In 2008, Hillary Clinton raised some eyebrows when she implied that President Lyndon Johnson deserved more credit for the passage of the Civil Rights Act than Martin Luther King, Jr. She said in an interview, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act…It took a president to get it done.” This remark came in the heat of her primary against Barack Obama, and so it was rather obvious how she meant it. She sought to compare Obama’s powerful rhetoric with that of MLK, while emphasizing the necessity for adept, cunning political insiders such as LBJ (and, of course, herself) in order to implement actual policy.
Obama took issue with this at the time, but, after having won the primary and the presidency that year, and after having served seven of his eight years in office, he was asked in April of 2016 at a town hall event in London about the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed early into the second term of his presidency. He said, regarding their confrontational approach towards certain politicians (namely, the would-be first gentleman Bill Clinton just a couple weeks prior):
“One of the things I caution young people about though, that I don’t think is effective, is you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention … and elected officials are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep yelling at them. And you can’t refuse to meet because that would compromise the purity of your position.”
It became clear throughout his presidency that Obama, despite his having run and won as a movement-style candidate preaching hope and change to packed arenas, was always a technocrat at heart. And today, the battle within the Democratic Party is constantly framed as one between “purists” and “pragmatists” - the former being the progressive activist left and their ilk, and the latter being the more moderate centrists whose M.O. is to “work within the system,” “reach across the aisle,” and “get things done.”
In the 2020 primaries, Amy Klobuchar sought the presidency as a “pragmatist” whose appeal was to those who were “stuck in the middle of the extremes” and “tired of the noise and the nonsense.” Again, the implication is clear: progressive purists are all “noise and nonsense,” while Amy is the moderate in the middle who can actually deliver results.
The premise of her campaign was consistent with what we’ve heard from the Democratic establishment and their allies in the corporate media for decades. They’ve propagated the idea that to be pragmatic is to be moderate, and that despite the revolutionary rhetoric of those on the “extremes,” real political action happens in the political center, where reasonable people in both parties negotiate and compromise their way to enacting legislative reforms.
Of course, the problem with this is that it’s utter bullshit.
Change happens not when “pragmatists” in the center strike deals with each other, but rather, when marginalized opinions become mainstreamed by mass movements of people who believe strongly enough in them notto compromise, notto capitulate, and notto moderate. Critical to such movements’ success has been their ability to remain steadfast in their demands, and insist that those in power act swiftly and decisively to meet them. In other words, change does not occur in the center. It occurs on the fringes. Always. That’s why it’s called “change.”
Historical examples abound, but why do a deep dive when ample evidence is staring us in the face right now? In my last piece, I demonstrated how the liberal establishment and its sheepish white liberal base is getting nervous about activists’ calls to defund police departments, and made my case for why their pearl clutching should be ignored. Many of these liberals were, and still are, suggesting we retire the phrase “defund the police” and pivot to more moderate slogans like “reimagine the police” or “transform the police,” or, as one Atlanticwriter suggested, “unbundle the police.” But “defund” was always the best of these options, and this moment is proving it.
In response to these calls to defund the police, cities across the country, large and small, are…wait for it…defunding the police. Philadelphia cut $33 million from its police budget and added $20 million for affordable housing. Los Angeles is cutting up to $150 million from their police department and investing the savings in youth employment initiatives and health programs. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio resisted the idea at first, but in response to mounting pressure from the public, has now committed to cutting the NYPD’s current budget of $6 billion by an amount that will be negotiated early next month. Other major cities where funding cuts have been pledged or proposed by government officials include Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, Dallas, Austin, Durham, Seattle, Hartford, and San Diego.
All of this defunding is happening precisely because of the “purity” of the activist movements that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Simply put, the reason cities across America are defunding their police departments is because thousands of people flooded their streets demanding in no uncertain terms that they do just that. Had protestors succumbed to the liberal class’ appeals for “pragmatism,” there’s no way we’d be seeing these results. Compromised messages and watered down rallying cries like “reimagine the police” are what got us nowhere for far too long. Of course, “nowhere” is where the liberal class and its centrist representatives are most comfortable leading us, and so it’s no mystery why they sought to co-opt this movement and dilute its message with their typical mealy-mouthed platitudes.
But not only are these movements refusing to moderate, in many cases they’re actually doubling down on their aggressive approach. Portland, Oregon, for example, has cut $16 million from its police department, and protestors are still gathering outside the mayor’s apartment demanding $50 million in cuts. Are they “purists?” Perhaps. But they’re winning. They’re achieving meaningful results very quickly, which makes them look pretty damn pragmatic when compared to moderate liberals who have been extolling the virtues of compromise and conciliation for the past four decades as Overton window slid further and further right.
Mass movements past and present have shown us that purists and radicals have been the real pragmatists all along. Applying unrelenting pressure to the political class is the onlypragmatic strategy there’s ever been, because it’s the only one that’s ever worked. A polite, genteel dynamic between the grassroots and the political establishment might be desirable in theory, but throughout history has proven unfruitful, and is therefore no longer feasible. At least not in the short term. And so I would respond to Obama’s admonition of “you can’t just keep yelling” in a way I’m sure he’d understand: Yes We Can.
Photo: Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle, Fibonacci Blue