In a January 6 PRA briefing, panelists convened to situate January 6th in a longer trajectory of ongoing insurrection and answer the questions that are foremost on our minds. What do we do if we keep losing? What are some of the most significant challenges that we as social justice movements face? What are the opportunities for building a united front right now? And most importantly, what must we be doing in this moment to forestall the foregone conclusion that the end of our democracy is nigh?
The full webinar recording and transcript are available on our website.
Tarso Luís Ramos, PRA Executive Director: The first anniversary of the Capitol storming is certainly an occasion to take stock of the robust current state of America’s insurrectionist and anti-democratic factions. We know that the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol building was one element in a series of Team Trump efforts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. An attempted coup, in fact. Neither the insurrection nor the coup attempt are over. They are both ongoing and, by important measures, intensifying.
The January 6th insurrection and coup attempt failed at its immediate purpose, and in the process, it really threatened to split Trump’s MAGA coalition of White nationalists, Christian nationalists, libertarian opportunists, [and] laissez faire deregulators. Amazingly, the coalition has not only held together, it’s even consolidated since that time into a more tightly coordinated authoritarian bloc that carries each other’s standards—anti-CRT, anti-voting, anti-trans people, anti-repro rights, anti-immigration. And the goals of this bloc couldn’t be clearer: White minority rule. As Bob Wing observes in a wonderful recent essay titled “Since the 2000 presidential election”—he says it’s become evident that the Republicans cannot win without suppressing voters of color, and Democrats cannot succeed without unleashing those voters.
The Right’s culture war issues mobilize and demarcate the exclusionary boundaries of an imagined real people of America, what I think it’s useful to think of as a new and emergent nation being mobilized to sanctify a new kind of state. A necessarily authoritarian government to be won—with violence, if necessary, but quite possibly by means of a bloodless coup next time.
The successful cultivation of this mass base is one of the Right’s most significant and dangerous accomplishments. In the mass base for this new nation state project is presumably a high percentage of those who voted for Trump in 2020, about 74 million people. The percent of those Trump voters who think the election was stolen is 68 percent.
One of the most striking features of the January 6th rioters is how different most of them are from the avowed White nationalists who staged the 2017 Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of the over 700 insurrectionists arrested so far, 87 percent had no discernible affiliation with a militia or White nationalist group. A similar number were gainfully employed, and almost half of these are business owners or have another white-collar job. This shows us that the animating ideas of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally are now the commonsense perspective of tens of millions of people in the United States.
Research on the January 6th insurrection shows that the fear of Great Replacement—the White nationalist idea that Whites are being replaced with dark skinned immigrants in an intentional strategy run by Jews—is a key driver of the insurrectionist movement, and the single most reliable predictor for belief that political violence was justified to Stop the Steal. Believing QAnon conspiracies was also very highly predictive. In polls, over 50 percent of Trump voters and Republicans believe that minorities are now favored over Whites.
The odds of sending an insurrectionist to DC were six times higher in counties where the percentage of non-Hispanic Whites is in decline. So this is not Red State America showing up on the Capitol steps. This is, in many cases, relatively economically comfortable White people perceiving a demographic shift, that they’re interpreting through this notion of replacement and losing their status as the real people to whom government is responsive and responsible.
So what are the likely scenarios and key challenges facing social justice and pro-democracy organizers in this period? First, how to adopt a more effective united front approach to blocking the further consolidation of far-right power, while simultaneously building the infrastructure we need for long term transformation of the current system. Second, why is the left so bad at culture war? And what can we learn about how the Far Right is waging culture war that can inform progressive strategy? Third, why we mustn’t shy from adopting a loud and public pro-democracy stance, even as we acknowledge that what passes for democracy has always been a system of rights for some in this country. Finally, how to incorporate more of a three-sided fight approach into the development of progressive strategy so that we’re not only thinking about our contest as being with the state or with corporations, but we understand that we have to have a strategy for engaging far-right groups.
