“It took most of us far too long to fully comprehend that Trump’s presidency represented a qualitative uptick in the determination and capacity of the right to impose minority rule,” Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and Maria Poblet write in the introductory essay to their co-edited book Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections. “Forty years of Republican anti-tax, anti-regulatory, anti-government ideology and governance; backlash against the election of the nation’s first Black president; fear of demographic change; the growth of a far-right, all-encompassing media environment; and long-standing, deeply rooted patterns of white and Christian supremacy set the stage for his election.” Now, as a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is poised to launch a legalistic assault on civil rights and Republicans continue to undermine the democratic process around the country, the right is reaping the gains it has sought and fought for over the course of generations. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with Burnham and Elbaum about how the right’s long-term strategy paid off and how the contributions compiled in their new book chart a path for the left to fight back.
Linda Burnham served as national research director and senior advisor at the National Domestic Workers Alliance for nearly a decade and co-authored, with Nik Theodore, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. She was a leader in the Third World Women’s Alliance in the 1970s, and co-founded, with Miriam Ching Louie, the Women of Color Resource Center, serving as the organization’s executive director for 18 years. Max Elbaum has been involved in peace, anti-racist, and radical movements since joining Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s. The third edition of his book about the US revolutionary efforts that emerged from the 1960s upsurge, Revolution in the Air, was released in 2018 by Verso Books. He is currently on the editorial board of Convergence (formerly Organizing Upgrade).
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Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Bill Fletcher Jr. and I just finished hosting and producing a series for The Real News that many of you watched and listened to, The Rise of the Right. And we’re going to continue to focus on this, and most importantly, how we organize, how we stop them from seizing power and controlling our future. And in that same vein, a book came out, this here entitled Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections. Now, that line comes right out of one of Frederick Douglass’s most famous speeches in 1857. He wrote, “This struggle might be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
As I said, he said that in 1857, you can say that now in 2022. Now, the contributors who wrote essays for this book, Power Concedes Nothing, are some of the most involved political activists and organizers in our country. And we’ll be hearing from many of them in the coming weeks and months. Today, we talk with two of its editors who are also contributors: Linda Burnham, who has served as a national research director and senior advisor with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She co-authored the book Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. She also is a leader of The Third World Women’s Alliance and executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center; And Max Elbaum, who’s appeared on this program several times, is another editor of this book, is a longtime peace, anti-racist, and antiwar activist. He wrote the book Revolution in the Air, which had its third iteration published by Verso books in 2018. He’s on the Editorial Board of Conversions, which used to be called Organizing Upgrade, that he founded. And folks, welcome. Good to have you both with us.
Linda Burnham: Thanks for having us.
Max Elbaum: Yes. Thanks, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk about this for just a moment about the book itself and where it began. And when you were working on this, obviously in the late teens and came out in 2020. Talk a bit about organizing this book and why you did it. Linda, you want to start?
Linda Burnham: Sure. The book actually just came out. It’s about 2020, but it’s just been published. And the reason that we decided to do it is because we knew that there was incredible work going on all around the country in the electoral arena, to which people were bringing social justice values and combining skills that they had accumulated in grassroots organizing and issue based and constituency based organizing. Bringing those skills and values to the electoral arena and trying to figure out how, within that arena, to create the kinds of change that our communities need.
We knew that this work had contributed, actually, to the defeat of Donald Trump, and that there were iterations of it in states across the country. And we felt strongly that we needed a way for people to be in conversation with each other. For people in Pennsylvania to learn from what people in Arizona were doing, for people in Georgia to be able to be in conversation with folks in Florida about what they were doing, and the why and how and what of it, and what was working and what wasn’t. And also to lift this work up in a way that other folks could see it and understand that it was being carried out by really skilled and dedicated organizers.
Marc Steiner: And they are, I’ll tell you, from what they’ve been writing. Did you want to add to that at all, Max?
