We are in the midst of a political crisis. That much is clear by the threat of election-related violence and civil unrest that threatens the integrity of our national elections. These events beg questions which get to the heart of any democratic politics: Can Americans trust their elected officials? Can we find stability when the foundations of our political establishment lie in limbo?
Historically, minority communities have a precarious position in these debates. So often, we are only tenuously included in the governing coalitions that constitute political parties. When push comes to shove, we are often the first to be scapegoated or swept under the rug. We have to fight tooth-and-nail to earn the recognition of establishment figures—and that is just a first step in the long march toward helping the people we represent.
In our recent publication, “Tale of Two Futures: American Muslim Life After the Election,” my organization, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), seriously considers the choice in this election and potential strategies for the work to follow. “Tale of Two Futures” compares how a Trump or Biden administration would approach the policy priorities of American Muslims. However, the two futures being juxtaposed for the American Muslim community are not Trump versus Biden, but rather passive versus active participation in American politics. The former maintains our tenuous relationship in governing coalitions, while the latter pushes the envelope and holds accountable the parties who claim to fight on our behalf. They may pay us lip service, but these are not checks we can cash.
This leaves the American Muslim community in a pivotal position. As a diverse constituency, of which one-third lives at or below the poverty line, we are represented both among those left behind and lifted up by the two party coalitions. This fact is most clearly expressed in the community’s growing support for Trump in 2020, an election far less defined by anti-Muslim bigotry than the one previous. Of course, American Muslims have a role to play this election cycle beyond reacting to these broader political dynamics. In fact, we have a political capacity which far outweighs the 1% of the country we represent. The Muslim vote can swing the national election in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, while it can determine the fate of key Senate seats in states like Arizona and Nevada.
American Muslims can play an active role in American politics; we can craft policies most relevant to our community. Of course, American Muslims are not a monolith. On the contrary, we are one of the most diverse political blocs in the country in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We also have shared interests that cross these differences and which link us to other groups. These are the solidarities and coalitions that we must build if we are to earn our way into party coalitions.
Understanding these coalitions can help community organizations strategize coalition-building. Political parties are complex social networks comprising professionals who engage in ideological production (establishing “facts” of the matter), the pursuit and establishment of power, and the mobilization of constituencies. According to UC Davis political sociologist Stephanie L. Mudge, the interaction of these “field actors” is what effectively drives party policy.
For example, if we look at the criminal justice system as the basis for both parties’ bipartisan commitment to “[maintaining] the social order of our economic system, it becomes more clear how policing is a mechanism to contain and repress the social unrest caused by economic crises, displace people from low-income areas in the service of gentrification, and patrol the unofficial borders between the wealthy and poor parts of town. Understood this way, the road to transforming our criminal justice system runs through addressing the core aspects of this social order: uneven economic development, militarization of police, and income inequality. The way to do that would be through building broad enough coalitions to command the attention of actors within the fields principally concerned with maintaining these aspects of socioeconomic order: parties’ in-house economics experts, congressional committees tasked with oversight of our ballooning national security state, and the industries that figure to be part of a new, better economic system which even the pope has identified as necessary.
The only way that we can make good on this capacity is if we draw out the shared interests both among community members and between the different governing coalitions across the country. Our task, then, is twofold: to bring out the vote in a way that earns our way into the “fields” that comprise parties, and to clearly articulate the shared interests between parties, American Muslims, and our allies. While our path toward an American pluralist future runs through government engagement, broad-based coalitions are the vehicles to party networks.
Our goal in writing “Tale of Two Futures” is to advocate for the politics of strategic coalition-building and call for what we refer to as progressive collectivism: “a way to build coalitions that can either change the material base of party platforms or the way the party articulates it.” This is the basis behind MPAC’s theory of civic and political engagement.
However, as the paper states: “none of this strategic thinking can make an impact if American Muslims do not take the field in the first place; if we do not come to the polls, then we risk effectively marching toward ruin. If we do not stay strategically engaged, then we risk losing our way and the progress we have made thus far.”
Given the issues we currently face, it is the only way forward for the American Muslim community.