Updated: Apr 12
by: Barbara Peterson
It’s an enormous victory for Biden/Harris to defeat Trump in both the popular and electoral votes, especially given the degree of gerrymandering, voter restriction laws, a global pandemic, and physical efforts by right-wing extremists to prevent anyone on the left from voting. The nightmare since 2016 that many have felt may soon be over, if Trump concedes power. Whether he does or not is a subject for a different article. In this piece, we will assume Biden and Harris take on their roles as President and Vice President in January. The question then is: What do we do now?
A cautionary note: What follows will likely be viewed as “big picture,” and it is. Many say that big picture work is fine, but we don’t have time; we need to get some immediate changes first, then we can worry about larger more fundamental changes. I disagree wholeheartedly. Smaller, more immediate changes are needed, but not within a context of hoping but not knowing one is making positive changes that will last. We cannot know if our changes will have real legs, the ability to stand on their own without us having to constantly play defense and react to every new attack on it or new crisis that is created to distract us, if we don’t first have a clear idea of where we want to end up in the long-run. Planning for big-picture changes helps us see what smaller, more immediate work we can and should do, and how we can make that work more effective and solid.
2021 Wish List
My wish list for the sort of society we deserve includes some of the following changes.
Seriously and substantively address the climate crisis;
Protect and promote BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) equity, rights, reparations, and safety, including replacing existing policing with alternatives that are initiated, organized, and overseen by BIPOC folx;
Protect and promote AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian) and Jewish equity, rights, and safety, including specific legislation that holds white-militia groups responsible for terrorism and all other oppressive acts against them;
Replace prior and develop new needed services, rights, and freedoms for women and LGTBQ folx;
Pass a fair and just tax policy that puts working people first;
Institute universal health care;
Offer free/affordable colleges to everyone;
Provide quality K-12 education equally for all;
Recognize the nationhood of and implement reparations for Indigenous Americans;
Pass humane immigration laws that support DREAMERS and allow immigrant families to stay together;
Investigate the growing problem and seek solutions for ending white supremacist terrorism;
Pass common sense gun legislation;
Protect Social Security and Medicare and no longer refer to them as “entitlement” programs;
Support labor unions’ formation, collective bargaining rights, rights to strike, and oppose so-called “right-to-work” laws;
Cancel Citizens United and other laws that give corporations more power than inhabitants of local communities;
Rebuild strong relations with our international allies and engage in honest, collective efforts to promote nonviolent means of holding nations accountable for serious violations to universal human rights;
… and I could go on, but these are a good start.
Is it possible to make these changes?
How do we, as ordinary people with relatively little power, push for all of these? Is this too much to ask? My short answer is: These are foundational and basic for equity, justice, liberation, and the sustainable health and wellbeing of all so, no, it is most definitely not too much to ask. But how do we, as people with little power, effectively fight for these changes?
Individually, like many others, I am a nobody outside of the circle of family, colleagues, and friends. Alone, I do not have the power to get those with legislative authority to pay attention to me or to care what I have to say. United with others, however, we can be heard. Being heard, though, is not enough. Simply voicing our dissent or our need for change will almost certainly be ignored if our demands require structural change (as they do). Our demands will only be met if they are backed up with a credible show of power – that is, if we can make it more costly for our opposition to ignore us than concede to our demands.
Please stop making election work the priority because the system itself is the problem.
I see from the emails I am getting already that various advocacy and activist groups are calling for people to help get progressive candidates elected. The stated and sometimes implied belief is that government officials have the power, and our primary job is to elect those whom we feel will act in our interests and to morally compel them to do so once elected. I could not disagree more. While election work and legislative lobbying are two essential efforts in the struggle for change because some important and needed policies and laws do get passed when more responsibly representative officials are elected, the governing systems are neither designed nor do they function to put the needs of working and marginalized people first. Rather, they are set up and operate to prioritize the interests of corporations and the wealthy. We see this with laws such as Citizens United and the Commerce Clause giving corporations far more power than ordinary citizens and local governments; we see this when electeds vote against the expressed interests of the majority in passing a universal healthcare plan, an equitable tax-plan that favors working folx, a Covid relief plan, and a massive decrease in military spending; we see this when Congress has the power to bar the appointment of a SCOTUS in one election cycle but push through another in a subsequent election year; we see this when the two viable political parties use money and influence to determine who wins the primary; we see this when questioning the ecological, racial, and gender oppression inherent in capitalism is treated as radically unworthy of consideration for restructuring our society; we see this when government officials are legally allowed to engage in self-promoting business deals even at the expense of those they are sworn to serve; we see this with the laws that make it increasingly difficult for marginalized people to vote; and so forth.
It is true that we can achieve some impressive victories by voting in better candidates, as with the election of Biden/Harris over Trump/Pence. Yet, voting out incumbents, particularly when they have the full support of their party, is incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Even when it occurs, elected officials are not required to care about their constituents once they’re in office. There exists no process or institution that holds electeds accountable for acting selfishly. But even when we do get conscientious, caring people into office, they can be voted out or overridden with an organized opposition. So, our vote, while certainly important, should not be the main source of our power. And our elected officials are also not our source of power. Our power is not in the government at all; rather, it is in us, in our compassionate solidarity and our ability to know how to gain and wield power.