Max Elbaum: We wanted the book to be in the voices of the organizers themselves. That made it challenging because organizers are very busy, their schedules are not their own. And they often don’t have a chance to step back and reflect on their experience and popularize their experience. So that was a challenge, which of course we didn’t get everything we wanted. But we got 22 blockbuster chapters by people who were immersed in the key struggles. There are five sections. One is about building power in the states, people who focused on specific states. One is that communities of color drive the win, people who are immersed in struggles in particular communities of color, the Black community, Latino community, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and so on.
The labor movement played a key role. “Labor: Workers on the Doors” is the third section. The fourth section talks about Bernie’s campaign, the role of democratic socialism in his campaign, how that became a prominent [feature]. Bernie’s energizing of the progressive sector and bringing a lot of people into seeing the importance of the electoral arena and bringing those social justice values that Linda mentioned. And the last sections on national coalitions and national projects and complicated relationships between some of the national work and people building power in specific localities and states.
So we felt that those are key arenas, key themes to take up in terms of the lessons of 2020. And also the sense that that was a victory, and we should celebrate it and remember at a time when a lot of people are not feeling all that hopeful. Remember that victory was won. And if we absorb those lessons, we can win it again.
Marc Steiner: So I’m curious, when you, obviously, were working on this book and the 2020 election happened, and it was a heady moment in the sense that there was this coalition of, in some ways of the unwilling, in some ways of the willing, to come together to stop the right wing and Donald Trump from seizing total power. And at least in the presidential election, it succeeded. But I’m wondering now, as you reflect on the work that came out of this book, the work that people are doing across the country, and what we face in 2022 with the midterm elections. I was reading this morning, The Hill, which is the newspaper coming out of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Saying it looks as if the Republicans will seize both the Senate and the House. How do we reflect on the optimism and power of the work that’s reflected in these essays, especially in places like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, where people are really on the ground working and pushing, where the governors are Democrats and legislatures are Republican. How do we reflect on that for this moment? Where we are right now?
Linda Burnham: Well here’s the thing, Marc. Yeah, we’re in trouble. We’re facing an enormous amount of difficulty in so many ways. And this is about 2020, 2022, 2024, but it’s also about the fact that we’re a little bit late to the party and we have a lot of catching up to do. And that’s going to take a lot of time. So it’s also about a longer term vision. In other words, the book is called Power Concedes Nothing, but it is also true that, for a variety of different reasons, on the progressive to left side of the spectrum, the notion of power was not necessarily central to what people were thinking about. It’s always been central to the right. They want to gain, hold, and keep power. Minority power, by the way. But on the progressive to left side of the spectrum, folks have been working on all kinds of issues, wanting social justice, et cetera, et cetera.
But the notion that, in fact, in order to move that agenda, power, including governing power, has to be central and has to stay central. It’s taken us a while to get to that and to understand fully that engagement in the electoral arena is one, not the only, but one of the central components of how that gets done. So yes, we’re facing serious headwinds in 2022. We will face serious headwinds in 2024. And the folks who are doing this work will still be at it, whether we win or whether we lose in 2022 and 2024, and building on the lessons that they’re accumulating over time.
So I just want to put that out there because it’s been a very complicated and interesting arc. So that we saw, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, an enormous outpouring of energy and issues of racial justice and social justice became central to dialogue around the country from communities all the way up to corporations. And then after the election of Biden, then January 6. This book actually was started, I think the first memo about getting this book together was done on that day or the day after January 6. So it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for us. We have to stay on that rollercoaster and understand that while people throw down as well as they can for 2020 and build ongoing infrastructure and relationships. Even if particular races are lost in 2022, they’re building the foundation for elections to come.
Marc Steiner: Said as someone who knows about organizing. Neither optimistic, nor pessimistic, but realistic about what we face and what we have to do.
Linda Burnham: Trying.
Marc Steiner: Yes, we are. Max, you want to leap in on that?
