During the fall of 2020, Choose Democracy trained 10,000 people in nonviolent strategies to stop an election-related power grab in the United States. George Lakey served as the lead trainer, and Eileen Flanagan as the trainings coordinator. In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Building and the subsequent inauguration of Joe Biden, they began a dialog about risks to our republic going forward and how activists can minimize them. The following is an edited version of their discussion.
Eileen: One of the major lessons of the Choose Democracy trainings was that the political center plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of coup attempts. Despite Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election, the U.S. center ultimately sided with constitutional procedures. Local officials and judges of both parties upheld the election results. Other “pillars of power,” like the military and the business community refused to cooperate with Trump’s scheme. While severely bruised, the system held. Recently I’ve wondered if that would have been the case if Bernie Sanders (my preferred candidate) had won the election. In the face of a right-wing power grab, would the center have ratified a democratic socialist, if that’s what the electorate chose?
I started thinking about this while reading “A Long Petal of the Sea,” Isabelle Allende’s novel set during the Spanish Civil War and the coup in Chile. In both, brutal right-wing governments overthrew progressive governments. It got me thinking about the many places where the left built enough grassroots support to win an election, but not enough to resist a powerful challenge to their rule. In cases like Chile, Iran and the Congo, the United States backed the overthrow of democratically-elected socialists, who were pursuing policies that limited the power of multinational corporations. The long-term violence that followed these coups was staggering. If we hope to run more candidates like Sanders, how can we withstand the possibility of a potential coup if we actually win?
George: Eileen, you’ve boggled my mind. It’s such a great question — if Bernie had won the nomination and then the general election, would the centrists have defended the Constitution or gone with Trump? And would the U.S. left (with some allies in the center) have known how to nonviolently defend against a coup attempt, given how much confusion there is on the left about the question of maintaining nonviolence, which has been a key to success in countries that have thwarted coup attempts? For one thing, the training dimension would have needed to start much earlier than September and included far larger than 10,000 people. Although actions that pushed for full vote-counting did take place (encouraged by our trainings), we didn’t need to mobilize mass, sustained nonviolent direct action, this time.
Part of the center did defect from its job of defending the Constitution, however. The refusal of Republican senators to impeach Trump — despite their own bodies being at risk on Jan. 6 — suggests serious disease in our body politic. In many state legislatures, we watched Republicans vote against the integrity of the electoral process that had returned them to office.
Although I wanted Bernie to win, your question makes me think that we’re lucky it was Biden. And then the corresponding thought that if Trump runs next time, against a democratic socialist “Democrat” who somehow won the nomination, we might not be ready. This prompted me to imagine a few possible scenarios for the 2024 presidential and congressional election, based on my belief that our country will continue to polarize further, unless economic inequality is addressed. It’s a thought-experiment to explore the lessons for us today.
1. A right-wing outcome in 2024. During 2021-24 substantial liberal reforms are blocked by the economic elite. Government’s inadequate efforts to address economic insecurity, declining health and living conditions are exacerbated by increasing climate disasters. The resulting decline in legitimacy results in increasing numbers and energy on both right and left wings. The Democrats lose the White House and the Senate.
2. A liberal outcome in 2024. During 2021-24 substantial liberal reforms are made under the Biden administration and operate as they did during the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sufficiently supporting unions to generate working-class political power and giving enough tangible relief to bolster hope. Additionally, measures are taken specifically to increase racial justice. The hope generated enhances the legitimacy of the government and the credibility of the center. Right-wing extremists, although growing in numbers, can’t take power or prevent re-election of Democrats in the 2024 presidential election.
3. A left-wing outcome in 2024 followed by a right-wing coup attempt. During 2021-24 substantial liberal reforms are blocked by the economic elite. Government fails sufficiently to address economic insecurity, racial injustice, declining health and living conditions, exacerbated by increasing climate disasters. The resulting decline in governmental legitimacy accelerates polarization’s impact, increasing numbers and energy on both right and left wings. Democratic socialists continue to grow within the Democratic Party, and one of their number wins the nomination, and on election day, the presidency. The right wing, this time more ably led, mounts a coup attempt. Most of the economic elite, worried about a socialist administration, backs the coup. The outcome of the ensuing struggle is unclear.
All three scenarios assume that polarization continues to grow because its major driver is economic inequality, but in the second scenario it does not grow as dramatically as it has in recent years. Instead, the center holds, as it did in the 1930s when a coup against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was discussed among some in the economic elite but no coup attempt was made. In the third scenario, the center does not hold, but instead splits, with some centrist elements supporting the coup and some joining the left for the sake of protecting the Constitution.
This all might be an argument for leaving national electoral politics in the hands of the liberal centrist Democrats and focus left attention on social movements where we can make gains (and bigger gains in the future) without precipitating a civil war.
