Two years ago, during that first terrible COVID summer, with a white nationalist sympathetic President in the White House and federal paramilitary units fomenting unlawful mayhem on the streets of Portland, Oregon, I spoke aloud a forbidden thought. What if we’re already winning?
“What if we’ve already won the war?” I asked in an essay. What would it take to win the peace?
I’m talking about inclusive multiracial democracy in the United States. The war is about “If” — If multiracial democracy has a right to exist. The peace is a question of “How” — How do we live pluralism every day, in a way that convinces more and more people that their neighbors are not their enemy?
With the attempted coup of January 6 and every other assault on democratic practice both here and around the world, I’ve been asked many times — do I still think we’re winning?
After the mid-term elections, I can say Yes. For the first time as a Black punk rocker who grew up a working poor, I can say that I feel truly thankful for Americans in this moment.
Folks showed up — the majority of voting Americans defended multiracial democracy. Enough of us were organized and mobilized on Election Day that authoritarianism wasn’t able to claim it had the agency of the American public. That’s a big fucking deal. And we should own it.
Owning how far we’ve come towards multiracial inclusive democracy does not diminish how imperiled the Black radical project of democracy remains. Trumpism is far from over. We have big work to do.
- First, we have to remain resilient in the face of the violence of those who seek to undermine America’s path to multi-racial inclusive democracy. They want us to believe that false narrative that we have lost. We haven’t.
- Second, we have to prove that governance of a pluralistic democracy can improve lives and increase equity and justice. It must become an appealing alternative.
- Third, we have to resist the most insidious tactic of authoritarianism — its ability to wedge marginalized communities against each other.
Let’s be real. The unwillingness of a minority to accept the reality of a multi-racial, multi-faith, gender-inclusive America is going to continue to generate political violence. Violence serves to make us cautious or surrender to conditions that are untenable. That’s one reason why historical remembrance is so important — telling the stories of those no longer with us, learning from the resilience of the survivors of political and hate violence. We can’t let the fear of violence distract us from the continued work of building inclusive democracy. We need to learn — as other societies have shown before us — how to manage the violence and govern in the midst of it.
By governance I mean everything from protecting voting rights to housing veterans to picking up the garbage. Right now we’re barraged by misinformation and disinformation that distorts the narratives that could bring us together. Our fundamental right to vote is undermined by anti-democratic tactics from gerrymandering to voter intimidation and outright election denial. Too many people simply don’t have enough to eat, can’t afford to make rent, can’t access decent health care or clean air or safe water. We have to engage in a response to the so-called “Culture War” (really the war on American democracy) but we can’t get distracted from our common-good responsibility to meet these basic needs.
The worst of the distractions are the ways we are turned against each other, the myths we internalize about who is to blame for our suffering — the Jews, the immigrants, the trans community. We simply can’t afford to perpetuate the dying vestiges of white supremacy on each other any longer. Inter-communal violence (the wedging, for example, of Blacks from Jews, rural from urban, or immigrants along color lines) only strengthens the hand of authoritarians.
We are not the first to face these challenges. I am grateful for the wisdom and advice extended to Western States Center from our global relationships with the Northern Ireland’s Social Change Initiative, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Train Foundation’s other Civil Courage Prize laureates, and the pro-democracy organizers and leaders we’ve been able to sit with in a number of countries around the world.
At Western States Center, we’ve always believed that what happens in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States matters to the rest of the country. We’ve been the proving ground for extremist and anti-democracy formations and the broadly-supported movement-building that has pushed back. Over these past five years, as the fight for inclusive democracy has become a both a national and international struggle, it’s become imperative that we turn outward, to the global expertise that resides both inside and outside the U.S.
When we drop the myth of American exceptionalism, we have so much to learn from other paramilitary-impacted communities, other societies that have resisted authoritarian rule, and built multiracial democracy. Historical lessons and ones happening in real time.
As I look back on the five years I served as executive director of Western States Center before moving into my current role as Senior Adviser, I can say, it’s been a hard five years. Who isn’t exhausted, deeply impacted?
We’ve been under unrelenting attack. Rising support for white nationalism. The normalization of political violence. COVID-19 exposing all the weaknesses in our systems, super-charging the polarization of conspiracy culture. Our ongoing susceptibility to antisemitism on both the left and right and the continuing poisons of systemic racism and misogyny and income inequality. We’ve been pummeled.
But for all the ways we have been on the defensive, we’ve been pretty frigging creative. Our staff and board and senior fellows and program partners and leadership cohorts here at Western States Center, along with so many other civil society organizations, artists, and elected officials, have been building the scaffolding for the offensive. For winning the peace.
I hope you’ll read more about Western States Center’s work to build movement, develop leaders, shape culture, and defend democracy in our upcoming two-year Report to the Community.
It’s clear to me: we’ve begun to see the emergence of a movement. A movement committed to preserving democracy. A movement grounded in the rejection of bigotry and political violence as a solution. A movement led not just by Black-centered organizations but by culture shapers, indigenous activists, educators, local government workers, young people, immigrants — a multitude of voices.
Going on the offensive means supporting these emerging leaders, bringing them together in cohorts to learn from each other and defy the wedges that would divide us. Underwriting the development of the tools they create to equip their communities. Amplifying their voices.
Going on the offensive means lifting up values-based narratives that have the power to unify and inspire us. Shaping culture by moving into unexpected spaces, less preaching to the choir, more wondering what we can learn about and from each other. Building a culture of care and kindness within our movement too — we are proud to have been early adopters of the four-day workweek.
Going on the offensive means not just defending democracy — though that remains vitally important. It’s time for us to put out a beacon for people to orient themselves to in these admittedly frightening times. The movement we’re building has to be a place of radical inclusion that embodies the belief that’s long existed in the Black community and civil rights communities: everyone is redeemable. Ideological vanguards will not achieve inclusive democracy. It’s going to take old-fashioned community organizing and community building that includes the full breadth of who is America today.
The culture war keeps us on the defensive — that’s why it’s really the only thing on offer right now from anti-democracy forces. Going on the offensive means redirecting the attack to tackle our real problems: Why do police officers and military vets have such high rates of suicide? Why are so many of our kids dying from cancer? Why is the water undrinkable in major cities of the richest country on earth?
This is the real threat — and promise — of multiracial inclusive democracy. It makes us look at the actual problems we face instead of the made-up monsters we’re told are in the closet.
The majority of the American people don’t want a culture war. They don’t believe in either/ or; that my rights are at the expense of yours. It’s time for us to stop thinking small. To start thinking like a majority. To take care of the people’s business. To bring in as many people as possible to the beautiful work of a multi-racial, multi-faith, gender-inclusive America.