‘Introduction’ in Power Concedes Nothing, edited by Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and María Poblet, A project of Convergence–A Magazine of Radical Insights, OR Books, 2022.
The nation had endured four years of a presidential administration led by a white supremacist, anti-immigrant, self-dealing demagogue whose disdain for the institutions and procedures of democratic governance became ever more entrenched as his presidency unfolded. Trump deliberately attacked democratic norms and unleashed a suite of far-right actors prepared to use Congress, the federal bureaucracy, the courts, the Republican Party, state legislatures, right-wing media, and armed militias in their bid for authoritarian rule. Of course Trump’s particular brand of toxicity seeped into well-tilled soil. Forty years of Republican anti-tax, anti-regulatory, anti-government ideology and governance; backlash against the election of the nation’s first Black president; fear of demographic change; the growth of a far-right, all-encompassing media environment; and long-standing, deeply rooted patterns of white and Christian supremacy set the stage for his election. It took most of us far too long to fully comprehend that Trump’s presidency represented a qualitative increase in the determination and capacity of the right to impose minority rule.
And then, in early 2020, the emergent COVID-19 pandemic layered a public health crisis on top of a crisis of democracy. The pandemic exposed, once again, profound inequalities related to class, race, gender, and immigration status. Debates over the public health measures required to halt the pandemic fed on and exacerbated political volatility. The pandemic also underscored Trump’s unique blend of incompetence, disinterest in actually governing, and profound indifference to human suffering—character traits ultimately responsible for hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths, and which likely contributed to defeat in his bid for re-election.
As if the public health and democracy challenges were not enough, the millions of acres burned in 2020 wildfires, unprecedented flooding and other extreme weather events, deepened awareness of the urgency of climate crisis and the scale of interventions needed to mitigate it. The reckless denialism of the Republican Party is evidence of their willingness to put the lives of current and future generations at mortal risk in exchange for the support of the fossil fuel industry. The election season was haunted by the prospect of environmental collapse
Left and center against the right
The 2020 elections served as a temperature check on where the country stood after four years of the most intense political polarization since the Civil War. The elections also served as a reading on the relative strength of various political blocs, that is, the capacity of left, right, and center to shape the political terrain. Conservatives, having subordinated themselves to the far right, consolidated the Republican Party around the MAGA agenda of racial and imperial revenge, with Trump as Maximum Leader. White supremacist militias and Q-anon conspiracy theorists were welcomed into the fold. This newly dominant bloc looked eagerly toward another four-year term as an opportunity to double down on white minority, patriarchal rule. Despite a few notable defections from his camp and from the Republican Party, Trump went into the election with the advantages of his incumbency, the dated Electoral College system that confers advantages on white and rural voters, and a roused, highly motivated right-wing base.
Of course, the main question to be settled by the election was whether a broad enough coalition could be forged to rebound from Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 loss and toss Trump out of the White House. Mainstream Democrats had to at least nod to the left. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign had demonstrated that a substantial swath of the electorate is open to a left-of-center political agenda. The campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in 2020 generated levels of excitement and support that confirmed the existence of a large constituency in favor of governance and policies well to the left of the Democratic Party mainstream. Their platforms, including a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, the cancellation of student loan and medical debt, a humane immigration policy, and higher taxation rates on corporations and the ultra-wealthy made it clear that neoliberal austerity for the poor and precarious was not the only thing on offer. There is an alternative. Though their primary bids failed, their candidacies opened up new realms of possibility and sparked left imagination.
The US left has been neither united nor strategic in its electoral interventions for many, many decades. Since Jesse Jackson’s campaigns for the presidency in 1984 and 1988, and the subsequent collapse of the Rainbow Coalition, some sectors of the left have rejected engagement with the two-party system. Instead, they have adopted an abstentionist stance or launched largely symbolic third-party efforts. More pragmatic sectors of the left tended to vote for Democrats based on a harm reduction framework, while putting little energy into electoral politics. Overextended (and underfunded) on community-based or issue-based organizing projects, and often lacking the skill sets and the organizational vehicles to intervene effectively in the electoral realm, they prioritized other battlefronts.
