Max Elbaum is on the editorial board of Convergence Magazine and is the co-editor, with Linda Burnham and Maria Poblet, of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections.
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to have you all with us. And welcome to another installment of the Rise of the Right and Real News’ look at the coming elections. Now, I’ve been railing for a while about the lack of media or public strategy by Democrats. As we watch this meteoric rise of the right-wing racist power in this country that controls at least 22 state governments, changing voting laws, manipulating political districts, and rolling back much of what people fought for in this country.
So why is this happening, and more importantly, what do we do about it? We explore this today with Max Elbaum, who’s been on this show many times before, and who wrote this article called, “Who’s Got the Power? Balance of Forces 2023” for Convergence magazine, where he sits on the editorial board. He’s the author of numerous books like Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. He’s co-editor with Linda Burnham and Maria Poblet of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections and has been an activist for many decades. Welcome back, Max. Good to see you.
Max Elbaum: Great to be here with you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk a bit about what you wrote here. And I do want to start with something that, maybe you didn’t write about but allude to a lot in the work you’re talking about, of where we are politically in America. And why do you think the Democrats seem to lack any real organizing or media strategy to take on this growing right-wing power in this country?
Max Elbaum: The Democratic mainstream, led by Biden, has a certain faith in the American system that they think is inherently democratic. And they’ve also spent a tremendous amount of most of their political careers working in tandem with the Republican Party. And they have not really accepted the fact that the MAGA block is something different, that it has taken over the Republican Party and it constitutes a different threat to the communities we care about, but even to the mainstream Democrats themselves than existed in the 1970s or the 1980s. So there’s a tremendous amount of complacency there. It varies from individual to individual and some of them have various moral issues around why they are more or less committed to the fight against the right, but it’s American denialism, American exceptionalism. It can’t happen here. They’re wedded to that thinking.
Marc Steiner: There was an article that you linked to in your article, that was in the New York Times. It was written by Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage, and Maggie Haberman, entitled “Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025.” When I read that article and read your article in convergence, what’s clear is that if Trump wins again, he intends to institute power like we’ve never seen before in this country. And in presidential power to dismiss people, dismiss civil servants, take over agencies, and put things in place that will overturn the democracy that we have: banning abortions, right-to-work laws, and numerous other things. That’s what gets to me is that this is a real threat. This is not like the elections when we were kids, when we were younger. This is an actual assault on the entire future of this country, in part brought on by the lack of will and policies from mainstream Democrats, but it’s real. That’s what we face. That’s what frustrates me that they don’t seem to get it.
Max Elbaum: To reinforce your point, let me read you a quote from the main architect of this new Heritage Foundation report, which is called The Promise of America: The 2025 Presidential Transition Project, for what happens if Trump or another Republican wins in 2024. “Project 2025 is not a white paper. We’re not tinkering at the edges. We are writing a battle plan and we are marshaling our forces.” Paul Dans, director of Project 2025 at the Heritage Foundation told the E&E news, “Never before has the whole conservative movement banded together to systematically prepare to take power day one and deconstruct the administrative state.”
To bring all federal agencies under direct presidential control ending the operational independence not only of the Department of Justice and the FBI but also of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board. They’re very explicit. They want to dismantle all the programs of the 1960s and the 1930s, bring them under direct presidential control of a Republican president, and reconstruct the state in the image of the authoritarian and fascist states of the 20th century and early 21st century.
It is a bit mystifying how the mainstream Democrats don’t see the level of threat. Part of it has to do with the constituencies. There’s a certain class complacency here. The biggest consequences of this will fall on the working class, on communities of color, on women, on youth who are looking for a future, and on those communities in areas most affected by climate change and environmental problems. And the mainstream Democrats, their base is a different class, a different layer of class forces. They’re opposed to MAGA, but they concentrate on trying to figure out to the extent they have a strategy, how to persuade people that they consider to be middle voters.
Whereas the progressive wing, the left and radical wing, sees the importance of mobilizing, galvanizing, and organizing into long-term power-building groups, the working class, and the poor, communities of color. And building powerful organizations with a strategy that not only talks about fear of MAGA but offers something concrete, a restructured society that would be in the interest of those people. And to the mainstream Democrats, that’s not what they want, so they’re hesitant about the left and complacent about the right.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk a bit about your thoughts, about what you see as an alternative and how you see that building, and where does that come from? Where does that power come from? Your whole writing around the block and build, let’s talk a bit about that.
Max Elbaum: The block and build framework is that we need to block the right which includes defeating MAGA candidates in elections up and down the line. But we need to do so in a way that builds the independent power of social justice groups and those with an agenda for radical change. That’s the build side of the block and build. The book you mentioned, Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections, that contains 22 chapters with 40 organizers who were on the ground in 2020 and talked about how they approached the election to not only beat Trump in 2020 but to build the power of the groups they worked with.
