By Joshua Kahn Russell
After the 2016 elections, media rushed to figure out why working-class white people voted for Trump. The implication, stated or unstated, was that progressives and Democrats should focus on trying to understand and convert these Trump stalwarts. If we want Trump out of office, how do we shrink his base, and build ours?
According to many savvy strategists, the way to do that is not by trying to convert Trump voters. It’s by building on the support we already have — and shifting people who are neutral closer to our side. There may be some Trump voters who can be reached through dialogue, and there’s certainly value in those exchanges for those who are willing to engage in them. But from a strategic point of view, that’s not a good use of progressive energy.
This excerpt from the 2012 action guide, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, assembled by Andrew Boyd, advocates a very different organizing and mobilizing strategy. In it, Joshua Kahn Russell urges us to analyze who our real bases of potential support are, and design our organizing to draw them closer to us. Activating the large pool of passive allies, and persuading those who are neutral or undecided to stand with us, is a far more effective way to focus our work than arguing with the MAGA crowd.
This is the strategy that progressives used to such powerful effect in mobilizing for the 2018 midterm elections, but it applies to contexts beyond electoral work. An emphasis on rallying and expanding our base can help movements and organizers break out of a defensive posture. It calls on us to lead with strong vision rather than watering down our ideals to meet some mythical middle.
Activists are often good at analyzing system social problems, but less good at thinking systematically about organizing.
Activism is about using your power and voice to make change. Organizing is about that, too, but it’s also about activating and empowering others. It helps to think in terms of groups. Successful movement-building hinges on being able to see a society in terms of specific blocs or networks, some of which are institutions (unions, churches, schools), others of which are less visible or cohesive, like youth subcultures or demographic groupings.
Analyzing your spectrum of allies can help you to identify and mobilize the networks around you. A spectrum-of-allies analysis can be used to map out a campaign or to strategize for a whole social movement.
Here’s how a spectrum-of-allies analysis works.In each wedge you can place different individuals (be specific: name them!), groups, or institutions. Moving from left to right, identify your active allies: people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you; your passive allies: folks who agree with you but aren’t doing anything about it; neutrals: fence-sitters, the unengaged; passive opposition: people who disagree with you but aren’t trying to stop you; and finally your active opposition.
Some activist groups only speak or work with those in the first wedge (active allies), building insular, self-referential, marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else. Others behave as if everyone is in the last wedge (active opposition), playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them.