After the terror of Election Night, the tension of the following days, and the jubilation of Saturday’s call for Biden and Harris, we now contemplate what this election means for our pursuit of justice. We have exiled Trump and his openly racist and xenophobic beliefs from the White House, but more than 70 million Americans still validated those beliefs through their votes. We have invited Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in, but they have both expressed very moderate views in the past and are already talking about building bridges with Trump’s supporters. We will have either the narrowest of margins of Senate control if we win two special elections in Georgia in January, or obstructionist Mitch McConnell and the Republicans will control the Senate. So what then will happen to our pursuit of racial justice, of climate justice, of all of our ideals?
Many moderate Democrats argue that progressives must curtail our demands or that we risk scaring away all of those moderate Biden voters. Representative Spanberger of Virginia took this line in excoriating her more liberal colleagues this past week, stating that policies like defunding the police should be stricken from Democrats’ goals. Whether Democrats lose an election or win it, some of us always seem to draw the same conclusion — that we need to back away from progressive ideals. But I disagree. I don’t see evidence to indicate that the country abhors the progressive policies we advocate or that we must shift our policies to make them more palatable.
A recent poll “asked Americans if they would support an option… in which ‘police could focus on crimes like burglary and murder, and other service providers could focus on emergency calls about addiction, mental illness, and homelessness.’ A full 61 percent of respondents supported this option, and just 16 percent opposed it.” 55% of Americans support the goals of Black Lives Matter. 75% of Americans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. And more than 75% of Americans support a legal path to residency or citizenship for Dreamers.
The policy proposals we champion are popular. Unfortunately, due to our archaic, gerrymandered electoral system, the popularity of our proposals has only brought us an average presidential win, loss of seats in the House, and marginal control of the Senate resting on those January runoffs. In this situation, what is our leverage?
Our leverage must come from the stories we tell. Author N. K. Jemisin wrote in a Twitter thread, “Now that the dust is clearing on the election, there’s a thing us liberals… are going to have to work on: our storytelling. It’s not that the right is better at storytelling. It’s that their stories are simpler, more viscerally satisfying. ‘A Black woman stole your job!’ ‘They want your guns!'” We need to learn to tell our more nuanced, complex stories.
We need to be clear on our vision and tell stories about that vision that others can understand. We don’t need to sell the word “socialism” to people — we must tell the story of mutual support. We don’t need to sell the words “defund the police” to people — we must tell the story of redirecting crises to those who can properly address them. We don’t need to sell the words “Green New Deal” to people — we must tell the story of corporations carrying their fair share by paying for and reducing their carbon pollution. We don’t need to sell the words “dismantle systemic racism” to people — we need to tell the story of the barriers our country has put in front of people of color, most especially Black people, for the past 400 years.
If we honestly tell these stories, push for legislation, and implement our ideas, we may convince more moderate voters to support them. Especially when we are connecting with moderate or conservative family and friends, we white progressives should listen to their stories and help them see how these new stories connect to their own. We need to listen to their positive experiences with police, affirm them, and tell them our own stories of how racial bias is present in everyone. We need to listen to their stories of government overreach in taxation, affirm them, and tell them our own stories of why we believe each person and company has a responsibility to each another.
But most importantly, our stories must demonstrate a commitment to Black people, Latinx people, and all people of color. These stories will invite those who have been marginalized or discouraged from our political process to get involved. And if we tell stories that truly highlight the harms our country has caused to people of color, those same stories will also highlight how that harm spills over onto poor and working-class white people. These stories must demonstrate a commitment to the true majority of people in this country, acknowledging our history of racism while lifting up all those who are marginalized by the dominant culture. It is this telling of true stories that can do the work — lifting up Black and Latinx lives, connecting to some moderates and poor and working-class whites. It is these stories that will grow our electoral coalition to overwhelm the handicaps to democracy that our system has put in place — the Electoral College, the imbalanced Senate that gives 2 Senators to both Wyoming and California, and the gerrymandered electoral districts.
In a very real sense, we are made up of stories — the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories others tell about us. We must make room for the multiple stories that define us as people and as a movement. As a white man, I must listen to other white people’s stories and consider which other white people I might and might not be able to reach with my stories. When I hear someone telling the story of illegal immigrant hordes swarming our country to destroy our election system, I know I will not be able to reach that person with my story. When I hear someone telling the story of how they fear their own economic situation and how others might impact it, I hope that our stories might connect. This is not a simple process and there is no simple way to determine who we might reach with our stories — we each must answer that for ourselves.
And all the time, we must ensure that our stories speak our truth about ourselves, about our understanding of others who are the same as and different than us, and about our pursuit of justice. If we share those stories with vulnerability, and we listen to the vulnerable stories of others, then we no longer need to label our vision with particular words — we can simply move toward that vision, imperfectly, together.
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