Is Coordinated Action Possible?: The Women’s March and What Comes After

23 Jan

The experience of marching in Boston on Saturday was extraordinary. It was the most hopeful I’ve felt in months. Millions demonstrated across the country and historically, having one percent of a country’s population demonstrate is pretty rare. Despite packed venues and overwhelmed organizers, the attitude that I observed was both positive and defiant. On one’s own, recent events can make it easy to believe that Democracy is falling apart. When surrounded by more than 100,000 people protesting however, it’s more difficult. The question though is whether this was a one-off event that will ultimately fizzle or the start of something even bigger.

Both going into and coming out of the march, there are two main problems faced by those on the left. The first is who gets to participate and who gets to lead. Due to the value-laden notions of power and representation among leftists, achieving a balance between unity, which allows movements to achieve victory, and diversity, which allows movements to gain members, is the Fundamental Dilemma of the left. Now such a Dilemma provides both dangers and opportunities. As was evidenced by the array of signs yesterday, the number of issues taken up by leftists is dizzying. It is very difficult to adjudicate between competing demands, especially when many of demands are essentialized to a particular identity (whites want this, blacks want this, etc.). But there is, and I’m looking at you Donald, strength in diversity. It keeps disparate groups engaged and leads to knowledge sharing from different histories of struggle. For those who decry all forms of identity politics, remember that if they didn’t exist, social movements would have minuscule participation and be led by straight, rich white men.

How was this Dilemma handled on Saturday? One thing we saw is that feminism now serves as a rallying cry for a huge percentage of the left, only a little less than half of whom are not women. I’m not sure the same could’ve been said 20 years ago, and such progress should be applauded. However, one of the criticisms I’ve seen on social media is that the march was primarily an expression of white feminism and therefore not sufficiently intersectional. It’s probably true that the marches were disproportionately white. What is interesting here is that the fear before the march was that the highly intersectional platform would drive whites away, but it didn’t. Indeed, many of those present seemed to be first-time protesters (which logically makes sense given the turnout). It should therefore be encouraging that hundreds of thousands of whites without die-hard histories of activism weren’t turned off by intersectional demands.

What I think is concerning, however, is that such a platform failed to attract a large racial minority presence, just as Hillary Clinton failed to prompt sufficient minority turnout during the election. I have no definitive answer to what’s going on. Perhaps it was simply an issue of money; whites are wealthier and could therefore afford to travel to the protest. Perhaps ideology is not a major mobilizer but rather leadership, and the march was perceived as being led by white women. Perhaps the feminist label isn’t pushing the right buttons. Whatever the answer, I think it’s worth questioning the assumption that the more intersectional a political activity is meant to be, the more likely it is to achieve minority support.

Even though it will be hard to sustain the energy of the women’s march, there were plenty of positives from Saturday. Countless people became more comfortable participating in political activity and found out there were millions others like them. But to really capitalize, an emerging movement needs clear goals and ways to achieve them (this can take the form of a new movement that seeks to resist Trump or a strengthened coalition of feminist groups, Black Lives Matter, pro-immigration groups, and others that draws on newly-mobilized Americans). However, given the Fundamental Dilemma, it will be exceedingly difficult to generate such goals. It may take an unprecedented breach of normalcy by the Trump administration to do so, but post-hoc activism is inherently less effective.

However, there is still hope. I’m most excited by a new initiative created by Bernie Sanders-alums called Knock Every Door, which seeks to engage every American in a face-to-face conversation about politics. It’s not part of any particular campaign, but rather a more general attempt to re-energize left politics. Not only does this hold immense promise in terms of political engagement, but the political science literature strongly suggests such conversations are extremely effective in achieving turnout (good for Democrats), and perhaps also changing minds. Such a strategy can provide exactly what was missing from the Clinton campaign: deep grassroots. We’ll need them to defeat the Trumpist lawnmower.


2 Responses to “Is Coordinated Action Possible?: The Women’s March and What Comes After”

  1. Micheal May 14, 2017 at 9:14 am #

    With the bases loaded you struck us out with that anwres!

  2. May 31, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Vous ne nous épargnez guère, Pierre Assouline, ces derniers temps : un billet sur la Shoah, un sur le 11 septembre, et maintenant Max Jacob et ce cliché qui me remue…Non, pas Desnos demain, hein…Ni Léon Deubel, un authentique oublié celui-ci, ou Tristan Corbière…

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