The Difference Between Political Tactics and Political Strategy

My girlfriend told me a story about a guy she went to college with. This young man was a typical student at her school- a white male who came from alot of money. He was rude and dismissive, and engaged in explicit racism and sexism on a constant basis. He called her a nigger during their freshman year. His behavior was so out of control that his friends forced him to take a class on racism. The class was a transformative experience for him: he contacted my girlfriend and apologized to her for his behavior, and earnestly tried to learn as much as he could about racial injustice in the United States. He became so immersed in his studies that he changed his major from economics (the go to major for well-to-do white men at her school) to sociology. He wanted to learn, and then put that education into practice.

The story demonstrates that education can have a profound impact on people, and that even the worst of us can change if we want to. As appreciative as I was of this man’s transformation, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe we don’t need another racially conscious sociologist; maybe what we really need is a racially conscious economist or Wall Street financier, someone on the inside who knows about systemic racism and can make changes from the inside, or become ridiculously wealthy and start bankrolling leftist causes the way the Koch brothers help to fund the right. A hedge fund manager dedicated to advancing racial justice could have a kind of long term impact that is often missing from leftist and progressive politics. We need those kinds of people to alter the strategic balance of national politics, which is not favorable to progressives right now.

Even as marriage equality marched forward and movements like Black Lives Matter brought attention to the police brutality African Americans face daily, “Make America Great Again” carried the day last November. A literal white supremacist is the closest advisor to the President. We’ve achieved tactical victories, but there has been a lack of strategic planning to hold those gains in the long term. During the eight years of the Obama administration, Democrats lost over 1,000 elected seats at the state and federal level. This includes the presidency, a net loss of nine Senate seats, sixty two House seats, and crucially, over 900 state legislature and governor seats. While the federal losses garner the most attention, the state legislatures are where congressional districts are drawn. With Republicans in control of 32 state houses, we could see more of the gerrymandering which will lock districts into predictable voting patterns for the foreseeable future. Non-elected positions, such as judges and bureaucratic appointees across state and national politics will be packed by Republicans,  who had the numbers to block Merrick Garland; Democrats don’t have the muscle to do the same to Neil Gorsuch.

The difference between being tactical and being strategic is this: Black Lives Matter can mobilize thousands of people across the country to protest the deaths of African Americans in police custody. Meanwhile, there is a president and an attorney general who both support stop and frisk policies, which increase the encounters between police and communities of color, for perhaps the next four years (depending on how long Jeff Sessions serves). BLM is in the disadvantageous position of being forced to be reactive to police brutality, while long-term policy is set which may increase instances of police brutality. The Woman’s March drew more visitors to Washington, DC than Trump’s inauguration, but the global gag rule against abortion services has been reinstated and Planned Parenthood is in real danger of being defunded. The resistance to Trump and the Republican agenda is broadly reactive- Americans came out in force to protest the administration’s Muslim ban, but couldn’t do so until after the order had been issued and Muslims around the world were stranded while attempting to enter the United States. The pressures of waging these tactical engagements over and over again will grow, as we’ve had two major protests against Trump in the first three weeks of his presidency. That level of engagement will be difficult to sustain. We need to shift our thinking to strategic aims to counter the challenges we face.

Many Americans have clamored for a true third party option, and turn towards long-shot candidates such as Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and others. We need to wake up to political reality: we currently don’t even have a second political party. Democrats have essentially waited for demographics to deliver the country to them politically, but 2045 is still thirty years away, and even then the electoral college will ensure that the largely white interior of the United States has as much say as the black and brown coasts in national elections. The Clinton campaign strategized poorly against Trump and lost. Some progressives argue that Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump in a general election, but ignore that the primary cause of his loss to Clinton was not the “finger on the scale” from the DNC, but his own poor strategizing in the primaries. After Obama’s victory in 2012, Democrats had four years to prepare a presidential slate for 2016, and the best they came up with was two seventy year olds and a guy from Maryland no one had heard of. That’s bad strategy, and now the Democrats barely exist as a national force.

History is not a positive force, and there is no moral arc to the universe. The United States has not become more inclusive simply due to the enlightening effects of the passage of time. Riots occurred, political coalitions were built, and laws were passed. A right or protection which exists today is not guaranteed to exist tomorrow. The leftist, progressive agenda has to be implemented AND defended, both with short term tactical actions and long term strategic planning. Otherwise, it will be rolled back and replaced with an agenda of nativism, fear-mongering and attacks on women, people of color and the poor.

Protesting must continue, but that’s only the first step. We need to build true progressive, leftist organizations to influence policy and politics. The ACLU, despite being the current darling of the left because of its opposition to Trump, is NOT a progressive organization. It is a civil liberties organization- that’s incredibly valuable, but it’s mission leads it to defend causes and groups that many left-leaning people would take exception to. We need think tanks, grassroots neighborhood organizations, lawyers, judges and bureaucrats  in addition to professors, journalists and the other progressive stereotypes. We need to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up. The leadership of the party is not reflective of the country today: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid and Nanci Pelosi are all white and at least sixty six years of age in a country where half the population is under thirty eight years old and increasingly people of color. There are only nine senators of color out of one hundred senators; the House is better with 83 out of 435 members, or 20%, being people of color. The only way for this to change is for progressives of color to do the dirty, hard, compromising work of running for and winning elected office. As the Tea Party managed to move the Republican party to the right, progressives need to work to drag the Democrats to the left, and now is the time as the party reorganizes. My political science professor once analogized political power by comparing it to the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones. He said the key to wielding the power is to open the ark only as much as you absolutely need to, but it will hurt you and the people you care about. We need to be willing to accept that cost and endure that pain, instead of simply complaining about a lack of diversity. We have to vote, every single time we’re able- in referendums, in primaries, in midterm elections and presidential elections. The candidates we want need our support.

And in the end, we’re going to need money. Alot of money. For all the handwringing about the Citizen’s United decision, President Obama opted out of public financing back in 2008 because he recognized the strategic advantage of being able to outspend John McCain almost three-to-one, We need to fight fire with fire, so we need progressives and leftists to enter the private sector and make alot of money. We need to change the culture of banks and hedge funds, and pour money into our causes the way the right does. I’m proud of my girlfriend’s classmate for genuinely changing his ways, but it would be really helpful for him to be able to cut a few big checks someday.

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