After searching in vain for enthusiasm throughout 2016, Democrats found it in the streets the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, as over 3 million attended the Women’s Marches to protest the president. Among the masses, you could not only find overflowing energy Democrats could tap into in future campaigns, but an actual policy example to guide the way forward.
I’m talking about hats.
Pink hats, to be precise, although they went by a more, er, colorful nickname, a reference to Trump’s boasts about sexual assault on the infamous Access Hollywood tape. The hats became the primary iconography of the marches, with hundreds of thousands of women wearing them as a symbol of resistance to the Trump regime. What makes it more remarkable is how the hats were manufactured and distributed.
As everyone knows, America makes few textiles anymore. The economics are supposed to be next to impossible, with cheap unskilled labor abroad and supply chains constructed to move clothing from Asia or Latin America to U.S. stores. The dominance of national retail chains, which have consolidated over the years and are in the throes of another disruption from Amazon, leaves little room for locally produced goods.
None of those suppliers and retailers had anything to do with the pink hats. They began in the minds of friends at the Little Knittery in Atwater Village, California. The shop created a pattern — a simple rectangle that would reveal “cat ears” when worn — and posted it for free online. Knitting clubs around the country and around the world started making the hats, selling out local craft stores of their pink yarn. Activists taking on the project identified collection points nationwide for distribution. Knitters gifted hats to their communities; it became a way for those who couldn’t attend the marches to get involved, an outlet for activism from an unlikely source.
I don’t have exact numbers, but I’d estimate that hundreds of thousands of hats were manufactured, shipped and worn in a matter of a few weeks, without the involvement of any big-box store or multinational corporation. Local craft stores supplied the raw materials and local knitters supplied the labor, savoring the dignity that came with their contributions. Their talents were put to use and the money stayed within the community.
I’m not suggesting the entire global textile supply chain could be thrown over in favor of people making hats for each other. But the strain of local self-reliance that permeated the Women’s March could actually serve as a primary rallying point for progressive resurgence.
As Barry Lynn writes in the Washington Monthly, the path back to respectability for Democrats runs directly through challenging ever-concentrating corporate power, which not only drives inequality and stunts wages but hollows out huge swathes of America and depresses entrepreneurship and innovation.
The greatest threat to this corporate monopoly is a new individualism, a locally focused crusade that gives Americans the freedom to share their skills and control their own destiny. Lynn describes how this would return the Democratic Party to its roots, as an anti-monopoly movement safeguarding citizens from corporate dominance.
That may sound like something Trump promised in his defiant inaugural address, which took aim at the nation’s elites. “The establishment protected itself but not the citizens,” Trump thundered. “While they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”
There was some truth in that passage, visible in the faces of forgotten men and women who suffered while elites partied. Twenty-five years of Democratic disconnection from their self-image as the party of the people alienated many voters previously within the coalition. Elites protected their own interests and sold out voiceless workers, while assuring the public that it was for their own good. Despite hundred year-old laws to constrain monopolies, successive governments of both parties have failed to use them since the 1980s, producing a homogenized landscape of Walmarts and chain restaurants and despair in too much of our country, a regional inequality Trump capitalized on during the election.
But Trump’s version of anti-elite populism conveniently left out corporate elites, who nearly destroyed the economy in the financial crisis and have pursued even more domination in the aftermath. Indeed, plenty of those corporate elites are taking roost in Trump’s cabinet, and his expected selections to police market power specialize more in turning away from enforcement. He’s considering naming Josh Wright, an avowed enthusiast of concentration (and its “significant benefits for consumers”) who has twice been on Google’s payroll, as his head of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department.
This is the opening for Democrats, and the Women’s March supplied proof of its power. Independent citizens created the signature icon of the protests, through their own labor and ingenuity. This return to localism creates dignity among citizens, and pride in their skills being valuable. Monopolies rob people of the liberty to display those talents. The struggle against monopoly is a struggle for equality, a struggle for the restoration and vibrancy of community, an affirmation of life over control. It encapsulates the struggle for democracy.
The chroniclers of the establishment snicker that populism is too simple-minded to lead to a better world. But there’s a smart populism that would allow for broader opportunity and prosperity. Some Democrats are beginning to understand that the concept of breaking corporate power provides a framework on which to hang every critique of American politics and economy. But by and large, they have forgotten to tell this story — and after decades of hitting up capital to fund campaigns, too many of them no longer believe it.
When you have coal lobbyists running to lead the national party and the board of the outgoing president’s foundation stocked with private equity barons and venture capitalists, rank-and-file progressives can be forgiven for becoming cynical. If Democrats want to return to power, they’ll have to return to their roots. Just follow the pink hats.