Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Cynical Populists

The New York Times ran a series this week on the upcoming Women's March on Washington. The idea behind the series was for different women to discuss their opinions on whether such a march is useful.

I'm of the opinion that it will be useful for at least four reasons: (1) to communicate that, regardless of any electoral outcome, we are worth fighting for, (2) to be a symbol of mass resistance against the incoming Trump administration, (3) to send a message that the incoming administration is of questionable legitimacy given the yet-to-be resolved questions about Trump's ties to Russia, and (4) to go in solidarity with other marchers and like-minded individuals who are not able to attend.

In contrast, I find the following opinion, of a former Bernie Sanders delegate, featured in the Times to be mostly depressing:
"Protesting is good for awareness of a cause but if we think we are going to change anything with a march we are wrong. The Democracy Spring demonstrations against the power of money in politics brought little attention and no results. Any success by protests against the Dakota Access pipeline are likely to be short-lived. Thousands flooding Philly last June didn't change one super delegate vote. These were the best organized and most attended protests in years and they had absolutely no affect on their causes. We need to change our tactics.

If there is a march, it will be widely reported, and relatively no one will show up because we all know this is a fruitless exercise that will make us feel better but will have no effect on anything else. We already all know there is a problem with women's equality, yet we do nothing significant about it. It's because we all know legislation really isn't going to change it, only a societal shift in sexism will."
My point here isn't to harp on this particular woman too much. Rather, today I note a divide I see among the pragmatic and (what I call) the non-pragmatic left. One of the dangers I see in populist politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is that what they seem to best at is stoking the embers of rage against a clearly-defined enemy - the Establishment, in both cases - and making grand promises of sweeping change that, when pressed for logistics and details, turn out to be not grounded in pragmatic realities.

Think: Candidate Trump leading his fans in chants about how Mexico would pay for his wall. Now, it turns out it's not going to happen like that. Or, Bernie's disastrous New York Daily News interview. When pressed for details on some of his signature talking points during the primary, he was unable to articulate nuanced details for implementation.

Both men consistently led huge emotion-laden rallies, tapping into people's real anxieties and desires for Big Change. Anger is not a bad thing. There is a lot to be angry about. Yet, sweeping change does not typically quickly or easily happen in the US (which is something that also gives me small hope in the years to come. We must pressure the media and all branches of government to resist - we do not, yet, live in a dictatorship). Yet, when Big Change doesn't immediately happen like their leaders said it would, angry people end up cynical. Notice how it takes about two "failed" rallies for the above-quoted woman to give up on protesting.

Rallies and protests don't always immediately result in the desired outcome. When we march January 21, 2017, Trump will not be impeached January 22. But, that's not really the point. We aren't living in a movie, or playing a video game, where Things Will Be Resolved if we undertake a sufficiently-dramatic action. In real life, political change often occurs because of the actions of many people using a variety of tactics, some who get credit and most who do not.

Consider: the woman quoted above rightly says that we need a "societal shift in sexism" to change attitudes, but she doesn't think marching or legislation is the way to go. Yet, pragmatically, how do these "societal shifts in sexism" occur? Is it elves in trees who plant feminist consciousness in people's minds while we're asleep? (She also says that Bernie taught her that we spend too much time on identity politics, so that's another mode she's given up on. In which case, good luck addressing sexism if we must take a "I don't even see gender" approach about it!)

Change occurs through a variety of modes. For a first necessary step, related to the populism we saw in 2016, we must eradicate from our minds the notion that big change can only happen if a Great Person (usually a man) leads the true believers to it. Secondly, big change happens through many people taking many small actions in their daily lives: conversations, writing, reading, marching, voting, lobbying, advocating. This is what I think President Obama was referring to this week in his Farewell Address. These are actions many of us have the capacity to undertake to some degree.

Teaspoon by teaspoon, we empty the sea.

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