A time of possibility
The last week has played havoc with our emotions. A time of relief, a sense of possibility and an opportunity to seize. There’s much work to do – but much to build on.
Biden and Harris have given many in the US and around the world the chance to take a breath. Removing Trump from the White House was vital – even existential. And in another way, this election is already historic: Kamala Harris is the first Black and Asian-American woman to become Vice-President. Alongside her stand emerging leaders, whether elected or not (yet) – from Raphael Warnock to Ilhan Omar, from Cori Bush to Katie Porter. These Democrats have learned the hard way that there’s no shortcut to the slow, and sometimes thankless work of intensive organising, local capacity building and alliance-forming.
On the ground, we’ve seen the years of smart and patient local organising pay off. Where Democrats have won, it is thanks to the alliances they built, both across the party (like the Biden-Sanders taskforces) and with external campaigns, such as the Sunrise movement. There were plenty of progressive alliances at work in this election, often quietly and under the radar. The party gathered the best of itself together and united in common cause – defeating the incumbent Right. Compass will be reaching out and learning their lessons. Over the next four years, we have our own patient building work to do.
The dangers remain
The future is still full of doubts. The strength of the Trump vote was a shock to progressives. The US Right has been waging a ruthless political war for the future of society, determined not just to cling onto power, but own it. They have the ambition and audacity to capture the popular imagination. They have inflicted deep wounds on the country – on its social fabric and on the social contract, wounds that will take time, work and radical reform to heal.
Most concerning is perhaps the heavy damage inflicted on the practice and norms of democracy itself. US political architecture, like our own, often serves to entrench or aggravate political inequalities – and undermine a basic democratic tenet: fairness. Neither here nor there is democracy fit for purpose. When a global reality comes up against institutional relics in the nation state, power and politics get separated. Citizens grow frustrated: what is the point of democracy if it can’t fix inequality, climate breakdown or the erosion of nationhood? The Right goes in for the kill, attacking old forms of representation and the institutions that underpin them precisely because they are weak and vulnerable. Many state institutions, much state administration, the universities, the media – they need radical rethinking and reform.
The Right then exploit the polarisation they cause through their ‘culture wars’. They use people’s alienation to produce a rage against the establishment, the migrant and the scrounger, in a crude language of loss and pseudo patriotism that ends in the demand to ‘take back control’ or ‘make America great again’.
But what fuels the Right’s urgency to win isn’t the loss of temporary power in an election, but rather the prospects of a future in which real democracy takes root – for good. Unlike some of the older backward-looking progressives, they have seen how the fusion of technology and democracy can reconnect power and politics. They know, smart phone in hand, that people want more autonomy and voice. They have it in every other aspect of their daily lives – so why not in politics?
Because a stronger democracy is within our grasp, if we can put this technology to work for greater connection, and community. The Right’s mission is to use this same technology to disrupt and confuse, driving people apart. This begets ‘Chaos Conservatism’ – a politics of smoke and mirrors that peddles blame, loss and despair in the system.
What now for the Democrats?
Despite the early shocks of election night and the precarity of the current moment, seeds of renewal are there.
On the Compass podcast on Thursday, we were lucky enough to host three people who have been working doggedly to both protect and renew US democracy. All three agreed that, to make this a watershed moment, we must direct our energies in two directions. Firstly, towards a deeper investment in the local, relational organising that has helped win the Democrats this election.
And second to give priority to structural democratic reform, such as campaign finance, the electoral college, and action against voter suppression, gerrymandering and the partisan weighting of the Supreme Court.
It’s both cultural and structural change that will determine the fortunes of progressives everywhere. From Taiwan to Totnes, people are building a new kind of democratic power through new practices and processes. This winning combination is evident in the Flatpack Democracy movement in England and European municipalism. It can involve new structures like the Citizens Alliance Network being developed in Barking and Dagenham. It is a programme that includes both citizens’ assemblies and radical devolution. All of this starts from the recognition that people power, matched with an open and innovative state, is a recipe for great things. We call this meeting point of the horizontal movements and the vertical state – politics at 45 degrees.
But we cannot take success for granted. The issue is not whether this is an age of new collectivism, but rather what kind: authoritarian elitist or democratic egalitarian? A surveillance society or a networked society in which purchase power gives way to citizen power? New Progressives know that, as former German SPD leader Willy Brandt put it, we must ‘dare more democracy’ – proving democracy to be as effective as it is attractive.
Leading and learning
More than anything this demands new political leadership. Leaders who are wise and humble enough to draw together the best parts of the progressive movement. Biden and Harris must use this moment to reach beyond their own circle, drawing close those who might have been their detractors. They have shown themselves capable of it in the campaign – and have seen victory. But once in office, they’ll need the dynamism of the Justice Democrats to push them towards bolder policies and bring the energy and knowledge of grassroots movement for climate, racial and economic justice.
Leaders like Stacy Abrams, who has spent her life fighting against voter suppression and for deeper democracy. When it came to election time, she and her organisers were ready: they painted Georgia blue. And now they may set the tone for the early days of this new administration, with the focus on their efforts to flip the Senate in the new year.
Then there are candidates for President such as Andrew Yang – a powerful proponent of Universal Basic Income – who pushed the idea from the margins to the mainstream, demonstrating that stepping forward as a leader doesn’t have to mean consensus politics or playing it safe.
These leaders have the patience needed for the long haul, both in the campaign and in office. They know political leadership is about teaching and learning. That in turn demands awareness of others’ needs and being willing to acknowledge mistakes and apologise for them.
Last weekend, Compass held its final Build Back Better How? session on the question of better leadership with Mandu Reid, Jamie Driscoll, Uffe Elbaek and Jennifer Nadel. They all emphasised kindness, openness and decency – values we’ve seen restored during the US election.
Only across all progressive parties and none lie the solutions to the crises and opportunities we face. It is one of the reasons why we back proportional representation – because it creates incentives to cooperate and ensures all voices are heard. This is The Age of Alliances, not single party rule.
That’s why here at Compass, we will continue to focus our energies on building a powerful progressive majority; a combination of grassroots knowledge, local innovation, movement generosity and smart, humble party leadership.
In this effort, we are always on the hunt for inspiration. We will connect across the Atlantic to organisations like Bridge USA and Living Room Conversations and learn the lessons of Swing Left, Brand New Congress and No Dem Left Behind– all feeding directly into our work on building progressive alliances. We will draw on the ingenuity of the new municipalists across Europe and the mayors in our own cities. We will seek out and elevate the best examples of Building Back Better in the UK. And we will work between and within all progressive parties to build this progressive majority to form a powerful new government to transform our country.
We have just four years..
The Compass Team