Max Elbaum: Well, Trump was a product of a 50 year backlash against the gains of the 1960s. This didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t something that happened in 2015 through Trump’s charisma. It was built over a long period of time. The 2008 financial crisis, the Birther movement to try to de-legitimize the first Black president. The whole backlash has been building for 50, 50-some years. And the right wing was playing in the electoral arena as well as in the arena of public opinion and all the different social movements and campaigns. They were playing in that arena from day one and building up their political power to take over, the far right. Steps to take over the Republican Party from Reaganism to Gingrich’s Contract with America, all the way through the MAGA movement.
And what people, like Linda said, a lot of the progressive movement, we were speaking truth to power in very important social movements early in this century. But we weren’t contending in the electoral arena with the force and bringing our constituents into that arena with a positive program until 2016, Bernie’s campaign, the squad. And I think, against that background, what we accomplished in 2020 was quite something. Because even though we had come late to the party, the progressive movement tipped the scales. And they tipped the scales by tapping into the constituencies that have been neglected by the Democratic Party establishment. They have this whole notion of low propensity voters. And the people in this book flip the script on that. They’re not low propensity voters, they’re low investment voters. No one’s invested in them. No one has given them a reason to vote. No one has been there the week after the election, as well as fighting for their interests.
And that’s what the people who did the work in this book, that’s the kind of work that they did. Investing year round in campaigns, building roots and constituencies, showing up one year after the next. And giving people a path, showing how the path runs through the defeat of the MAGA movement, but doesn’t stop there. We have a different vision. The people in this book have a different vision of progressive change. 2020 was a very fluid moment. One thing we were learning in these hearings, the outcome of 2020 could have been a successful coup by Donald Trump, all the way over to a larger victory against Donald Trump. We won. We beat Trump, we protected the results. But we didn’t win enough to shift, to prevent people like Manchin and Sinema from having so much power to block with the obstructionist Republicans and prevent a lot of the legislation and the things that we were fighting for: Voting rights, labor rights, Green New Deal, Build Back Better, infrastructure, massive reform in the police and criminal justice system. So we have to win more. We have to win more.
Marc Steiner: So I mean, a lot of this book is people’s experiences and thinking and strategizing around electoral politics and more. But electoral politics is a big piece of this, of what you wrote about. So I’m curious, Linda, I was thinking about the… You did this, had this really fascinating conversation in the book with Georgia activists. From across the board. White, Black, Latino, across the board.
I’d like for a moment just to reflect on where you were then when you did the book. When you began to write this book, put these things together, talk to people around the country, get their essays in. As you’re approaching the 2020 election and where we are now. Especially in, say, Georgia, where there are so many states that have moderate to liberal Democratic governors and really seething right-wing legislatures under control of the right and the Republicans. And you can see what that push means in a place like Georgia. So talk about how, what that kind of headiness of that moment with Warnock and the rest, and where we are right now. And what that says to you about what people have to start thinking, considering, and where to take the next phase of some of the things that people are writing about in this book.
Linda Burnham: Yeah. Well the first thing that I’ll say is that the people in that essay are on the ground working right now.
Marc Steiner: Right. Right.
Linda Burnham: So they haven’t given up on the state of Georgia. And Georgia held a tremendous amount of lessons for us. The foresight of the folks who figured out, as Max was saying, to focus on what are called low propensity voters. And to do the work of getting on the doors in Latino communities, Black communities, and amongst whites who had been abandoned to the Republican Party, essentially. The folks who did that work are doing that work right now. So all praise is due to Cliff Albright and Nse Ofot and Andalina Medina and Beth Howard, who spoke in that essay about… For Beth Howard, who works with Standing Up for Racial Justice, it was about knocking on doors in white communities, rural white communities, oftentimes, encountering no shortage of Confederate flags, and having the courage to knock on those doors that the Democratic Party operatives were not knocking on.
And for organizations like New Georgia Project to really do the thinking about, okay, what are the cultural elements that need to be brought to this work? Somebody talked to me the other day about elector work being sterile. No, it doesn’t have to be sterile. If people are thinking about what are the ways in which these connections can be made with community-based folk to get them excited about a process that might not, on its face, seem exciting. So just to say that people are on the ground doing that work. Well, in Georgia, as everywhere else, when there is an advance, folks come back around and try to figure out how to undermine that advance. So the Republican Party is very busy figuring out how to take back that Senate seat. And very busy trying to figure out how Stacey Abrams will not be the next governor of Georgia.
