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“We’re In a Race Against Time”: Interview With Hegemony How-To Author Jonathan Smucker

Issue 260

There's a political realignment taking place amid a system-wide crisis of legitimacy that status quo forces cannot resolve.

John Tarleton Dec 19, 2020

Jonathan Smucker’s first book — Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap For Radicals — was an unlikely hit that enjoyed the gift of good timing. 

Equal parts memoir, field manual and work of a trained sociologist, Hegemony How-To was released in January 2017, just as millions of previously complacent Americans  joined “The Resistance” to Donald Trump’s presidency. The book delivers a tough love diagnosis of the left’s self-defeating behaviors that is informed by Smucker’s Forrest Gump-like journey through various radical sub-cultures and identities: Catholic Worker, anarchist tree sitter, punk rock enthusiast, global justice activist, anti-war arrestee, Occupier.

Smucker also makes a demand of the left: Get serious about contesting for power.  “We’re in a race against time to build the movements that can win big,” he says.

Since returning from Berkeley, California to where he grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Smucker has been busy following his own advice, co-founding Pennsylvania Stands Up, a grassroots organization that has elected a slew of leftwing officeholders and played a key role in narrowly flipping the Keystone State from Trump to Biden in the presidential election.

Smucker’s second book, F*ckers at the Top: A Practical Guide to Overthrowing America’s Ruling Class, will be released in 2021. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Indypendent: After several years of intense political engagement spanning the Trump presidency and the defeat of Bernie Sanders as well as Elizabeth Warren, many people on the left are feeling disoriented and demoralized right now. Watching the same old swampy corporate Democrats take another spin through the revolving door and land important posts in the Biden-Harris administration isn’t easy to stomach either. Yet, you remain optimistic. Why is that?

JS:  When I think about how Bernie won the first three caucuses and primaries, I really believe we could have won and transformed the direction and the leadership of the Democratic Party. We were within the range of maneuver. But we lost. We didn’t do it. That’s profoundly disappointing. But we have to see this moment for how dynamic it is. 

The ground is quickly shifting beneath the feet of the Democratic establishment. Across the country, electorally, we have a bigger foothold than what working people, progressive people organizations, movements have had in decades. There’s AOC and the Squad in Congress. There are scores of progressive people’s champions that have been winning offices across the country including many we’ve backed here in Pennsylvania. 

After 40 years of progressive infrastructure atrophying, we’re experiencing a renaissance of social movements. It’s going to take time to build that up, to build up the leadership, to build up the bench of skilled candidates, campaigners, and organizers to support that. We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were four years ago.

What has changed?

For decades, there was this chasm on the left between electoral work and movement work. I’ve always been on the movement side of it. I thought elections were important, but my line was that our work is to build the movement and wield that power to pressure whoever is in office. That chasm between electoral work and issue work or movement work evaporated overnight with Trump’s election. 

When we held our first meeting for Lancaster Stands Up right after Trump’s election, there were 300 people in the room and 80% of them had not been involved with politics other than voting. For them, it was just clear, we’re going to have to protest—to do something to push back and mitigate the damage of a Trump administration—but also who gets elected matters, we’re going to have to beat him electorally. We’re gonna have to run other candidates. The old chasm doesn’t make sense to people. The common sense shifted. 

Bernie’s 2016 primary run also had a big impact with the left in particular. There was this three-week period during March 2016 where suddenly something shifted. People were like ‘wait a minute, he could win, he’s serious.’ Many people on the left had seen Sanders’ run as holding the righteous candle in the wind and thought  there’s no way in hell he will win, and then suddenly with the numbers and the momentum, it was like, wait a minute, this is serious. I even had anarchist friends of mine who were like, ‘Game on!’ 

There’s always third party politics.

One thing I’ve learned over 25 years of organizing is that most people, even people who are not paying attention to politics, are pretty intuitive about power. They know who has it and who doesn’t. And as long as they sense a candidate has no chance of winning, they will tune them out.

During the fall campaign, many on the left urged support for Biden arguing that with a Democrat in the White House, he could be held accountable in a way that isn’t possible when the Republicans are in power. That didn’t prove to be the case with Obama. Why will it go differently this time?

