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In Defense of Playing Defense

Yes, we do need a vision of future possibilities, but right now we live in a moment where the other side has so much power, we must apply ourselves to effective defense. I am growing weary of the deprecation of "just playing defense". Every sports fan knows that championship teams are built on sound defense.

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Of course, it's hard when your team seems to be playing defense all the time, but we need to learn better how to--again as good teams do--turn defense into offense.  It may even prove tonic to pull back from apocalyptic and often misguided notions of seizing power to reinvigorate defense of our humanity as the seeds of a better future.

It is undeniable that progressives in the US--and around the world--are facing a powerful and mean spirited adversary who is aggressively moving on multiple fronts.  So we have no choice but to play defense.  Once we stop bemoaning our situation, how can we effectively respond to the opportunities it presents?  How can creative defense move us forward?

Perceive how the Women's March and now the ”Me Too” movement have not merely pushed back against rampant sexism--revisiting understandings and norms that should have been settled at least a generation ago--but have further insisted on standards of behavior and inclusion that articulate a more equitable and empowered future.  It can be demoralizing to be refighting issues such as the horrors of sexual assault and the awfulness of sexual braggadocio, but it should be unsurprising given our understanding of the depth and endurance of patriarchal power.  Moving beyond the reasonable fear that this moment will pass, we as activists have to push the moment, and be responsive to popular outcry, so it does last and grow.

In the fight against Trumpian deregulation and the unleashing of the fossil fuel fanatics, the contradiction between social welfare and capitalist priorities can be clarified to a broader section of the populace.  Perhaps Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Pact will allow the rest of the world to move forward aggressively without ongoing US undermining.  The 'magic of the market' proffered by both Republicans and mainstream Democrats can now more easily be demystified in the name of something more humane and in support of our long-range goal of exposing the narrowness and inhumanity of the market imperative.

The movement against the abuse of police power and the racism of the criminal justice system has opened up the discussion about what community safety might actually look like and exposed the toxic notion that military and police solutions help to resolve real social problems. The historic airport demos against the 'Muslim ban' were unprecedented in the outpouring of support for non-citizens by the citizenry.  The attack on immigrants has stimulated a larger response than attacks by prior administrations and a deeper discussion of immigrant needs and rights.

A final example: Trump's dangerous sabre rattling can and should be used to limit Presidential power over nuclear weapons but also enable the exposure of the hollowness of long-standing US fantasies of global military dominance.  Military interventions and wars have only made matters worse and fueled the spread of terrorist groups.  This death trip can be challenged as we offer alternatives that highlight Interconnectedness rather than dominance as a more viable American role in the world. As we fight to unseat the Republican Congress in the 2018 elections, the question for us is how to isolate the ultra-right; we must simultaneously promote a progressive agenda and call elected officials to account.  One idea is to demand that candidates sign the Candidate Peace Pledge ( 

I am not aiming to make light of an objectively bad situation, nor do I have any desire to play the role of cheerleader.  I am merely trying to take note of some positive energy and encourage thought about strategic defense.  I also want to allow for realistic morale boosting, necessary respite and to encourage new modes of outreach and creativity, a redefining of the work of defense.

It’s been a long, tiring year in which we have refused the normalization of Trumpism.  Let's make good use of the holiday season, even as we remain alert to the dangers of the tax bill—particularly its effect on working people--and other Trump initiatives, to rest, refuel, reflect and strategize.  I refuse the role of Pollyanna and simultaneously reject the comfort of demoralizing critique.  Too many progressives are hyper skilled at diagnosing the limitations of the moment--the venality of the ‘powers that be’ along with the shortcomings of our response-- than elaborating the opportunities in moments of crisis.  Every victory, however small, needs to be recognized, treasured, and nurtured as a seed of a more promising future.  This is not a question of over-rating small successes, but of appreciating our moment, one that is unquestionably defensive, but also clarifying and potentially transformative.  If we are not capable of effective defense now, we will forfeit our chance for a more effective offensive in time.  Successful teams keep working on their defense.

Howard Machtinger is a long time political activist.