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Where'd The Movement Go

I'm not sure how old writer Sam Adler-Bell is-- I used to assume everyone was my age; now I assume everyone is much younger. But reading his column, The Democratic Party Is Wasting Its Grassroots Energy in New York Magazine yesterday, made me feel we have a lot in common... wvwn if people my age tend to be more worried about bowel movements than THE Movement.

When I left Brooklyn to go to Stony Brook University, I enrolled as a history major. I found the department too stuffy and conservative and I switched my major to political science. That wasn't enough of an improvement and by the time I was a sophomore my major was sociology. I picked my courses based on which professors were the furthest left. I had been elected president of the Young Democrats. I quit when I realized I couldn't support Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam and joined the SDS-- Students for A Democratic Society-- which was all about opposing his war. Like Adler-Bell, I believed-- still believe-- in "the movement."

He wrote, that when he was young "my activist friends and I would often speak of something we called the movement. 'This will be good for the movement,' we’d say.” Or, 'They do good movement work.' He was a 'movement lawyer'; she, 'an artist dedicated to the movement.' I assumed this expression referred to something real: international socialism, maybe, or trade unionism. I wasn’t sure. Surely, I thought, there must be a movement out there to which we all belonged, and to whose future victory our meager efforts-- as environmentalists, labor organizers, anti-war activists-- were contributing. But that wasn’t so. Later, I realized the term was more like an incantation, the expression of a wish that all this various activism might one day coalesce into something worthy of the name. For the time being, 'the movement' was a linguistic gesture with no referent, a half-ironic shibboleth with which we signaled our belonging and our willingness to nurture each other’s precious illusions and beliefs. Playfully we toasted 'to the movement,' unsure whether our cheeks reddened out of shame at our cynicism or our sincerity."

When I was young, there really was more to it. Ending the war in Vietnam was front and center, along with the Civil Rights movement and our own culture war (sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and long hair). Like I said, I'm pretty sure I'm older than Adler-Bell, likely by a few decades. Both of us have noticed, though, that... well, where's the movement now? Has Biden, a lifelong conservative Democrat, killed it off with his shitty administration (Merrick Garland, Gina Raimondo, Mayo Pete, Kamala Harris...) and with geriatric and barely functioning Democratic congressional leadership? "There appears almost no grassroots energy or urgency of any kind on the Democratic side," he wrote. "After four years of fever-pitched marching and movement-building by anti-Trump resistors, antifascists, Democratic Socialists, and Black Lives Matter militants, the sudden quiet from the country’s left flank has been deafening. Where, I find myself asking, is the movement?"

By contrast, the conservative grassroots are ablaze. The parents, pundits, and propagandists behind the “critical race theory” crackdown, and now, the moral panic over LGBTQ educators, have been startlingly successful-- not only at creating media spectacles, but at recruiting activists, electing school board members, and passing laws. Anti-abortion measures, meanwhile, sweep the country in anticipation of a possible repeal of Roe v. Wade. And, all along, one-term president Trump has defied political gravity, attracting crowds to his rallies and playing de facto party boss from his spray-tan Tammany Hall in Palm Beach. The right, in other words, is on the march. The left is nonexistent.
In one sense, there is no mystery here: Most of the recent popular energy in American politics has been oppositional, buoying the party out of power. The Tea Party energized the Obama-era GOP just as the Resistance fueled the Democrats in 2018 and 2020. Trump’s elaborately disturbing presidency fertilized a rich movement ecosystem from which several arose. They have dissipated since he left the White House.
...You get the presidency or you get vital social movements, but you don’t get both. Well, that may satisfy the political scientists, but if you, like me, want the Democrats to control government as frequently as possible-- overcoming the growing geographic bias against them to do so-- and when they have it, to wield power to do a whole hell of a lot more for workers, and to stave off climate catastrophe, than Biden has managed, then you may wonder, as I do, whether we don’t need movements that transcend this boom-and-bust cycle. Movements that can mobilize, agitate, and organize even when-- especially when!-- there’s a chance of using that popular energy to get something done.
But wait. Listen. What is that sound? A growing crowd chanting “movement, movement, movement!” Who is that? By God, it’s the nonprofits!
Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it cannot be denied that nonprofits have taken the place of other civic or party institutions as the site of grassroots Democratic politics. And perhaps no single arena of American life is more replete with talk about “social movements” than the nonprofit sector. “Nonprofits have learned to speak like social movements,” says Daniel Schlozman, author of When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. And the foundations that fund them have learned to love “social movements” too. As an example, Schlozman directed me to an April 20 Medium post from Arabella Advisors, a consulting firm founded by Clinton White House alum Eric Kessler, which advises rich liberals about their political giving. It reads in part: “Movements matter … Donors must be willing to embrace direct-action tactics such as hunger strikes or civil disobedience that bring litigation and reputational risks. They must relax their insistence on measurable outcomes.” It concludes with great fanfare: “The dangers we confront will bring a reckoning, one that will be painful but will also create opportunities to imagine and build a more equitable and resilient society.”
The Marxist in me cannot help but wince at the idea of wealthy consultants advising wealthier elites to fling their money at whatever NGO promises to get the most college kids zip-tied by the D.C. police. Call me cynical, but I have my doubts that liberal billionaires are going to bring about the reckoning we need.
Reading through this and other self-congratulatory accounts of liberal philanthropy from the past few years, I couldn’t help feeling an itch of the old suspicion. When NGOs and their funders invoke “social movements” they seem to do so in the same wistful, self-soothing spirit that I did as a 19-year-old: as a prayer, not a reality. “If you’re your average foundation-funded NGO, you now want to say, ‘I am a social movement, not just a foundation-funded NGO,’” says Schlozman. But if you press down on this assertion, he says, “it turns out it’s all money from Ford and Open Society. And they’re not doing much of anything except talking to each other.”
Much ink has been spilled-- by centrist popularists and socialist radicals alike-- about the perverting effects of allowing nonprofits to lead the Democratic Party’s left flank. I won’t rehearse those arguments here. But what I do want to say is this: American political parties really are capable of transformational change when they are “anchored,” in Schlozman’s language, by movements. The Democrats and labor did it in the 1930s. The religious right and the GOP have done it since the 1980s. Movements that succeed and grow do so because they are built atop the civic and material association through which communities are already bound. They are not summoned by the wishes of dark money consultants or well-heeled nonprofit executive directors.
And the trouble is, at the moment, the right is doing it better. Movements of the right are reaching deeper into communities, finding them in the places where they already gather, and strengthening the solidarity they already feel for one another-- in many cases, channeling it toward cruelty. As Schlozman told me, “the great rediscovery” of people like Christopher Rufo and Ron DeSantis “is that parents know other parents, and right-wing parents know other right-wing parents, and they can talk to each other, and that is a great reservoir of connection to be politicized.”
The civic bonds on which Trumpism is built are often the inheritance of past injustice (as Gabriel Winant once provocatively put it, “Whiteness itself is a kind of inchoate associational gel …”), but they are real. And while the right builds a movement, the Democrats attempt to call one into being-- by giving more and more money to insular activist NGOs that speak an alienating language to people in places where they do not frequent, among people they do not already know.
The alternative-- and you’ll be just shocked to hear me say this-- is the only one that has ever worked. That is, the labor movement: a movement of the left that mobilizes and draws us together on the basis of our most basic associations and material interests. As Tammi and Marvin once put it, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing.”

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