It’s not a great time to be on the left in America. A defeated and disparate group of movements shackled to a Democratic Party that has lost at every level of government, the American left has never looked so weak.
Although it is triumphant, the right-wing leviathan is only a shabby coalition of crooks, billionaires and white supremacists bound together by hatred and greed. It can be defeated. Faced with a clear and repulsive enemy, the American left has the chance to build a new political movement and present a radically better alternative, not just to Trump but to American politics as a whole. It is doing so as we speak.
But what will this vision look like? And how will it turn into reality?
For the left to win, it must speak to—and for—all those who are crushed by inequality and vulnerable to Trump’s policies. This means there can be no distinction between economic and social justice. They are and always have been fundamentally, structurally entwined.
Poverty and racism go hand in hand. Trans rights and healthcare access cannot be separated. The fight to reform the injustices of the prison system and Wall Street is one and the same. Nor can the left move rightward on immigration: you cannot build a diverse coalition to defeat Trump if you run with racist policy. Justice for one means justice for all.
A universal struggle for justice will mean crafting policies that benefit all America’s disadvantaged—including white Trump voters. After all, healthcare and education are human rights extending even to “deplorables”, but strong, materially meaningful social programs have an added benefit. They cannot cure white racism, but they do make people less vulnerable to the right’s racist strategy of divide and conquer through fear and resentment.
Trump’s victory is also Clinton’s defeat. Her failure represents the failure of the neoliberal center, unable to defeat a Twitter-addicted game show host who boasts about assaulting women. The political centre is a howling wilderness. The left must abandon it.
Hillary Clinton may have won the Democratic primary, but she never outlined a clear policy vision or set of principles beyond not being Trump. It was Bernie Sanders who drew the crowds and offered clear, straightforward social democratic solutions to people’s problems: free college, universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage. Clinton’s brand of policy-making could only proffer tepid half-measures, fatal compromises and restrictive means-testing.
Centrism’s failure is Obama’s failure too: the Affordable Care Act is a flawed stopgap that is already breaking down under market pressure and Republican assault, compromised by its lack of universal access, its complexity and built-in market “choices.” Centrism cannot hope to build a lasting coalition of supporters. Obama’s personal charisma and extraordinary talent may have masked this fundamental weakness for a time, but the party’s power has collapsed.
For the American left to win, it must outline a bold new vision, a radical alternative to centrism offering spiritual hope and real material benefits. The message of the Sanders campaign is a resonant starting point, but it isn’t really about the elderly firebrand from Vermont. As Bernie himself might say: it’s the message!
The left must take Bernie’s talking points and run with them, crafting a policy platform which, in plain, compelling language, promises to deliver meaningful material improvements in the lives of all Americans: healthcare as a universal right, an end to crippling student debt, a higher minimum wage, the enforcement of civil rights, plans to reign in the big banks and combat climate change.
It is entirely possible for the American left to preach a strong socialist message and win. Consider the following: socialism is no longer a dirty political label in America, especially among young people. Senator Sanders is now the most popular politician in America. 51% of millennials, however, have a negative view of capitalism. And welfare programs with a strong socialist bent, like Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, are popular with all sections of the general public. And Americans’ concern for global warming is greater now than it has been in years.
Unfortunately for many Americans, the conditions fostering this positivity towards left-wing ideas—that is, capitalism’s systemic failures and growing inequality—are not going away any time soon. The right can only offer misery. The center has nothing but tepid half-solutions and misery in smaller doses. Only the left can offer a message of real, radical hope.
But what use is a powerful vision when you can’t make it reality? Unless the American left can gain power, its proposals will look as sad and forlorn as those President Hillary Twitter accounts, projecting sad visions of a future that died before it could be born. It’s not enough to be on the right side of history; the left must be on the winning side. For that to happen, the left needs to take the idea of power seriously and work out how to seize it.
For many liberals, the notion of actually doing politics—staking out an ideological position, winning over undecided voters by offering them what they want, seizing the institutions of government, battling your enemy—seems like a messy, undignified business. Instead they prefer government by mythical bipartisan consensus, incremental progress, celebrity appeal and impassioned Sorkin-style monologues.