There were union groups like Unite Here, SEIU, and the National Nurses Union. Workers groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance. State-based power-building groups like LUCHA in Arizona, Pennsylvania Stands Up, New Virginia Majority. Those organizations are year-round organizations that have a membership. They do campaigning, they don’t disappear after elections. They build up their membership and they conduct issue-based campaigns in their states. Blue Chain Arizona transformed Arizona from a right-wing bastion, which in 2010 was the center of gravity for the worst anti-immigrant legislation in the country. They spent 10 years in the course of that. They kicked out Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County, who was openly breaking the law in a racist manner. And they’ve transformed Arizona into a purple state and have started to elect their own people to office there. So they’re not in it to defeat the Republicans and go back to a Democratic Party that might offer a few concessions but be basically a status quo party; they’re out to transform and build power and make a real difference.
I don’t think it’s an accident that in Minnesota and Michigan, where the new administrations where the Democrats hold a trifecta, have initiated protections for abortion, labor protections, all progressive legislation in those two states. Because of the progressive wing, there are grassroots progressive organizations, ISAIAH and others in Minnesota, We The People Michigan, which has a chapter in that book, that has a base and is able to mobilize people, they have some of their own people in the state legislatures, and they make a real difference in people’s lives. And then that’s a springboard toward more victories going forward. So we can’t be satisfied with blocking MAGA. We have to build independent strength in order to move the country in a different direction.
Marc Steiner: I remember that book that you wrote and this most recent article that you wrote for Convergence in the last few weeks. And the question is, is it even possible to stop and how do you stop this right-wing wave in this country without some national convergence of the progressive world coming together with backers to confront it? And do you see that happening?
Max Elbaum: We are seeing the building blocks of that coming together, but it hasn’t congealed yet. We definitely could use something like the Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s or the block that the CIO centered in the 1930s which was organized, coordinated, progressive forces that fought in both elections and outside the electoral arena, and elected their own people. They were in alignment with more centrist forces to keep the fascists and the right out of power but exercise their own influence and were able to coordinate work, decide where there were priorities, allocate resources, and have coherent messaging. The Republican right issues talking points and within 20 minutes there are Fox News and millions of people reach them. We don’t have that coordination, so we definitely need something like that. And there is more and more conversation among the different components of the progressive movement that could lead, and will if we get the space in 2024, will lead to something.
It won’t look exactly like the Rainbow Coalition, it will look somewhat different, but it will serve the same function in American politics which is, there’ll be a progressive poll with a mass base, a national structure, and a brand, coherent messaging. In the ’80s, those were progressive Democrats. They were the Jackson people. Like in the last few years, people talked about the Berniecrats: it had an independent identity and it could reach a broad mass of people. Unfortunately, out of Bernie’s campaigns, that did not emerge, but it’s in the cards going forward. And the different forces who have a vision are trying to stir the pot and promote that alignment building.
Marc Steiner: One of the things I enjoy always talking with you, reading what you write, Max, is you do have that positive outlook. It can happen, it will happen, we’ll make it happen. And it’s an important message to bring out because we do face this rise, as I said earlier in the program, this rise of the right in this country. And if you look at the history of our country, there have been periods like the ’30s through the ’60s, the attempted reconstruction, and the early 20th century where labor laws were being changed in the push was making a place in this country to change things. But then the right always comes roaring back and roaring back with intense power. And it seems that when I read the article in The Times that I talked about earlier, you can see the power of the MAGA right in this country, with or without Trump. Though clearly, his messages about how he wants to increase authoritarian power in this country are out there but nobody seems to be using that against him.
Max Elbaum: The rhythms of American history that you point out are very sobering. For the first 60 years of this country as an independent country, the southern slave power was the dominant force in the country. They controlled the presidency most often. We were chattel slavery. And it took years of the abolitionist movement’s agitation from below, the coalition behind Lincoln who was not an abolitionist but became one in the course of the struggle in order to defeat the Confederacy, and reconstruction, which Du Bois called the dictatorship of the proletariat. This was the most progressive state government in US history, overthrown by a combination of racist violence and disenfranchisement: the KKK, and then we get a hundred years of Jim Crow. Jim Crow is overturned by the upsurge of the 1960s and we’re now living through the most dangerous phase of the backlash. Essentially, the Trump administration is the latest phase of the backlash that started with Nixon’s Southern strategy and Reagan’s election.
