4 Hard Truths for a Progressive Movement in Denial



I went to RootsCamp hoping for a moment of reckoning for the progressive movement. What I saw were the pre-purchased balloons dropping on Clinton headquarters, results be damned. I went hoping to come back inspired by the new campaigns and strategies that would rise from the ashes. What I came away with was…

1. We won’t win again without introspection

A full 60 minutes into a GOTV session that celebrated the power of new SMS tools and the creativity of Slack bots, a man to my left raised his hand and politely asked, “But turnout was way down, right…?”

Introspection is hard. Getting in front of a room full of people and saying “these are the things that I personally fucked up” is even harder. But for most of the sessions, RootsCamp felt like nothing extraordinary or sinister happened two weeks ago. It did, and if we’re going to limit how much worse it gets and make sure Republicans and white nationalists are repudiated by the American electorate next time around, every one of us on the left is going to have to start digging deep and sharing what we personally fucked up.

For one, I know that I am guilty of being too insular with my activism and have shied away from the risks of trying to organize and build power with people who don’t share my world view. What did you fuck up? We can’t fix it if we don’t talk about it.

2. Big data won’t save us

The times that the big questions, “Why didn’t we win? Why didn’t our messages resonate? What could work better?” did come up, I heard the same refrain repeatedly. “We need to look at the data”. Hillary Clinton lost and I don’t think it’s because the members of her data team were bad at their jobs, were ignored or didn’t try hard enough. She lost because a model that says you should win and a message that’s focus group tested doesn’t replace a message and messenger that resonate with voters.

I was hoping to see leadership at RootsCamp. It was there. The #WeBuiltThis session showed the powerful campaigns that emerge from trusting instincts, leaders and vision. Anyone who wants to peel off moderate Trump voters or engage non-voters should think about following this lead. As Josh Levingerpointed out on Twitter, the way people were talking about voters who didn’t support Hillary Clinton “sounded like Orientalist ethnographers”. More focus groups or message testing won’t bring wayward protest voters back into the fold. Not if following the data comes at the expense of taking risks and developing bold leadership.

3. Resistance is qualitatively different than advocacy

Donald Trump doesn’t care how many signatures we can collect on an online petition or how many supporters we can turn out for a lobby day.

I’m not sure what resistance to a Trump regime look like yet. Lots of POC, Muslim, immigrant and LGBT organizers who have resisted a state that’s hostile to them for their entire careers do. But I know that no matter how many hours we’ve spent perfecting the model of advocacy that helped to push the Obama administration a little further left, it’s not going to work for the next four years. The sooner we can grieve and let go of the parts that are obsolete, the sooner we’ll actually have the resources and attention available to follow those organizers’ leads.

4. Punditry won’t save us either. We need strategies and power.

Medium has probably been the biggest winner from the immediate aftermath of the election. The need to cope with the results of the election by dissecting them in writing is probably a big part of why I felt compelled to write this. But we now need to move past the Monday morning quarterbacking and get down to brainstorming the strategies and tactics that are going to stop Trump from deporting 3 million immigrants, rolling back civil rights progress or destroying the planet. I hoped RootsCamp would be the moment to clear the chalkboard and ask, “So what can we do? What’s worked in similar circumstances? What’s never been tried before?” We can’t make it through the next progressive gathering without this good, hard look in the mirror.

Julien Burns