A crumbling infrastructure. An exploitative economic system. A broken healthcare system. A global empire. An unjust two-tier legal system – one for the rich and one for the poor. 

Life for working class Americans has slowly but consistently been getting tougher and tougher since the 1970s. Every year, our social, economic, and political system decays around us little by little. Most of us see it.

The fact that fundamental and structural change is necessary is obvious. Most Americans seem to agree, as Pew has recently found (here, here, and here).

Here’s the big question: why is change not occurring? We’ve addressed a historical perspective which focuses on US political institutions and how they were set up from the beginning to protect against reform from the forces of democracy. 

But despite the anti-democratic aspects of our political and economic system, we surely don’t live in a dictatorship or monarchy. Most of our business entities are, in fact, private dictatorships, but the reality is our political system will yield to sufficient popular pressure from below- be it powerful enough. 

Which gets us to what is most important of all: building popular movements and coalitions to enact change from below. In other words, movements that do not depend on and obsess over any one particular person. 

Consider those who elected Donald Trump. Whether motivated by economic insecurity, racial animosity, or simply frustration, many of those who elected Trump admired his “strong man” mentality and felt he could change the system by force of his will and personality. 

It’s all too easy to fall for this trap- putting faith in a single leader to bring about needed changes. A mistake we make again, again, and again. “Put me in power and I will give you what you want” is a phrase that even if a leader truly believes it, is almost certain to be proven a farce. 

Historical examples are too numerous for even a single book, but the same can be said also of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. He frequently evoked “hope and change” on the campaign trail, and enough people believed him that he was elected back in 2008 and again in 2012. 

Take Obama’s record, though: a then-Senator and former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. A relatively qualified candidate. One who was elected president with a Democratic-controlled House and Filibuster-proof Senate. In other words, a prime opportunity to pass landmark legislation during one of the US’s greatest economic crashes in history. 

The result of Obama’s Administration, as Noam Chomsky mentioned in an interview with Truthout: “In general: much smooth rhetoric, some positive steps, some regression, overall not a very impressive record.” 

Now for the crucial questions: why wasn’t Obama very effective? What was missing from this equation?

The answer, in part: Obama ran on Obama. He didn’t have a mass popular movement behind him or any proven and consistent policy record to speak of. These things are crucial for fundamental and structural change in our country. 

It’s simply not enough to elect a president and expect them to be successful with a docile and apathetic working class. 

Even the American left risks making this mistake for the 2020 Presidential Election. Bernie Sanders, it’s true, is one of the few politicians in the US attempting to mobilize working class coalitions. And there are signs that Sanders is running his 2020 presidential campaign differently, as The Nation’s Matthew Karp points out

Rather than battle Republicans by targeting a “Democratic base” defined by strict demographics—the preferred strategy of many progressives today—Sanders seeks to overcome the power of the ultra-rich by rallying a much larger coalition of the working and middle classes. Bernie’s America is not divided between red and blue states or vicious and virtuous voters but between the rulers and the ruled. This may be one reason Sanders, alone among the politicians classed as “progressive,” has remained popular with independent voters.” 

But even a President Sanders would not succeed in passing any of his keystone policies such as Medicare for All, public-funded college, or Climate Change legislation without a mass movement behind him mandating reform. 

This is not to say that electing the right people isn’t a good thing – it certainly is, especially considering executive orders, foreign policy, and Supreme Court nominations that a president, for example, has at his or her control. 

To put it another way, electing the right people is necessary for substantive reform, but not sufficient for such reform. 

FDR and The New Deal

There was a time when mass labor and working-class movements did, in fact, mandate reform from the centers of wealth and power. That time was in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Richard Moser from Counterpunch describes this climate:

Widespread labor upheavals changed the political climate. The mass production industries were organized for the first time as thousands of new leaders –including significant numbers of women and people of color — led the revolt from the shop floor.

There were strikes waves that included sit-down strikes where workers actually occupied the workplace.  Autoworkers in Flint, Michigan kicked off the wave of sit-down strikes that spread into all sorts of workplaces.

Strikes for better conditions and union recognition were massive. For example, in 1934 alone, there were 1,856 strikes waged by 1,470,000 workers.[2] Six million workers formed unions during the decade. Of the 38 new industrial unions, 18 were led by communists or other leftists until McCarthyism and the 1947 Taft-Hartly Act expelled them from the AFL-CIO. So furious was the class war that the New Deal was forced to recognize worker’s rights in an attempt to pacify labor relations.”

Moser then details how the Farm Holiday Movement of 30,000 members led protests against mortgage foreclosures. 40,000 veterans, dubbed “The Bonus Army”, marched on D.C. and formed a tent city to demand better benefits.  The unemployed formed Unemployed Councils to demand work and better living conditions. Moser continues: 

In March 1930, 500,000 people marched in 25 cities to demand relief. Many local demonstrations were brutally attacked by police. People died but we won unemployment insurance.  The Workers Alliance of America originally demanded ‘the abolition of the profit system’ and claimed to represent 400,000 people. They pushed for legislative reforms and progressive candidates. The unemployed movement was led by communists, socialists, and assorted radicals.”

Moser correctly explains that the New Deal reforms were forced from below – aka mass movements of various working-class organizations:

Mass movements, third parties and revolutionary parties, labor upheaval, agrarian unrest, powerful populists, discontented veterans, and Democratic congressmen more radical than FDR pushed the New Deal into being.”

Now imagine FDR attempting to pass any of these reforms by his Administration alone. Good luck on that. 

Some say politics is all about compromising with the other side and finding the middle ground – a middle ground they contend is usually correct. But this is largely a ruse. Compromise is only one aspect of politics and far from the most important. 

What is far more critical to politics is one oftentimes forgotten in our age of rampant individual consumerism and religious market greed. And that is building coalitions and movements that force demanded change. There is no alternative. Anything short of coalition building and mass movements from the population will ultimately result in an effort of bowed heads and hands held out for some leader or other to hopefully provide. We’ve seen how this practice has played out in the past.

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