Steven Gardiner, PRA Research Director: The various trends—state capture, culture war, and political violence— that we’re seeing are typically considered separately, but they form a part of a package of an ecosystem of far-right social movement activity that is impacting policy and state institutions, and influence on public policy. It’s impacting the public culture and shifting, or attempting to shift, the Overton window in a direction that basically says, as bad as things are right now, as much as we still live with systemic racism and White supremacy, they’re not bad enough.
At the level of policy and institution capture: the important action has moved from the federal level, with Trump’s departure, to the states and localities.
On the one hand, we have attacks on the formal system of democracy through legislation that’s making it harder to vote, easier for highly partisan state legislatures to influence what votes should be counted, gerrymandering for both state and congressional legislative districts, and limits on the rights of citizens to challenge unfair election practices in state court.
On the other hand, so-called culture war legislation and related policy fights restrict abortion; criminalize protests; attack the rights of trans people to fully participate in various institutions; seek to ban teaching about systemic racism and White supremacy in public schools; and impose restrictions on government ability to respond to COVID-19 and other kinds of public health crises.
In 2021, 19 states passed vote and voter suppression laws, 30+ of them. And we think this trend is going to continue in 2022, leading to a vicious cycle of anti-democracy legislation, which then leads to legislatures that are dominated by anti-democracy legislators.
Similarly, in the culture war lanes, 100 anti-trans bills, eight of which passed, created outsized interest in mobilizing the MAGA base and contributing to the culture war. Likewise with CRT, which was mentioned on Fox News for four months in 2021 1,300 times. In both cases, we are already seeing bills pre-filed for 2022.
With political violence, these motivating factors of worrying about the Great Replacement are mobilizing this base that includes a faction that is about armed protest, that is militarizing protest space, and making this into another form of voter suppression. And whereas in 2020, most of those protests were focused on opposing racial justice movements, in 2021 they’ve moved to mostly being executed at state capitols. This is where that action is likely to be in 2022 as well: armed protesters at our state capitols reinforcing these culture war and democracy suppression measures.
Koki Mendis: PRA looks at these trends on a national level, and we really depend on local partners like Blueprint North Carolina. What are you seeing on the ground and how does it relate to these national trends?
Serena Sebring, Executive Director of Blueprint North Carolina: Blueprint has been, for some time, in 100 counties of the state doing get out the vote work in that context. We received reports from people in places like eastern North Carolina, rural parts of our state—specifically Black communities in rural locations—of voter intimidation practices that were not new in 2020, were far from new—were in fact very old and very familiar.
As we started to collect the data in places where we had sheriffs who were associated with the Oath Keepers themselves, we saw in places like Alamance County sheriffs who just look the other way as far-right extremist and White supremacist organizing shaped elections for many years. And when I say shaped elections, what I mean is they would come to the polling places and lay out coffins in front of polling places in rural Black communities as a reminder of the threat that was inherent in this democracy.
So when I hear this conversation now, the first thing that comes to mind is, has this democracy been a real thing for many of us for a long time? It’s a real question. I think that the internal flaw in this democracy that we celebrate today has been for some time the enslavement of Black people, of five hundred years of political violence against Black people. The idea that democracy is in peril is something that we know in our bones, we’ve known in our communities, for generations.
When I think about what happened in Pasquotank County over the summer with Andrew Brown Jr’s murder, and we look at, what is the electoral system that sets up the justice system, that either supports the safety of Black communities and Black people or doesn’t, all of this is very vital and real in communities that are smaller or that have a history of voter suppression.
What we’re learning is that the insurrection is not distant. It’s not a year ago. It’s now, it’s close, it’s in our communities. We listened to people who worked those polls that we supported in 2020, and heard that in the aftermath of that, they too were receiving death threats. What has come out is that these threats don’t come from some invisible or anonymous source. They come from our communities, from our little league coaches and our school teachers—these are very close culture wars that are being fought. Those who conducted it are our neighbors, they are our colleagues. And that is a shift that we have to make if we are going to face this on the ground.
Another thing that we’re hearing a lot about is this idea that the Right has gone local. And what I can say, after doing this work in these counties, is that the Right has been local for a long time.
We are finding that paramilitary training centers are being sited in places that are specifically vulnerable to this environmental hazard. And what that looks like is small Black communities.
