Biden is not doing enough to reach out to key constituencies. But grassroots organisations are stepping in to fill the gap
By Emily Lee and Peter Hogness
Since May, Latinx organizers have warned that the Biden campaign is neglecting their communities. The Democratic convention featured more Republican than Latinx speakers, and now most polls show Biden with weak support among Latinx voters in Florida. Yet his campaign’s focus on Republican voters hasn’t really paid off, drawing just 5% of their support. Meanwhile a poll of Black voters in six swing states this summer found that among those under 30, only 47% had made up their mind to cast a ballot for Biden. They are “not sold on Biden, the Democrats, or voting,” the survey found.
We don’t know what the next weeks of the campaign will bring, but one thing is clear. Defeating Donald Trump is too important to leave up to the Biden campaign.
Getting Trump out of office starts with voter engagement at a level far beyond 2016, when Hillary Clinton won fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012. That requires sustained outreach to “the other swing voters,” as Ibram X Kendi describes those who swing between voting for a Democratic candidate or not voting at all. The Biden operation is not built for that task – but fortunately, others are.
Grassroots organizations in working-class communities and communities of color are well equipped to do this work. New Florida Majority, Pennsylvania Stands Up and many others have been active in their communities for years, and know the terrain. They know how to reach people who might not otherwise cast a ballot. And if we want to defeat not just Trump, but Trumpism, we’ll need groups like these, that continue to organize after the election is over.
In conversations with disenchanted voters, a group doing long-term organizing can have more credibility than a candidate’s campaign. They’re working in the community 12 months a year, not just appearing at election time, extracting a vote, and then vanishing.
A growing number of activists in progressive states are deciding that the most effective thing they can do in 2020 is volunteer with a swing-state community organizing group. It’s a way to contribute to Trump’s electoral defeat, without giving the Biden campaign a blank check for their time and energy. It’s a way to elect progressive candidates in downballot races. And it builds the power of locally rooted groups that will still exist when this election is over.
We work with Seed The Vote in California and Water For Grassroots in New York, two projects that connect community-based groups in swing states with volunteers who live elsewhere. These projects started because we all have a role to play in defeating Trump. We may not be able to cast a ballot in a swing state, but we can talk to swing-state voters and link them with local organizing efforts.
Our swing-state partners include New Florida Majority, a grassroots group that has built one of the top voter-registration operations in the state. NewFM played a central role in passing Florida’s 2018 referendum restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions, and it helped bring Andrew Gillum and his progressive platform to within a half-point of victory – the best result for any Democratic candidate for governor in more than 20 years.
Another is Pennsylvania Stands Up, a statewide network with nine chapters. PA Stands Up’s Philly chapter, Reclaim Philadelphia, was a leading force in electing Larry Krasner as district attorney on an anti-incarceration platform. Lancaster Stands Up helped progressive populist Jess King wage a surprisingly strong challenge to a Republican incumbent in Congress. This year PA Stands Up chapters have built mutual aid networks, fought against utility shutoffs in the pandemic, and won a string of primary victories against establishment candidates.
In Arizona, groups like LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona) are building the power of Latinx communities in what used to be a Republican state. LUCHA took on the Republican State Senator who wrote an unconstitutional “show-me-your-papers” law and threw him out of office. It helped do the same with anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and won a statewide minimum wage increase through a historic referendum. In 2020, LUCHA aims to build on its success in the June primary and flip the state in November.
These groups and others we work with – Detroit Action, Durham For All, Mijente, and more – combine movement organizing with election action. And that’s experience we’ll need if Trump tries to cling to power after losing the vote. In that situation, challenging Trump in the courts will need to be matched by taking to the streets. Unfortunately, Biden’s staff appear to be looking at only half of that equation. For their election protection program, “Joe Biden’s campaign is recruiting lawyers, not organizers,” noted social-movement scholar Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava, former director of the Center for Community Change. To fill that gap, we’ll need grassroots groups that know how to organize protests. Mass civil disobedience may be crucial.
Biden is not our savior. In fact, if he wins, on many issues he may be our opponent. But defeating Trump will open possibilities for organizing that won’t exist if he remains in office. “We are voting for a terrain of struggle,” says New Florida Majority’s Andrea Mercado. “In Florida we’ve lived under decades of right-wing and authoritarian rule, and seen the impact that has on our rates of incarceration, voter suppression, immigrant rights…We have a responsibility to shift this country to a place where other political victories are possible.”
If you agree it’s important that Trump be defeated, don’t just cross your fingers and hope. Don’t think that because you live in a Democratic state, this isn’t your fight. Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
- Emily Lee is a co-founder of Seed the Vote in California
- Peter Hogness is a co-founder of Water For Grassroots in New York