A tactic reborn for a populist moment, Occupy Wall Street has become Occupy the Picket Line

WASHINGTON — As the Trump presidency began crumbling in early 2019, thousands of Americans, fresh from trainings in canvassing and direct action, fanned out nationwide to ensure that even the stodgiest of Democrats would embrace the "Bundle" of progressive bills.

Most of those measures — like reining in corporate power, raising taxes on the wealthiest, and universal health care — have long been popular with voters across the political spectrum. But until 2019, Democrats refused to capitalize on that popularity, instead maintaining their allegiances to corporate donors.

"When Democrats embraced neoliberalism back in the '70s, they started losing the workers," said Helene Ninove, an organizer who's spent most of 2019 in formerly Trump-leaning areas of Louisiana. "We can win back some of that base, but only if we deliver policies that truly help all Americans. Otherwise, we can be sure that some future Trump — more competent than this last fool — will play to people’s fears even more efficiently."

While most organizers are focused on pressuring House Democrats to embrace the Bundle, Ninove and her colleagues are spearheading direct outreach to former Trump voters. "Racism played a big role in 2016," Ninove said, "and anti-racist education is a core part of our outreach. But another factor in the Trump vote was our side offering only business as usual. Now, finally, there's a chance to build broad support for already popular measures."

Chantal Mouffe, a political philosopher embraced by progressive populist movements worldwide, agrees. "In the UK, activists managed to convince 16% of the white-power party that a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn, could bring change they actually wanted," she said. "In France in 2015, activists convinced many former [white nationalist] Le Pen voters to support a left populist, Mélenchon. Similarly, the hard work of activists has started to swing Trump supporters who wanted change at all costs." Mouffe contends that only progressive populism can compete with far-right populism.

"We've got to address racism and fear-mongering head-on, while at the same time ensuring that we're offering real progressive change that helps all working Americans," said Ninove.

Chris Whitehead, a medical technologist in Toledo, Ohio, is one of the estimated 1.5 million Bernie Sanders voters who chose Trump over Hillary Clinton. "It felt like I was getting nothing from Democrats except a door-knock every four years," he said. "This spring, I started getting visits from progressive canvassers outside of election season, and I knew they were serious. They were talking about things that actually affect my life. I came back to the fold, and even joined one of those picket-line occupations to support my striking teacher friends."

The spread of Occupy-style encampments at picket lines has been one of the more surprising tactics to arise in support of the "Bundle." They've made labor struggles more visible and shamed employers into granting demands. They've also publicized reforms for workers in today's increasingly precarious economy.

"Job guarantees, free education, taking money out of politics—what's not to like?" said Ruben Pesotta, a lifelong Republican who heard about the Bundle when a labor dispute involving his Wichita, Kansas Teamsters local found support from an Occupation. Pesotta, who became a truck driver when agricultural behemoth Archer Daniels Midland automated his failing farm, is now facing unemployment because of self-driving vehicles.

"I’m realizing now that I was getting mad at the wrong people,” he says. “The real enemies are the politicians who care more about the bottom line than about what working folks need, whether they're black, brown, or white."

Not everyone has been surprised that the Bundle has taken hold among some former Trump voters. "The only mammal more given than humans to cooperation may be the naked mole rat—and we're pretty lucky we don't look like that," said social-movement expert and former zoologist Georgina Beaumont. "When push comes to shove, most people would rather align with a vision based in cooperation and compassion, rather than exclusion and violence. But until 2019, mainstream Democrats weren't offering any such vision. Thank heavens that’s changed."