Eileen: It’s terrible that we even have to think like this, but I agree that the threat of violence is very real. In terms of our strategy, I’m all for building social movements where we can make concrete gains, but we can’t cede electoral politics entirely. We saw in this election the importance of progressive movements playing a role in elections, even when it wasn’t their ideal candidate or primary change strategy. It’s clear Biden is taking climate change more seriously because of the work of the Sunrise Movement and many others, even if his plan still isn’t as strong as Bernie’s.
The other issue that strikes me is that your scenarios focus on the role of political polarization, which I know you’re writing a new book about, but there are other things that influence how elections turn out, like voter access. I’m very concerned about widespread Republican efforts to disenfranchise people, especially people of color. In many states, Republicans have enough power to gerrymander and pass bills designed to suppress turnout. In Georgia, there are a slew of such bills proposed, even one that would make it illegal to hand out water to voters waiting in line — this after they cut polling places, forcing people to wait in line.
George: I agree. They are putting tremendous energy into voter suppression, and for good reason. If you can keep people from voting, you can win as a minority party. But gerrymandering is an issue that is very much party vs party. It’s not a fight that inspires swing voters and independents. I doubt that voter suppression is an issue that could inspire mobilization by a mass movement. Compare that issue with something tangible like health care; picture the number of people whose lives are immediately affected by the injustice of our market-driven health care system, including the number of people who otherwise lean toward Trumpism.
This seems to me the perfect time to wage a mass direct action campaign for Medicare for All, and recruit for it beyond “the usual suspects” in activist circles. Biden is talking about health care reform, but his initiative will be tepid since Democrats are bought by the health care-industrial complex. A direct action campaign on our part would drive a better bargain on the federal level. The Democrats would claim credit for that with the voters, of course, but that’s their job. Our job is to drive change, and the change would reduce the threat to the republic in 2024.
Eileen: That makes sense to me. Still, I can’t help but remember that many Trump voters rejected the Affordable Care Act, especially when it was called “Obamacare.” Some states even turned away federal money. So, while white working-class Trump voters have real economic concerns, many have bought into scapegoating African Americans and immigrants. On the one hand, I feel that we need to challenge the racism of the right more directly, but at the same time, I know that just calling people racist is unlikely to win them over. Still, in this toxic context, I wonder how we can undermine the violent tendencies on the right if we don’t deal with racism.
George: We have to acknowledge reality. They can use racism to get people to vote against their own interests. They are very good at doing that, and we don’t have a good method of countering it directly with Trump voters. If someone comes up with a method, I’d love to know it, but I haven’t seen it so far. What we do know from history is that economic interests can counter racism, when we offer real and compelling solutions to economic inequality. A hundred years ago in the South, people were organizing tenant farmers and sharecroppers into inter-racial co-ops, based on material interests.
Eileen: That’s your point about labor unions in your book “How We Win.”
George: Exactly! The United Auto Workers built in Michigan a multi-racial union in the 1930s of recently arrived Appalachian whites and southern Blacks. Anyone would say that’s impossible. But they did it in the ‘30s when racism was way more powerful than now. So, I would say that organizing around economic interests is a more effective way of countering racism than talking about racism.
Eileen: Although the Black Lives Matter Movement has accomplished a real shift — not with the people who stormed the Capitol, but with other whites for whom racism was not a focus before.
George: I am enormously impressed that small towns in Pennsylvania, Kansas and other states turned out white people to demonstrate for Black Lives Matter last summer. So that happened in response to a nonviolent movement and out of compassion, so I think that’s pretty darn impressive.
Eileen: I do feel last summer was important. My small predominantly white neighborhood in Philadelphia, which opposed integration in the ‘60s, turned out 400 people for a local Black Lives Matter vigil. That is part of the context as we imagine the future.
Looking ahead, one of my big questions is what will happen with the people who were activated by the outrageousness of Trump. Fear of him staying in power was clearly a big part of what fueled Choose Democracy’s rapid growth and widespread media coverage. I do think many of those folks will remain engaged, but I also think there is real naiveté in our country about how power works. Most Americans don’t know that there was discussion of a coup against FDR among the economic elite, or the history of the U.S. role in coups in Chile, Iran, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was the Cold War, but we’re still in a struggle over economic power and the role of capitalism. The climate movement is taking on some of the most powerful corporations in the world. So, I think we need a lot more groundwork to help people to see that it is conceivable that we could have a right-wing coup in this country, led by people better organized and less blustering than Trump.
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George: It would be chickens coming home to roost if there were to be a coup here, given the bipartisan foreign policy that undermined democracy in so many other countries.
So, coming back to what can help protect us from this, I do see nonviolent direct action campaigns as a way to both win concrete economic gains — which can peel away support for the right-wing agenda — and at the same time build the skills we would need to resist a coup nonviolently. It will serve two functions.
Eileen: I agree with that. I also think it’s a time to be learning from people in other countries, who have experienced much more overt political violence than most of us in the United States. Hopefully Trump punctured our sense of American exceptionalism, and the recent threat to our democracy will inspire more nonviolence training and more long-term strategizing.