Show Me What Democracy Looks Like
This is what democracy looks like! ....and so is this.
It's the chant that makes you feel good just for turning out. Long before I heard marchers shouting it, I was thinking it: walking across the Burnside Bridge behind several young soon-to-be marchers who were excitedly waving their signs at all the honking cars that passed them; and at the same time, gazing south at the thousands of people streaming into Waterfront Park; the words were already in my head: "Show me what democracy looks like!" "This is what democracy looks like!"
So yes, democracy definitely looks like large groups of people coming together to voice their opinion about some national issue. As I marched with those thousands, I saw a plethora of issues proclaimed on their signs: reproductive choice, an end to sexist discrimination and assault, defending the civil rights of immigrants and persons of color, protecting the still-fragile right to marriage for same-gendered couples, nuclear disarmament, global climate change, all the things that make for a progressive political platform. The one thing uniting all those subgroups of protesters: the inauguration of a monstrous human being as President whose agenda is anathema to them all.
And it was great to be there: comforting, inspiring, a new birth of hope. It was also, unfortunately, a reminder of the forces that brought progressive democracy such an excruciating defeat two months ago.
The organizers planned for a far smaller crowd than the multitudes who showed up. They began the event with a rally at which a number of speakers addressed the crowd. When I arrived at noon, the publicized starting time, I had no idea this was going on, nor did anyone around me: there were so many of us crammed into the park, spilling out across Naito Parkway to the other side, that I and the people around me were several blocks back from the rally. We couldn't hear or, much worse, see a thing. All we knew was that we had come to march, and we weren't moving. We continued not to move for two hours, as chants of "Let us march!" rolled across the crowd. Finally, at around 2:00, a stream of frustrated marchers began making their way a block over to 1st Street. Amy (who was there early, and present for the entire rally) tells me that this was the point at which the organizers gave up on getting every speaker up to the microphone, and just let the marchers go.
I feel for the speakers who didn't get a chance to address the crowd, and for the organizers who found themselves over-blessed with such huge numbers of protesters. Despite the impatience that led so many to take to a street not on the official route, the event was, by all accounts, utterly peaceful, unmarred by any acts of anarchist violence. After it was over, Portland Police congratulated the marchers on public media for being so orderly.
And yet, as encouraging as it is to be part of a mass showing of resistance to Trumpism, I have to express this worry: can we keep it up for four more years?
I've been part of progressive movements that ran out of steam before. In the early 2000s, there was the MoveOn response to the invasion of Iraq that was supposed to make George W. Bush into a one-term President. A few well-told lies about an uninspiring Democratic opponent left us with four more years of bumbling, not to mention tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A few years later, I was thrilled to see the Occupy movement raising awareness of toxic capitalism.
MoveOn may have laid the groundwork for Barack Obama's Presidency, so there is that. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, has descendents in both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump camps. But neither became a genuine national movement. The Tea Party was far more successful at changing the face of Washington, electing some of the most powerful--and conservative--members of the House and Senate.
The difficulty for progressives is that we have so many things we care about, and every one of them is important enough to merit having its own movement. I remember this from work I did with the Human Dignity movement in the early 1990s: our cause was simply turning back the anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance, and we did that well; but frequently our meetings and discussions were interrupted by activists who wanted us to also take stands on clear cutting, abortion, animal rights, and other causes that pique the interest of liberals. The organizers of that movement were effective at politely--and gently--letting these people down. They knew that letting their organization become too diffused would result in failure. Sticking to their guns, they managed to keep the focus on basic rights, and ultimately won on many fronts, including marriage equality.
The Women's March yesterday brought out people representing all those diverse causes, and many more. That's what stands in the way of this becoming not just an event, but a movement that can accomplish in 2018 what the Tea Party did in 2010: dilution, if not total rejection, of the President's agenda; and defeat at the polls for all the craven Congresspersons and Senators who've shilled for him.
The progressive movement is at its strongest when its diverse elements band together, working for a single cause. There's no need for any of us to give up our individual passions: whether one is feminist, Black, Hispanic, Muslim, LGBTQ, environmentalist, or anything else that typically comes under the Democratic banner, or, more likely, any combination of those identities, all can agree that a massive turnover in Congress and the White House serves all their interests. As the Hillary Clinton campaign rightly proclaimed, we are all stronger together than any one of us is individually. It's this biggest of tents, the tent that most looks like America, that serves all those causes best.
Working for all those causes at the same time is, unfortunately, also the movement's greatest weakness. As happened in yesterday's march, some are bound to become impatient with the pace of change, and opt for a different route. That may make sense--while the Women's March organizers may have been frustrated to have to end their rally early, the good mood of the crowd out of range of the rally was teetering on the brink of much greater frustration, not to mention hypothermia and claustrophobia, and the release valve of just going ahead and marching down a parallel street probably kept many of us from having a bad feeling about the overall event--but in the bigger picture, it takes full cooperation to bring about the macro change that will enable progress on all the other issues. I've been at activist meetings where some people left the group out of frustration that they couldn't get it converted to their more specialized causes.
At its heart, democracy is a messy, dangerous thing. Uprisings are hard to direct, and without that direction, can go badly awry. The Haitian slave uprising quickly became a reverse-genocidal bloodbath as liberator slaves turned on their former masters. The French Revolution culminated in guillotines for aristocrats. An over-regulated uprising, on the other hand, runs the risk of enabling fascism or Soviet-style absolutism.
Setting these extreme examples aside, it must still be acknowledged that democracy--the people deciding how to be governed--has had a decidedly mixed record in this country. Sometimes it elevates an individual who transcends history, and sets the nation on a path toward higher ideals. At other times, it chooses a nincompoop with a friendly smile or, worse, a monster gifted at manipulating the masses with lies and corrupt promises. Democracy has given us saints and sinners, geniuses and dolts, technocrats and preachers. It gave us Obama, and now it has given us Trump.
If we can build on the peaceful, inspired unity of yesterday's march, democracy may yet save this nation from disaster. But it won't come easy: all of us must be willing to table our most passionate policies to make way for the one that can only be accomplished in unity. If we can, this nation may yet see a new birth in liberty, a turning back from authoritarian nationalism, and reclamation of government that is of, by, and for all the people.
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