TPM Cafe: Opinion

In the spring of 2007, famed union organizer Marshall Ganz began meeting with the Obama campaign. Ganz persuaded them to create a field operation using the techniques that Ganz had developed with the United Farm Workers in California. Thus the army of thousands of volunteers that helped Obama win the Democratic primary and the presidency in 2008 was born. Ganz, 73, is from Bakersfield, California, the son of a rabbi. He dropped out of Harvard in 1964 to work with a Southern student civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The next year he moved back to California to join Cesar Chavez's fledgling movement to organize the state's migrant farm workers into a union, eventually becoming the United Farm Workers' Director of Organizing. In 1991, Ganz returned to Harvard to get his B.A. and in 2000 received a Ph.D. in sociology. For three decades, he has been lecturing in the principles of organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School, while remaining deeply involved in organizing projects in the United States and overseas. I wanted to ask him about the prospects of the left, liberals and the Democratic Party in the face of Donald Trump's presidency and Republican control of Congress and the majority of statehouses.

Judis: We talked a few years ago after the Occupy movement fizzled about a Tahrir Square phenomenon [in Egypt], where protests rise up and then die off and achieve results contrary to what they intended. We now have tremendous protests against the Trump administration. What is going on? And what can come out of this?

Ganz: It takes a little hubris to say what is going on. It seems to be that what is happening is this overwhelming reaction to Trump's assault on just about everybody other than his supporters in just about every way. It has created a solidarity in the face of a shared threat. One of the things that was interesting was that for the people who went to the Women's March it wasn't just about women's issues and for the people who showed up at the airports it wasn't just about immigration issues. There seems to be a moment of much broader recognition of the values that a progressive or democratic politics stands for. I think that is a great opportunity.

But the challenge is crafting that reaction into the capacity for strategic response. Unless this solidarity can become solidarity for shared purpose, we are going to dissipate a lot of it. Ever since the 1960s and 1970s, the problem on the progressive side, of fragmentation based on each group pursuing its own separate issue, seems to be far more substantial than on the other side.

Organizing opposition to Trump

Judis: How do you see this solidarity coming to pass. Doesn't there have to be leading organizations at this point? One suggestion I've heard is that progressives have to focus on transforming and taking control of the Democratic Party.

Ganz: I don't think so. There are a couple of places to look for instruction on this. For one thing, the rise of the conservative movement didn't happen through the RNC [Republican National Committee]. Conservatives successfully created a more or less coherent network of organizations linked to local, state and national politics, which is a traditional form of effective political organization in the U.S. There was the Christian Coalition which started with school boards and moved upwards to take over the Republican Party. Or there is the Koch Brothers' network. Not to mention the Tea Party or the NRA or ALEC.

The point is that it didn't happen through the RNC. It happened through movements and movement organizations structured outside that could develop a coherent or at least semi-coherent strategy. If you go back to the civil rights movement, there was the Leadership Council for Civil Rights, it was everybody from the Urban League over to SNCC, and it lasted for a number of years. At least they knew what everybody was doing. They could disagree, but at least there was some sort of possibility of coherence, and occasionally they could converge, as they did on the March on Washington.

You look in vain for something like that on the progressive side. There is such a proliferation of groups, all kinds of groups, some of which take up space without filling it. Our challenge is to put together that combination of local, state and national organizations that can, first of all, handle defense, especially in terms of immigration because that's an immediate threat to people’s security, and there is resistance on many fronts, but what needs more attention is initiative. If we expect the Democratic Party to do that we are smoking something because the closest they ever got was Howard Dean and his 50 state doctrine. I don't think that's where it happens. It happens through the stepping up of leadership at all levels to bite the bullet in a coherent way so that we can turn this opportunity to some real purpose.

The success of Indivisible is evidence of the enormous numbers of people out there who want to take action who are connected to no existing group.

Judis: What is Indivisible?

Ganz: They are a bunch of congressional staffers, one is an SEIU [Service Employees International Union] guy. They got the idea of doing to the Republicans what the Tea Party did to the Democrats. The put out a very simple, accessible manual of how to do that, and they got it out there in a very timely way, and it really clicked with people. They weren't asking people to send emails or sign petitions. They are asking people to organize locally in the form of those town meetings they are having with the Republicans just like the Tea Party did. And it really took off. They’ve scaffolded some 7,000 groups. They are in every congressional district except for one. What they have done is to scaffold a barebones structure enabling people to focus on a specific tactic. Now the question is how they can take it to the next step. But that's a very helpful development because of its scale, its depth and its simplicity. [For more on Indivisible, see this article. Or see their own site.]

I really want to underscore the significance of Indivisible. It's the same experience we had with Obama in 2007 and 2008. You create a plausible pathway to action and all kinds of people come out of the woodwork. The problem is that there haven't been many plausible pathways to action. And that's a strategic responsibility, and it requires creating enough structure so that that kind of strategy can be developed and articulated.

Judis: What about Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders organization?

Ganz: I don't know enough to know what is happening. I know the Sanders campaign didn't turn their mobilization into organization like Obama did. They did a lot of mobilizing, but the campaign wasn't committed to organization. It was an Old Testament prophet at the head of the great multitudes.

Judis: Their focus seems to have been on getting Keith Ellison elected as the DNC chairman.