But beginning about 10 to 15 years ago, these dynamics began to change as local and state-based groups—many of them represented in these pages—started to grapple directly with one of the central ways in which US political power is accumulated and wielded. An important set of organizations emerged that combine social justice values with electoral organizing, and that are determined to build political power independent of the Democratic Party. The 2016 election underscored the importance of these initiatives and brought other left forces in from the abstentionist sidelines. The degree of traction achieved by Bernie Sanders’ campaign together with Trump’s surprise triumph brought home to nearly everyone the unacceptable cost of abstentionism. The 2020 election saw a maturation of the trend toward left electoral engagement in the context of a truly critical contest. The stakes were so self-evidently high that progressive and left organizations of nearly every stripe wrestled with how best to mobilize their constituencies against Trump and in defense of democracy. Though the social justice left has come to the arena relatively late, it is already a key player. With any luck, we are in the early stages of an era in which the left strengthens its capacity for effective intervention from one election to the next, shifting the political alignment in a more progressive direction.
On May 25, 2020, in the midst of presidential primary season, a murderous policeman pressed George Floyd’s last breath out of his body. Demonstrations against police violence and the summary execution of Black people spread throughout the country, led and energized by furious young Black protestors. Tens of millions of people took to the streets in the spring and summer of 2020, in demonstrations that were more numerous and located in more cities and towns than at any other point in US history. The protests changed the racial climate. Black Lives Matter signs sprouted in shop windows and on lawns across the country. Corporations and institutions of every kind scrambled to respond to the “racial reckoning.” For many, a light bulb had finally been turned on. Others wondered why such belated enlightenment always seems to require the sacrifice of Black lives.
In any case, the ruthless suffocation of George Floyd impacted the presidential contest and set off social and political currents that continue to shape today’s national dialogue. Debates over racist policing and incarceration and intractable, racialized economic inequities inevitably filtered into the campaigns. And the right-wing distortion industrial complex mangled anti-racist demands in ways that were guaranteed to energize their base. This continues today, with the Republican base mobilized to discredit any attempt to teach the history of US racism, under the banner of opposition to critical race theory.
In this book
Voters turned out in record numbers in 2020. The 2020 electorate, as compared to 2016, showed the largest increase on record between two presidential elections. Turnout rates increased in every state, in every racial and ethnic group, across gender, and in every age cohort.
The record turnout was driven, at least in part, by the grassroots activists and leaders who tell their stories in this book. This volume of essays provides a close-in vantage point on how many of the organizations that anchor social justice organizing in the US met the challenge of an electoral campaign. The organizations and networks represented here led an array of initiatives across the country. Their work on the ground contributed substantially to the margins needed to defeat Trump.
It is our hope that this volume enables the left to share experiences and insights across organizations, constituencies, issues, and geographies. And that it serves to strengthen the left’s orientation to, and practice in, this arena. Each of its chapters sheds light on a distinct set of organizing challenges, protagonists, and approaches to electoral work. Yet a few themes surfaced again and again.
Most of the organizations represented here focused on some combination of registering and motivating new voters and targeting outreach to “low-propensity voters.” Communities with high concentrations of low-propensity voters—including communities of color—often reflect the results of entrenched patterns of political investment. A party committed to turning out suburban soccer moms is unlikely to prioritize the kind of work it takes to transform a low-propensity voter into a high-potential voter. The strategies implemented by the organizations in this book were based on the conviction that sufficient investment of time and resources—together with culturally savvy messaging—could tap into the potential of low-propensity voters to determine election outcomes.