People who are in Georgia understand that it is a head to head contest, that they have to bring resources to every day God sends a day. Every single day. That this is a long-term struggle. And I just feel like the folks in Georgia and in Arizona in particular, what they did was that they showed us possibility where people thought there was no possibility. So that’s really important, even if there’s a setback. Even if there’s a setback, it’s important to make it known that possibility exists in Georgia if it’s invested in in the ways that it needs to be invested in. And if it’s possible in Georgia, then certainly it’s possible in North Carolina. And if it’s possible in North Carolina, it’s also possible in South Carolina. So as I said, I think it’s hard to just pinpoint it at a moment in time, because it really is about what is the arc. And I feel like we’re at the beginning of the arc.
Max Elbaum: Yeah. To me, two points got registered at that moment, Marc. One is, this is a very hard country to change. And the other is, we are the majority, and our program is in the interest of the majority. And the thing about one’s mood is whenever you… It’s hard to keep both these ideas in your head at the same time. So if you get focused on only one, your mood gets thrown off in one way or another. There are heady moments when we see the majority activated. And that happened, for instance, as Linda said, in the George Floyd uprising. We saw the largest social protest movement in US history, people of all backgrounds calling out systemic racism and police brutality. And it gives people a little too heady a sense of how fast that can be translated into actual change in the structures of the society.
And then on the other end, when you experience the backlash and you see how deeply rooted these structures are, we’re facing a rigged Electoral College. We’re facing a Senate, all the things in the Constitution, we’re trying to protect the Constitution now against extraconstitutional measures. Even though it’s a rigged Constitution against us. It was structured to defend slavery, among other purposes. So keeping both those things in our head at the same time, that is a stabilizing force. It allows us to do exactly what you said at the beginning here, be realistic, but see the seeds of why we can change things. What will change, what can change. The anti-MAGA majority still exists out there. And if we can tap that majority in 2022 and 2024, then we can prevail. And that’s exact… The backlash is coming at us so viciously because the other side is desperate.
They really think that… When they say they believe they’re losing their country, they’re not kidding. That’s what they actually think. Because they believe the combination of demographic change and the new sentiments among the younger generation, which is sensitive to issues of climate change, issues of gender diversity in ways that no previous generation has ever been, they really do believe that their day will be over. That’s why they’re coming at us so hard. So it’s a difficult… There’s no guarantees. But we need to keep both of those things in our heads at the same time. This is a tough country to change. We’re facing the most powerful ruling class in the history of humanity. Dominated the 20th, late 20th century and into the 21st. And we’re the majority. And if we can tap that majority, we can change it.
Marc Steiner: So, when you think of the people who wrote these essays, and there are some incredible essays in this book. People are really doing some serious work on the ground, organizing. A lot, not the entire book, but a portion of the book is about people who are organizing electorally on the ground as well as across the country. And when you look at the… Well, let me put it this way. One of the things I’ve been writing and thinking about a lot, and it made me think about this is – I was reading my notes on your book last night – Is that you’ve got people like this in the book who are organized and working hard to win and create movements in their states and other places.
But then you’ve got the Democrats themselves. And you’ve got Biden and the established Democrats who are controlling the strategy. A, they’re not taking the fight to the Republicans at all. They’re not taking the fight to the right. And I think many people who are inspired in 2020 are getting disillusioned, in some ways, because they’re not standing up to the fight and pushing it out there, whether it’s on social media or organizing communities and the rest. So some people might say to you, well, I love this book and the essays are incredible, but I have to be inside the Democratic Party to do this? You know what I’m saying? I mean…
Linda Burnham: Yeah. Well, I don’t think people, many people… Let me speak for myself. I didn’t vote for Biden because I was inspired by Biden. I don’t think Biden is a particularly inspiring figure, per se. But I think I voted for Biden because Biden is what was on offer as against an authoritarian proto fascist. That’s why I voted for Biden. So we’re not assuming that people are super enthusiastic about a Democratic Party that hasn’t delivered on all kinds of things, a Democratic Party that has represented the neoliberal order. So that’s not the proposition. The proposition is that we need both an inside and outside strategy. So it’s clear that the Democratic Party can be changed. It already has been changed. So even the election of figures like AOC and Ilhan Omar. And Corey Bush, and others.
