The Crucial Role of Social Movement Scholars over the Next Four Years

BY Joshua Bloom

Scholars of social movements have a crucial role to play over the next four years. In some ways we are just like everyone else. We each have stories from the last four years about what we would like to leave behind. The day after Trump’s inauguration, a swastika was etched onto my office building at the University of Pittsburgh. And I remember Antwon Rose’s mother’s pain, so tangible at his funeral, that she ‘had not been able to protect him from the police.’ A few months later came the largest anti-Semitic massacre in U.S. history at the Tree of Life Synagogue where many friends worship three blocks from my house. Following police orders during the massacre, while it was unclear whether other shooters were at large, I pulled down the window shades, and held my Jewish/mixed-race kids close – as far away as we could from the windows and doors. Three days later, when Trump had the audacity to use our grief to advance the politics of hate, making a mid-term election campaign stop at the temple, I sat down in front of his motorcade.

The Biden-Harris sign is still up in our yard, along with one that says Black Lives Matter, but I do worry the signs will invite violence. Some Trump and “Stop the Steal” signs are still up in the neighborhood too. And if you cross the river to the post-industrial White working-class suburbs like the one where the Tree of Life shooter came from, lots of signs are still up. Almost all say Trump. Those signs will likely stay up until 2024. It is wonderful to have swept the GOP from the Presidency, House, and Senate. We have avoided the collapse of formal Democracy – for now. The Red Hats won’t disrupt the inauguration tomorrow. Their leader has made it clear he wants to remain in control of the GOP, he doesn’t want to be convicted by the Senate for incitement of insurrection. Plus there is the National Guard. But the Red Hats are not going away. The stakes are higher than ever.

Some believe the Red Hats are a cult of personality and will dissipate with a moderate Joe Biden presidency. I believe nothing could be further from the truth. Trump seized the mantle of the Republican Party over the protests of the Party’s institutionalized leadership because he spoke to the base. There is every indication that the Red Hats will continue to wage armed and violent insurrection in the coming years. However stupid it may seem, 70% of Republicans believe that Black People in Detroit and Philadelphia and Atlanta, and a deep state cabal, disregarded their votes, stole this election, and imposed rule against the will of the people. Perhaps most frighteningly, this is true of an even greater proportion of police (and military rank and file). Shutting down Trump’s Twitter and Parler and the House’s second impeachment have only strengthened that belief. The moderates cannot and will not resolve any of this if left to their own devices not least because – much as Clinton oversaw the vast expansion of mass incarceration – the Clinton and Obama administrations helped oversee the vast expansion of inequality in income and especially wealth. Under the Biden administration, left to its own devices, aggrieved rural and post-industrial Whites will only become riper for the Trumpian program to Make America Great for White people Again. He put judges on courts, sent immigrants packing, made stock valuations boom (for the Red Hat financers), forced people back in the closet, fought like hell for the police, and made snowflakes melt – he was truly their champion.

For a minute, the Corporate donors, Mitch McConnell, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon have silenced Trump. But until last week, so long as the conditions for power and profit continued uninterrupted, they were happy to go along for the ride. By inciting a violent putsch to retain power, Trump may have taken one step too far. But even if the GOP miraculously figures out how to hold onto its base while ditching Trump, the die has been cast. Many emulators will follow, some inevitably more efficacious than Trump himself. Social and news media will resume amplifying the message. And Capital will gladly resume funding both sides. Seeking profit, Capital undercuts the conditions of its own reproduction. And when it does, crisis breaks out in the streets. Historically, racist authoritarianism and socialist possibilities arise together. The Red Hats are not going away soon. Social Liberalism masks the deeper contradictions. If we want to make and sustain a better world, preserve democracy, and beat back racist authoritarianism, we must recognize that the “moderation” of Joe Biden is only a delay, and not a solution.

History is not determined. On the high road, breaking from neoliberalism, Biden and Harris could crush COVID, and win the White working class with some version of a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Their expanded coalition could allow new taxation on the wealthy, progress towards prison and police abolition, amnesty, restructuring of the courts and electoral system in a manner representative of the populace. Conversely, on the low road, hewing to the established politics of the Democratic Party, through failed impeachment, rightward mid-term elections, policy deadlock, gerrymandering, and court decisions, progress could stagnate. And in 2024, formal Democracy could fall. From my Gramscian “insurgent practice” perspective, what will arbitrate between these competing tendencies is the “war of position.” Can movements break from the past, and open new possibilities? Already, in response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter mobilizations, the push back against Trumpism, and the growing strength of the Democratic Party’s left wing, Biden is acting like he is going to try for the high road. But as we know from Obama, intentions only take you so far. Much of this will be decided in the streets.

This is where social movement scholars come in. We have skills uniquely suited to the challenge of the next four years. If our science illuminates the workings of the world, our analyses should be able to support liberation movements in seeing the big picture and more effectively redressing it. We also have unique capacities to convene conversations across movements that make new forms of alliance possible. For the next four years, at the Social Movements Lab, we will be working to advance the war of position in both these ways. Feel free to contact me for further information.

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