In a recent post, “The Betrayal of the Elites,” I mentioned the work of Martin Gurri and his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public.
One of the things Gurri observes, and scratches his head about, is the number of recent revolts by some part of the public that have resulted in, well, not much. Or in something nowhere close to what the protesters had in mind. He cites the Tarir Square Movement in Egypt as an instance of the latter. While the Occupy Movement in the U.S., as well as similar protest movements in Israel and Chile, embody the former.
The common denominator of these “revolts of the public” is that all lack some notion of the next steps, of what they want to happen. Instead, they are organized by being “against.” But they aren’t sure what they are for. Or haven’t managed to translate that into policy proposals or programs.
So with the Yellow Jackets in France, “They won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. They got everything they wanted and more, but they’re still out there,” exclaimed Gurri. In Israel, the protesters divided over whether to even talk with the government when the government said, “Let’s talk. Tell us what you want.” There are often, said Gurri, “no leaders, no spokespersons.” They don’t say, “Give us this.” They only say, “You’ve got to go.”
Moreover, such groups are often sectarian, meaning “very pure.” They are incapable of compromise or negotiation which would sully their purity. Instead they believe, that “the established order is so corrupt that destroying it is a form of progress.”
These are cautionary tales for the protest movement now taking place in the U.S. Does it have goals that can be translated into specific change, into policy? Do they have leaders or spokespersons who can represent their fellow protestors in negotiations and formulating next steps? Or will protest and destroying the established order, or trying to, be enough?
In an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times Michelle Alexander, the author of the influential, The New Jim Crow, and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, argued that America better get it right this time, with the implication that it may not have another chance. She may be right. People are fed up. “Enough is enough,” is one of the protest’s most common slogans and sentiments.
But what are the next steps?
Alexander proposes three. First, we must face our racial history and our racial present. She notes, rightly, that there is plenty of material out there that tells the story not just of slavery, but of the crucial period after the Civil War, when instead of making real progress the old power structure was returned to power in the South. That is only part of the story, and much of it is very ugly. She’s right. There’s been a lot of denial. Refusing to face up to what has happened, and what keeps on happening, at least in part because we are largely ignorant of our own history.
Step two, from Alexander, we must reimagine justice. This is where you get to the now popular “Defund the Police.” But that is an undoing, maybe a necessary one. What follows that? No police? A different police? Police with a more limited mission? A less militarized police? She’s right that a lot of the so-called police reforms have amounted to cosmetic tinkering. But liberals and progressives will bump up against something uncomfortable for some — unions, specifically police unions. They are a big part of the problem. It is very difficult to go beyond the cosmetic, beyond more diversity training, to simply get rid of the Derek Chauvins before it’s too late.
Alexander’s third proposal is, we must fight for economic justice. She gives a lot of credit here to Bernie Sanders as well as reaching back to cite Martin Luther King Jr. to the effect that capitalism has “outlived its usefulness.” Whether you agree with that judgment or not, these are pretty large shifts, to say the least. While few will disagree with “fight for economic justice,” the devil is in the details.
I give Alexander credit for taking a crack at the next steps problem. More, much more, is needed. And soon.
It’s time for other leaders — Cory Booker, Stacy Abrams, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and a host of local leaders — to step up and help translate the protests into next steps.