Socialist activist Liza Featherstone talks learning from conservatives
Twenty or thirty people sat in a dimly-lit Ford classroom. A couple of zines were scattered about. Technical difficulties led to some impromptu mutual aid when an organizer asked if anyone present worked with WITS and could help set things up. The event was hosted in coordination with various departments, the Community Action Fund for Equity and Sustainability (CAFES), Professor William Smaldone, and the Student Solidarity Union—[a student organization unafraid of conflict with Democrats, Republicans, ASWU, or the Willamette administration]. Guest speaker Liza Featherstone was equally unafraid of picking a fight. On the evening of Nov. 2, she opened by reading a list of headlines. The one that caught everyone’s attention portrayed a conservative’s view of what liberals in America believe. It read “Fuck your god.”
Although she was referencing headlines from conservative news sites, Featherstone spent much of her talk blurring the line between herself—an avid leftist—and the American right wing.
“I think I do something very similar to what the conservative journalists do,” she said. “I feel a certain kinship with them.”
At first glance, everything about Featherstone makes this kinship seem unnatural. As an activist and journalist, she regularly writes articles and editorials for both The Nation and Jacobin—the former is [solidly liberal] and the latter is [openly socialist]. She focuses largely on feminism and labor struggles, and both are present in one of her published books, titled: “Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Walmart.” She teaches at Columbia University in the heart of New York City. In any sense of the word, her resume is far from conservative.
As an activist, however, she talked about how leftists in America have a lot to learn from activism on the right. “We don’t prioritize activism as much as the right does,” she said. Featherstone illustrated how a small number of leftist groups and individual activists work in relative isolation, while an entire right wing machine funds activist groups like Turning Point U.S.A. and amplifies conservative voices with associated media outlets.
She claimed that there is a process in which corporate donors fund conservative activist groups, then these groups instigate conflict with leftist activists, creating scenarios in which conservative media outlets funded by those same donors spin into false narratives that demonize the leftists and glorify the conservatives. Against such powerful, organized interests, Featherstone claimed that a handful of leftist activists are powerless.
The approach to leftist activism she argued for instead is one which does not sacrifice any of its message, but which learns from conservatives in its rhetoric and techniques. First, she emphasized the importance of student activists. Organization on a large scale is key, and Featherstone believes that a college or university is the best organization for leftist political education and recruitment into leftist activism. What colleges and universities do for the left, she said, churches do for the right.
“And, to a certain extent,” Featherstone continued, “conservatives understand that role that the university plays in recruitment better than liberals and the left do.” On the question of whether colleges and universities are leftist indoctrination centers, Featherstone and conservatives agree.
While she said they were repulsive in what they advocated for, Featherstone also said that the organizational structure of many conservative activist groups is admirable. She wondered what leftist activists could accomplish if they formed more large, multi-chapter organizations of students across the country.
In terms of rhetoric, she advised that leftist student activists put their ideas for methods of activism through the FOX News test. She said these activists should ask themselves, “How would I explain this to my most conservative relative if a segment about it appeared on FOX News?” If this question was impossible to answer, Featherstone suggested the idea was maybe not the best.
Equally important in Featherstone’s outline for effective leftist activism is an approach that has its “eyes on the prize.” She said that conservatives have clear goals in mind, that they tackle large problems and seek to make lasting change. Unfortunately, she has observed many leftists—especially TikTok activists—going after individuals for not upholding high standards of morality instead of attacking oppressive systems. In fact, she stated that sometimes leftist activists have focused their energies on generating media attention around small battles. Even when these battles are worthy of fighting, Featherstone said the attention of the media can be a bad thing. Especially in contrast to the right wing media machine, leftists do not have the resources to combat powerful interests that are well represented in the media.
Stating all these ways in which leftist activists should be more like conservatives, however, Featherstone made one point very clear. “You can’t be polite with fascists,” she said. Utilizing more conservative means of activism does not mean less opposition to those who deny any human rights. The delivery of leftist politics is in need of a reboot, but Featherstone insisted the tenets of leftism remain intact.
She also insisted that not all of the blame for ineffective leftist activism can be laid on activists themselves. As a professor, she has seen college become more stressful and less leisurely than it used to be. She attributed a lot of mistakes in student leftist activism to this stress. The lion’s share of the blame rests on the elephant-sized opposition, though. Featherstone painted a world in which scrappy college kids are up against forces that are rich, organized, powerful, often violent, and that view leftists as coming after their god with a battle cry of “Fuck your god.”
While Featherstone cannot claim to be able to help activists go after God, she hopes that her advice can help activists overcome challenges in creating a more just and equitable world.