By Eric K. Ward
Hey, look around it’s all so clear/ Hey, wherever we were going, well we’re here/ Hey, so many things I never thought I’d see/ Happening right in front of me ~Brad Paisley, Welcome to the Future
“Welcome to the future.” That Brad Paisley lyric is what came to mind as the results of this historic election were confirmed. That and: It’s time to breathe. And time to dream, again.
Over this past year, as bad as it’s been, I’ve often thought: we’ve already won the war. By that I mean that the majority of Americans believe in an inclusive democracy. They believe Black lives matter. They believe in the common good.
It’s true that 73 million Americans voted for Trump. It’s true that our institutions still reflect the old world based on domination more than the new world of inclusion. The fundamentals of democratic practice have taken a beating. Backlash against the future that’s unfolding around us could intensify.
Our problems are real. One in every 875 Black Americans has been killed by COVID-19. Police violence against Black Americans is unabated, now complicated by the racialization of anti-protest ideology in law enforcement. Antisemitism is on the rise. An appalling number of workers and small businesses face ruin in the pandemic economy with no relief in sight.
But this is not our only reality. We are in a time of unprecedented mobilization for change — despite all of the factors weighing us down and all the messages meant to feed despair. Backlash and resistance by those opposed to democracy doesn’t change the trajectory of change.
We are in the early stages of the inclusive, multiracial democracy that so many have fought and died for, something no other country of our size has yet achieved. It’s time for us to reject messages of despair, to leave behind the cynicism about democracy that’s become fashionable on the left, and to stop giving oxygen to the narratives of fear and division.
The Politics of Distraction
Let’s talk about the strategy of distraction. Trump’s core strength and his greatest hope for remaining relevant is his ability to generate a state of perpetual tension. We are all exhausted by it. And the media remain perpetually poised to capture “what’s next”.
Instead of celebrating the massive upswell in civic engagement and the unprecedented abundance of concern for racial justice and the common good, we remain distracted by Trump and his worshippers and hindered by aspects of their mindset we have internalized.
The story out of last weekend’s “Million MAGA March” should have been, “Where is everybody?” The story should have been: Trump encourages super-spreader event in majority-Black District of Columbia at a time when one in every 875 Black Americans has been killed by COVID. The story should have been: Will law enforcement once again over-police racial justice protesters while treating paramilitary supporters with kid gloves? The story should have been media asking the alt-right leaders given airplay what their plans are for addressing COVID-19, unemployment, political violence and division.
Instead, the American public was subjected to alt-right propaganda, as though their turn-out was a big deal. Anyone with experience in crowd estimates can see that there might have been 10,000 Trump supporters in the streets once you subtract the counter-protesters, media, and curiosity-seekers. After a week of non-stop disinformation and activation of Trump’s base and the prospect of Trump himself appearing, only 10,000 out of 73 million came out for Trump? There were fewer people in the streets for Trump after a week of organizing than spontaneously danced and rang bells in cities around the world for Biden once the election was called.
The truth is, the programs of white supremacy and white nationalism have done virtually nothing for the vast majority of white people in this country. The Black-led program of democracy, on the other hand, has delivered tangible improvements to every one’s lives and communities.
Instead of remaining distracted by their narrative of scarcity — a narrative that feeds off a sense of grievance, of losing out, being cheated out of or denied something — let’s put our energy into spreading the facts. There is a vibrant, just, multiracial democracy that can deliver… for Biden voters, for Trump voters, and everyone in between.
This brings me to the mindset too many of us have internalized. We need to stop seeing Trump voters — or even many Biden voters, or members of our own social movements — with the derision for which “cultural elites” are (rightly or wrongly) known. We need to recognize that most of those who make us uncomfortable ideologically are not so different from us in terms of needs and core values.
One of the greatest tactics of rising authoritarianism in America is its ability to make this a fight about ideology. Left versus right. Socialism and even communism now resurrected as a perceived active internal menace to American security. The fight we need to be concerned with is a fight over values and governance, not ideology. In this moment, and while Trumpism remains a potent force, the emerging divide in America is between those sympathetic to the values of authoritarianism and those willing to stand for the values of democracy.
It’s time to expand what it means to be “left” in this country. Aligning with the left side of the political spectrum should not just be about economics, but it must be fundamentally anchored by the question of governance: who gets to belong, to participate, to decide, to lead. I’m not here to deny the importance of economic critiques — but we can’t allow our pursuit of a just, multiracial democracy to be collapsed into a sole focus on capitalism. The movement we need right now should be built around a collective and growing rejection of systemic bias and a collective and growing embrace of inclusion and equity. It means understanding ourselves first and foremost as democratic movements that reject authoritarianism.