It’s all proceeded through different stages but we’re living through the backlash against the 1960s. The dilemma for the left has been that it has always, during the abolitionist period, during the 1930s labor upsurge, when the communist party played an important role, and during the sixties upsurge, we were able to influence national politics. But in the wake of those victories in previous times, the right roared back and the left was also under attack from the forces it had allied with against their earlier struggle against the right. We got pushed back, we got pushed out back to the margins.
And that’s the challenge today: how to beat MAGA in a way where we can’t be pushed back to the margins? How to beat MAGA in a way that we develop a secure spot in mainstream politics, a mass influence, and we’re able to take the initiative and become the leading force in the anti-right block, and force our swell partners to either move with us or defect and to be strong enough to deal with their defection? This is not easy. This has not been accomplished in any country. The revolutions that inspired so many of us and inspire people today all happened in countries where there weren’t electoral systems. They were countries with very weak states that were either propped up by foreign domination or as in Russia’s Tsarism, a very narrow social base. So making a structural transformation in a country with a developed so-called bourgeois democracy has not happened. So it’s a tough job. There are no easy roads, no pre-ordained paths. We have to make that path.
Marc Steiner: When you see the power of the Heritage Foundation, what they’re planning, how they are really part of the intellectual force and part of the organizing force behind the Trumpian MAGA right, let’s come back to what you were talking about earlier, both what you wrote about in your book and what you see happening on the ground. And where you see the forces of the progressive world in this country making headway. And how you pull them together nationally so there’s no resistance but victory against this surge.
Max Elbaum: There are two important points there. In the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections, what we saw was that there is a majority of people in this country, that when MAGA candidates are on the ballot, they get defeated. They get defeated. The majority of people are not in favor of the MAGA agenda and when they know that it’s on the ballot, they’ll vote against it. We won big victories in 2018. We kept Trump out in 2020 and in 2022 when everyone was expecting a red wave, they got the red wave in the red states and in states where the Republican candidates disguised themselves, but where MAGA candidates were on the ballot, they lost. So the first point is, we have to root ourselves in the idea that we are the majority. We speak with the moral high ground of a majority that wants a different country. And the key constituencies, the growing constituencies in this country, young people and people of color, lean heavily in the progressive direction.
The reason that the Republicans were defeated in 2018, 2020, and 2022 was not because a whole bunch of people changed their minds who had been voters. It’s because many new voters, people who hadn’t voted before, got mobilized, higher turnouts in 2018 and 2020, and a tremendous youth vote, which leans two to one; much higher than the older age cohorts and voting against MAGA. That’s the source of our potential strength and now we need to organize that strength. And the key things there, one, we have to revitalize those organizations that bring people together because of their structure, where they sit in the society, not only because they have a political view. In other words, labor organizations, unions, tenant organizations, and community organizations where people are part of something because they share the conditions of life of other people. Those have traditionally been the strong point of the left. The labor movement and the Black church have been the anchors of the US left in historical periods. We have to revitalize those institutions.
And then we have to build organizations that are political organizations that can fight both electorally and non-electorally. And as you’ve pointed out, Marc, they can’t be siloed. They have to bring people together. They have to be able to function in a coordinated way. Those things have come together, the informal coalition behind Martin Luther King in the ’60s, the Rainbow Coalition in the ’80s, and the CIO-led block in the 1930s. There’s a political space there, politics like nature abhors a vacuum, and that political space is going to be filled. There’s a whole range of groups, the national organizing networks like People’s Action and CDP, and Community Change. Then you have groups like the Working Families Party, Progressive Democrats of America, Justice Democrats, and DSA. There are conversations going on among these groups and there’s a revitalization going on in the labor movement. We saw a big victory with the Teamsters winning big concessions from UPS, the Teamsters under Reform Leadership, and what’s going on in the UAW.
The teacher’s unions are being more active because they’re so under attack. National Nurses United has a Nurses for Democracy program. All these building blocks are in place. I wish I had a formula for how to bring them together. I don’t have a formula but compared to 2015 and 2016, there is a lot thicker interaction and the prospects for that taking shape are very good. I am not sure something like that can come together before 2024 because people are already making their plans and those groups that are engaged have made plans and set their priorities for different states, districts, and messaging. But if we can block MAGA in 2024, the prospects for a more united progressive movement are better than they’ve been since the 1980s.
Marc Steiner: Now, what you said, before we conclude a little bit, this is a really important, positive message about what can be done and how it should be done. And that we should be actually doing more to cover these organizations around the country doing this organizing, as Max Alvarez here has been doing with covering all the labor struggles around the country. But when you look at the coming election, that would mean following the logic that you posited, and this is with big debate, having to support the Democratic Party, having to support Joe Biden is president again, if, in fact, he’s the candidate again, in order to stop MAGA from seizing power and the right-wing from seizing power in this country. It’s a really difficult situation.
