The Best Time to Organize Was Yesterday
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
I had a different column or six in the hopper for this week, but then Ted Cruz ran into a buzzsaw of criticism for trying to sneak in a Cancun vacation during the massive storm that saw bitter cold and massive losses of power and water in Texas. Without looking to add to the dynamic in which—to steal a phrase—progressives circle the wagons while conservatives circle the firing squad, I think it is worth talking about Cruz’s misstep, for the benefit of conservative voters and officeholders. Officeholders in particular may one day find themselves in a similar situation, and it’s worth their while to know how not to screw up as Cruz did, and also why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was in a place to make hay from the situation.
Let’s dispense with the formalities: Unlike Andrew Cuomo, who can get away with killing truckloads of senior citizens until a new administration is in office and the elderly president’s vice president starts looking to knock off potential challengers for 2024, Republican officeholders have to deal with the fact that any press attention they get will be negative. Cry about media bias all you like, but it’s a fact on the ground and you have to live with it. So forget that as a factor.
Traditionally speaking, the job of Congresscritters in a time like this is pretty simple: shake the tree for money, stay out of the way, ramp up basic constituent service. For example, during one of our rounds of wildfires here in Southern California, Rep. Ted Lieu was front and center at the press conferences. He didn’t do a lot. He matched the tone of the first responders, verified that shelters were well-run, and told people to call his office (or their own congressman’s office) if they needed help with a FEMA claim or lost Social Security check. That’s all he needed to do. A lot of the value of a representative or senator in a situation like this is just being an 800-pound gorilla when one is needed.
In Cruz’s case, because Texas is so big, the logical thing to do immediately would have been to reach out to FEMA to see what resources there were, reach out to the governor and Texas’s congressional delegations to see what they needed, and let the voters know to reach out to their own congressmen, who would filter any needs for an 800-pound gorilla up to him or Sen. Cornyn. It’s not complicated. Voters like to see their elected representatives helping; it makes us feel like they might actually work for a living.
But Cruz didn’t do that. And his abdication allowed AOC to steal his march and get some good press. She started raising money for Texas organizations, mostly food banks, using ActBlue. Leftist organizers posted helpful replies to her fundraising tweets with links to more radical mutual aid groups, including chapters of the Socialist Rifle Association and the John Brown Gun Club, raising money and recruits for them.
Note that while AOC is now going to Texas for photo ops, promoting mutual aid is something that can be done from NYC or even, dare I say, Cancun.
Which raises the question: Why didn’t Ted Cruz do that?
It didn’t occur to Ted Cruz to organize a mutual aid drive because he couldn’t. The reason donations could be sent to food banks and radical mutual aid groups in the wake of the storm in Texas was that those groups already existed (in the case of the mutual aid groups, usually as offspring projects of existing radical organizations). Mutual aid work isn’t something you announce and build when in a crisis; you have to have existing relationships with organizations that are already on the ground and doing the work.
Cruz doesn’t have those relationships. He could reach out to prominent donors, but they don’t have organizations on tap either. If he wanted to build relationships with conservative-leaning organizations, he wouldn’t have a lot of options. Conservatives don’t build organizations as a matter of course, and don’t think much about repurposing the ones we have. Maybe he could reach out to the Knights of Columbus or other religious groups, as a lot of conservative charity tends to be more religious. But a lot of it operates on an individual level, as in the case of prominent Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who turns his furniture stores into storm shelters.
The organizers in AOC’s mentions take a different approach. They build organizations for what leftists call dual power, summed up pretty neatly by the DSA’s libertarian socialist caucus: “1) building counter-institutions that serve as alternatives to the institutions currently governing production, investment, and social life under capitalism, and 2) organizing through and confederating these institutions to build up a base of grassroots counter-power which can eventually challenge the existing power of capitalists and the State head-on.”
They’re not subtle about it. It’s not a reformist movement; it’s a slow revolutionary one, essentially creating the various departments that can be repurposed to become, in effect, a new state:
Democratic labor unions can seize the workplace; worker-owned cooperatives can build it anew in democratic form; tenant unions can take control of housing; our councils and assemblies can restructure political authority around our own processes of confederal direct democracy. This framework of building popular power outside the governing institutions of our present system, to challenge and eventually displace those institutions with truly democratic ones of our own making, is the heart of dual power.
The effort is prefigurative. That is, it offers a vision of the socialist future, while at the same time building capacity for socialist groups on the ground and giving normal people an immediate material reason to think well of socialists. Or, as the Libertarian Socialist Caucus puts it, “building collective power with immediate material demands as well as providing our vision for the revolutionary overthrow of capital and all its associated oppressions.” In other words, well before you can have a revolution, you have to build elements with the potential to coalesce into a new government.
That’s the key to understanding the overarching leftist strategy, even among leftists who aren’t revolutionaries: create or access organizations and networks, and then repurpose them. If you doubt how powerful this approach can be, consider the recent admiring profiles in the NYT and Time magazine of the establishment-oriented organizing coalition that secretly coordinated progressive efforts in the post-election period. I saw some grumbling from notable Hard Lefties about these efforts while they were happening (specifically, the urging from national organizations to not turn out in the street and to keep their powder dry was unpopular with Hard Lefties), but it worked out well for them.
And what do you know? It turns out that coordinating a combined command and control nexus for organizations that have access to very large numbers of people can, in certain specific circumstances, be kind of handy. Heck, if the United States of America were to ever dissolve into Red and Blue nations, the folks profiled in the NYT and Time are probably Blue America’s version of the Continental Association, and it’s where the representatives to write their new constitution would come from.
To bring this back to Ted Cruz: Now that he’s back in town, without orgs to highlight and involve on the ground, the only thing he can do is be the 800-pound gorilla. But this is a column about hows. So, how do we conservatives, as office-holders and normal people, change that?
The good news is you don’t have to wait for a once-in-a-generation storm. And you shouldn’t. Waiting to organize until there’s a crisis is like waiting until summer to get beach-body ready. Like the man says about planting trees: “The best time was ten or twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
Hard Lefty mutual aid groups tend to get started as an offshoot project of an ideologically friendly group that already exists. They don’t start in crisis mode; they pick a sustainable, ongoing task that relates to their ideology but serves as outreach to people who aren’t ideologically onboard. Food service is a classic one: Food Not Bombs feeds the homeless, and they’re also an onramp for radical leftist action for a lot of people.
Your conservative church could do that. Maybe they already do. That’s a network you can activate in times of crisis. Or say you’re a member of a local pro-life group. What if you put together regular formula-and-diaper drives to help out families of young children? That’s serving a purpose; it’s outreach. And it’s related to your core mission. Maybe you’re a member of a local gun range and you’re among the crew who do Wednesday bowling pin shoots or benchresting or what have you. You could put together a local group to help volunteer at food banks, and maybe investigate the possibility of meat donation come hunting season. Odds are there’s already some kind of community-helping activity you can join. Look for a way you can already do something to safely help your neighbors.
And once you’re doing it, let other people on your ideological team know you’re there.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.