So the fact that there is at work, finally, a concerted effort to try to sort out how do you groom and elect clearly progressive and accountable candidates to Congress? So this is something to run on a Democratic Party ticket. This is something that over time has to happen at the national, county, state, and city levels. Because we’re in a two-party system that makes it extraordinarily difficult to launch a third party and have it make any difference.
Now, obviously there are formations like Working Families Party and others that try and figure out how to do that work without just undercutting and making it impossible for Democrats or progressive Democrats to win. But within the context of a two-party system, we have to sort out both how to do the lesser of two evils, how to shift the Party, how to elect progressives and leftists within the context of the Party. Again, a long-term proposition. That’s not about Hillary Clinton. It’s not about Joe Biden. It’s not about whoever the next person will be running for president in 2024, who we’re probably also not going to be super enthusiastic about, but who we’re going to vote for.
Marc Steiner: So, I mean, the tone of the book itself, it looks… Max, did you want to say something quickly before we get to this final thought?
Max Elbaum: Well, the folks who wrote, Maurice Mitchell from Working Families Party, Hahy Khalil, the head of the Gulf Coast Labor Council, there’s Stephanie Greenley and Mario Yedidia from Unite Here. The people from Lucha, people from New Virginia Majority, and say, in Georgia, they write like organizers. Which means they take stock and then try to solve the problem. They’re not in denial. I think the tone of the book is sort of very businesslike. But businesslike in a way that at least a few of the chapters, the Georgia one in the Michigan one in particular, talking about how they flipped Georgia. And Art Reyes is co-author in Michigan about how they defended the results and actually forced those Republicans to certify the result in Michigan through their direct action after winning a vote. It’s like, this is what we’re facing, and this is what we’re going to do about it.
And it has a problem solving tone. And the other part of the tone that I think is really important is the people writing in this book want to tap the talents of people in their constituencies who are usually ignored, stigmatized. Their talents are not recognized. Their voices are not heard. Finding all that human energy, creativity, talent, and dedication that’s in constituencies that have been marginalized, people abused, stigmatized. But that’s where there is energy and creativity. And to tap those folks, there’s no… It’s like everybody matters. Everybody in and nobody out. That sentiment, which we’re not brought up in this society to think that way. And they want to flip the script on that, which is a precondition for flipping the script on the structures of the society.
Because it’s not going to be done no matter… I mean I’m for talented intellectuals for good, you know, people for betraying their ruling class or siding with the working class and so on. But if we don’t tap the energy and creativity and dedication in those vulnerable communities, in the working class, the lower strata of the working class, communities of color, we’re not going to change this country. And the people who wrote for this book are committed to doing that. To tapping those energies and bringing out those strengths and unleashing that power.
Linda Burnham: But can I just say on Max’s point.
Marc Steiner: Go ahead.
Linda Burnham: On the point that Max was making. There’s a chapter… I’m going to just plug my own chapter. There’s a chapter in the book about domestic workers. About domestic workers on the door.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Linda Burnham: And it is, it really is an illustration of what Max said. Because when I interviewed one of the domestic workers for this chapter, and I’m not going to be able to recall her name right now, which I should. She said, I’m good at this. I figured out that I’m good at this. She’s good on the door. She’s good at being in conversation. She’s good at convincing people who are not inclined to vote that yeah, you need to go vote. She’s good at figuring out how to organize crews of people. And this is new for her, too.
