#TheResistance 2016-21

For my personal purposes, a public protest on Nov. 18, 2016 is probably the clearest beginning of “The Resistance,” out of various arbitrary options. It was a strange evening, within which the strangest moment was the inclusion among more expected chants of the phrase “I am my brother’s keeper.”

That has stuck in the back of my mind, ever since, and I’ll come back to it.

As the Trump nightmare bubble ends in anticlimactic deflation, time has come to look back on the whole four-years-and-change of The Resistance, for the movement and for myself.

Of The Resistance writ large, it seems more than anything else like a big missed opportunity.

Here was a momentary disruption of the steady slippage toward dystopian oligarchy. Here was a wake-up call, not only sounded but heard. Millions got off their butts in more than 500 cities for the first Women’s March. People were ready to take action. What followed?

What followed was mostly a vast demonstration that in a crisis, institutions do the same things as usual, just more—and that this observation of Robert Cringely applies to large informal blobs as well as to discrete formal institutions.

The Resistance could be the subject of whole books, but in the big picture it changed little about the ongoing cold war in America, both in its impact and in its own operation.

Being realistic, I’m not certain that anyone could have come close to providing The Resistance with effective visionary leadership. The few people with national standing who might have attempted it didn’t do so, and would have faced some or other significant challenge. Instead, The Resistance ended up with many small leadership figures who mostly offered the same guidance as prevailed previously. A lot of managers during the era leading to Trump offered the same advice, whether within existing organizations or new ones which essentially replicated the old.

For the most part, the energy and resources of The Resistance poured by default into the old, clogged-up, leaky channels of the Democratic Party and affiliated issue organizing.

In the first months after the 2016 election, some variety briefly challenged the norming of The Resistance. For a time the Communists jeered at mainstream protests from the sidelines, trying to goad more disruptiveness. (Despite my theme, here, I did not find them persuasive.) I remember things which came and went, such as Knock Every Door; not exactly original, but a form of rebuke to the standard practices of prioritized election-time outreach. Brand New Congress was a fascinating, alluring concept which within a couple of years had essentially failed—sweeping all-at-once change was the core of its concept—and nonetheless slumped into an inertial ongoing role as one more me-too progressive PAC.

The story of Flippable is something of an exception which proved the rule, for The Resistance. It began as one more early 2017 PAC assembled by central-casting campaign operatives mostly using the same old toolkit. It also offered a useful variation, focusing squarely on state governments during a time of panic over national government. Its leadership had the maturity to value something more than their own organization, and after the 2018 election Flippable announced a merger with Swing Left, which was planning to expand a similar mission from its initial US House focus to one overlapping with Flippable. The result, though, is that Flippable ultimately disappeared into an organization which—while it has also had its moments—is basically just a Democratic Party auxiliary and failed badly in its 2020 plans especially at the state level and is basically just shrugging that off now and set in its ways after a mere four years of existence.

Organizationally, The Resistance mostly seems to have added another layer to the leftovers from past surges of leftish activism. MoveOn from the 1990s and “Netroots” era groups from the 00s will now jostle along with Swing Left, Indivisible, etc., all promoting largely similar tactics for similar missions.

Some useful projects have emerged from this, I believe, such as Run for Something. Groups like Flippable and Swing Left exist to a great extent because official Democratic Party counterparts have failed badly to engage grassroots enthusiasm, but there really wasn’t a nationwide counterpart to Run for Something’s local-level work. Fair redistricting advocates capitalized on the moment in some places, mainly where citizen initiatives are possible, and hopefully this works out. Stacey Abrams and her colleagues were really independent of The Resistance, I think, but probably made incredibly good use of its energy and resource outpouring in at least one state.

Mostly, though, my sense is one of missed opportunity. I think in particular of the efforts for organizing economic power—less an elephant in the room for progressive organizing than a goddamn blue whale in the room. Shannon Coulter has done her thing with Grab Your Wallet but in all this time it has never become much more than one woman with a Twitter account and a spreadsheet. Sleeping Giants was doing impressive work pressuring corporate America over its enabling of hate and intolerance, but not only did it remain a relatively niche phenomenon, it was troubled by internal falling-out.

I have called the 2005-09 period a kind of last chance, and I might specify that it seems like a last chance to reverse the breakdown by reforming the system from within. The inside-the-box elected-office-focused activism of The Resistance might still have been up to the task, if pursued with all that energy a decade sooner. By 2017, I think it was too late, and the missed opportunity this time was the failure to cohere around some new vision for activism and reform.

America arrived at a crisis moment, and The Resistance’s legacy is basically a fragile reinforcing of the old hopeless system. The offense met a counter-offense, the battle fought itself out, and now we’re basically back in the trenches like any World War I battle without much impact on the tactics, leadership or strategic situation. If the crisis moment didn’t lead to deep reforms, it seems unlikely that a “back to brunch” normalcy will do so.

As Dahlia Lithwick wrote last month, “Whatever this movement or moment or campaign is, it’s not at all clear that resistance is what’s warranted. What is demanded is either not yet known, or not yet invented.”

That definitely goes for me as an individual also. I’m still trying to figure out what to do now, and that I’m even this (not very) far along in the process is probably a product of a two-year head start. So much of my local introduction to grassroots opposition organizing 2015-16 continues to seem like an advance preview of the whole Resistance.

Collectively it has transformed me, I think. In 2015, I and my life would have been entirely familiar to my self from six years earlier. In contrast I think I’m substantially a different person now than I was five years ago.

I have at some point or other done a lot of things I did not do before. Calls to Congress, calls to voters, letters, doors, texting, leading, following, petitions, protesting, testifying, donating, hashtagging, marching; candidates, campaigns, party groups, para-party groups, issue groups, etc., etc., etc. It has truly become a lifestyle but I’m extremely wary of it becoming habit in the sense of doing the same things over and over and simply assuming utility.

So I’m still trying to figure out what to do, and trying to be disciplined enough to resist (irony here) the siren song of unceasing calls to action which I know probably aren’t that effective. I know that every “quick signature needed” email is just a stupid scheme to get me to a landing page with donate buttons. I mostly resist them but it’s a constant effort, and this is about the clearest cut pseudo activism which I know definitely to be a waste of time. Trying to find clarity around other agitation is mostly even more difficult.

Of course as an individual, I also know that most of what I do individually is trivial, whatever it is. One would like simply to form my views about issues, register them in fairly agreed formal ways, and then pursue my own business (whatever that would be in some other universe). It doesn’t work like that, and it may not even be possible for things to work like that.

These vague questions are the vague reason why, for 50 months, that strange anomalous chant from a ragtag protest has continued to haunt me. “I am my brother’s keeper.” In one sense, we need to care for one another, that’s clear enough for me. In another sense, though, achieving that requires minding others’ business and trying to guide people who are probably difficult to guide, difficult even to reach, and possibly hostile to your interfering.

This is what we do. This is who we are. Simple and infinitely complicated.

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