Those in positions of authority, such as political leaders, corporate executives, and heads of major institutional organizations are dependent on the people to carry out their agendas. By strategically withdrawing our cooperation – our willingness to attend to business as usual by going to work, being consumers of more than bare necessities, participating in institutional processes, and giving deference to the legitimacy of the leaders’ authority over us – these leaders will fall because without our cooperation, they cannot stand. The pillars that hold them up – societal institutions and organizations as well as laborers (both union and non-union) – will begin to shift their support away from these leaders and over to the people, thereby shifting the balance of power.
What is people power?
People power is the ability of people to organize and act strategically to make it costlier for authority figures to ignore us than meet our demands. As Jane McAlevey argues in her powerful and influential book, No Shortcuts, determining how much power people need can be assessed by first determining, through research and analysis, how much it will cost the opposition to concede. From that, people will have an understanding of how much disruption we must cause (through various nonviolent tactics such as labor strikes, consumer boycotts, worker slowdowns, setting up alternative resource provider organizations, etc.) to make it cost the opposition more to continue to oppose us than to concede to our demands. The level of disruption needed, in other words, will depend on the demand: how much the demand will cost our opposition.
To create the level of disruption needed for demands that will cost our opposition a significant amount of power, authority, and resources, we will need to do the work of connecting with structural groups in society outside of activist circles (e.g., parent-teacher groups, Rotary clubs, faith-based institutions, labor organizations, professional associations, etc.). This is not easy or quick, but it is necessary. As McAlevey notes, there are “no shortcuts” to effective and powerful organizing. Making these connections must involve more than simply inviting people into activists’ groups and their work. It must include going into their spaces, making personal connections with people and their goals, finding organic leaders in the structural groups, and building relationships of mutual trust.
We have seen this work in one case after another throughout the world. To name only a few examples, we saw this in the Serbian Optor movement against Milosevic, the Candlelight Struggle against South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and the Puerto Rican resistance against Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Each of these struggles was the result of years of organizing, where different groups eventually came together in solidarity and were able to shift the pillars of support away from their leaders to the side of the people, and the leaders had little choice but to concede to the people’s demands.
People-power actions must be well-thought out whenever possible (recognizing that there are times when rapid-response is required and cannot always be thoroughly planned). This means that actions are determined by first articulating an overall goal, a vision of what an ultimate win would look like. People are far more likely to join others if everyone has a clear idea of where they’re going. From an overall goal, smaller goals must be set in the move toward achieving the larger ones. And actions must be strategized as a means to achieving specified smaller goals. An important aspect of this is that actions must have an appearance that parallels the messaging of the action (sometimes referred to as "action logic" or "action optics"). For example, when the goal is to shut down a local coal plant, an action may involve people blocking coal trains from arriving at the plant. This action parallels the message that coal should no longer be burned at this plant, and that goal is part of an overall larger goal of shutting down fossil fuel stations throughout the state and eventually, throughout the country.
Some key insights about strategy…
This article cannot go into the detail needed to provide a clear understanding of all that is required to plan and carry out an effective people power struggle. However, some key insights are helpful. Not only should actions be planned as part of an overall strategy to achieve articulated goals, but the tactics chosen need to be diverse, creative, and they need to escalate over time. One useful challenge in coming up with such tactics is to try organizing actions (by researching what has been done in the past in similar struggles throughout the world) that do not include marches or rallies or other symbolic demonstrations. While these are useful, they tend to be relied on far too much and as a result, they are largely ineffective in creating change because the opposition has learned to deflect and deflate their impact.
Another important insight is to spend time developing ways that people can be and feel safe, especially those folx most targeted in activist spaces as well as in their daily lives. Choosing tactics with this in mind is one helpful way to maximize safety and minimize risk.
Additionally, educational workshops and trainings are a vital part of any people’s movement to teach people about how nonviolence works strategically – that it is a form of combat as is war but that uses volunteer and democratically participatory actionists and hundreds of different nonviolent weapons. Workshops and trainings teach people how nonviolence has been used effectively against even the most brutal opposition. Nonviolence is not merely a commitment to avoid violence, and it certainly is not a commitment to avoid violence unless attacked violently. Instead, it is a strategically developed method of struggle that has proven more effective than violence, even against the most authoritarian regimes and cruel opposition.
Change requires sacrifice.
To make the changes listed above means creating some fundamental structural changes, and this, no doubt, will require a tremendous amount of work, of sacrifice, and even of risk. We are demanding that our government and our corporate leaders shift from doing business as usual where their private agendas are paramount, to doing work that puts the people first. We are asking that we shift from a representative democracy, where elected officials have no built-in accountability for acting selfishly and even dangerously, to participatory democracy that pays particular attention to empowering marginalized folx through the very decision-making structures we create to hold all elected officials and corporate leaders entirely accountable to the people. We will build structures that clearly show that the power of electeds and corporate CEOs relies entirely on the people's cooperation and obedience, and the people will become ready and able to strategically and nonviolently withhold that cooperation and obedience when our electeds violate their duty to act in the interests of those they are sworn to serve.
We can make the changes listed above. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. But, if we take the time needed to organize effectively, plan strategically, and realize that there are “no shortcuts” to making such deep-rooted changes, then we can make definite strides in the right direction where we see real, genuine change rather than ephemeral fixes. Measure twice, cut once. We are not better off by going for the quick fix because it will most likely be overturned within months or a couple years when we must start again from step one. We are better off doing the planning, research, education, and strategizing needed to secure a win based on altered societal structures that will support these changes into the distant future.
Barbara Peterson, PhD
Founder/Lead Scholar & Educator for Nonviolent Citizen Action