Coast Guard families affected by the government shutdown lined up for free food in Novato, Calif. Image Credit: AFP

The grass roots progressive movement in the US, known as the resistance, has had a very good two years. It beat back attempts to take health insurance away from millions of Americans, and it helped defeat a Republican House majority.

However, the US government shutdown has shown the limits of this new progressive movement. The resistance has had virtually no effect on the politics of the shutdown — and a stronger movement could have a big effect.

When I’ve spoken to people from other countries over the past couple of weeks, they have been shocked that Americans have not begun protesting the shutdown in large numbers. About 800,000 federal workers have now gone almost a month without getting paid. Some are struggling to pay their rent or buy medications. Some have gone to pawn shops to get cash. Major functions of government — airline security, food safety, mortgage processing, farm assistance and so on — have been impaired.

Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

If this were happening in Europe people would be pouring into the streets. And yet in the United States, there has been nothing but a few small, scattered rallies. Instead of lining up to protest, hundreds of federal workers in Washington lined up last week to eat at makeshift soup kitchens. The photos of them doing so were a study in powerlessness.

It’s not hard to envision a different scenario. President Donald Trump was already unpopular before Fox News hosts goaded him in December into rejecting a bipartisan Senate deal to keep the government open. Polls show that most voters blame him for the shutdown. Congressional Democrats are largely united. Republicans are less so, with some publicly signalling their discomfort. They and Trump are the politically vulnerable players in the shutdown.

Imagine if there were a progressive movement strong enough to pressure Trump by highlighting the damage he is doing. What could that look like? Federal workers could return to their jobs after a token strike, as a sign of their commitment. The threat of future strikes would be clear. The human effects of the shutdown would no longer be so easy for the country to ignore.

Yes, strikes by federal workers are illegal. But requiring people to work without pay may also be illegal, legal scholars have pointed out. Federal workers forced to visit pawn shops because of a wealthy president are pretty sympathetic.

The modern labour movement was launched in part by the illegal sit-down strikes of 1936-37, when workers in Flint, Michigan, and other cities occupied factories to keep them from operating. The civil-rights movement frequently used those tactics. Last year, teachers in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia walked off their jobs — and won concessions.

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” wrote a certain reverend whose 90th birthday the country celebrated yesterday.

The quintessential need for struggle

The celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr will include a lot of pap about peace and equality in America. But King didn’t think that peace and equality just happened. He thought people had to struggle for them. He understood that most great societal advances in America’s history — independence from Britain, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, decent pay for workers — depended on mass political movements.

The US government shutdown, of course, is a minor issue compared to those to advances. But it is also a clear sign that the country lacks the sort of popular movement necessary to make progress against today’s great challenges: a fraying democracy and dysfunctional government; a stagnation of living standards for much of the population; a violently warming planet.

The Trump resistance has been the most hopeful sign of activism in decades. Thousands and thousands of people, mostly women, have been inspired to march, organise, dive into local politics and get out the vote. They have already proven that their activism can make a difference. A lot of Americans owe their health insurance today to this new movement.

But relative to the scale of the country’s problems — and the strength of past political movements — the new movement remains too small and too weak.

Figuring out how to build it up is a vastly more important question for progressives than, say, figuring out who the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee will be. Get the movement right, and the politicians will follow.

In the meantime, the shutdown reached its one-month mark by the end of Monday, the same day the country was supposed to be honouring grass roots activism

— New York Times News Service

David Leonhardt is a noted American journalist and columnist.