Cheer up, Blue States! The power is in your hands!

by Sarah Norr on November 18, 2004

It’s been two weeks now, and “blue America” is still in mourning. You can see the tear-streaked faces, the handwritten letters of apology to the world, at There’s an intense feeling in these photos and notes – not just of sadness, but of total helplessness. I did everything I could do, the notes read. I knocked on doors, I raised money, I worked hard. My roommates worked hard. My whole city worked hard. It wasn’t enough. I don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry. Love, Portland. Love, Maryland. Love, Maine.

It’s no wonder we’re feeling powerless. We put everything we had into the campaign to unseat Bush, and it had no visible, concrete effect. And this loss built on the accumulated frustration of last year’s anti-war movement – another broad-based, passionate mobilization that seemed to go down in bloody defeat.

You’ve probably gotten a lot of emails from MoveOn and similar organizations, telling you not to lose heart, to keep soldiering on. You probably haven’t found them very persuasive. I haven’t. Their pep talks seem based on desperation, not on a realistic plan to win. They tell us to fight, but they offer us no weapons that could plausibly harm our enemy. Email petitions won’t persuade this administration, especially now that they’ve got their “mandate.” And we won’t have another chance at regime change for years. It’s too long to wait (too long for the ice caps, too long for the Middle East), and what makes us think we’ll be any more successful then? Adam Werbach quotes Ben Franklin: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It’s a rough moment.

But it’s been two weeks now.

It’s time to calm down. Time to take a step back. Those of us who are not just “blue” but radical in some way – who have studied or participated in militant social movements, in other countries or other times – have a perspective that could be extremely useful right now. But we have to detach a little from the frustrations of the moment, and let ourselves think theoretically and historically.

When we look at the big picture, we know something that many blue Americans don’t. We know that good things can happen under bad leadership, or at least that the power of bad leaders can be checked. We know that social change does not necessarily come about because politicians are benevolent or reasonable or care what their constituents think. It can come about even when the entire political and economic establishment is trying like hell to stop it.

We can think back on the last major period of progressive reform in our country, and realize that Richard Nixon was president for most of it. These changes didn’t happen because Nixon was sympathetic to black power, women’s liberation, welfare rights, or pacifism. They happened because people formed strong independent movements, organized, caused trouble, won local victories, and forced the president to make concessions or risk losing control completely.

And we know that this pattern has played out in many movements in American history and around the world. When the daily functioning of the system is at risk – the ports are shut down, or the ghettoes are burning, or students won’t go to class – people in power, regardless of their ideology, have to think about costs and benefits. Often, they decide that it’s worth giving in on something, or at least curbing their worst excesses, in order to calm things down. We know that this is how the labor movement succeeded, back when it used to succeed.

Power doesn’t only come from artful lobbying and friends in high places. It can come from resistance and disruption. This has been true throughout history, and it’s still true in 2004.

So how can we use this knowledge right here, right now? I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t matter who’s in office, or that smashing a few store windows will lead us to utopia. Obviously, Bush is tremendously powerful; obviously it will be extremely difficult to advance a positive agenda on a national or international level with him in office. But we need to keep in mind that he’s not omnipotent. His evil-doing power would be seriously limited if he faced the same kind of broad, militant resistance that Nixon did, or that many Latin American leaders do today.

This idea strikes some people as naive, an anarchist fantasy. But what exactly rings false about it? People on the left are terrified of Bush, but can they really argue that he would be unaffected by a massive uprising? More often, I think, they doubt our own ability to raise that kind of a ruckus. What riots? they ask. Where are the strikes?

But that’s exactly my point. We, the blue Americans, do have the power to change this situation. We’ve got the entire populations of New York, DC, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in our camp; we’re certainly well placed to disrupt the system. If we don’t have the vision or confidence to go out there and do it – well, that’s our problem, not GW’s. And that’s our task. If the problem comes from us, the solution can too.

We don’t need a president who treats us politely. We don’t need the support of Christian fundamentalists in Nebraska. We need to get over our feelings of isolation and weakness, realize that our potential power is tremendous, and start mobilizing to assert it.

Easier said than done, for sure. But for all the obstacles, we have a unique opportunity here. The election has left huge numbers of Americans organized, informed, passionately angry at the government, and desperate for an effective way to fight it. At the same time, a blind man could see that conventional electoral politics are not an option for the next two to four years. Militance is more appealing when the only other option is despair. But most blue Americans don’t have the vocabulary of militant protest, and they aren’t sure that it’s possible to stand up to such an intransigent president. So it’s up to us to communicate, to help people move past fatalism, to convince them of their own power.

How can we do this? Reviving the anti-war movement is essential. Because the war is draining our budget and destroying lives, and because the 2003 anti-war protests were the closest thing to a true mass movement that we’ve seen in my lifetime. For the moment, those protests have nearly disappeared into a self-fulfilling spiral of fatalism (and that’s one of the main reasons why a powerful movement is so hard to imagine now. If I had written about the possibility of huge social unrest a year and a half ago, with San Francisco’s Financial District shut down, no one would have laughed). But we can break the spiral, because the movement is only now arriving at its real moment of opportunity. Stopping the war before it began was a tall order. But influencing its direction now – improving the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, minimizing civilian casualties, speeding up the (inevitable) withdrawal of American troops, discouraging further expansion of the “war on terror” – would be completely possible if we could recreate the level of mobilization that we saw last year.

Furthermore, we’re in a better position to win public support now. There are no WMDs, no al-Qaeda connections; American soldiers are dying by the hundreds; the ones that aren’t dying are photographing themselves torturing Iraqis. In the face of all that, a majority of Americans have decided the war was a mistake, even in the deafening silence of most anti-war activists. So, we have the support, we have winnable goals – why aren’t we on the streets?

But the anti-war movement isn’t the only answer. One of our greatest challenges now – actually, it’s been one of our greatest challenges for awhile – is figuring out how to organize Americans around “kitchen table” concerns like jobs, health care, and Social Security. These are the issues that lend themselves to building participatory organizations in workplaces and communities; to winning local victories; to mobilizing the people who are most hurt by right-wing policies. (From what I saw, the anti-war and anti-Bush campaigns were disproportionately white and middle class. That has to change if we’re going to get results, and it can change if we can present organizing as a real solution to the hardships people face every day.) In organizing around these issues, we have an advantage that Vietnam-era activists didn’t: life is getting visibly, dramatically worse for poor and middle-class people. It shouldn’t be hard to convince people who have just lost their health insurance that the health care system needs reform. The challenges, again, are building organization, sharing ideas for effective tactics, and overcoming feelings of pessimism and helplessness.

I don’t have detailed prescriptions for countering Bush’s influence on health care, the environment, jobs, education and civil liberties. I believe we could organize effectively on any of these issues – but only if we approach them with a sense of the power we can wield through resistance and disruption. And I believe that activists who want to experiment with militant tactics will find many blue Americans receptive – but only if we can find ways of conveying our understanding of history, our sense of possibility, with a much broader audience.

The most dangerous thing about Bush is his ability to convince us that we are powerless. To fight him, the first thing we have to do is work past our own fear. Then we have to go there out and teach Blue America how to shut things down.

(P.S.- yes, we also need to organize in the “red” areas. And we can do that, too. But that’s another article.)

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