All that was missing was the colour

This Time magazine report on the campaign by democratic America (in every sense) to force Trump to respect the election results is well worth your time. This slightly earlier NYT story can be read with it for more colour.

The overwhelming, astonishing stand-out here is how close this was to the colour revolution blueprint of the 2000s, just in the United States and launched in a preventive or pre-emptive manner to forestall a departure from democracy rather than to restore it after the fact. That it worked, and that US civil society had the institutional depth, reach, and mass to pull it off, is heartening; that it was necessary is deeply disturbing. There’s also a lot to learn here.

The first point I would pull out is the absolute necessity of the biggest possible coalition. This was important for several reasons – first of all, mass and resources, secondly, reach into all kinds of social groups, but also because the coalition’s very diversity gave it universality and rendered it difficult to define as anything other than simply American. I keep recommending this INET piece:

In 2017, I conducted a study of half a dozen major anti-corruption uprisings on as many continents. I looked at how the various kleptocratic networks fought back against the sudden challenge. The single most effective countermove was to play on the identity-group tensions dividing the population. That is, to shatter the broad-based egalitarian coalition, the only force capable of outmatching the networks. Note: those networks, including here in the U.S., tend to span the very divides they manipulate so artfully…

In our operating environment, the place this process happens is primarily the media. As a result, the second point I would pull is the importance of fire discipline. A lot of the decisions the interviewees discuss are ones to refrain from doing or saying something. They chose not to hype the possibility of electoral fraud ahead of time because it might have inspired demobilizing paranoia or sapping despair among the electorate, and more subtly, because the Trump strategy was to give the impression there was something to dispute about the vote, and even warnings of Republican malarkey might lend credence to this claim.

This is a crucial issue – much of today’s propaganda, or more accurately disinformation, aims to manipulate perceptions of who is arguing with who, the so-called facts of social proof. The problem is threefold – it is difficult to rebut it without leaving the impression there is something to argue about, the perception of conflict is itself intimidating to quite a bit of the audience, and engagement-optimized media promotes anything that generates drama and hence attention.

The most important takeaway from Quinn’s research, however, was that engaging with toxic content only made it worse. “When you get attacked, the instinct is to push back, call it out, say, ‘This isn’t true,’” Quinn says. “But the more engagement something gets, the more the platforms boost it. The algorithm reads that as, ‘Oh, this is popular; people want more of it.’”

The solution, she concluded, was to pressure platforms to enforce their rules…

Interestingly, they seem to have followed a similar strategy with regard to street demonstrations; they prepared to flood the streets in an emergency but fought shy of either giving Trump an excuse to attack them physically, or helping to create an impression of chaos. Further, they were aware that the electoral process itself meant they were in for a protracted crisis, and if the activist base had to be mobilized and then stood down it would likely be difficult to mobilize them again.

Although the coalition was large and diverse it had a core, and the core was the trade unions and the organized left. The original idea seems to have come from Mike Podhorzer of the AFL-CIO. Plenty ironic, of course, given the institution’s history, but worth thinking about. I have the impression that unions played more of a role in the canonical colour movements than they got credit for, and perhaps it’s time for a reassessment of the whole phenomenon. A lot of left-wing voices at the time were sceptical, for some good reasons – suspicion of the multilateral and EU financial institutions – and some bad ones – going on weirdly about “Kartvelian irredentism”, pretending Putin’s Russia was the Red Army of Stalingrad, and believing corruption was a painfully pinched and respectable sort of thing to object to, rather than an important part of the power-structure and a potent mobilizing idea.

If there was one element from the colour revolution package that was missing, though, it was the colour itself. This bit I find really fascinating; the campaign to defend American democracy was organized purely as a network, without a brand, a name, or a face of its own. While we’re on the early 2ks revival thing, look mum, no logo! There was no handle for Trump to tweet at, nobody he could give a nickname to, nothing that could be declared the main character of the day and ritually ripped apart.

Now let’s pull focus onto this essay of James Schneider’s, the author of “for the many, not the few”. Schneider says, among much else:

This left populist approach, to be carried out comprehensively, would have required the Corbyn project to develop a simple story about itself and to repeat it relentlessly. This story would rest on the construction of the Many ­– a set of social blocs bound together in common interest – and its enemies, the Few: tax cheats, greedy bankers, dodgy landlords, rip off bosses, big polluters and the billionaire media.

Well, yes. I can certainly imagine that political accountability might have sunk so far that an all-encompassing coalition against the rotten elite is the only way forwards. I recall Jamie Kenny saying that the key question about the next Labour leader was whether she would be credible as the leader of such a campaign. The problem, though, is that nobody seems to be up for the deliberate hyper-inclusivity such a coalition requires, whether on the Left where this is considered gauche or in the Labour establishment, where organizers are apparently superfluous. I don’t see many up for the self-restraint required either.

3 Comments on "All that was missing was the colour"

  1. Personally, I think the original Time article is very badly written. If one wanted to write the description of events in the way that was calculated to heighten to feed conspiratorial thinking and to maximise the feelings of the MAGA crowd that the election had been stolen, then one would be hard pressed to do a better job.

    For the most part it was seems like a West Wing overlay on top of variously; a normal transition of power, and reactions of a minor crisis.


  2. This rambles a bit so here’s a summary I posted in another place:

    – it’s very very reminiscent of the old colour revolution playbook, just pre-emptive rather than reactive
    – it was centred around the unions and the organized left but it was absolutely explicitly the biggest possible coalition and its leaders were determined to turn nobody away at the door
    – it didn’t have a face or a brand and it kept well out of the….*Discourse*, and as a result nobody could pin a hostile definition on it or get a stupid NYT style page goes political row going
    – it speaks well of some of the most argumentative, discourse-y people that they were able to turn it off and cooperate, although it follows that the forum drama is largely an act, and that speaks less well of them
    – it also speaks well of everyone involved that they were able to practice some fire-discipline and not just contribute to general forum drama and the Trump strategy of hyping an impression of chaos
    – it’s an interesting question as to how to do it again. being a network without a face or a brand was an important strength but trying to preserve that runs into all kinds of Tyranny of Structurelessness fun. building an institution with an advisory board and a human resources function and whatnot means having a handle Trump prime can tweet at.


  3. Obligatory analogy with Pep Guardiola’s strikerless teams.
    Removing the focal point makes space and removes what the opponent normally latches on to.

    I think it says something that people often avoid saying out loud about Trump that he was encompassingly irritating enough for a faceless coalition to form. Usually it takes an actual dictator (or risk of dictator) to weld together such a disparate coalition in the selfless (from the pov of fire discipline) way required.

    One extra element to pay attention to is the presence of alternate power bases – notably here the House of Representatives – and in the moments of emergency, governors of neighbouring states who could credibly put their National Guard units on the road (although things were resolved before they arrived.) One could look at the difference between Ukraine and Belarus (so far) as illustrating this issue.


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