Hoffman, North Carolina has 588 primarily Black residents, and they have been fighting against a paramilitary training center there for some time that came in under the auspices of training official military forces, and now trains White supremacists. The center was set up and sold to the county commissioners as a gun range, essentially. And instead, they’re doing breeching exercises, which shake the ground and endanger the health, the property values, and the livelihoods of residents, who need a democracy that can change those conditions, who need to have a voice in the conditions of their community if any of us are going to have a claim to live under a democracy as well.
Mab Segrest, Senior Strategist for Blueprint North Carolina’s Anti-racist Research Program: I myself grew up in an apartheid Alabama, but saw enormous changes come from enormous struggle and sacrifice by the time I was 15, 1965, when I came to adulthood as a lesbian, gay, homosexual, butch, dyke, queer in the US South, considered a sinner by most Christian denominations, a pervert by the psychiatric establishment, and a criminal, up until 2002. I was a proud felon for crimes against nature, whose Class H felony status carried 10 years. So I have seen enormous changes for the better.
And I know that they also changed for the worse in, for instance, the 1980s and 1890s. The amazing Ida B. Wells had a moment of realization riding on a train from the recent lynching of three Memphis Black friends, that the tide was turning politically and it would take a new kind of organizing to both advance and to defend the terrain. The task would also be to figure out how to live freely in captured territory. And I think that we are at such a point of inflection today
With many others in the 1980s, I was engaged in the fight the Right. The goal in organizations such as National Anti-Klan Network, Center for Democratic Renewal, Western States Center, North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence was to keep the Far Right out of the mainstream, which is to say out of state power. And I have to say, we lost that war.
Last year, insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol had allies in the Senate and House chambers who literally opened some of the doors to let them in.
Questions are being asked publicly in response to Trumpism over the past four years. How do we prevent the destruction of democracy or a coup or civil war? But it seems to me that time may be running out for the solutions being proposed if, for instance, there is whatever chance that Trump or one of his clones could win in 2024 with majorities in the House, Senate, and Supreme Court. We need to do everything in our power to keep that from happening, but also realize that Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, Merrick Garland, and Liz Cheney seem to be the ones blocking our standing in the gap.
Progressives, Democrats, Leftists, we’re losing leverage because they’re destroying the fulcrums around which levers transfer state power and force. Relative free and open elections, peaceful transfer of power, balance of powers, the rule of law: acknowledging that these have functioned in an illiberal democracy, founded in slaveocracy and genocide—but surely they are still fairly good ideas. So I think we must ask more publicly, what happens if we do not save democracy or prevent the coup? Because in many places in this country, the loss has already happened, as we can attest in some places in North Carolina.
In North Carolina with Blueprint, we have started this mapping process of what I think of as occupied and liberated territories. What does this power struggle look like at the granular and county level, as Serena was saying? Once we know more fully where the [opposition] are and where our folks are, you begin to identify issues to raise and ways to draw the line. Because I am convinced that the vast majority of people in this country do not want a civil war.
North Carolina is one of these battleground states where democracy is being held, lost, and found every week and every day. Our markers include slavery; the Wilmington Massacre in 1898; Greensboro Massacre in 1979; Jesse Helms; the 2010 process of gerrymandering; Mark Meadows and Madison Cawthorne, who were far up in the insurrection’s processes; the fight over Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 project that led to her refusing a position at UNC Chapel Hill. Blueprint has gone the farthest in mapping the paramilitary industrial complex in 4 rural counties west of Fort Bragg, which is the largest military base in the world.
This is the fight of our lifetime, and we continue to be up to it in whatever terrain and whatever form it takes. It’s both the meaning of and the possibility of life. It requires intergenerational conversations, because some of the old timers can tell tales of discarded but powerful strategies, and the younger timers are wired to technologies and new ways of being because they know their survival depends on them.
Tarso Luís Ramos: I want to reflect on Serena’s observation around the limits of what passes for democracy in the United States. There is a habit whereby it’s only when the rights and privileges of relatively privileged sectors of society are infringed that the conversation turns to one of authoritarianism. Whereas in fact, we’ve had structures of authoritarianism within the United States for a very long time through its management of both externally and internally oppressed, marginalized, and attacked communities.