Our movements and organisations are much more powerful, much more developed than they were when Obama came to power.  Also, there’s the crisis we’re in as a country. I think Biden and the Democratic leadership understand they have to deliver for working people, for struggling people, or they are sunk in the 2022 midterms. 

How do we push? Social movements. Organizing. We’re going to lead lots of campaigns, some of them are going to  work, some of them aren’t, but the bottom line is we have to build people power and frame popular issues that are hard for politicians to resist. When it comes to rhetorical framing, we should avoid saying “Biden must deliver for the left.” That won’t inspire the general public. Better to say Biden owes everyday working people something, which he certainly does.

Do you foresee another upsurge in left populist candidates running in 2021 and 2022.

I do, but it’s not automatic. We have popular majoritarian positions on the issues. But, the quality of the candidates, their campaigning skills, and their staff really matters. I’m like a broken record on this: it’s not enough to just have an analysis of the objective situation; learn relevant skills to help build the capacity that we need to outmaneuver the establishment.

You’ve had quite a journey through the left over the past quarter-century. How do you look back on your transition from engaging in political activism on the margins of society to what you’re doing today?

It was clear to me from when I was 17 and went to my first protest that this is not going to do anything unless we get much bigger. That was intuitively clear to me. But at the same time, I found a deep sense of community and belonging in activist subcultures that nourished me. So I would often suspend my better judgement. I was holding out hope that something would shift someday. 

I did have this epiphany when I was 25 and an activist spoke at a class I was taking. When he presented what his group was doing, it just struck me “Oh! It’s a ritual!” What they’re doing is ritual. It is not aimed at winning or changing the political terrain. It is aimed at affirming an identity and building a community. That’s when I started writing about collective rituals versus strategic engagement. Later I developed that into the ‘life of the group’ versus what the group accomplishes beyond itself. 

Why do you think the left’s tendency to create insular subcultures has weakened in recent years?

The big reason is just what’s at stake for people. Movements are no longer dominated by the children of an expanding upper middle class who are figuring out their political expression. This is a precarious generation that has real material concerns that need to be addressed and instead the system is failing them. The other factor is people on the left are getting a taste of winning and it whets the appetite for more. As we get bigger wins, that hunger is only going to grow.

Social media offers novel ways for people to silo themselves with other like-minded people. 

In social movements, people traditionally have become leaders by being of service, by navigating a political course and building a base and leading it to flex more power and to win things. We now have this backward infrastructure where people are getting more of a voice by being on twitter all the time promoting themselves. It socializes people in a very self-referential way, and I think it fucks with the orientation of a lot of leaders and would-be leaders. 

When you’ve had the experience I’ve had in Pennsylvania of building an organization that is onboarding thousands of people who had not been politically active into a political project where they feel their own agency and start exerting power—winning local and state legislative races and winning on issues—you really stop giving a damn about whether your lefty and woke friends are liking your facebook status or retweeting you. Your incentive structure becomes different.

At Pennsylvania Stands Up, have you found a way to create the feeling of community that people hunger for while also being politically effective?

It’s tricky, but the practice of door-to-door canvassing and having respectful conversations with your neighbors is invaluable. Also, when we have our town hall meetings, our central concern is the experience of the person who’s walking in the door for the first time and what is this like for them. That mentality of ‘who’s new, how do we make them feel welcome’, builds a deeper and longer-term community and trust than the games of signaling status within a group.

You have a new book due out in 2021 called F*ckers at the Top. What’s it about?

It’s about the political realignment that’s underway amid a system-wide crisis of legitimacy that status quo forces cannot resolve. And it’s very practical too. It’s about the organizing and the rhetorical tactics of groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats and candidates like AOC — how they won. But also how Trump won.

We’re in a race against time to build the movements that can win big and transform the Democratic Party into a party that fights for working people and delivers something like the social democratic reforms of the New Deal. I think largely it’s about shifting from the stale culture war, Left vs Right polarization and moving into a bottom vs top polarization to claim a super-majority against the “fuckers of the top”. 

If we don’t name the culprits who have rigged the economic and political system and pick the fights we’re picking right now for universal economic and social rights that lift up everyone, the authoritarian right will consolidate and define the bottom vs. top populist struggles of the next 10-20 years with devastating consequences.

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