for the periodic rise of nefarious movements of the political Right, movements that are regularly racist, sexist, xenophobic and irrationalist. The current incarnation of right-wing populism aims to create a future for the US based on a reconfigured US, something akin to the pre-1912 country, if not being a 21st century version of the Confederate States of America. A neoliberal right-wing combined with a far-right semi-fascist tendency has resulted in the development of what can be understood as a “neo-Confederate” political bloc. This is a complicated and contradictory alliance that shares the objective of establishing a semi-apartheid system in the US along with the suppression of basic democratic rights up to and including the possibility of gutting and redoing the Constitution.
Pro-Democracy Organizing Against Autocracy in the United States takes, as its starting point, the possibility of the successful capture of government by right-wing authoritarian forces. It does not treat this as inevitable, nor does it suggest that all is hopeless should such a scenario come into existence. But it does argue that in order to prevent the success of right-wing authoritarians and undermine a right-wing authoritarian hegemony, there must be a new practice introduced by progressive forces. In sum this includes:
- Building and maintaining a large-scale, multi-racial, cross-class pro-democratic united front
- Protecting, holding and building local community power through alternative institutions
- Building pressure to create splits and defections within the Right
- Preventing, deterring, and strengthening resistance to state security force and/or paramilitary violence.
The paper also suggests specific steps in this direction that include information networks, education and training efforts, international outreach and, interestingly, development of conflict resolution mechanisms for handling contradictions within the broad front.
Rather than reiterate the excellent points raised in the paper, points with which I am largely in agreement, I believe it necessary to focus on the particular role and vision that a socialist Left can advance in our current situation and in building resistance to right-wing authoritarianism.
Clarity on the nature of the enemy
PDOA is unapologetic in identifying the principal enemy at this juncture being what I described earlier as the “neo-Confederate bloc.” To say that it is the principal enemy does not mean that it is the only enemy. It means, however, that strategy must focus, first and foremost, on taking down the principal enemy and that all else is secondary.
There should be nothing surprising in this assertion. Whether in war or politics, one must first ascertain who or what is the main enemy and then figure out the steps—and alliances—necessary in order to bring them down. A failure to attain that clarity can mean a dispersal of resources and, ultimately, failure.
Starting here is critical since there are many forces on the US Left that refuse to identify the neo-Confederate bloc as the principal enemy. They remain obsessed with taking down centrist Democrats or believing that these two opponents are equally dangerous, as if the centrist Democrats are trying to destroy abortion, voting rights and the recognition that the Earth is round. If one cannot identify the principal opponent, the approach elaborated in PDOA is futile.
The need for “B4”—before it is too late
As PDOA suggests as its first point, there is a need for what I would term a “Broad Front Opposing the Right,” i.e., “B4.” The authors suggest that efforts towards such a front need to be started immediately through a series of summits. Let’s step back for a moment, however.
Using the term “broad front” aims to convey both the scale and scope of this project, but also to avoid unnecessary discussions that disarm the Left over whether one is building a “united front” or a “popular front.” In the context of 21st century US, what is being proposed is a “broad” front that has a focus on overcoming and smashing the far-Right, i.e., demolishing the neo-Confederate bloc. PDOA is correct in saying that this must be multi-racial/multi-national and cross-class. It cannot be an alignment of the Left alone nor can it be limited to those who are in total agreement with a left/progressive agenda.
B4 must first of all be defensive in that it is actively opposing the thrust from the far-Right. It is aiming to put the breaks on the neo-Confederate offensive. Thus, the question that must be asked by those trying to bring such a front into existence—which is hopefully the socialist Left and our immediate allies—revolves around identifying who that should include. To answer that, there must be a broad mapping of liberal, progressive and left forces across the US.
There is a prior step, however. The socialist Left and left/progressive forces need to have a convening to ensure that there exists a critical mass of organizations and individuals committed to this path. Building B4 will involve considerable political, organizational and diplomatic work. This core will need to take responsibility for moving the B4 process, though a broader left/progressive configuration will be necessary in order to actually convene a full-blown B4 process.
A socialist Left core that has an analysis of the larger national picture, will need to undertake the diplomatic work involved in initiating the sorts of convenings that PDOA suggests.
B4 needs to be convened by organizations and individuals with a real base
There are too many left and progressive convenings that have involved noted individuals and interested people who have no base. Even a large gathering of people is next to irrelevant if they lack a base. Thus, there is a need for groups such as the Working Families Party, Progressive Democrats of America, as well as a host of state-based and locally based left/progressive groups that have a real mass base to play the leading role in a convening. The socialist Left, through its work in such groups, must fight for a united front orientation and against sectarianism and small-group mentality.
Principles that unite and the need to reject purity
The Right is far better at united fronts/broad fronts than the Left. They make it easy for people to join their mass movements and set very few preconditions. Their assumption, proven over and again, is that they will win people to their overall framework through the course of their work in one of their fronts.
