And Reimagining What Can Be…
by Randall Amster
Good morning America, and welcome to those proverbial “interesting times.” We have a so-called President seemingly coming unhinged in public, a dystopian aura infusing politics at every level, a resurgence of hatred made safe by irresponsible rhetoric, and a cultural fascination with misdirection and blatant untruths. At the same time, there’s a burgeoning opposition movement contesting every brick in the apocalyptic wall, mobilizing in the streets and through its tweets alike, constituting a potential political counterforce—perhaps not only in this moment, but for the foreseeable future.
With football and baseball both on hiatus now, the national pastime seems to have swung to watching the unraveling of this Administration and the fantastic foibles of its terrific protagonist. This has all been a boon to the major media outlets, as well as to the Saturday night satirists and their ilk. It’s also a familiar posture for the general public to be in, regardless of political ideology, accustomed as many people have become to consuming “reality” programming, celebrity scandals, and infotainment gossip.
But of course this is different, and the actual reality of this moment isn’t really all that funny anymore. There’s a reason why rates of stress and anxiety are on the rise, and why the blogosphere is buzzing nonstop. And it isn’t only the political left who are fueling a resurgence of resistance right now—the pushback on the unfolding insanity is also driven by large numbers of moderates, and even some principled conservatives who can’t stomach the erosion of basic liberties and established processes.
It’s too soon to say how this will play out, but even some casinos may be taking action on how long the President has left in office before things fully implode. The strength of the resistance that has formed—with its marches and memes, its protests and parodies—will have something to say about this, especially if more people inside governmental structures sense that it’s safe to start pushing ahead. While the courts and Congress may have the final say, it’s been the people who have brought us here.
And that’s an amazingly hopeful thing to consider, especially for those of us who believe deeply in “people power” and the arc of justice being bent through social movements. Yet it’s also important to be cautiously optimistic about all of this, for a few reasons that are ultimately interrelated. Resistance to a perceived common threat (i.e., a mercurial and maniacal chief executive) can be a galvanizing force, but not all resistance is the same and, even more to the point, opposition alone isn’t enough to save us.
Undoubtedly, the pace and furor of the Administration’s descent into chaos is unprecedented in recent memory and has unified many perspectives in their joint disdain for machinations with Moscow, saber-rattling at allies, refusing to comply with basic disclosures and ethics rules, commingling the business of the state with personal business interests, appointing an unqualified cabinet, pandering to racism and sexism, and much more. This is all so objectionable that it has provided a clear focus for the resistance.
Yet things are more complex than simply a mass protest against a despotic regime. Within that struggle is another one between those who want to restore the promise of American values, and those who are pointing the compass toward a world that hasn’t yet been realized. Shall we seek to return to a time when cherished values were honored, a political system of checks and balances worked seamlessly, and a social contract was upheld with equal opportunity and justice for all? Or will we chart a new course?
While we consider this, the deeply rooted existential threats of perpetual war, escalating inequality, rampant environmental degradation, and climate change remain untended and spiral further out of control. So while this particular moment is deeply troubling, perhaps it’s not as divergent in the big picture as it may seem. The key issues of war/violence, inequality/injustice, and environment/climate were already marked “urgent”—and if the election had gone the other way, they would remain so.
If we’re concerned about root causes and structural change, it can be hard to see a path forward under any circumstances at this point. Except, perhaps, for the emergence of a robust resistance, if it can keep the momentum going and harmonize its two primary strands into a longer-term struggle that addresses the core issues. The structures of political economy are like the ocean: tumultuous on top, but decidedly stolid underneath; if change is to be meaningful, it has to get beyond the surface and into the depths.
How can this change occur? One wing of the resistance takes the view that the system is basically sound and its processes can be used to upend a corrupt administration. Arguments from this sector often take the form of appealing to baseline American values and core principles. Its tools of advocacy frequently include calling Congress, mounting legal challenges, and working with supportive elements inside the system. Their campaigns generally focus on this President and his cadre as the root of the problem.
Another segment is more pointed in its view that the system is essentially broken and its processes have been used to oppress people through intolerance and violence. This perspective includes advocacy aimed at dismantling structures of inequality, calling out the exploitative nature of business as usual, and interrupting specific instances of injustice. Their protests will often go beyond approved marches, and their messaging might include broader concerns about the institutional roadblocks to progress.
The current Administration and President have provided an obvious point of convergence for these strands, but should the acute crisis pass in some manner (for instance, via impeachment or resignation), it’s not clear that this resistance will keep marching in unison. More promisingly, some of the emerging discourse around themes of being indivisible and stronger together can help build more durable bonds, providing a potential opportunity to weave a web of related struggles that might bring real changes.
The annals of social change demonstrate the power of working across such variants, yet also the ways in which fractures can develop that undermine effective and tangible alterations. Struggle built on a framework of “the enemy of my enemy” only goes so far, even when the shared adversary in that equation is as blatantly bizarre as the one we have before us now. The task is to cultivate resilient relationships that transcend common threats by focusing on mutually beneficial ideas and solutions.
Here we find ourselves, then, poised on the cusp of history. Before us are the prospects of things going completely off the rails, or perhaps restoring a semblance of order in time, or imagining a truly better future. Yes, this Administration is a clear threat to progressive policies and traction on core issues—but even if it was suddenly removed from office tomorrow, we’d still be faced with an array of intractable existential crises and a political system that has been unable (or unwilling) to adequately address them.
Resistance in this sense isn’t merely about opposition, but also about articulation and building up capacities for growth and resilience. Before us is an unprecedented moment of grave challenges and enormous opportunities; with the gears of power showing their bare teeth in full view, we can see the exposed core of baseline problems more clearly. We now have no excuses for not addressing them.
We can work together and seize this chance to restore what worked, reject what didn’t, and reimagine what can be. We owe it to ourselves, those who have struggled before, and those who will inhabit the future, not to be primarily reactive and willing to settle for only cosmetic changes. Someday, hopefully, we will look back and remember this as the very moment that we wove the threads of a better world.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology.
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