You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Vanishing Public Square

What happens when we can no longer march?

Wil Sands/Redux

As the Great Pandemic takes hold of our world and forces all of us to separate ourselves from our closest family and friends, does politics become impossible? As I write, states are postponing their primaries. The most recent Democratic presidential debate was held without an audience. Even Donald Trump has halted his public rallies. And party officials may scratch the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. We are entering a new era, of politics without bodies, of empty auditoriums and virtual voting.

At the most visceral level, this hurts. Since 2017, more than 10 million Americans have taken to the streets in hundreds of cities to advocate for gun control, environmental reform, the rights of immigrants, women, and others. “Nothing can replace the bodily experience of being in a mass march of 100,000 people or more,” L.A. Kauffman, the author of two books on American protest movements and a veteran organizer herself, told me. I still remember how my own heart started pounding, as I stood in the middle of the first big Climate March in New York City, hearing a sound like a jet engine come roaring down from the north end of Central Park West—the front edge of a human sound wave, triggered from the back of the march and propelled forward as 400,000 people heard it and joined in, venting their collective fury at the status quo.

The coronavirus is shutting down other forms of organizing as well. People will no longer be able to sit shoulder to shoulder in a church basement, or huddle with co-workers around the coffee machine, or look into the eyes of a voter whose door they’ve knocked on and smell their cooking as they talk to them about kitchen table issues. Many organizations need to be able to meet together to make decisions or to build community. Larger organizations, like labor unions, interest groups, and professional associations, whose national gatherings bring together thousands of members annually to elect their leaders and determine policy priorities, are wondering what they will do to replace those events. Unlike the first crisis created by the Trump administration, the proposed Muslim travel ban, we can’t rush to hundreds of airports to demonstrate against its idiotic handling of the coronavirus.

Our public square will have to change; that much is certain. For at least as long as the virus spreads unchecked, the old-fashioned pressing-the-flesh forms of political engagement are dead. But how devastating is this, really? Can’t we just move organizing online?

Long before the coronavirus, politics was already becoming less visceral and more virtual. The rise of mass communications technologies like radio and TV meant that most people no longer get their news from physical sources, like print newspapers and magazines. Money, the mother’s milk of politics, is far more easily raised online than through cocktail parties. And since the rise of instant messaging and group collaboration tools like Slack, many political organizations have communicated virtually. The staff of MoveOn, the granddaddy of digital organizing, has never shared an office in its more than 20 years of existence. Many of the things we are now abandoning—the national nominating conventions and live TV debates—are relics already, of little value to anyone except corporate lobbyists, state politicos, and media bigfoots.

The problem is that organizing online isn’t analogous to organizing in church basements and the streets. The temporary death of visceral politics will further cement the power of surveillance capitalism and unaccountable corporate giants like Facebook, Google, Comcast, and Verizon. As I have written before in these pages, since the mid-1990s and with the avid support of both political parties, Big Tech and Big Telecom have been colonizing us, harvesting our personal data, and taking over our civic lives. A Facebook Town Hall is not a civic event; it is a surveillance opportunity. Zoom, the video conferencing platform to which many are now flocking, tracks whether people on calls are actually paying attention and shares the copious data it collects with third parties. We are more dependent on these digital services now than anyone could ever have imagined. Without them, physical distancing would be much harder to maintain.

All the more reason we should finally invest in building a real digital public square in which everyone, not just those who are better off, can participate on equal footing and with basic privacy protections. As part of the larger national mobilization needed to confront the coronavirus, the telecommunications companies should be required to make high-speed broadband freely available to all as a vital form of infrastructure. And everyone should be able to use the networks Facebook and Google have built without having to submit to ubiquitous surveillance.

Right now, political organizers are mostly focused on more mundane questions, scrambling to figure out what replaces house meetings, protests, and door-knocking. On March 11, strategists Thaís Marques and Randall Smith put out a call for people who wanted to brainstorm online about adapting to a world with social distancing. They thought maybe 50 people would be interested; more than 600 people got on their video conference a few days later.

Some answers were percolating even before the virus arrived. Since 2016, Collective Agency, a consultancy of digital strategists that came together after the election, has been helping campaigns and organizations host national livestream events with tens of thousands of viewers. Its founder, Kathryn Jones, said, “Online streaming, when done right, is more like the video version of a selfie than an online TV show. The community comes to literally see themselves ‘reflected’ in the stream via on air callouts, chat rooms, and graphics. The interactivity of a great livestream builds a superstrong community that will come back over and over again to see you, but also to see all their friends in the chat room.” There’s going to be an explosion of innovation in multimodal video, as people and organizations look for ways to reproduce meetings, conventions, and rallies in cyberspace. See you in the chat room, comrade!

Some old forms of organizing are still happening, of course. A group of Amazon workers walked out of their warehouse in Queens, New York, after they learned that a colleague had tested positive for Covid-19. In Israel, organizers built a protest convoy of hundreds of cars after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly closed the courts. Graduate students at UC Berkeley, who are now expected to shoulder the burden of shifting to virtual teaching, went on a wildcat strike demanding a pay bump. After Instacart food delivery workers walked off their jobs last Monday, the company quickly promised to provide them with face marks, thermometers, and hand sanitizers., an online hub for all kinds of worker organizing, is experiencing a huge surge in usage as more workers discover the utility of making their demands more visible through its petition platform. And Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to close the New York City public schools after teachers promised to stage a sick-out and parents kept their children home. These people couldn’t flex their power with mass protests, standing shoulder to shoulder in Union Square or marching down Fifth Avenue; but nor did they need to. Especially now, there is power in withdrawing consent and participation.

Looking ahead, we need to think bigger about how we “do” virtual politics together, beyond remapping old political functions onto digital formats. On sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we have an oversupply of people expressing themselves and aggregating their voices where they already agree. For the digital public square of the future, we need new systems that do the opposite: managing discordant demands and enabling people to find consensus. The market cannot solve these problems for us. And giving people money to spend won’t miraculously create the massive public works we need to fortify ourselves against the virus, be they in public health, education, or democracy itself.

But those are questions for later. Right now, we face a public health emergency that is the result of decades of warped budget priorities and months of the Trump administration’s incompetence. Thousands of health care workers and other first responders are battling the virus. But America has not suddenly changed overnight into a compassionate social democracy. The coronavirus is giving us the starkest possible lesson in how politics can directly affect our lives; now the job of all good organizers is to convert that awareness into transformative political power.