And I want to appreciate, Mab, your provocation about, how do we prepare for the possibility that the coup next time is successful? We don’t as yet have sufficient power among what we might call progressives, civil rights, community, and others, to ourselves block the further consolidation of state power by the Far Right, which is well underway. So we do need to mobilize people who may not be in it for the long journey for fundamental transformation, but need to be mobilized in the near term. But it can’t all be about the block. We’re not trying to just protect this system. It’s got to be about the build. And so what are the investments we can make as part of the provocation?
I think self-defense, community safety, and generational struggle are central to questions of strategy in a moment where, among the obstacles to doing these things, is an ongoing level of denialism. I think many liberals are clinging to a kind of belief that there is a gravitational center in American democracy, that there’s a swing towards the right, but somehow it has almost a natural law that things will swing back to the left. And so there’s still work to be done in breaking through that denialism in a situation where that’s not the physics of the moment; that the moment is a bullet train headed towards authoritarianism and White rule in this country.
Koki Mendis: This brings up the question of: what do we do and how do we do it?
Serena Sebring: The experience of the 2020 election and post-election period trained all of our eyes on safety. We were questioning in the summer of 2020, frankly, what does safety look like? And I actually think that this is the way to just keep pushing on that. What does community-based safety mean? If we understand this whole conversation to be about democracy, about governance, the whole function of governance is to create community safety. And so there is something that points us towards democracy in every conversation about safety, about how do we keep us safe? Not to rely on systems that we know are sick with racism right now, are sick with transphobia and homophobia, are full of woman-hating rhetoric. We know that these systems will fail to keep us safe. And so how do we continue to have our eyes trained on community safety? What can we do together that we could not do alone?
I know in North Carolina, we started talking in the post-election period about, how do we have distribution centers for food, for basic supplies, that are churches that are not specific to the congregants at that church, but are community resources? How do we repurpose some of the infrastructures that we already have to really attend to the safety needs of what we will need if Mab’s right? We need a full safety infrastructure, because the one we have has failed us. And as we work towards that, we get closer to democracy and get closer to what is good for the collective and for the whole.
For Blueprint, the answer is in community-based collective decision-making and organizing. As folks have said already, the Right is not concerned with the petty fractional differences that the Left is. The Right is not concerned that some are anti-abortionists and some just hate CRT. They will roll together, and we have to, too. It is important that we develop both spaces of radical imagination and spaces that can hold those that are coming to even understand what it means to imagine something different.
Mab Segrest: I can say Amen to that. And also, C3s, C4s, and PACs are not radical imagination. I do think that we have to begin to think beyond those structures, because they’re not working. They depend on an electoral system that actually works and a state where you can petition for redress of your grievances and have a policy change. And these folks are not interested in policy. I’ve worked in C3s before, and they don’t work for liberatory practices and they don’t work now for survival. So I’m not saying close them all, but I am saying we have to have a foot inside and a foot outside. The strategies have to work before and after this coup.
In terms of other kinds of strategies, I do think that intergenerational conversations are really important. Because just as a queer, etc., I really remember I lived as a felon for most of my life. And we thrived as felons and sinners and perverts and everything. I mean, we built an alternate culture from that. And then we got marriage and we got the army, and they can be taken away from us. But we have that other experience of making our lives in an existential way, vibrantly, in a way that the culture then had to demand to. And I don’t know if younger people do that, but we have lived other ways. We have that in our muscle memory. These things that we have done before, we have gained this ground very fast that they’re trying to take away from us. And we need to talk about that. I find younger and very brilliant generations of activists really want those conversations too. So ways to structure those, increasingly I think is important.
Tarso Luís Ramos: We’re several generations away now from the experience of building a united front against fascism, against authoritarianism, in the politics of what that means to build that. I think there are opportunities both in the international field and looking at our own history in the United States and in other places, of figuring out what engages in a broader set of coalitional politics without dissolving oneself within it.
