Back in November, the standoff in North Dakota between “water protectors” and Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, set a tense backdrop to the national election. Law enforcement was growing more aggressive towards the protesters, and it looked like things might reach a bloody conclusion — until the Army Corps of Engineers abruptly denied ETP the permits needed to drill below the Missouri River.
Many were overjoyed at the announcement. But with Donald Trump headed for the White House, activists dug in for the winter. Signs on camp lavatories listed the symptoms of hypothermia — the day of the Army Corps announcement, water protectors faced 37 MPH winds and snow heavy enough to collapse all but the soundest structures. Still, they persisted. “We should all stay until it’s over,” said Standing Still of the Ojibwe tribe. “It starts here and it should stop here. If it goes past this river, it’s going to affect 18 million people down the Missouri river.”
The harrowing conditions at Standing Rock can be seen as a metaphor for the Left’s arduous task over the next four years. Fortunately, social movements seem to be responding with similar determination. The week after the election, tens of thousands took to the streets, many of them middle- and high-schoolers. The largest student walkout occurred in Seattle, where five thousand students from twenty middle and high schools took the streets; they were joined by students in Portland, San Francisco, Maryland, and Los Angeles (where they chanted “Undocumented and unafraid” and “No papers, no fear”). In Boston, students briefly occupied City Hall in an attempt to deliver their demands, which included making Massachusetts a “sanctuary state.”
The walkouts showed that young people are acutely aware of the threat Trump’s education agenda — led by wealthy homeschooler Betsy DeVos — and his immigration agenda pose to their future. Their willingness to sacrifice to build an organized resistance — risking suspension or expulsion — stands as a model to us all.
Still, despite these impressive mobilizations, social movements have so far failed to cohere a strategy to respond to an empowered right. Republicans’ January offensive against Planned Parenthood, for example, elicited the usual social media rage and obtuse paeans to the organization’s cancer-screening services, but little else. “Abortion is health care” is a far cry from the assertive declarations of the feminists who first won us abortion rights in the first place.
But it’s not just about picking a new slogan. Hillary Clinton’s campaign sought to make the election a referendum on sexism. Instead she cemented modern feminism’s image as a self-help philosophy for female corporate climbers. Feminists must rebuild a fighting movement that can reach working-class women and LGBT people where they are most threatened — the red states and rural areas that Trump dominated. Luckily, there are contemporary models to emulate: Poland’s “Black Monday” strike, which mobilized thousands against a draconian anti-abortion bill, and the #NiUnaMenos protests against an epidemic of femicides in South America.
Yet the coming assaults on women, LGBT people, labor, and people of color can’t be stemmed on the streets alone. The contradictory success of Sanders-style ballot measures in November demonstrated that there is a broad base for potential left-wing candidates to draw on and a hunger for more ambitious, redistributionist policies.
Electoral politics do present serious dangers for the Left. For one, the electoral cycle imposes its own timeline on movements, often causing activists to sacrifice long-term visions for the short-time imperatives of petition deadlines, fundraising, and legislative politicking. For another, the dearth of experienced, authentic left candidates often encourages movements to take the shortcut and endorse politicians who have no organic connection to the Left and do nothing to build its independent power.
But a set of dangerous fanatics holds the levers of state power, and the official opposition in the Democratic Party is incapable of seriously challenging them. We need a left alternative — even if it falters at times in the short term. As the Sanders campaign showed, even lost elections are opportunities to promote a vision and build a living, breathing base.
Many working class and poor people, who work too much and are excluded from higher education, come to politics through unions or through elections. If socialists are too timid to contest elections and stand in front of voters, they will never build a mass movement.
By all accounts, social movements have ballooned in size since the national election. But the danger is that they will amount to little more than an incoherent network, unified only by vague opposition to the personality of Trump and the specter of the “deplorables” that back him.
A rabble of “antis” with no broader vision or plan to address the deep suffering that fueled Trump’s rise will only play into the president-elect’s playbook. The Left must see the abject failure of the Clinton campaign for what it is: an opportunity to assert itself as a freestanding alternative both to a bankrupt center and a nihilistic right. That requires not trailing the center or piously obsessing over “alt-right” transgressions, but standing on the strength of its own ideas.