When I was in college, longer ago than I would care to admit, my best friend and I knew an older fellow who thought of himself as something of an activist. For this anecdote, I’ll call him Clint (not his real name). To my friend and me, Clint was kind of a sad case—a well-meaning, hard-luck guy, beset by a sense of self-importance that greatly exceeded his effectiveness.
One day, my friend was covering a rally for a local newspaper for which we were both interning at the time. After the passage of more than 20 years, I will admit I don’t remember what the rally was about, but it was some liberal cause which my younger, more conservative self probably didn’t appreciate as much then as my older, more liberal self would now. When it was over, our aforementioned acquaintance walked over to my friend with a determined look on his face and said two words: “We won.”
I cannot recount my exact response when my friend told me this story, but here’s the gist of what came out of my mouth: “Really, Clint? You won? What exactly did you win? Did anybody in a position of power listen to you, or even care? Will anything change?”
Anytime somebody holds a march or a rally, I inevitably think of my old acquaintance Clint, and the same questions always come to mind. “What did you win? Did anybody in a position of power listen or care? Will anything change?” These questions again came to mind after Saturday, when numerous marches for women’s rights, in cities large and small, turned out amazing numbers across the country and all over the world.
Now, even to someone as skeptical of the effectiveness of marches and rallies as this columnist, the fact that more than two million people turned out in cities across the United States to support women’s rights was impressive. It demonstrated that many Americans are so committed to the rights of women that they were willing to turn out in droves to say so. That, in itself, is a wonderful thing, and I salute them for it.
But if these marches prove to be an end in themselves, rather than the beginning of an organized mobilization to win political power, then they will be all for naught—mere feel-good exercises providing the illusions of action and usefulness.
I hope that the latter is not the case, but I will admit that there are many times when I think that the left learned the wrong lessons from the 1960s. There often seems to be a notion that all the protest marches were what won the battles on civil rights and the Vietnam War. But the reality is not that simple.
I have been asking around since Saturday whether the Democratic Party had enough sense to send people out to the rallies to register voters.
The marches of the 1960s certainly played a foundational role, by drawing media attention and providing a base for mobilization. In the end, though, it was the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes blocking and tackling of politics that won the day: voting drives, voter registration drives, community organizing, and incessant pressure, both overt and subtle, on the nation’s political leaders. The treasure troves of newly registered black voters put irresistible pressure on the politicians who represented their states and districts to either embrace civil rights or at least get out of the way. The roar of the antiwar movement in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary not only claimed the political scalp of the president who had amped up American involvement in Vietnam; it also sent a clear message to other politicians who valued their jobs.
To achieve a political purpose, a march or rally must accomplish at least one of three things, and ideally achieve all of them: register and motivate voters; identify future leaders; and disseminate a central, concise and coherent message.
The first two of these items go to political organizing. I have been asking around since Saturday whether the Democratic Party had enough sense to send people out to the rallies to register voters, sign up volunteer organizers, or identify potential leaders who might make good candidates for office. This is admittedly anecdotal, but those of my friends who attended one of these marches, and then answered my query, noted seeing little or nothing of Democratic Party organizers at these events.
If this is a correct assessment, then it is yet another astonishing example of the Democratic Party’s ongoing political malpractice. These rallies could have served as prime opportunities to turn concerned citizens into voters—to turn energy into power. Millions of Americans showed up Saturday looking for leadership, and it appears that many of them didn’t find any. The Democratic Party never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
As to a central, concise, and coherent message, I’m still not sure what the central message of the rallies was. Was it a rather vague, catch-all statement of support for women, or was it a declaration of disdain for the new president?
James Carville, as one of the leaders of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign for president, often repeated the mantra ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’
Concise, effective messaging has been a problem for the Democrats, and the left generally, for a long time. Tina Dupuy, a progressive journalist, comedian and onetime communications director for the liberal firebrand politician Alan Grayson, wrote a brilliant article on December 2, 2016, in which she addressed many of the structural political problems of the left, but one passage in particular, regarding the left’s messaging indiscipline, especially stood out to me: “Liberals and the Left have long suffered from what I’ve called ‘micro-cause-ism.’ If you go to an anti-war rally, for example, there are booths about saving the whales and GMOs and bubble cities and so on. No one can afford to be divided by too many objectives anymore.”
I recommend the entire article to all progressives, but I am especially impressed by Dupuy’s clear pinpointing of the left’s lack of focus, and the collapse of any coherent progressive messaging under the weight of a multitude of agendas. It reminds me of my own, oft-stated observation that conservatives have a philosophy and progressives have a quilt.
A clear, concise message is crucial to political success. James Carville, as one of the leaders of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign for president, often repeated the mantra “Keep it simple, stupid,” and that campaign did just that, winning the White House with a concise, three-legged stool of messaging: 1) change versus more of the same; 2) it’s the economy; 3) don’t forget about health care. Remember that approach the next time some progressive policy conference rolls out a ponderous 15-point plan or brings together an unwieldy coalition of two dozen different groups, each with its own distinct agenda and too often in competition with each other.
The bottom line is that the people who marched on Saturday want to see progressive change in America. But getting that change will depend on realizing that Saturday was only the first step in a long journey. Those who marched, and other like-minded individuals, must keep the momentum from Saturday and turn it into power, because change does not come from a position of powerlessness. Stay connected to the people you met; help organize like-minded individuals; and encourage those who demonstrated leadership skills to run for office. If the Democratic Party won’t do this from the top down, then it has to happen from the grassroots up.
Right now, we have to face the fact that progressives do not hold any political power on the federal level, and very little in the states. We are on the outside looking in, and no amount of marching, in and of itself, can change that fact. Tactics deployed without strategy are just motions without actual movement, and one does not get power by simply asking powerful people to cede or share some of their power. Power must be taken, and in our system, there is only one way to do that.
In short, if you want to march, that’s wonderful, but unless the march ultimately ends in the voting booth, nothing is ever going to change.
Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.