I think that part of what the culture war strategy of the Right has yielded for it is the ability to craft a common set of worldview and identity among really disparate communities, communities that 40 years ago would not get in the same room together. There are a lot of communities and people in this country who are not happy with the direction of the country, and they don’t have a political home at this moment. I think there are millions of White evangelicals who look at the overt racism of the Trump regime and know it’s wrong, and don’t know where to go with it.
There is not an infrastructure for mobilizing the tens of millions of progressive religious people in this country on their own terms, because that’s not how our nonprofits have been built to facilitate. And there’s a tremendous need to form a kind of prefigurative vision of a multiracial nation in which the majority of people in this country, including a plurality of White people, imagine themselves thriving.
I think that imagining that community is a really important project for the Left. We tend to respond to challenges in policy terms, right? So here comes the Right with a set of cultural attacks that galvanize a base, and the Left’s response, all too frequently, is to look at shoring up the social safety net and look at an economic justice policy initiative—which I’m not criticizing, I think are necessary but insufficient to this moment of actually engaging in a kind of culture war battle with the Right. I think there are a lot of opportunities for reclaiming lost knowledge and reapplying it to the current conditions, and that requires enormous political will.
I think we have to also recognize that we are under tremendous assault from centrists who are trying to lift up a false narrative that the Black freedom struggle in this generation is somehow responsible for the failures of the Democratic Party—for instance, in the Virginia governor’s race—and that aspiring to a multi-racial democracy in this country is somehow the problem. We need to push back hard against that. It’s not just the Far Right that’s attacking the racial justice movement. It’s a center that’s attacking foundations that are funding that work, attacking the leaders from the grassroots. And we have to have a resounding response to that, without foregoing the possibility of continuing to work with folks who are more centrist and moderates around a block strategy as well. It makes that really trying work under those circumstances. But those are the waters we need to navigate in this moment.
Mab Segrest: In the 60s and 70s, the National Council of Churches was that group that brought together progressive Christians, and the social gospel in the 50s and 60s out of the civil rights movement was what transformed the country. And what the Right saw was they had to co-opt and destroy these undergirdings. And so they went after the Protestant denominations and National Council of Churches, and they went after them by this campaign for conservatism in the pews. They really did change the base in the church.
Serena Sebring: I’m grateful, Tarso, that you brought us to this piece about faith, because I think we are going to need it. We face a tremendously difficult and really disparaging context, that we are going to have to work towards telling a truth that nobody wants to hear. We’re going to have to work towards mobilizing when people are fighting just to leave home. We’re going to have to dig deep into everything that, I know, comes from faith, and towards what? Towards what is the question, right? What is it that this plurality of folks can see is in their best interest? I think that there is something in all of our traditions, if I go back to the church like Mab, where one or more of us are gathered in his name. Where I am because we are, as in Ubuntu, in a South African context. We from many traditions know that the greater “us,” the bigger “we,” is a spiritual space. And so I call that into this 2022 as well. I call that hunger for connection and right relationship with each other into our work of democracy.
Koki Mendis: How do we build this broader “we” is a big question on everyone’s mind, thinking about the pro-democracy stance.
Steven Gardiner: I think in fact the things that Mab and Serena were saying are relevant because a lot of understanding what the Right has done to imagine their “we,” is that they have made this an intensely institution-by-institution and locality-by-locality fight. So it’s taking this to churches, to clubs, to school board fights, to places where people will feel like they have agency, because they’re not talking to the void of the United States Senate or American foreign policy. But our energies where we often fail, is in taking a cultural message to where people are at and listening as well as speaking.
Building that “we” is going to depend on understanding that that effort itself is going to be attacked directly from right-wing hostiles. So [in] the fight against CRT, the fight is against talking about systemic racism as a reality now, not just historically in the United States, in public schools. [It’s a] very salutary kind of effort that comes under attack and builds base at the local level for the Right without ever having to even do something like propose a law nationally.
Tarso Luís Ramos: To speak to some of the cultural work, given the realities of how [this country] is structured, how power is currently organized—you have to engage with religious people. You can’t get around the reality of White supremacy. [You’ve] got to engage with the White folks. The idea that we’re going to build majority winning coalitions based on what we have now is just not realistic over the long run, as we see the goalposts move what we do. If we think that a governing majority is 50 percent plus one in an electoral system, well, there goes that arithmetic the next cycle. So we need something larger and more durable.
