The recent Women’s March saw more than 400,000 people rally in Washington, and similar rallies took place in Dubuque and across the U.S. Likewise, in response to the Trump administration’s immigration ban last weekend, protests erupted at airports and in other locations, including Dubuque’s Washington Park, where more than 100 protesters gathered.
While these efforts are laudable, as any citizen engagement in a democracy should be, they are unlikely to lead to any sustained political change. To succeed, the political left has to adopt the right’s playbook, something it has been unable to do to date.
The populist movement on the political right that culminated in the election of President Donald Trump has succeeded because it has been united, effectively led and well-funded — three characteristics that the left lacks.
To succeed, movements need to unite the masses around a common identity and cause. The right in America is largely (though not exclusively) white and Christian. It is also centered in working-class towns and rural areas where jobs are the most important issue and from where a disproportionate number of those who serve in our armed forces are drawn.
The right is thus united around Christian values (such as being pro-life) and an “America First” foreign policy that stresses a strong defense against foreign adversaries and job creation here at home. There is little disagreement on these issues; indeed, even the left would agree in principle with the latter two.
In contrast, the left is divided. It is not divisive, simply diverse.
The Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movement, reproductive justice advocates and environmental activists, for example, have difficulty speaking to one another and don’t see themselves as part of the same broad movement. This leads to many one-off protests, as we saw these past two weekends, with little sustained mobilization beyond.
There are hints that this may be improving. The Women’s March recently published a new set of principles that explicitly champions the diversity of its identities and causes. But so far, this supposed unity exists only on paper.
Mass movements also need leaders to convey their messages effectively. Though rocky at times, ultimately the right was able to unite behind Trump, a man who does not fit the mold of politician and who has already started to “drain the swamp” of those by whom the right feels victimized.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton was a divisive force within the left and alienated members of the party that she was working to unite. Many of the “Bernie or Bust” faction refused to vote for Clinton after Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination. With Barack Obama now out of mainstream politics, the left lacks a unifying leader. To date, no charismatic, rising stars have emerged.
The right is well supported and funded. The network of donors led by the Koch brothers, for example, donated over $250 million to Republican political candidates leading up to the November elections, and already have plans for spending $50 to $150 million more for the 2018 mid-term elections.
Along with those of other large donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, these efforts have helped the Republican Party to gain full control over 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, as well as many lower-level offices.
Significant support for the left has largely been absent. In the last few days, large corporations have taken impressive action in response to Trump’s immigration ban. Google has donated $4 million to help refugees, Starbucks promised to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, and Airbnb has offered free temporary housing to refugees and other travelers left in limbo by the policy. Yet this is emblematic of the failure of the left. Those actions, while commendable, are humanitarian, not political. Thus, the long-term impact on political power will be negligible.
The left often derides the social and political views of those on the right. But to bring about any meaningful, long-term change, it needs to adopt its playbook: sustained financial support and leadership around a small set of unifying issues. Otherwise it will be left sitting on the sidelines.