While COVID-19 forced organizers to innovate on contacting and mobilizing voters at a distance, there is no substitute for the work on the doors. Engaging prospective voters in conversation, listening hard to their concerns, answering basic questions as to how, where, and when to vote—all this is better served by face-to-face conversations than by phone or text—or, at an even further remove, ads. Every mode of voter communication was needed for the scale of outreach 2020 demanded, and the contributions of the tens of thousands of people who phoned and texted were absolutely indispensable. But high-quality work on the doors, in union halls, places of worship, schools, and community centers—unmediated human connection—brings out leadership qualities in canvassers and volunteers, identifies potential activists and allies, and produces experiences that can be mined for lessons that shape future work in ways that other forms of outreach cannot.
Investment in high-cost, fly-in/fly-out consultants and pollsters is often misplaced spending. Donors need to think long and hard about investing in the local organizations and leaders that are committed to staying in place for the long haul—well beyond this electoral cycle or the next.
There are challenges related to aligning work on electoral campaigns with the robust, ongoing relationship-building, grassroots campaigning, and organization-building required to win progressive change. Those challenges can be anticipated and worked with in productive ways. And the relationships and skills acquired in these distinct forms of work can be mutually reinforcing.
The contributors to this book are busy with the work of creating a more just society. The pressure of that work, especially in these turbulent times, leaves little room for reflection and summation. The next battle looms. We are grateful that our contributors found the space to bring us stories of what they did, and why and how they did it.
Some chapters in Power Concedes Nothing focus on electoral organizing in states that were key to the presidential contest. Others reflect on the efforts of progressive networks and alliances engaged in multi-state organizing. The critical role of organized labor in getting out the vote is the subject of several articles. Organizers in communities of color bring attention to the role of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American voters in 2020.
No single volume on grassroots electoral organizing could hope to be comprehensive. We have not covered every sector of the social justice movement. Nor have we been able to include the work of many indispensable organizations and networks. We hope that the process of summarizing experiences and sharing lessons will continue in many other forms.
2022 and 2024
While the country took a small step back from a precipice on November 3, 2020, there was barely a pause before Trump loyalists rallied to a new cause—the alleged “steal” of the election. The violent, failed insurrection on January 6 drove home the level of commitment of Trump and his party to remaining in power by any and all means.
The lie that Trump won, and that a Democrat is illegitimately sitting in the White House, serves at least two purposes. The base, feeding on a constant stream of new false narratives, has been provided with a cause, which keeps it inflamed and stokes polarization. And Republican political operatives, in state houses and on election boards across the country have an excuse to introduce laws and procedures intended to constrain democracy and suppress the votes of the constituencies Democrats depend upon.
So here we are in 2022 and the right-wing authoritarians who lost in 2020 are still challenging the results of that election. Each day they demonstrate their dedication to white minority, patriarchal rule. Each day they make clear that they are glad to resort to extra-legal—or even violent—measures, if staying within the bounds of the law serves as a check on their power. As one of our contributors succinctly put it, they are playing for keeps.
The midterm elections of 2022 and the presidential election of 2024 are shaping up to be pitched battles. Trump enablers, acolytes, wannabes, and bankrollers are doing everything in their power to gain ground in 2022 and restore Trump in 2024. A Trump restoration would be far worse than his election in 2016. He has shown all of us who he is and what he stands for. And if health or criminal prosecution takes him out of the running, other would-be strongmen are lining up to take his place. A GOP victory, whether by quasi-legitimate means or by what amounts to a coup, would signal a truly profound degeneration of the political space. As many have noted, right-wing resurgence and the figure of an authoritarian strongman with fascistic leanings are phenomena not limited to the United States. But, given the place and power of the US in global politics, the further shredding of democratic norms and institutions and/or a Trump restoration would likely incur disastrous consequences, both nationally and globally. Said another way, the stakes in 2022 and 2024 remain extraordinarily high.
We may be sure that the social justice organizations that share their experiences in this book are fully alert to what hangs in the balance for the constituencies and issues they represent. Whether the rich lessons of 2020 are absorbed and put to use by an expanded and more united progressive current in US politics will, in no small measure, shape the future of democracy.
We take our title from a speech given in 1857 by the brilliant abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Here is the paragraph in which the phrase appears:
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.
We encourage you to read the whole speech.