Mapping Left/Progressive Forces
The traditional Left
New youth socialists
Building new institutions
Some Clinton activists
Independent socialists at local levels
Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 sent spirits soaring. The first African-American President had been elected. Also he had been an early opponent of the war in Iraq, indicated he supported worker rights to organize unions, and would take on the Wall Street bankers who were behind the dramatic economic crisis that was destroying the economy. Liberal pundits saw Obama’s election as a prelude to the institutionalization of a new New Deal that would reconstitute a reformist state for years to come. And, these pundits argued, the Obama electoral coalition would make the 2008 election a transformative one: liberal Democrats would dominate the federal government and several pivotal states in the East, Midwest, West, Southwest, and in a few Southern states. The eight-year foreign and domestic policy disasters of the Bush years, of necessity, would lead to a new and brighter future.
The years since 2008 did not work out the way the celebrants predicted. First, Wall Street dominance of the political system survived the public outcries to break up the banks, convict the criminal CEOs, and reestablish regulations of banking and finance.
Second, despite demilitarization of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military/industrial complex and the advocates of humanitarian interventions around the world continued to influence the character of United States foreign policy. From the disastrous policies toward Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the use of drone warfare to avoid “boots on the ground,” to sending more troops into failed trouble-spots such as Afghanistan, the pursuit of U.S. empire prevailed.
Third, while unemployment rates dropped and the auto industry was saved, support for labor organizing continued to decline, real wages remained stagnant, and those workers who returned to employment were earning less in real wages than workers had made thirty or forty years ago.
And finally, almost literally wars on people of color, youth, and women escalated during the Obama years. Incarceration rates continued to rise. Police violence against the citizenry rose. Attacks on women’s health and reproductive services grew stronger. And new federal and state educational policies were adopted (charter schools, vouchers, egregious testing of young people) that weakened the quality of education particularly for poor, Black, and Latino children. Vicious racism which has been a feature of United States history since the founding of the nation was rekindled by the Tea Party, rightwing media outlets, and major contingents of the Republican Party.
Bringing the Left/Progressive Forces Together
As 2016 approaches, debates about the causes of the retaliation against the modest gains brought about by the 2008 electoral victory should shift to discussions about how to move ahead. It can be said that broad sectors of the American people—workers, people of color, youth, women—believe that creating a new society is critical and possible. But today people with a passion for fundamental social change have coalesced around a diverse array of strategies, ideas, visions, experiences, and practices. By identifying core components of those who are working for change, we can begin to see how unity out of diversity of thought and action can be achieved.
First, despite efforts of historians to deny it, there has been a vibrant Left tradition in the United States. Wobblies, Communists, Socialists, and Anarchists built the modern labor movement, struggled against racism, advocated for women’s rights, and opposed United States imperialism. Today the traditional Left, manifested in political parties with historical pedigrees, still meet, advocate, organize, and agitate. In addition, newer generations of left activists have begun to dialogue about rebuilding the traditional Left, with 21st century characteristics. Older and younger Socialists and Communists are beginning to talk together about what was relevant from the past and what can be learned for the present and the future. Both seek to link radical theory to radical practice. The traditional Left prioritizes viewing and acting to transform basic economic and political institutions, even as it engages in a political system in which discourse emphasizes reform rather than revolution.
A second tradition, the mobilization of issue groups, is deeply embedded in American political history. Groups motivated by opposition to particular outrages--destruction of the environment, police killings of young black men, attacks on reproductive rights, efforts to reduce the rights of citizens to vote, the marginalization and deportation of immigrants—form to address immediate concrete peoples’ concerns. Most issue groups share the sense that there are deep structural causes of the problems they oppose but they believe that immediate action to address their specific problem takes first priority. The issue orientation is part of the narrative about American “democracy.” From James Madison, to Alexis de Tocqueville, to modern political science, citizens are told that things change when citizens organize around lobby groups. Issue groups implicitly, if not explicitly, embrace an interest group model of political life. Sometimes issue group mobilizations seek to blend arguments about interests with moral claims. Throughout American history many issue groups—such as those addressing war or racism—have organized on the basis of moral arguments. Finally, it should be mentioned that some progressives are engaged in building alternative social institutions, such as cooperatives, to address issues of worker rights, community power, and economic justice. Here the activities seek to circumvent centers of power by working on new grassroots partnerships.
A third political tradition, also with deep roots in the American experience, prioritizes electoral politics. Sometimes progressives have sought to participate in one or both of the two major political parties. At various points in US history, vibrant third parties have formed, despite restrictive electoral laws, to articulate new policies, programs, and visions. Efforts to transform major parties or organizing alternative parties have been features of state and local political life as well. Central to electoral political approaches is the proposition that for most Americans, politics is seen as involving elections. Also, it is clear that the dramatic shift toward reaction in recent years is intimately connected to the election of rightwing politicians at the national, state, and local levels, often as a result of low voter turnout. Sectors of the political class, such as the Koch brothers, have used their enormous financial resources to transform political institutions and public policy. As Reverend William Barber and others have pointed out, contemporary politics is about the struggle between the super-rich and the many.
Having mapped a 21st century “US Left,” several tentative conclusions about political practice emerge.
Millions of Americans identify with traditions of reform and/or revolution and that the roots of these have been deeply embedded in American history. Social and economic change has occurred because of the multiplicity of efforts from all of these traditions.
In addition, a significant portion of those who participate in issue groups and progressive electoral politics share the sentiment of the traditional Left that fundamental, systemic, and revolutionary change is needed if social and economic justice is to be achieved.
And perhaps most fundamentally, given the growing power of political reaction, the traditional Left, issue groups, and those working in electoral politics need to find ways to work together and support each other if some kind of humane and environmentally sustainable society is to be created.