So in other words, there’s part of this that’s also finding the talent that exists in the communities. Finding that talent and putting it to work in ways that it would not have been found. And that the Democrats are never going to… When are the Democrats going to find a set of domestic workers to put on the doors? They’re not. But that talent is there. And the organizers figure out how to tap into it and how it becomes a leadership building experience for the people who are doing the work.
Marc Steiner: So as we conclude here, I mean, I think it’s important. There are so many parts of this book about people actually doing the work. In the face of the rise of the right, what you’re positing here in this book with these essays, with the people you talk about who’ve written these essays, is not just a fight back, but a we can win. It’s got a really positive tone to it in terms of what organizing means and how you get to the place, how you pull people together. And so, just taking that and what these folks are doing there, let’s just conclude a bit with what your thoughts about some of the folks in the book and what we face here electorally and politically, and how you see that unfolding, especially for the people who have really participated in putting together this book. Which I really did enjoy, Power Concedes Nothing.
Linda Burnham: Marc, I guess what I would say is there’s going to be some losing. We’re going to lose some stuff. There’s pretty much no doubt about that. The MAGA set has gained a lot of ground. I was especially distressed, as I’m sure many people were, by the Idaho incident of folks rallying up to disrupt a gay rights celebration. So there are forces that have been unleashed in the country that are really dangerous. And they’re not going home. We’re going to lose some electoral contests, and we’re going to encounter some fairly ugly incidents with the permission structure that Trump and the Republican Party created for that is still alive and well. That permission structure still exists.
I’ll say that on the one hand. And we have to be ready for that. We have to understand that is what’s coming at us. And at the same time, we have to sort out how, through elector politics, and not only electoral politics, how to continue to rally and build. And build from strength to strength. And support the people who are out there doing the work on the day-to-day. And the communities that have shown up in the electoral arena consistently to defend democracy. Just meant in the Black community, for one, as the core defense of democracy in these times. So I just say to your listeners, both things are true. Both things are true. And one way or another we’ll make it through these times, and we’ll figure out how to build a better world on the basis of the lessons we learned in the electoral arena, as well as in the many other ways that people are working towards social justice.
Marc Steiner: Have a quick closing thought, Max?
Max Elbaum: Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. He saw the many victories and many defeats. He had a complicated relationship with Lincoln and others who were against slavery, but vacillated on equality. Were not for full equality and vacillated it in the fight. He navigated that. He lived through Reconstruction, the most progressive period in US history. Those governments in the South that Du Bois called the dictatorship of the proletariat. And he lived through the rollback of Reconstruction, tremendous defeat. And left a legacy, kept fighting and left a legacy. And we have to try to do the same thing. We fight. We hope that our victories can be preserved longer and that we can institutionalize them. We attain a share of governing power, and we can’t be pushed back to the margins again. Each generation has its responsibilities, and I think that’s what it takes to fulfill ours.
Marc Steiner: So I want to thank, once again, Linda Burnham and Max Elbaum, it was great to have you all with us today. I really appreciate you taking the time with our listeners here at The Real News. And I look forward to developing these conversations with the folks who were in your book to give us a sense of the kind of organizing going around the country and the optimism of that work. So thank you both so much for the book, and your other author who couldn’t join us today, Maria Poblet. Thank you both.
Linda Burnham: Thanks for the opportunity. It was great talking with you.
Max Elbaum: Yes. Thank you, Marc. Thank you very much.
Marc Steiner: And thank you all for joining us today. You can find links to the book Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections by our guests Linda Burnham, and Max Elbaum, along with their co-author Maria Poblet. It’ll be attached to this interview.
It truly is an inspiring work to hear the voices of those on the ground organizing. And you’ll hear more about them in the coming weeks here on The Marc Steiner Show. So please let me know what you’ve thought about today’s program and I’ll write you right back. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I want to thank Stephen Frank, Dwayne Gladden, Kayla Rivara, and our hardworking creative crew here at The Real News. Thank you again for joining us. I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep in touch, keep listening, and take care.