The Left, on the other hand, insists on raising the bar for entry into our various projects. We tend to set purity tests of various sorts and identify why we cannot unite, rather than determining what steps are necessary in order to unite.
B4 necessitates principles of unity that distinguish it from both the neo-Confederate bloc and the Democratic National Committee. This does not mean that it should take a sectarian stand towards the Democratic National Committee. Rather, it must be far broader in content but also in its strategic and tactical approaches. More about that below.
Establish clear strategic objectives
It is one thing to convene a gathering (no matter how difficult); it is another to establish clarity on strategic direction. B4 needs to have a set of strategic objectives in terms of what it seeks to accomplish at the national, state and local levels over the next 10 years. Those objectives, we should note, should not be restricted to electoral cycles. They should aim at winning broad left/progressive power at the national, state and local levels through defeating the Right and presenting a program that breaks with the status quo.
This last point cannot be overemphasized. B4 cannot be about the status quo. While it must be aimed at defeating all attacks on our democratic rights, its thrust must be to expand democracy; a program of consistent democracy. As such B4 must aim to shift US domestic and foreign policies, combatting the Right domestically and globally.
Encourage splits within the Right
One of the most insightful and courageous points raised in PDOA is the need to encourage defections from the neo-Confederate bloc. For many leftists, such an idea is an anathema to our general approach. Yet, in order to defeat our opponents, we must ascertain means of provoking splits within their ranks and demoralizing component parts of their blocs.
To use a strange analogy, I was once engaged in protecting a meeting from the intrusion of provocateurs. The provocateurs showed up and said—openly—that if they had to bust into the meeting, they needed to attack my colleague first and not me. That was a brilliant move aimed at destabilizing the alliance with my colleague and trying to get me to fight less.
B4 must employ a similar approach. That means that there will be Republicans, independents, etc., with whom we have no strategic unity, but with whom we may have tactical unity in opposing the far-Right. Under those circumstances, we must find means for united action or, at a minimum, aim to neutralize them.
And B4 does what?
Left and progressive forces regularly form coalitions and then nothing happens! Usually this is connected with lack of strategy and, specifically, the inability to prioritize. B4 will need to coordinate activities among its constituents; provide on-going information as well as counter the propaganda of the Right; and engage in various campaigns (electoral and non-electoral). This work includes:
- Building up electoral fronts on a state-wide basis
- Mounting electoral assaults or counterassaults against the Right
- Overturning efforts being undertaken by the Right to convene a Constitutional Convention
- Utilizing ballot initiatives in order to destabilize the Right, consolidate progressive opinion, and build base areas in Republican-dominated states
- Constructing social media strategy focused on mobilization and information provision
- Organizing mass mobilizations that go beyond ‘Saturday in the park’ rallies. Specifically, countering mass mobilizations carried out by the Right; building defensive mass actions when the far-Right makes is appearance
- Building legal assistance networks when progressive and liberal forces come under attack, e.g., when rightwing elected leaders move against so-called Antifa elements and BLM elements
- Building various levels of self-defense.
Conflict-resolution within B4 and resolving “contradictions among the people”
So many progressive coalition efforts are undermined by rumor-mongering, miscommunications, and the heightening of contradictions until differences result in splits. We have little successful experience in internal mediation with an aim of resolving differences.
While some differences are actually splitting differences, a new approach can be introduced in order to sustain and build B4. Among the understandings and practices in this approach:
- Allegations do not equal the truth. When allegations are offered, whether regarding personal behavior or a political stance, B4 needs to have a conflict-resolution policy and mechanism to surface issues and address them directly. Allegations must be accompanied by facts rather than remain as feelings and opinions.
- Presume good will. Despite what will inevitably be major differences, B4 participants should start from an assumption of positive intent. Internal differences should not be treated as equivalent to differences with our opponents.
- There should be protocols or agreements on acceptable and unacceptable behavior within B4.
- Organizations within B4 should not act unilaterally on any matters that the broader front is attempting to resolve—or act upon—except and insofar as B4 is incapable of making a decision.
- B4 should anticipate that contradictions and problems will emerge along racial, ethnic, gender and religious lines. These should be handled according to the prior approach. Individuals and organizations should be encouraged to hold back on jumping to conclusions. And, where errors have been committed, a process of rectification should be put into place in order to correct the underlying problem.
Is the socialist Left up to the challenge?
Therein lies the question. The socialist Left vacillates between grandiosity and myopia. We often cannot conceive of winning because winning necessitates broad alliances with forces with whom we are frequently at odds. Additionally, we quickly elevate every difference to one of principle rather than deciding what issues/matters can and must be resolved at any given moment and what can be placed on hold.
If we can agree that B4 is essential, and if we can agree on the overall approach offered by PDOA, then we can proceed with all deliberate speed, in organizing to weather the coming storm and build a countercurrent advancing consistent democracy.
Featured image: Breach of the US Capitol, January 6, 2021. Photo by Brett Davis, licensed CC BY-NC 2.0