I remember the precise moment I began believing socialism could take off in this country. It was early 2014 and I was standing in the cozy little office at the back of my house in Chattanooga. My husband Dan and I were entertaining some guests — a local community organizer named Chris and a labor journalist I’ll call Mitch. Earlier in the day Dan had gone out for beers with the guys to commiserate over a failed unionization vote at the nearby Volkswagen plant. They all wound up back at our place, where I fed everyone a pot of beans and rice.
I could feel the heavy mood and was curious why Dan and our guests thought the Volkswagen workers rejected the union. I didn’t know much about it. I trusted Dan’s analysis, that the UAW screwed it up by taking a top-down approach to organizing; Chris and Mitch seemed to agree. I didn’t say much. I knew my lane, and labor politics was not it. Though I was raised in a pro-union, suburban Detroit community and had always supported leftist causes, I hadn’t been involved in any kind of political effort in a long time.
But Chris talked me up anyway. He told me about the organizing his community group did. He told me how many of their core members met during the Occupy Movement (a moment that definitely piqued my interest, though I was busy with a newborn baby at the time). Then he told me about the socialist night school events they’d hosted.
My jaw dropped open. “You mean you got a bunch of Chattanooga people to show up and learn about socialism?”
“Yeah,” he said. “And people had no idea what it really meant. They were shocked by how much it made sense to them. So many of them had grown up with anti-Soviet propaganda.”
I did the mental math and said, “Wait, you had older people there, too? Not just young folks?”
“Oh for sure. We had people of all ages come out of Occupy.”
I was stunned. Socialism had always made sense to me, even having grown up at the tail end of the Cold War. I just never thought of it as something that could actually happen in this country. I got a bit involved in political activism when I attended the University of Michigan. I’d show up for all the good lefty protests, whether it was in defense of affirmative action, to support the grad students’ contract negotiations, or to rebuke the Clinton administration for bombing the Middle East. But in my experience, self-identified socialists and commies were weirdos who hung out in the plaza peddling newspapers. I tried engaging them when I first arrived but quickly learned they tended to lecture in a way most normal people found off-putting.
But this conversation in the cozy little office was not a lecture. Just a casual chat. Eventually the discussion turned to local politics, which reminded me of an issue I had been following. Our recently elected city council rep Ted Andrews (not his real name) — the first out gay man to ever serve in that capacity — was being targeted for expulsion by a Republican council member. Of course this seemed horrible to me, so I asked Chris what he thought of it.
He paused for a moment before he spoke. I detected a stifled eye roll — not in response to me, but rather a more general frustration. He said, “It’s true, those Republicans trying to kick him out are super homophobic and it’s disgusting. But also, Ted Andrews is no friend of the working class!” And then he broke down Andrews’ connections to local land developers.
A lot of ideas came into focus in that moment. His argument didn’t surprise or confuse me one bit. It’s like I knew it all along. On one hand it was exciting to have a gay council member. The thing I would later come to understand as “identity politics” wasn’t meaningless, especially in a small southern city. We should see more queer folks and other marginalized groups represented in local government. But simply having a diversity of voices doesn’t guarantee any one of them will speak for the people. As Chris quickly noted, no one on the council was a friend of the working class, though there were several Democrats. This was when I started to figure out that when you get hung up on identity representation and culture wars, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that very few of our elected officials look out for the interests of poor and working class people. I see these exact same dynamics here in North Carolina that I saw back in Tennessee. It’s probably true in your town, too.
I suspect there are lots of folks in our communities who resemble the person I was seven years ago — goodhearted but not-yet-organized working class people who have an innate sense of how our system is rigged, but haven’t delineated between shallow identity politics that uphold the status quo vs. the diverse, multiracial, working class people power we need to win a better world. Still, when Chris broke it down in that moment, I understood.
The reason his explanation stuck is that it was delivered with kindness. I look back at that moment and wonder how that conversation would have gone if he’d been huffy or patronizing, if he’d actually rolled his eyes and sighed at my ignorance. I’ve been treated that way before by people who had a more nuanced and accurate understanding of politics than I did at the time. But much like the hectoring voices in the plaza, I simply wanted to get away from them as quickly as possible.
So if you want to organize for a mass movement, don’t be a condescending dick to normie libs. You probably were one not so long ago. Acknowledge people’s good intentions and always remember that our enemies are not the unenlightened masses, but rather those who wield power selfishly. Memorize these wise words from Prof. Tressie McMillan Cottom — “Maybe some of you emerged fully formed revolutionaries from Marx’s scrotum but for many people it’s a process.” Never forget your process.