But politics is about power. You outline your goals and you set out to achieve them. And no one does this better than Republicans. Republicans scream and obstruct. They gerrymander. They maintain internal ideological discipline and policy focus—even when faced with a deeply non-traditional conservative leader like Trump. Republicans throw out democratic norms and conventions and bring them right back when it suits them. They ignore facts in favor of values, however awful those values are. They are unmoved by accusations of hypocrisy because they know that hypocrisy is the privilege of power.
This is not to say that the left should adopt every shameless trick in the Republican toolkit. But it would help if they jettisoned liberal squeamishness toward power and deference to convention. Nothing matters but your vision and seizing the means to implement it.
Several obstacles stand between the left and power. The greatest of them is and has always been the Democratic Party. The American left is trapped: work within the Democratic Party and achieve nothing but scorn; leave the party and face electoral irrelevance while splitting the anti-Republican vote.
If Democrats win control of the house in 2018 it will literally save lives. But the party seems determined to lose forever. “We’re capitalist, and that’s just the way it is,” Nancy Pelosi helpfully reminded a young leftist recently in the deafest of tones. Doubling down on this losing strategy, the party elites this week selected the centrist Obama ally Tom Perez as DNC chairman, spurning the Sanders ally Keith Ellison, who was far more popular with the party rank-and-file and a veteran organizer.
The Democratic Party would rather hold the center ground and lose forever than take two steps left and have a chance of stopping Trump. But there is no left-wing party to turn to. Sure, there were socialist and green parties running candidates in the presidential election, but their impact barely registered. And small parties face tremendous legal and organizational difficulties. The game is rigged by and for the two major parties.
A better option, outlined by Seth Ackerman in his essay A Blueprint for a New Party, is for the left to build its own national political organization but use the Democratic Party ballot line where it can. Such a party, Ackerman argues, would “have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country,” making it more strictly organized than the Democrat or Republican parties, which have loose definitions of membership and no fixed policy platforms.
But this new party would have the freedom to operate flexibly on a state-by-state, race-by-race basis. It could run left-wing candidates in Democratic primaries, or run independently against incumbent Republicans in uncontested elections (of which there are thousands). It could even channel support and money to strong progressive candidates in the Green Party or other groups, say, hypothetically, if the Black Lives Matter movement decided to run a candidate for office.
More crucially, an independent left-wing organization like this would be entirely free from Democratic Party control, able to build support, link up with other groups, educate members, help organize direct action and raise its own funds. It would not be forced to support policies and candidates from the center. If strong enough, it could even make demands upon the Democrats. This is something the Sanders insurgency, for all its size and strength, cannot currently do.
This is all hypothetical for now. The left doesn’t have a single organization to unite around or a large mass social movement. But there are various movements and groups that may fit the bill in the future. There is the post-election Sanders group, Our Revolution, which is still (for the moment) committed to working within the Democratic Party. There are powerful justice movements like Black Lives Matter and the Fight for Fifteen. Then there are smaller, more traditional left-wing groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Some of these organizations are starting to see results: in January, Sanders Democrats more or less took over the entire California Democratic Party, the biggest Democratic organization outside of D.C. The DSA has tripled its membership since the election, opening new chapters around the nation. Last week the Michigan DSA chapter got several members elected to the state Democratic Party’s central committee for the first time in its history. These are small but potentially meaningful victories.
More impressively, Fight for Fifteen organized protests in 340 American cities on a single day in November. Crucially, these protests were industrial in nature, involving walk outs and strikes by masses of food and transport workers. If the left is to succeed it will need movements that look like this: powerful labor protests organized by racially diverse coalitions of workers. Protests that shut down food and transport networks are the left’s most powerful weapon: industrial action that hits capitalism in its profit centers.
A left-wing victory is neither inevitable nor certain. The future is unwritten. There is only optimism and the struggle for a better world—a world where people don’t die from treatable diseases because they can’t afford the hospital. A world where families aren’t split apart by midnight deportations. A world where work is liberating and purposeful, not a constant battle to survive. This is a vision worth fighting for.
Richard Whitten is a leftie writer and a recovering expat. He tweets more than is wise at @RichenWhittard