And I would argue that among the many things within that that we need, in this conversation about building a larger “we,” is the need for new narratives in stories, compelling stories, about the prophetic role of White people in this moment towards building a multiracial democratic society. White people need to see themselves as agents in realizing a future that we’re all pulling towards. I don’t think we have those stories. When we think about, what does it mean to reach out? I think we need to think instead about, how do we leverage resources for folks who are already there. There’s a tradition—and Frederick Clarkson on our team at PRA writes a lot about this—the way that progressives are going to engage religious people, whether they’re Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or others, is to do outreach from secular organizations. That’s going to be a facet of building infrastructure and strategy for religious progressives.
Mab Segrest: To this White person question, I think there’s too much conversation about White fragility, and not enough conversation about White courage. Because the way you ask the question is a way you get the answer. There’s formulas to do it and we learn courage from Black people, from people of color we’ve been around. I mean, that’s where we get it. [We need] more conversations on what makes White people be brave and take risks. And what do we need to do that? I think SURJ is having really important conversations, not just conversations, but forms of organization out there.
Serena Sebring: I think that one of the reasons that I get so excited about this, is that I understand in the southern context how very important it is to have multi-racial coalition spaces that are Black led. And I think we still face a demographic situation, in which no singular race could turn the needle. And especially not Black folks cannot save the day for America. We cannot be responsible for everybody.
Koki Mendis: How does a progressive coalition exercise narrative control with the state of media in this country? How do we actually disseminate our message? Or alternatively, how has the Right managed to shape media to its ends?
Tarso Luís Ramos: I think a lot of progressive organizations are not very good at distinguishing between messaging for our closing constituency, and messaging that’s designed to broaden our base and build a bigger “we.”
I do think there’s something really complicated and chilling about the right-wing media ecosystem in the United States. During the Trump presidency, we had what amounted to a private version of state media. It was private media serving as state media. And that same private media, now serving as insurrectionists.
We do need more independent media. We need to build its scale, and we need to right size the audience outreach that we’re after around a strategic map that gets developed collectively.
I want to throw in a throwback to what Serena and Mab were just speaking to about the importance of having Black and other people of color-led multiracial organizing. I strongly believe in that, and we need to break the cycle that is perpetuated by many liberals in which Black people in this country are put in the position of being the parachute when the plane of democracy is going down, but never the pilot. We have to really think about how we continue to build, and resource, and elevate the leadership of communities that have the most to gain from democracy in this country, and historically have had the most to lose, and given up the most for the failures of democracy to deliver.
Black folks, indigenous folks, Latinx folks, APIs can’t be put in the position of saving White folks when they’ve suddenly realized that the pendulum keeps going in one direction, rather than swinging back.
I just want to really underscore that we’re in a long-term struggle. We’re in a generational struggle for democratic possibility. Some things are going to get worse before they get better. And there are also incredible organizations and movements that have risen to the forefront, so we do have some wind at our sails. History has not been written, the outcomes are not foretold. So it’s important to develop strategy based on a very cold eye assessment of the balance of forces, and develop the strategy that will begin to turn the tables.
The granular application of how we’re going to build is going to be shaped by local conditions. It’s the brilliance of local organizers—folks like Serena, folks like Mab—to think about what we’re pulling towards nationally and then figuring out what it means in terms of local conditions, to move that ball forward. That’s really going to make the difference over time. There is no silver bullet, there is no one way. And experimentation and a diversity of strategies is what’s going to lead to the discoveries about what can carry us forward in this movement.
Serena Sebring: When you were talking, Tarso, about moving the ball forward, I was thinking, I just hope we don’t drop the ball. My youngest child just turned 19 yesterday and I made a commitment to do what I could—a long time ago—to leave this place better than I found it, for them. I think we have another opportunity to at least not drop the ball. And if we win, we get closer to a vision of a world that we would be proud to leave to our children. And that is what I take from this conversation. I’m really grateful to think about that future, that visionary future.