Before 2011, Leftist political protests were ineffective for decades, not so much because of the failings of protesters, but because the powers-that-be have, since Vietnam and the Civil Rights era, conducted a campaign to diminish the effectiveness of anti-establishment protest, mainly through a media campaign of marginalizing, dismissing, and dehumanizing protests. Occupy has started to change that, producing a public debate on inequality, but since at least the Battle In Seattle in 1999 protests have been an almost useless, sometimes even counter-productive, political tactic: those globalization protests were made into a laughing stock by the mainstream media, who marginalized protesters as naive dirty young complainers who didn’t know what they were talking about and were only causing trouble. And remember the literally millions of people who protested the Iraq war in 2003? Zero effect on policy. The same counter-protests strategy, applied persistently, has now had some success with Occupy, and when marginalization alone didn’t work they called in the cops.*
Protests may now be more useful again, and hopefully we will see many more until a Left-wing agenda is in place. But they have to be understood as part of a long-term campaign to create a lasting critical mass of people to place continual demands on the government and exercise enough power to have those demands met. We should aim for a permanent majority who will vote in and implement a Left-wing economic, political, and environmental agenda. That campaign will involve mass protest, but demonstrations cannot be all there is to that campaign. There will have to be lots of work done during political campaigns and elections, and during the law-making process, before this comes to pass. Note that in Ohio and Wisconsin some policy changes have been made, and that’s because protests were just a starting point for legislative and recall campaigns change laws and law-makers. You have to have follow-through.
The Occupy and other demonstrations this year showed us the first real grass roots power we’ve ween in decades, and achieved real changes in public discourse. That’s to be supported, and the example learned from. Yet so far all this popular political energy has produced only limited legislative changes, indicating that much more is needed, and that political energies need to be focused.
I’ve argued that it is mainly the centrist liberal elite need to display more political spine, and the Occupy protests, as well as those previously this year in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere, showed that regular people have plenty. I recall observing this years ago: in 2004, with a Bush re-election looming and rank-and-file liberals panicking across the country, I remember sitting in a meeting at a bookstore in Arizona between the local party leadership and a couple hundred other concerned citizens. These people were distressed at what was happening to the country and ready to volunteer all the time and effort they could to change it, and many of them asked how they could do so - only to have the party bosses tell them to just hang tight for now. They had no organizing drive or capability prepared, and were completely unwilling to tap into the political energy and courage that their constituents had. The grass roots have plenty of political virtue, they just need to have it channeled and directed by the political activists and leaders who have the know-how and willingness to do so in ways that lead to actual political and social improvements. And since they all too often won’t, it’s up to the grass roots to 1) spur the leadership to have more political spine, and 2) go around them when they won’t.
So, in addition to protesting when you can, what can you do? How can regular people on the Left foster political fortitude, both amongst themselves and in their activist class and politicians?
First, volunteer! For humanity’s sake, volunteer! For humanity’s sake, join something! Seek out and find like-minded groups of people, and join their actions, activities, protests, marches, and campaigns. Find groups on Facebook and Meetup and join them, make contacts, and then find other groups. And I would really recommend joining a union, or at least supporting unions by showing up for rallies or making financial donations to them; under capitalism a strong labor movement is a critical and necessary precondition for a healthy democracy. Becoming politically active takes some effort, but eventually you will find the rewards to be incomparable, not only for your political efficacy but for your personal life as well - you will discover that you are not alone, that there are many who share your values, and you will make great friends and have all the satisfaction that comes from working for a just cause.
Second, once you’re a part of some groups, demand principled strength and political fortitude of your local leaders and organizers, and ultimately of your representatives at the local, state, and national levels. Use all the small levers of power you have available to demand political courage from those in positions of authority: write letters to lawmakers and media; ask questions and make demands at meetings and town halls, donate time and money only to principled candidates who fight. Once you have accepted that conflict and confrontation are inherent in politics, demand that your representatives and leaders fight those fights well and bravely, and be willing to withhold support from them if they don’t, come what may.
Third and most importantly, when it comes to voting, vote your principles, not political calculations, even if that means the other side wins this time, because as I have argued elsewhere, political calculus unguided by principle degenerates into a directionless pragmatism that causes the Left to get lost and to always suffer long-term defeat. Supporting only that which is “politically possible” means that, given current power structures, you will only have politicians who are conservative in office for the rest of you life. But voting by principle means that, while you might have to put up with crazy conservative lawmakers for an election cycle, by driving our side’s politicians to act from principle we will start to see real victory shortly thereafter. It's the only way to stop the whole system from staying permanently crazy-conservative. Always and only vote for candidates who will advance progressive principles, do not fall into the temptation of voting for the lesser of two evils. If you feel you can’t do that, abstain if you have to, but never vote for a centrist pragmatist. Such a vote is a vote for conservatism. When enough of us vote by principle in concert, we will very quickly demonstrate our unified political power, and centrist Democratic candidates will pay attention and toe the line. Once that has occurred, it will be a sign that the three-decade shift of governance to the Right has finally stopped, and once we’ve stopped that, further principled voting will reverse our course and swing the country back to the Left.
Political fortitude is a necessary virtue to fight for the principles that will make the world fit for human habitation for ourselves and for posterity. Humanity will not get through another century on its current course, and we must have the courage and stamina to change the direction of the ship of state. America, the most powerful state in the world but also socially and politically regressive, stands as an obstacle to further progress. We must begin the change here.
*Note on tea party: the tea baggers didn’t get the same treatment by the mainstream media mainly because they were not truly grass-roots promoting an actual populist agenda, but were smaller, astro-turf, elite-driven protests ginned up to give the appearance of popular support for the oligarchs’ agenda. The people participating in them were conservatism’s version of Stalin’s “useful idiots”: ideologues who are so uninformed and so fooled by pro-establishment ideology that they are willing to politically support what goes against their own interests.