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A Path to Power for the American Left

Ethan Young Dec 22, 2017

Issue 231

Living through this era of rotten feelings is like being trapped in an endless dystopian movie. We now live under an alliance of the old-guard conservatives and the far right (evangelicals, Tea Party and overt white supremacists), funded up the yin-yang by billionaire lunatics. This alliance includes theocrats like Vice President Mike Pence and open fascists, and their beliefs are surging into the mainstream.

The goal of this real-life hydra, which now dominates all three branches of government, has gone beyond the old conservative dream of dismantling the social benefits brought about by the New Deal. Now they are set on destroying what’s left of bourgeois democracy. A Hunger Games story is emerging in its place: a tightly controlled state, militarized police, unregulated monopolies, privatized services, a powerless and destitute working class and a culture pulsing with the venom of war and racial hatred.

The role of the electoral opposition largely falls to the corporate-friendly Democratic Party centrists, now decidedly in the minority in Congress despite the GOP’s low polling numbers. The centrists did not plan it that way. They play that role because no one else is in any position to put up a fight at that level of politics. But they’re lousy at it. They blew the election and they know it, but they don’t want to confront their mistakes.

Instead, they are praying for the cavalry, a fairy godmother, any superhero from the power centers of society to come to their rescue. Their appeal has always been to the moderate wing of capitalists: You need us, keep us funded and we’ll keep them dogies rollin’. To the public, their appeal is: We’ll protect you if you come through with the votes. Between the money guys’ indifference and being out-organized in key sectors of key states, those appeals fell flat. Yet they seem to know no other way to play politics.

The Democratic centrists’ main hope right now is that the Mueller investigation will bring Trump down with a crash, à la Watergate. They envision a scenario in which Trump’s Russian ties get him legally branded a traitor to America. This would get them off the hook for their bungling the election and tarnish the Republicans’ image enough to give them a path back to power. It would also enable them to win without offering a strong alternative that would draw on their base’s eagerness for change; for more, not less, social welfare and stability, for peace at home and abroad and for democratic rights.

This works out nicely under the tunnel-view formula the center-clingers have cultivated for decades. Follow the shift to the right halfway, keep the left at bay and eventually the public will get sick of the Republicans and return to Old Faithful. So in the face of an active attack on every principle they purport to be about, the centrists still insist on a half-assed response. They are afraid of their party’s base. They are afraid of losing favor and financial support from big business and Wall Street.

That’s their problem. Our problem is that the stakes are much more than just win or lose for the Democratic Party. The country and the world are at a critical tipping point. Government is being transformed amid widespread voter disenfranchisement, rampant privatization and monopolization, shrinking wages and the destruction of basic democratic and human rights. And, of course, all the money in the world can’t deal with the ravages of a wrecked environment.

We can’t afford the Democrats trying to fight the rightist siege with their usual tactics of “bipartisan” halfway tradeoffs. Their working assumption is that the more balls-out crazy Trump performs, the more power he’ll lose, as Republicans and more moderate supporters defect. Some see Roy Moore’s defeat in that light. But generally, without a strong progressive alternative, the crazy becomes normal.

 Centrists will be centrists, dependent on support from corporate donors even when they use leftish-sounding rhetoric for votes or back some leftist goals.

When the media talk about “the resistance,” they are usually referring to Democrats in office. Secondarily, they mean the crowds of angry civilians confronting elected officials in town halls, on the heels of the massive women’s marches in January. Below the radar, there is widespread opposition, anger and revulsion. This is where the left should come in. Situations like this call for a solid, politically coherent left, but that’s what seems to be missing.

The left’s role is to move this unrest and opposition in the direction of politics — enabling working-class people to apply pressure where and when it can change the situation in their favor, building their (small-d) democratic strength. This is our mission inside and outside the Democratic Party, in social movements, in unions and in intellectual settings.

The next move should be away from fragmentation and isolation. Each fragment tends to confuse building the left with keeping its own particular project afloat. This is a problem even in the suddenly expanded Democratic Socialists of America and more spontaneous self-conscious resistance groups like Indivisible. There’s so much going on in every state and territory, but most of those involved are unaware of it. All of us need to find and connect the pieces into a coordinated mutual project, one with a unified focus on democratic action and potential power.

The focus we need comes down to an immediate, defensive political operation: Unseating and defeating every Republican and “blue dog” (conservative-friendly) Democrat we can, between now and November 2020.

This is workable, based on the electoral wins in 2017, and even the social movement-centered successes of 2008 and 2012. The Bernie Sanders campaign won 13 million votes and opened up space for a class-conscious left populism within the Democratic Party that had not existed since Jesse Jackson ran for President in 1984 and 1988. We have gained ground on popular support for Medicare-for-all, dignity for women and raising the minimum wage, and forced the issues of income inequality, police terror and climate destruction into the discussion, despite the right’s offensive.

One reason to play on this field is to isolate the right inside and outside the party. The left is in no position to drive out the Trumpoids without allying with the center, as much as we (and they) might like to avoid it. This worked in Virginia this year, when a centrist Democrat was elected governor over a Trump imitator spewing anti-immigrant urban legends, and progressives won a number of legislative seats, including socialist Lee Carter and Danica Roem, Virginia’s first transgender state legislator.

This should not be confused with “pushing the Democrats to the left.” Centrists will be centrists, dependent on support from corporate donors even when they use leftish-sounding rhetoric for votes or back some leftist goals. But if they actively push back against the GOP, it will create more political space for the left.

Nor does it mean dropping other issues. Single-payer health care? Hurts the rightist regime. Ending police murder and violence? Also. Every social movement that confronts the attack on democratic rights shakes a pillar of the right-far right alliance’s influence on voters.

Third-party efforts and campaigning for socialists as Democrats can sometimes be feasible tactics. But in order to cut Trump & Co. off at the knees, we’ll also have to work for some lesser evils to break the GOP stranglehold on Congress and state legislatures. A center-left alliance will be necessary over the next three years, even if the centrists have to be dragged into it to avoid collapse.

Politically-minded leftists need to practice solidarity as something more than just mutual sympathy and support. We’ll have to make connections across old, entrenched and increasingly obsolete barriers. No single group will achieve this. Competing sects hooking up momentarily won’t cut it. It’s up to individual group leaders and movement organizers to make up their minds that this approach should be the priority over tending their own gardens. This is happening to a limited extent, and people are finding each other and beginning to talk seriously.

One potential national rallying point is the Poor People’s Campaign being organized by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis of Kairos Center. They are reviving Martin Luther King’s unfinished Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. They plan to draw organized poor people into direct action targeting state and federal authorities to demand that poverty and inequality be addressed. It grows out of the Moral Mondays movement, which helped slow North Carolina’s race to the far right after the state government fell under total Republican control in 2012.

The project’s goals bridge the gulf between left populism and the crucial sector of working people who are already well acquainted with their fate in the 21st-century U.S. economy. To win the political goal of economic justice, the campaign frames it as a moral issue, in which inequality and lack of workers’ rights are simply wrong.

Mass organization + political action = power. Or as Rev. Barber says, “Forward together, not one step back.”

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Photo: Rev. William Barber leads a Moral Monday rally. Credit: Pilar Timpane.