The best time to organize was yesterday
CANCUN, MEXICO – FEBRUARY 18: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) signs up for a flight at Cancun International Airport after his Mexican family vacation in his home state of Texas weathered a winter storm in Cancun on February 18, 2021, Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Photo by MEGA / GC Images)
Organize Right is a regular column that doesn’t deal so much with the subject of organizing: how the right does how the left does, lessons from its history and its implications for the present day.
I had another column or six in the funnel this week, but then Ted Cruz ran into criticism for attempting to vacation in Cancun during the massive storm that caused bitter cold and massive power and water losses in Texas to sneak. I think it’s worth talking about Cruz’s misstep to help conservative voters and officials without adding to the dynamic in which – to steal a sentence – progressives circling the wagons while conservatives circling the firing squad. Officials in particular might find themselves in a similar situation one day, and it’s worth knowing how not to screw it up like Cruz and why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was able to make hay out of the situation.
Let’s skip the formalities: unlike Andrew Cuomo, who can manage to kill truckloads of senior citizens until a new government is in office and the senior president’s vice-president tries to take out potential challengers for 2024, Republican officials have to go deal with the fact that any press attention is negative. Cry over media bias for what you want, but it’s a local fact and you have to live with it. So forget about that as a factor.
Traditionally, at a time like this, the congressman’s job is pretty simple: shake the tree for money, stay out of the way, increase basic voter service. For example, during one of our forest fire rounds here in Southern California, Rep. Ted Lieu was front and center of the press conferences. He didn’t do much. He agreed with the tone of the first responders, verified that the shelters were well run, and urged people to call his office (or their own congressman’s office) if they needed help with a FEMA application or lost their social security check . That was all he had to do. Much of the value of a Representative or Senator in such a situation is just being an 800 pound gorilla when one is needed.
In Cruz’s case, because Texas is so big, it would have made sense to contact FEMA immediately to see what resources are available, contact the Texas governor and congressional delegations to see what they need, and To let the voters turn to their own congressmen who would filter any 800-pound gorilla needs down to him or Senator Cornyn. It’s not that complicated. Voters want their elected representatives to help. it makes us feel that they could actually work for a living.
But Cruz didn’t do that. And his abdication enabled AOC to steal his march and get good press. With ActBlue she raised money for Texan organizations, mainly food banks. Left-wing organizers posted helpful responses to their 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 recruiting for them.
Note that AOC is now heading to Texas for photo ops. However, mutual aid funding can come from NYC or even Cancun.
Which begs the question, why didn’t Ted Cruz do this?
It did not occur to Ted Cruz to organize a mutual help campaign because he could not. The reason donations could be sent to food banks and radical aid groups after the storm in Texas was because those groups already existed (in the case of the aid groups, usually as offspring of existing radical organizations). Mutual relief work is not something you announce and develop in a crisis. You need to have existing relationships with organizations that are already on site and doing the job.
Cruz doesn’t have these relationships. He could reach out to prominent donors, but they also don’t have organizations on tap. If he wanted to build relationships with conservative organizations, he wouldn’t have many options. Conservatives don’t naturally build organizations and don’t think much about reusing the ones we have. Perhaps he could turn to the Knights of Columbus or other religious groups, as many conservative charities are more religious. But a lot of it works on an individual level, as in the case of noted Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who is turning his furniture stores into storm shelter.
The organizers in the mentions of AOC take a different approach. They are building organizations for what the left call dual power, which the libertarian socialist caucus of the DSA sums up pretty well: “1) Building counter-institutions that serve as alternatives to the institutions that currently regulate production, investment and social life under capitalism , and 2) Organization and confederation of these institutions in order to build a base of countervailing power at the grassroots level that can ultimately directly challenge the existing power of capitalists and the state. “
You are not subtle. It’s not a reformist movement. It’s a slow revolution that essentially creates the various departments that can be repurposed for a new state:
Democratic unions can seize the workplace; Worker-owned cooperatives can rebuild it democratically; Tenants’ unions can take control of housing; Our councils and assemblies can restructure political authority over our own processes of confederal direct democracy. This framework for building people’s power outside the government institutions of our current system, in order to challenge and ultimately oust these institutions through truly democratic institutions of our own kind, is at the heart of dual power.
The effort is prefigurative. That is, it offers a vision of the socialist future while building capacities for local socialist groups and giving ordinary people an immediate material reason to think well about socialists. Or, as the libertarian socialist caucus puts it, “building collective power with immediate material demands and delivering our vision for the revolutionary overthrow of capital and all associated oppression”. In other words, long before you can have a revolution, you need to build elements that have the potential to unite in a new government.
This is the key to understanding the overarching strategy of the left, even among non-revolutionaries left: creating or accessing organizations and networks and then repurposing them. If you are unsure how powerful this approach can be, check out the most recent admiration profiles in the NYT and Time Magazine, the incumbent organizing coalition that secretly coordinated progressive efforts in the post-election period. I saw some grumbling from notable hard lefties about this effort as it was going on (particularly urging national organizations not to appear on the streets and keep their powder dry was unpopular with hard lefties), but it worked well for them.
And what do you know It turns out that coordinating a combined command and control context can be useful in certain circumstances for organizations that have access to very large numbers of people. Heck, if the United States were ever to break up into red and blue nations, the people in the would make a name for themselves NYT and time are likely the Continental Association’s Blue America version, and that is where the representatives would come to write their new constitution.
To bring this back to Ted Cruz, now that he’s back in town and no longer has organizations to highlight and involve locally, all he can do is do the £ 800 gorilla. But this is a column about Hows. How do we conservatives as public officials and ordinary people change that?
The good news is you don’t have to wait for a one-time storm. And you shouldn’t. Waiting for the organization until the crisis is like waiting for the summer to get the beach body ready. As 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 usually begin as an offshoot of an existing ideologically friendly group. You don’t start in crisis mode. They choose a sustainable, ongoing task that relates to their ideology but serves as contact with people who are not ideologically on board. The food service is a classic: Food Not Bombs feeds the homeless and for many people is a point of contact for radical left-wing actions.
Your conservative church could do that. Maybe they are already. This is a network that you can activate in times of crisis. Or say you are a member of a local pro-life group. What if you regularly put together formula and diaper rides to help families with young children? It serves a purpose. it’s reach. And it has to do with your core task. Maybe you are a member of a local shooting range and are part of the crew doing bowling pin shoots or benchresting on Wednesdays, or whatever. You could put together a local group to volunteer at food banks and maybe investigate the possibility of a meat donation in the hunting season. There is probably already some kind of community help activity out there that you can take part in. Look for a way you can already do something to safely help your neighbors.
And once you do, let other people on your ideological team know you are there.
David Hines has a background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from enforced disappearances and mass murder. He lives in Los Angeles.
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