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Democratic Party 'part of the problem'

Michael Knigge
February 21, 2017

Donald Trump’s victory and early actions have sparked a backlash with millions of Americans protesting against him across the US. If the anti-Trump coalition is successful, it has little to do with the Democratic Party.

Women's March in Washington USA
Image: Reuters/L. Jackson

The massive opposition against President Donald Trump which manifested itself during the Women's March, in airport protests against his travel ban or on the Day Without Immigrants action is poised to have a sustainable impact on the American political landscape - even if it may not be apparent right away.

One of the lessons of the history of social movements is that they take time to develop and that what is publicly visible often does not tell the full story, said Donatella della Porta, a scholar of international social movements at the European University Institute in Florence.

Applied to the broad opposition against Trump, that means that the protests against him are only the tip of iceberg, said della Porta. It also means, she said, that "one cannot force, one cannot push too much towards a high level unity when there are heterogeneous groups involved."

One of the many people who have been heartened by the large turnout against Donald Trump is Jenn Kauffman, an executive with Revolution Messaging, the agency behind former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' digital strategy and online fundraising.

Grassroots actions

"We see that everyday Americans who are horrified by Trump's disastrous agenda are mobilizing and turning into a sustained, grassroots political force," Kauffman said via email.

As a Latina who has worked on migrant rights and labor issues, the Day without Immigrants action, while not as visually strong as the huge protest marches, served for Kauffman as an important sign of what the anti-Trump coalition is capable of.

USA Day Without Immigrants-Protest in Shermana
The Day without Immigrants saw nationwide protests and boycotts.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/LM Otero

"Perhaps one of the most successful recent grassroots actions was 'A Day without Immigrants,' which saw rallies and boycotts in cities across the country made up of both immigrants and allies alike," she said.

While the anti-Trump coalition is already successful in its own right, noted della Porta, to have a lasting impact it could take a page out of the playbook of earlier social movements regardless whether they lean right like the Tea Party movement or left like the Occupy movement.

From the Tea Party movement, the anti-Trump coalition could copy the sentiment that a decentralized organizational structure is to be preferred over a top-down approach; from the Occupy Movement, that language and values matter.      

Socialist Sanders

"If Sanders could say 'I am socialist' it is also because a movement like Occupy, which has changed the language of politics," said della Porta. 

According to Kauffman, those lessons, even if they stem from the political opposition, have not gone unnoticed. "Progressives are using some organizing lessons gleaned from the rise of the Tea Party, but doing it without the dishonest scare tactics and harassment the Tea Party employed," she said.

"Progressives are connecting with each other digitally and locally, through resources like Daily Action, a daily text service with 250,000 members and the Indivisible Guide, which has inspired the creation of more than 4,500 local groups, and they're using those connections to help drive a drumbeat of pressure on Congress and the White House."

Not about party politics

Asked about the role of the Democratic Party in the anti-Trump movement, della Porta, who currently researches populism on the left, is blunt: "At the moment, the Democratic Party is part of the problem. They can see to which extent they can follow the movement, but at the moment they are perceived by many activists as being more part of the problem than as a potential solution."

"This movement is not first of all about party politics," she added. "It is a movement of a generation - the millennials which had been massively overrepresented among the voters of Sanders. This is a generation that believes that between the Clinton-type of a Democratic Party and the Republican Party there is too small a difference in order to mobilize them for actions."

USA Wahlkampf Demokraten Bernie Sanders in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Many supporters of Bernie Sanders were disillusioned with the Democratic Party.Image: Getty Images/J.J. Mitchell

That's why many of these young people did either not vote for Clinton at all or did so unenthusiastically. Instead of engaging in traditional party politics, said della Porta, they demand more decentralized politics and are eager to harness the internet and social media for political mobilization.

Transnational movement

And this phenomenon - a deep distrust and disappointment among millennials with center-left political parties who are being perceived as not having fulfilled their promises - is not limited to the United States, but also present in Europe.

That's why "the transnationalization of the actions against Trump," as della Porta calls it, is important not only because social movements in the US have a tendency to remain parochial. It could also provide a joint opposition against the policies of the Trump administration, which are not just pernicious for the US but for Europe as well, said della Porta, and give voice to the discontent among many, particularly young people, in the US and Europe who have grown disappointed with the offerings provided by center-left parties.