Over the next four years we need to show America the richness of the diversity of our county’s current demographics. Our movements need to center the leadership of Black, indigenous, and other communities of color — especially the women, immigrant, and nonbinary leaders of these communities — and lead with meeting the needs of those most harmed by current and historic systems of dominance. But following their lead also means fully embracing the intimacy of intersectionality, a Black feminist insight that is so threatening to authoritarianism that Trump has banned it. (Thank you, Kimberlé Crenshaw.)
Intersectionality reminds us of the many identities we have in common, that extend well beyond the collapsed categories of race and gender. It’s the promise that we see each other’s humanity, not a way to reinforce new identity silos or hierarchies. Instead of infusing our movements with a radical celebration of each other’s humanity, we are displaying many of the tactics used by those who embrace authoritarianism. Shunning. Dehumanizing. Othering. Giving up on each other. Dismissing each other as un-organizable. “Denying others their journey,” as Glenn Harris put it so brilliantly at Facing Race last week.
It’s time for us to own a narrative of abundance, where there’s enough decency and respect and concern for the common good to extend to all, to treat others as we would have them treat us. These are the core values we have been fighting for — it’s time to center them in our movements so that we can bring more people along, instead of insisting on our minority status.
The Radical Program of Democracy
The fact that an inclusive, multiracial democracy scares so many people shows how radical democracy is. Those who want to hoard power in the old supremacy model are strongly invested in making pluralism ugly. The old world order survives only by dividing us into polarized camps. It’s up to us to show America what it looks like to connect across what we all have in common.
It’s up to us to show America how beautiful an inclusive, multiracial democracy is. That means the courage to dream again, filling our minds and hearts and public spaces with possibility and courage, replacing the dystopian ugliness that’s dominated political discourse these last four years.
What would it look like to assert our dreams again? To dream dreams that harness rather than hinder the wealth of our nation’s diversity. Dreams that equip all children for success instead of locking them in cages and watching, helpless, as suicide and addiction rates skyrocket. Dreams of our elders, living lives of purpose and connection til the end of their days instead of being warehoused. Dreams of new systems of community safety, health care, housing, family-wage jobs. Of a collective responsibility to our country, our planet, and the generations to come. And a voting system that reflects the right of every American to choose our leaders.
The dream Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. inscribed onto our national consciousness 57 years ago is all around us. Now it’s our turn, weary though we are, to keep making our way to the mountaintop.
This will take no small amount of courage. But it’s easier to be courageous when you understand that you’re part of an arc that is winning.
This is personal for me. I had the pleasure of a recent conversation with the courageous historian Deborah Lipstadt who in 1993 published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory which she then had to defend in a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving, a trial that proved the historical truth of the Holocaust in a British court.
I got to tell her about the day in 1998 when I attended a speech by David Irving at Washington State University. I took a Greyhound bus from Seattle to to Ellensburg to sit in an auditorium with white nationalists and Holocaust deniers. Needless to say I was the only one present who looked like me. I wrote a witness statement that Irving put up on his website with a button to email him in response to this request: “Mr. Irving would welcome informed opinions on Eric Ward, and facts about him, from his world-wide circle of friends.” Doxxing before social media.
I didn’t go there casually. I did it because I saw it as my duty to be courageous. Where did I find the courage? I found my courage because I knew that we who believe in freedom, we who believe in truth and reconciliation, we who believe in the abundance of an inclusive, multiracial democracy — we would win.
That was 22 years ago. Today there are more folks with us than ever before. There are more of us condemning antisemitism, more of us pushing back against white nationalism, more of us defending democracy. Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. We must be vigilant not to fall into the Trumpist cynicism that’s willing to discard so many people. We must be scrupulous not to whittle away our majority through purity politics and defeatism.
We need to be the ones to rebuild the center. Strategically — because we are about a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy that leaves no one out — and morally.
My futurist view — the future that has already begun to arrive — isn’t grounded in fantasies of unicorns and flowers. We have real, hard days ahead of us. But we don’t need to be the heavy clouds. There will be plenty without us. The heaviness doesn’t shift the course — so why weigh ourselves down with narratives of defeat?
It’s time to start acting like winners. Not conquerors — because that’s the false promise of Trumpism. We are founders of a 21st century multiracial democracy, on a scale which the world has never seen.
Wherever we were going, here we are.