Let me take you back to Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 at the Vice-Presidential debate between Governor Sarah Palin, and then vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden. That night Biden proclaimed that any future administration he was a part of would not be in favor of gay marriage, saying “Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage.” The Supreme Court would make same-sex marriage legal nationwide just seven years later. There’s a long line of change that occurred this way: first by ordinary people, then adopted by politicians and finally through law.
Of course, it was disappointing that in last week’s presidential debate, the same Biden distanced himself from bare minimum policies such Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. But as communications director for Justice Democrats Waleed Shahid tweeted, “Lincoln was not an abolitionist, FDR not a socialist or trade unionist and LBJ not a civil rights activist.” Yet Abaham Lincoln emancipated the slaves, Franklin Delano Roosevelt installed New Deal programs and Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. As Shahid noted, these three Presidents oversaw some of the most significant legislative progress in American history, because abolitionists, Labor Unions and the Civil Rights Movement forced them to by shifting public opinion. The masses, not our politicians, built the power and re-wrote our laws.
History shows us that change doesn’t begin, or end, at the ballot box. Forgetting this is why the endless cries to “vote” this November are so dangerous and ring hollow––to promise change via an election is a recipe disaster. When liberals went back to brunch after the 2008 election, the Obama Administration let George Bush and the big banks off the hook for their crimes, set a record for deportations, abused warrantless surveillance powers and murdered hundreds to thousands of civilians abroad via drones. Everything that came with Trump’s ascent to president was the inevitable outcome of past administrations not being held accountable.
Trump is simply of the symptom of the years of corruption and cruel policy. One election isn’t going to change that. It’s why Noam Chomsky wants us to return to what he calls “the traditional left position,” where engaging with politics means taking part in constant activism. Instead of viewing voting as the central part of your engagement in politics, Chomsky says you should “take the 15 minutes to push the lever and go back to work.” One of his examples for real politics is the Sunrise Movement which has “put the Green New Deal on the legislative agenda.” Sunrise has done so by telling the story of corrupt fossil fuel executives knowingly destroying the planet, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable communities, dividing us and destroying our democracy.
Back in Sept. 2019, I attended my very first Sunrise meeting. I had first been introduced through a close friend of mine, who urged me to get involved in my local hub once I returned to campus for the fall semester. At first I was very hesitant; I had never been involved in organized activism before and am not the most outgoing individual to begin with. In fact, up until just a few years ago, I had considered myself apolitical, and certainly would never have described myself as particularly concerned about nature or protecting the climate.
However, in addition to my friend’s urging, seeing the results of the sustained moral protest strategy that Sunrise follows inspired me to become involved. I began saying enough is enough after watching the videos on social media of Dianne Feinstein patronizing middle schoolers simply begging her to take bold climate action. Contrasting that with a newly elected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez––who stood next to a generation as they pressured one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Party, Nancy Pelosi––helped build my resolve to join that fight.
To me, Sunrise not only represents a real opportunity and vision for achieving a liveable future for myself and generations to come, but it also works to achieve collective liberation and reshape the world to reflect one that I want to live in.
Look around you. Is this really the world you want to live in? If you’re truly concerned with more than Trump’s tone or the way he looks, that answer should be no. If you’re not already involved in “real politics” there’s no more important time to join than now. Sunrise is not the only group approaching politics this way. Take the other organizations who participated in the protest before the presidential debate last week, such as Black Spring Cleveland, the Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail, the InterReligious Task Force on Central America, the Cleveland Democratic Socialists of America, Safer Heights, Ohio Youth for Climate Justice, Black Lives Matter Cleveland, Communist Party USA, New Voices for Reproductive Justice (NVRJ), Defend Black Women, Resist Operation Relentless Pursuit/Operation Legend Cleveland.
There are so many groups right here in our own community embodying the kind of politics we need to employ to build the world we deserve. These are the people, by building coalitions and mutual aid networks, who are going to reshape our world. The politicians will simply be the ones forced to fall in step.
So, I’m not going to tell you to simply vote this fall. There is no doubt, as Trump lays out his plans to attempt to steal the election via the courts, that we are safest if Biden wins by the largest margin possible. But building community networks will be equally, if not more, important to our ability to remain resilient and make fundamental changes to a broken system that poses an existential threat.
Note: Third-year Avi Horwitz is the founder of the CWRU chapter of the Sunrise Movement.