Hillary Clinton is officially running for president, and many leftists and liberals — even former Clinton senate-campaign staffer Bill de Blasio — are less than thrilled. As First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, Clinton has helped remake the Democratic Party into the hawkish, Wall Street-friendly institution it is today. And yet many concede that a Republican would be even worse.
These critics are right on both counts. Clinton is a disappointing candidate for progressives, and the GOP nominee will be worse. But why are we looking to politicians to set the terms of our national debate in the first place?
Despite their rhetorical obsession with “leadership,” politicians are fundamentally reactive creatures. It was militant industrial workers who pushed Franklin Roosevelt to expand the New Deal, just as Occupy Wall Street protesters forced Barack Obama to talk inequality. Instead of spending the next 18 months recycling the same debate about Hillary, progressives should look for grassroots ways to put their grievances on the agenda — no matter who ends up in the White House.
Two vibrant movements are already putting pressure on elected officials from below. Last Wednesday, tens of thousands of low-wage workers turned out in every major city to demand $15 an hour and the right to join a union. They were joined by equal numbers of unionized workers endorsing their call. Meanwhile, as police continue to kill unarmed black people, Black Lives Matter activists are organizing to disrupt business as usual across the country.
Activists are also identifying points of overlap between the fights for racial and economic justice — witness the use of the “die-in” tactic in front of a New York McDonalds during Wednesday’s strike. “Economic justice is racial justice,” was a common refrain.
Protesters are eager to work with sympathetic politicians. But they understand that history is made on the streets before it gets ratified at the ballot box. If the mobilizations continue to grow, they just might force elected leaders to come up with some alternative ideas about how to run the country.
The history of the civil rights movement illustrates clearly how the pressure of protests can fundamentally reshape electoral politics. In the 1930s and 40s, Lyndon Baines Johnson — then a casually racist Congressman from Texas — voted consistently against civil rights legislation and anti-lynching bills. He denounced proposals to dismantle segregated bus travel as “a farce and a sham — an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.”
Fourteen years later, John F. Kennedy had his attorney general order the Interstate Commerce Commission to begin enforcing anti-segregation laws on the highway. After Kennedy’s assassination, his vice president — none other than Lyndon Johnson — went on to pass the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, even mentioning the civil rights slogan “We shall overcome” in a speech to Congress.
What happened? In 1961, black and white citizens began signing up with activist organizations to sit together on Greyhound buses in defiance of Southern laws. At first, Kennedy denounced the disruption as unpatriotic. But as the Freedom Riders were beaten and their buses firebombed, Kennedy realized that inaction might endanger his support from Northern liberals. Continued mobilization, including the massive March on Washington and the bloody marches in Selma, Alabama, helped push Johnson to enact landmark civil rights statues.
As the socialist critic Irving Howe wrote in 1965:
What changed between Senator Johnson and President Johnson was not, or not primarily, the man Lyndon Johnson; what changed was the temper of American politics, the thrust and power of the aroused Negroes and their allies.
Of course, nothing in the history books guarantees that this will happen. While their goals are explicit, today’s movements for social change remain diffuse and sporadic. An auto manufacturer can be crippled by shutting down a single factory, but McDonald’s continues to generate profit when a handful of stores are shut down for a few hours every couple of months. And it’s unclear what elected officials can do to stop police violence, especially given the immense institutional barriers to prosecuting cops. Without tremendous efforts to organize movements and push for alternative policies, there is little reason to expect much from the next president, no matter who he or she may be.
But if it’s too early for optimism, there is still cause for hope. After its New Deal-era successes, the labor movement largely abandoned extra-legislative pressure politics in favor of ever-closer to ties to the Democratic Party leadership. But the New Deal successes themselves had come out of a mass labor insurgency, marked by factory occupations and clashes with police, forcing the government to respond by granting workers a legal right to union representation. Like other moments of social progress in American history, the rise of organized labor combined mass mobilizations and pragmatic institution building.
Something similar may be happening today. The Service Employees International Union has sunk between $15 and $18 million into organizing fast food workers to demand pay raises and union recognition. The AFL-CIO and a handful of other unions have contributed hundreds of thousands more.
“This movement is changing our political debate,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse. “We aren’t going to stop until the service sector in the U.S. becomes the foundation for the next American middle class.”
The plight of fast food workers may not yet mobilize 200,000 people in one city, the way the March on Washington did in 1963. But, along with protests against institutional racism, it is one of the few things mobilizing anyone anywhere. If organizers can build on their successes so far, while constantly expanding their coalition and public support, then Hillary’s lame record won’t matter. If enough people demand something loudly enough, even the worst president has to respond.