Do you ever wonder what you would have done had you lived during dire periods in history? What was the best way to fight fascism in 20th century Europe? How did Americans in the 1960s show solidarity with those living under legalized racial segregation in our own country? Fortunately, there are lessons to learn from other countries where national struggles were waged to take back control from undemocratically installed demagogues. One of the most important lessons is that winning back power requires sending as much support as possible to those on the front lines of the struggle for liberation.
I’ve spent the past few months working with the team at Democracy in Color looking at election and Census data through the lens of historical revolutionary struggles in order to identify pertinent patterns that can guide the efforts of The Resistance. Our findings are distilled in the report being released today, Return of the Majority: Roadmap to Taking Back Our Country. What we found is that there are 17 states and 13 congressional districts that will determine the future political control of this country. The quickest path to power involves identifying and strengthening the organizations, activists, and leaders working to build progressive political power in those states and districts.
The United States is currently divided into three broad categories of states—13 states which strongly rejected the anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim candidacy of the 2016 Republican nominee (using the language of revolutionary struggles throughout history, I call these states Liberated Zones); 20 mainly smaller states that strongly supported the Republican candidate (those states are what I call Occupied Areas), and 17 states, home to 64 million voters in 2016, where the results were closely contested, and the margin of difference was in the single digits. Democrats won 7 of those states and lost 10. Outside of those 17 states, there are also 13 front line congressional districts where the margin was close, and the Republican incumbent could be ousted with a concerted effort over the next 19 months.
The upside potential in the front line states is enormous. In 9 of the 10 front line states, the number of potential progressive voters far exceeds the relatively narrow margin by which the 2016 election was decided in that state. The following chart tells the tale:
In order to turn that population potential into political power, we must identify and fortify the community-based organizations and leaders doing the difficult day-to-day work of organizing, registering, and mobilizing voters. Often overlooked, these front line freedom fighters represent the country’s best hope for taking back our country. Although they don’t get the headlines, resources, and attention they deserve, they are there in the trenches, holding down the fort, eager for assistance and support from allies across the country.
Examples of the effectiveness of these organizations abound. While researching and writing my book, I discovered at least 18 groups doing effective, quantifiable voter mobilization work in the front line states. The Texas Organizing Project, for example, has built a neighborhood-based, voter mobilization machine that turned out tens of thousands of people in the 2015 Houston mayoral election and helped African-American Sylvester Turner capture the keys to City Hall, thereby creating a beachhead of progressive political power in what is seen as a conservative and red state. Twelve committed community organizations came together in Arizona to form a coalition called One Arizona, and that network of groups registered 150,000 voters in six weeks in the Fall of 2016, making that heavily-Latino state more competitive than it has been in decades. In Martin Luther King’s home state of Georgia, the New Georgia Project overcame the kinds of state-sponsored voter suppression King faced and still managed to register more than 100,000 African American voters.
A common question of those not in the front line states is, “What should I be doing to most effectively fight back against the madman in the White House?” One of the best ways to be helpful is to organize where you are and send support to those on the front lines of the fight. The recent national Coffee Day was an excellent example of how local actions across the country can be aggregated and channeled to assist the most pressing fight of the moment. The ACLU is one of the leading organizations fighting the travel ban, and on February 4th, more than 600 cafes across the country donated a portion of the sale of each cup of coffee to support the ACLU’s work. In that weekend alone, $24 million was raised to help the litigation against the anti-Muslim Executive Orders.
Another strategic area of impact for individual activists is engaging with those Democratic and progressive groups with the biggest budgets and holding them accountable for how those funds are spent. Clearly, the plans and programs of those who orchestrated $1.5 billion in Democratic and progressive spending last year failed—miserably. What we now need is a bottom-up revolution of transparency and accountability, and the touchstone of that accountability is challenging the Democratic Party to move massive amounts of money into the front line states in order to dramatically increase the number of progressive voters. This can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of what is spent every cycle.
Based on past patterns, over the next two years, the Democratic Party committees and allied outside groups will spend in excess of $500 million between now and November 2018. Traditionally, most of that money goes to paid advertising (generally unmemorable and ineffective) designed to sway supposedly swing voters. Fortunately, there is a much better and more effective way to deploy political dollars. Employing a community-based voter mobilization model (what UC Berkeley professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla calls a “Civic Web”) of paid, community-based staff working with local volunteer neighborhood captains, an investment of $1 million can increase voter turnout by 20,000 people. Investing the full $500 million in this fashion could swell the ranks of progressive voters by nearly 10 million people. That is how we take the country back.
None of us need wonder what we would have done if faced with a despotic regime hell-bent on destroying the progress made towards justice and equality in our country. We are confronting such a moment right now. But this is not an existential crisis requiring us to peer deep into the souls of those people who enthusiastically supported a candidate promising to turn loose armed agents of the federal government to round up brown-skinned immigrants and place them in chains and cages. It is an operational crisis where our time, energy, and resources are not working to maximize the political power of what is in fact the majority of people in the United States of America. That is a fixable problem, and the first step is to direct as much support as possible to the Frontline Freedom Fighters holding the line in the places we can and should win in the months and years ahead.
This story originally appeared 3/27/2017 in The Nation.