The Movement Needs a Plan for 2004

by Dave Stratman
February 20, 2004


The anti-war, anti-direction-in-which-our-country-is-moving movement desperately needs a coherent plan of action.

Voting -- for Dean or Kucinich or "anybody but Bush" -- is hardly a satisfactory strategy, even if Kerry were not the front runner. Not only do politicians invariably do in office what they swore not to do while on the stump. Electoral politics by its nature goes against two essential elements of democratic movement-building: expanding people's sense of social possibility and developing in people the confidence that they themselves are the key force for change. The "lesser-of-two-evils" nature of electoral politics is not about expanding possibility but contracting it, promoting not the most desirable candidate but the most "electable": bye-bye, Kucinich, hello Kerry. Aside from this problem, voting is still about choosing someone who will presumably solve our problems for us -- the opposite of mass democratic action. It is a strategy which in the entire course of American history has never worked.

Marches on Washington and local demonstrations are useful to a point, but that point has been passed. Such demonstrations typically involve the highly-committed traveling far from home to express their commitment and pressure government officials. They involve a huge expenditure of energy and money for relatively little return. Except for fleeting media coverage, demonstrations mainly affect their participants, assuring them that they are not alone. This is no small achievement. But it is not enough.

We need a strategy, if not to replace demonstrations, at least to supplement them with something more politically far-reaching and less limited to activists.

To be effective, a strategy must meet certain requirements. It must have the potential to include many millions of people. It must make a powerful political statement. It must strengthen people's faith in themselves and each other as agents of change. It must not require individuals engaged in it to take excessive risks. And it must embrace a long-range democratic vision, beyond its immediate goal of stopping the next war or other disaster. It must be a small step making a big statement that many people can take together to strengthen them to move further along a path to fundamental change.

New Democracy is proposing a strategy that meets these requirements. We are calling on people to refuse en masse to vote in the 2004 presidential election -- and to say why they are doing it. This is a strategy that can include the entire electorate, including the 50% who already do not vote. It makes a powerful statement: that the electoral process is a fraud. Its mass character and its message will strengthen people's understanding that real change must come from them, not from some front-man for the monied elite. The only risk it poses for individuals is the combined thrill and fear that come from admitting to ourselves that we're on our own: no man on a white horse is going to save us.

Our strategy, which we call Mass Refusal/2004, is obviously geared to the election-year context. It is meant to be developmental, a small step millions of people can take together which makes a powerful political statement and prepares them for further action. Mass Refusal/2004 is only one step in a continuing campaign to build a mass democratic movement in the U.S.

What are the next steps? In her recent address to the World Social Forum in New Delhi, noted Indian author Arundhati Roy called for a world movement to challenge the occupation of Iraq. She said,

"We have to become the global resistance to the occupation.

Our resistance has to begin with a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It means acting to make it materially impossible for Empire to achieve its aims. It means soldiers should refuse to fight, reservists should refuse to serve, workers should refuse to load ships and aircraft with weapons."

We can begin our mass resistance with Mass Refusal to choose which candidate will continue the occupation, as they all promise to do in one form or another. After the election, strengthened and refreshed by our collective rejection of fake democracy, we can build the movement to undertake refusals which entail more risk, including direct refusals to do the work of Empire.

In the short time since we first proposed it, our strategy proposal has gotten decidedly mixed reviews. Some people have felt liberated at not having to vote "for the lesser of two weevils." Others have reacted with shock and outrage. "Have you completely lost your minds???" was one of the more temperate comments we received from a young Democratic Party activist in response to a recent fund-raising letter. We have had similar reactions even from people not wed to the Democrats, who simply don't have a great deal of confidence that millions of ordinary people feel exactly as we do about the society and can be mobilized to change it.

The shock and awe our strategy proposal has caused among activists is actually a sign of how badly it is needed. Belief in the electoral system is the last great illusion in American society, an illusion typically more deeply cherished by political activists than by the broader community, who have learned from experience that politicians lie. Activists also know this -- how could they not? -- but they refuse to give up hope that Howard or Dennis or John might somehow be different and might somehow save us all. The touching but misplaced faith of activists in political hacks and a fraudulent process is a measure of their lack of faith in ordinary people as the force for change. We must never forget what happened before the invasion of Iraq: millions of ordinary people here and abroad rose up to oppose the war, while the Democrats collaborated with the war-makers.

This MassRefusal strategy can reach far beyond the already-engaged to what one friend calls "the people on the sidelines" --  the majority of people in our society, who have been demobilized by undemocratic institutions operating in an undemocratic, atomized culture; people whom the media, the political parties, the unions, the schools, the governing agencies at every level have discouraged from participating in society and have left deeply alienated. These millions of people know very well that they are unrepresented in the political process. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has shown that the characteristically low turn-out rates in U.S. elections are not a sign of apathy or laziness on the part of the electorate but of political understanding; the profile of non-voters in the U.S. matches that of those who vote communist or socialist in European elections. Burnham writes, the "huge 'hole' in American participation [in elections...] seems inseparably the total absence of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor in the electoral market."

