Productive activism starts with learning how to listen.
In the 1968 presidential election, civil rights were a significant issue. However, while the far left was fractured, running multiple candidates, the far right was coalescing around one man, former Alabama governor George Wallace. Although he had been a Democrat, he ran as an independent candidate and as the nation’s foremost advocate for racial segregation. He had personally barred the path of two black students attempting to register at the University of Alabama in 1963. But he was also seen as a populist, supporting increased social security and Medicare benefits, while attacking hippies for not working and liberals for being soft on crime. In the spring of my junior year of college, I heard that Wallace was going to give a campaign speech in Toledo, Ohio, less than a half hour from the town of Bowling Green. I talked a few friends into joining me at his rally. I did not go to protest; that would have been futile, given the audience’s orientation. Instead, I wanted to understand what Wallace’s attraction was and to see how he interacted with his audience. Not only would I then better understand his arguments, but I would also see how he delivered his message.
We walked into a packed Toledo high school gym; the bleachers were filled with working-class people. We found ourselves sitting high above the podium with a perfect bird’s-eye view of the audience. These were familiar folks—the kind I had grown up with. Not a suit or tie among them. The men sported trim haircuts and neat casual clothing. The women were dressed modestly: no short skirts or jeans. This was not a college-age crowd.
I thought their ordinary attire belied a simmering rage within them. The crowd stamped their feet like a marching band in anticipation of Wallace’s arrival. It grew louder with time. They had more passion than I had witnessed at antiwar rallies.
When Wallace finally appeared, everyone rose and clapped with a mighty roar. As if he were a maestro in front of an orchestra, he stepped up to the podium and proceeded to whip them into an ever-higher pitch of anger at everything that was wrong with this country, from pampered college students rioting in the streets to black welfare dads refusing to work. Women nodded and men shouted in agreement when Wallace said that rich liberal elites controlled both the Democratic and Republican Parties. He repeated his famous line, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican Parties.” I had heard that sentiment at home and, somewhat ironically, at antiwar rallies. He had touched on a widely shared belief: citizens had no control over their own government.
Looking down, I noticed a dozen black students stood on the main floor right below Wallace’s podium, vociferously objecting to his racist remarks. Wallace snarled and pointed to them, as if they were ready-made props to focus the white crowd’s hate. United against a common enemy, the audience catapulted insults down onto them. I feared for their safety, but they weren’t physically harmed. Wallace needed them as a foil, not as victims.
Although neither a handsome Kennedy nor an erudite McCarthy, Wallace cut a swath through the Democrats’ core of blue-collar voters. That evening I felt the heat of their resentment toward those who didn’t have to work as hard as they did to make a living. Wallace would jab his finger at the audience, as if poking them, and point out that black people, college students, and liberals were receiving benefits that they would never receive. He was a master at reading the crowd and reflecting their anger. His ability reminded me of something Leon Trotsky wrote: “An unexcelled ability to detect the mood of the masses was Lenin’s great power.” Apparently it is an ability unencumbered by ideology. Even though Wallace did not win, his message had resonated with working families— the very ones that the left was trying to attract.
Driving back to Bowling Green, I thought of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech that I had heard in New York City the previous year. King spoke with indignation rather than raw anger and with hope rather than envy, appealing to reason and even love. Wallace was a demagogue who unleashed tremendous energy from the dark side of the collective soul. There would be no compromising for him; there was either victory or defeat. This was an attitude that unfortunately began to grow in 1968 on the far left as well. Except in that case, it was either revolution now or failure.
I came away from the Wallace rally seeing how appealing to the built-up anger in people and blaming those who are weaker, like the black students, or those who are far off, like the politicians in DC, could generate excitement and a sense of purpose. But it did not build bridges between people, which I felt was the basis of a democracy that could sustain rational change to benefit all. Democracy is the great leveler, but it only works if people believe that they have power as citizens. I came away believing that being an activist is not about promoting absolute solutions, which stirs passions while obstructing logic; it’s about addressing people’s anger by giving them some control over their lives.
Nick Licata was the first of all of his relatives to attend college. He served four terms on the Seattle City Council, and co-founded and chaired the board of Local Progress, a national network of progressive municipal officials. Excerpted from his new book Becoming a Citizen Activist (Sasquatch Books, 2016).