Max Elbaum: It’s a difficult situation. Two of the most savvy politicians on the progressive end of the spectrum in the US today, we have a lot to learn from them. Bernie Sanders and Brandon Johnson, who was elected mayor of Chicago, both of them have endorsed Biden. Neither of them is a Biden fan. Bernie, however, leveraged his strength in the 2020 election, he’s the chair now of the Senate Budget Committee. He got some elements of his program into the Biden agenda. His strategic perspective is to set a working-class anti-corporate poll within the broad anti-MAGA alliance and try to have people move into those networks of progressive organizations and not vote a certain way. Voting is a part of it but then to move people in.
Brandon, who had 3% support in the initial polls and rose to win the election in Chicago, ran against a person who was nominally a Democrat, actually more funded by the Republicans, a school privatizer. Somebody who ruins school systems across the country, who was supported – And Biden didn’t take a position, but some of the people close to Biden endorsed Brandon’s opponent, Paul Vallas – And the leftover Obama machine in Chicago supported Vallas, as opposed to Brandon Johnson. Brandon came out of the Teacher’s Union in Chicago, which is a key anchor of the progressive organizing networks in Chicago and has been for many years. Brandon won, turned around, and beat Vallas, a huge grassroots victory, the most important thing progressive in Chicago politics since Harold Washington in the eighties. And he turned around a week later and endorsed Biden for president.
Why did he do that? Because he needs to be flanked. He knows that to get what he wants to change in Chicago, he has to have a relationship with the mainstream Democrats. If MAGA controls the federal government or the state government in Illinois, they’ll do the thing that the Republicans are doing in Texas which is denying Houston the right to do anything. Or in Mississippi, where they’ve essentially taken control of Jackson, the Black-majority capital, and forbid using their power in the state government to basically disenfranchise the people in Jackson from running their own affairs.
So it’s a question then of who gets the goods. There’s that saying, who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog? There’s a fight between us and the mainstream dems about whether we’re going to be the dog or we’re going to be the hunter. But we got to get the prey and if the hunter and the dog don’t work together, they don’t get the parade. So we’re stuck. We can’t beat MAGA without the centrist Dems, and the centrist Dems, for all the things that you correctly pointed out: their complacency, they don’t get it, targeting so-called median voter instead of realizing that you win elections by turning out people who are enthusiastic when you make something really happen for them, for all of that, they figured out that in most places, most of them have figured out that they need the progressives to win too.
So that’s why the Bernie-Biden thing has held because Biden and many people on his team may not like it, but they need the Bernie voters. So we have some leverage, we don’t have as much leverage as we need but that’s the way we have to work. We have to build organizations on the ground. If people are connected to an organization that they have confidence in and they’ve seen that it doesn’t disappear the day after the election, they’ll take the organization’s guidance that it’s better for us to vote for the lesser evil candidate. Lesser-evil-ism is when all you do is vote for the lesser evil candidate and you don’t try to build your independent power at the same time. If you’re trying to build your independent power and you have an organization to do that, of course, it’s better for you to have a worse person.
Charlene Mitchell, the first Black woman to run for president in the US on the Communist Party ticket in 1968, always said, worse is never better. And she was right about that. We can’t settle for the lesser evil, that’s not a strategy. But voting for a harm reduction candidate when you’re building your independent power, that only makes sense. And we have got a lot to learn from people like Bernie and Brandon who are on the front lines and know what the balance of forces in this country actually is. It’s easy to criticize one or another position they take, but they’re the people in the thick of the fight. Bernie’s probably more responsible than any other single individual for revitalizing the idea of socialism in the US in the last five or eight years. So it doesn’t mean we have to agree with him on everything or something like that but we should learn something from his savvy politics.
Marc Steiner: Max, I hope this is the beginning of many conversations and the thing that inspired me from our talk, A, there is a way out. B, that some of the groups you’ve described, we should be getting here on The Steiner Show, to take a deeper dive into groups that are organized around the country. Also to give inspiration to others saying, we have to stand up. This is our time not to allow the righteous to seize power. And I do appreciate the work you do and appreciate the time you always take when I call. Let’s have a conversation. So Max Elbaum, thanks for the work you do, and thanks for joining us today.
Max Elbaum: Thank you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: I hope you enjoyed that conversation today with Max Elbaum and we’ll be linking to his article and more on the site so check all that stuff out. And I want to thank you all for joining us today. And thanks to Cameron Grandino for being behind the glass and Kayla Rivara for being behind the scenes to make all this happen. And please let me know what you think about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at [email protected] and I’ll write right back to you. And while you’re there, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us in this summer campaign. So for Cameron Grandino, Kayla Rivara, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.