Our strategy proposal is the outgrowth of an earlier campaign. In 2001 New Democracy proposed a strategy to a committee of large teacher union local presidents in Massachusetts to counter what is known here as MCAS, a high stakes test administered at most grade levels in the public schools which tenth graders must pass to earn a diploma. We called the strategy MassRefusal. We explained to the local presidents that MCAS is part of a broader corporate plan of social control, aimed at getting people to accept their place in an increasingly unequal and undemocratic society. Our proposal was that teachers vote in their local unions not to administer the MCAS tests. Our hope was that at least a few locals would refuse the test and start a groundswell of refusal. An anti-testing movement already existed in Massachusetts, but was hamstrung by its reliance on politicians and the legislative process; MassRefusal was a strategy for teachers to take their and their students fate in their own hands through collective action.

The union presidents on our committee were terrifically excited by the proposal. Janet Dufault, president of the Education Association of Worcester, exclaimed, "Teachers will be dancing in the streets if we do this." We issued our "Call for MassRefusal," signed by six local union presidents, a former state teacher union president, and several other educators, calling on teachers to refuse to administer the MCAS. This writer addressed the building rep committees of five large union locals about MassRefusal.

And then...nothing happened. Not only did no teacher local vote not to administer the MCAS; no local even met as a whole to consider the question. There were a number of reasons for this outcome -- the culture of their unions has demobilized teachers in important ways -- but the overriding reason was fear. Many teachers have expressed outrage at the MCAS, and none of them has been fired for refusing to administer the test. But the accumulated fear and cultural conditioning of years of deferring to authority has left its mark. (I should note that our campaign for MassRefusal reached its height in the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11 -- an event which redoubled the climate of fear and made it much harder to focus on the tests.)

My point in this example is not to single out teachers but to point out the fear that pervades American society. People in every walk of life have been under attack in manifold ways by the corporate beast, and people have lost much of their sense that they can fight back. Millions of relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost through automation or shipped overseas, while many white collar jobs are being outsourced to India and elsewhere. Many other jobs have been reduced to temp work. Teachers have been told for decades that they have failed, and have been subjected to ferocious educational "reforms." People are under the gun and they know it.

We cannot build a successful movement unless we can overcome fear. In his 1991 book, Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland, Larry Goodwyn points out how rare are mass democratic movements in human history. There are a great many barriers to the rise of such movements, the most fundamental of which is the internalized fear which people accumulate over years of cultural conditioning. The "necessary condition [of social movements]," writes Goodwyn, "is the conquest of fear and an overcoming of social habits generated by fear. When a handful of people find a way to achieve this conquest, a political sect appears; when a great number do, a large-scale social movement can form."

The fear that Polish workers had to overcome in creating Solidarity had very real roots: a Communist party-state that dominated every area of life, from the factory floor to the unions to the schools and media and security police to the government itself. The party ruled by insuring that there was no "democratic space," in Goodwyn's phrase, in which popular forces could assemble and reinforce each other, no institution which working people themselves controlled where they could gather their ideas and strength. Individuals challenged the party-state only at their peril and few did so openly. While police beatings and black-listings and worse were always available to keep workers in line, there often was little need to apply these measures, since people had learned to censor their own words and behavior.

While we don't live with the same level of threats that ordinary people faced in Communist Poland, still there is rising fear, and there is precious little "democratic space" where people control their own institutions organized around their own shared values and ideas where they can overcome their fear. MassRefusal/2004 is a movement-building step designed to help overcome fear and encourage people to see themselves as the great force for change. Our past attempt to shut down high stakes testing in Massachusetts was defeated by fear and passivity within unions dominated by conventional politics; through MassRefusal/2004 and other movement-building steps, we hope the movement will become strong enough to see successful mass refusal by teachers in the future.

A final word here about the long-range vision of the movement. Underlying the "anti-direction-in-which-our-leaders-are-taking-us" movement is a positive vision of human life and values fundamentally different from the vision which drives the war-makers and ruling elites. The positive elements of this vision are perhaps too seldom evoked, as people scramble to stop the next atrocity. But as the movement grows and matures, it will more consciously project its vision of a better world implicit in the values which drive it.

If we are to succeed, this vision must find its source and sustenance not in new elites, whether Left or Right, but in the lives and values of ordinary working people here and around the world. It must imagine a new world rooted in the already-existing struggle of ordinary people in the face of a profoundly anti-human culture to create relationships which reflect human life as they believe it should be. In a society based on inequality and selfishness, most people try, in the little piece of the world that they think they can control, to create relations based on love and trust and mutual respect. The most intimate acts of kindness and the most public acts of mass resistance and revolution are on a continuum of struggle to humanize the world. Solidarity and equality are the best values which drive the movement today, and they are the values which should shape the whole world in the future. The more aware of its own implicit vision the movement becomes, the stronger it will be.

Dave Stratman is former Washington Director of the National PTA and the author of We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life (New Democracy Books, 1991). He can be reached at

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