Ganz: The DNC is a distraction. If you look at what the RNC did for the Republican resurgence, it was not much. If you expect the DCCC or the DNC to do it for the Democrats, you'll be disappointed. Dean temporarily defied the logic with his 50 state strategy. The usual business about not campaigning in every district is so counter-productive. If you look at it from a purely financial standpoint, we have to invest the money where there is the greatest marginal payoff, but it is all short-term. It is not looking at base building, so all these red areas never even hear a counter argument because nobody runs. It is not shocking that all they have is the Fox view of the world. It's not being challenged.

Democratic politics depends on contention and challenge. One way to do that is through campaigns. It takes people with courage to run for school board. That is one piece of that I just don’t see happening through the DNC.

The goal is to organize, not just mobilize

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It is hard not to compare Donald Trump’s chilling performance last Friday to Charles Schumer’s tepid one—the Big Lie countered by the half-truth, the worse-than-expected introduced by the better-than-nothing. Trump told the assembled, in effect, that the other political leaders on the stage with him were either ignoring, or profiteering from, middle America’s misery. Foreign governments were either ripping them off or riding for free. This day would be remembered for returning the government to the people. Trump alone was the people’s champion: their allegiance to America, thus to “solidarity,” should be “absolute”; he led, not a party, but “a movement.” America first, America’s new leader fighting (here comes the fascist’s pathos) with “every breath in my body.” Forget information provided by government officials; this was not to be trusted. The press was not to be trusted. The movement had its truth, the champion alone could be trusted.

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Joshua Landis is head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and publishes the influential blog “Syria Comment.” He is, perhaps, the nation’s foremost expert on Syria. He has been consistently right about the events of the last five years. When most Washington policy-makers were predicting that Syrian President Basher al-Assad would fall, Landis warned that he would hang on to power. While liberals and conservatives were calling for military intervention in Syria to overthrow Assad, Landis advised caution. In this interview, he assesses the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and the prospects facing the new Trump administration as Russia and Iran consolidate their hold over the Northern tier of the Middle East. It is, in my opinion, the clearest and most comprehensive analysis of why the United States failed to get its way in Syria and what it should do now. – John Judis

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Next year will be a test for whether Europe’s leading parties can withstand the populist revolt that has already shaken the continent. There are national elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. Populist parties are running ahead in the polls in France and the Netherlands. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany could upset the grand coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. What’s at stake would be the cohesion of the European Union – a political alliance that was already dealt a serious blow this year by Great Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Last Sunday, two elections occurred that while not significant in themselves were seen as harbingers of what might occur next year. The Austrian election was for president, a largely ceremonial job; that in Italy was a referendum that would have strengthened the federal government at the expense of the regions. In both cases, populist parties – one more associated with the right and the other with left – were challenging the prevailing balance of power.

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[The following was originally presented as a speech before the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in mid-November. Learn more about Dan Gillmor here.]

I was honored to keynote the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in Barcelona last week, and this is an edited version of what I said:

I’m glad to be here with you today in Barcelona. This is one of my favorites cities and regions, for many reasons that go far beyond the great people and food and remarkable things to see. There’s a spirit of political and economic innovation here that inspires me – and many others around the world.

It is a special honor to be at this Congress of Catalonian journalists. Journalists are among the people who inspire me the most – most of all when they’re doing their work with persistence and integrity.

I was planning to show you some slides. I was planning to talk about how far we’ve come in digital journalism, and how far we have to go to make it the thriving ecosystem our societies – and our journalists – need it to be.

But something happened this week.

America’s election has – and for once this is not an exaggeration – changed everything.

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At first glance, the victory of Donald Trump suggests that big political money has less clout than imagined in U.S. democracy. Not only are defeated Democrats consumed with blame-shifting and calls to deliver better messages to a supposedly crucial “white working class,” but pundits are portraying President-Elect Trump as a populist politician unmoored from the establishment or big donors. Some journalists even suggest that the hundreds of conservative millionaires and billionaires organized by Charles and David Koch lost relevance this time – because the two brothers personally refused to endorse Trump and their donor network cut back originally projected spending from almost a billion to a “mere” $750 million.

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There is rarely one single reason why a presidential candidate wins an election. The results are “overdetermined,” as Freud used to say of the content of dreams. And Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton on November 8 was no exception. Clinton’s extreme vulnerability as a candidate suggests that other Republican challengers besides Trump might have defeated her; but Trump was also able to exploit Clinton’s vulnerabilities and appeal to a disenchanted electorate, some of whom had backed Democrats in prior elections, and would not have readily backed another Republican.

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Donald Trump may be out of step with the Republican Party’s traditional stance on some issues, like support for international trade, but he’s right in line with Republican hysteria over voter fraud. Indeed, the threat of voter intimidation and violence that Trump is raising by his irresponsible talk of vote rigging and encouragement of his supporters to go to other polling places is only possible because of years of earlier irresponsible talk.

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Every election is, in a way, a protest vote. Listen to this interview with Ron Susskind on “Radio Open Source” (hosted by the incomparable Chris Lydon) and then tell me the Clinton campaign does not need to change the focus of this race. We can’t take our eyes off Trump, Susskind says, because he has given us an unfinished story, which transforms into compelling drama—will he, or will he not, blow up Washington in the name of those left behind by global forces? Can he really pull it out? Clinton needs to give us a better story and a more interesting drama—stay loyal to Obama, but not become a captive of the status quo. She needs to give us something palpable to win or lose, which the press can start imagining to be the “story” of the election. Imagine, then, that she made the following speech:

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