One deep chasm the election exposed was between young politically engaged voters, particularly those on the left, and mainstream liberalism. This caught many of the older generation by surprise. One reason, perhaps, is that what used to be called the “generation gap” appeared to many to have been mostly solved.
In the early 1960s, young leftist students rebelled fiercely against their mainstream liberal elders. But in the 1990s, while opposition to Bill Clinton among young people on the left certainly existed, it was muted, perhaps by a shared desire to bring Republican rule to an end. And then more recently of course, there was little youth-based opposition to Obama, even on the left.
But now the generation gap is back. Why is that? What’s the problem? And what can older mainstream liberals, and the Democratic Party, do to regain some measure of loyalty and enthusiasm from today’s disillusioned youth? Democracy invited Sarah Leonard of The Nation and Zach Goldhammer, a radio producer and freelance writer, to engage in the following dialogue on this question.
The Future We Want Now
The Democracy editors have asked us to answer the riddle of why young people today seem to be turning away from liberalism. But the way in which the question has been framed here is, I think, somewhat flawed. The idea that the so-called generation gap was, in the past, somehow “solved” reduces real political conflict to some sort of algebraic equation, with purely symbolic values balanced on either end. But no such equilibrium actually exists. Similarly, the idea that youth-driven, radical challenges to liberalism simply disappeared after 1969 is a simplistic fiction.
These flaws can be instructive in the sense that they illustrate at least one major problem we have today: the limits of liberal imagination, both in its ability to envision a better world as to well to accurately remember its own past.
Let’s begin with the misremembered past. Radical youth-driven resistance to the complacent liberalism of an older generation did not simply disappear in the forty years between, say, the Democrats’ neoliberal turn under Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. The idea that millennials are just part of some disjunctive cycle—one that arbitrarily resets every few decades,—overlooks broad continuity in demands for structural change. Many of those demands, over the last decade, were articulated through mass protests and direct actions.
When liberals remember only “muted” criticism of Clinton, they somehow forget the 40,000 activists who descended on Seattle in 1999 to protest free trade and the World Trade Organization. When they say there was no left-liberal tension under Obama, they leave out the countless protesters who participated in Occupy actions in 2011. Finally, they also fail to remember the largest single day protest in world history—February 15, 2003—when roughly 10 million people world-wide, young and old, mobilized against an American war that both Democrats and Republicans voted for and supported.
While it’s true that these massive movements occurred outside of election time, their demands shouldn’t be seen as discontinuous with the tensions that inevitably crop up during campaign season. As you wrote last year, Sarah, “every election season is a time of bemoaning why millennials won’t vote for politicians boldly committed to picking at the edges of their problems.” One way for older liberals to avoid asking these circular questions is to think about the demands that are articulated outside of a voting booth.
Even if we consider just these last two, large-scale direct action movements—in Seattle in 1999 and in Zuccotti Park in 2011—we see real challenges to contemporary (neo)liberalism that highlight at least one major problem: massive economic inequality. Even moderate liberals today will likely recognize that rampant inequality is one of the driving forces behind today’s political conflicts. In the generational frame, the symptoms of this inequality—massive student debt, precarious jobs, high barriers to higher education, and inadequate health care coverage—have been repeated ad nauseam, to the point of becoming political truisms.
The problem for liberals is not that these problems are, to them, unknown. The problem is that they are unable to imagine any way in which these issues might be solved beyond minor technocratic tweaks. When liberals talk about about age differences, they are often dodging structural problems which affect both the young and the old. In discussing generation gaps, they are often using euphemisms to describe economic chasms.
The Bernie Sanders platform—which called for free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage, and universal health care—was not particularly radical. It might have owed more to Karl Polanyi than to Karl Marx. And while it was branded as socialist, it might also have been closer to New Deal progressivism. If liberal Democrats wanted to claim this platform as their own, they easily could. But this path has been repeatedly rejected, both in the Sanders primary and in Keith Ellison’s bid for the DNC chair.
While older liberals might demand “loyalty and enthusiasm” from younger voters on the left, it’s hard to know how or why this trust would be earned when Democrats refuse to recognize the material needs of so many generations.
But these issues are not limited to economic concerns. When liberals overlook the last four decades of non-electoral activism and organizing on the left, they also ignore other concerns. Many of the post-New Left activist movements were deeply shaped by feminism, queer radicalism, and intersectional black activism. In liberal memory, these more particularist movements are often treated as atomized artifacts of the so-called culture wars. But many of these single-issue campaigns and identity-rooted radical groups accomplished real victories. ACT UP, for one, saved millions of lives by pushing for the release of new AIDs medications at a time when both elected liberals and conservatives refused to act.
L.A. Kauffman’s recent book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, might help restore some public memory of this overlooked history. The convenient timing of the book’s release—it was published just shortly after the election—has led some progressive to read Kauffman’s work as a sort of playbook for the post-Trump resistance. But read with a slightly different emphasis, it also provides a compact roadmap of the ideas and political movement that left-liberals have overlooked and dismissed. When Hillary Clinton credited Nancy Reagan as being a “very effective low key advocate on AIDS / HIV,” we saw, again, the selective limits of liberal memory, which prefers to recall a mythical, bipartisan model of top-down progress instead of bottom-up radical movements.
Similarly, when liberal intellectuals like Mark Lilla suggest that “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity” prevented Clinton from winning the 2016 election, this too is a failure of both memory and imagination. They are unable see the real, existing coalitions that have been built up around these concerns and the ways which they might have mobilized more strongly behind the Democrats had Clinton recognized their real demands.
There are also failures of memory and imagination on the left. Bernie Sanders’s tepid and delayed embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement created one of the few concrete example of a generation gap in the election: younger BLM organizers like Erica Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, sided with Sanders. The Mothers of the Movement—the parents of the many black men, women, and children killed by police—went with Hillary. When segments of the Marxist left dismiss intersectionality as irrelevant to socialist goals, this is also a failure of memory and imagination. They are remembering a selective, limited interpretation of Marx, and rejecting the real effectiveness of other, newer models of organizing.
The limitations of both imagination and memory are deeply relevant to the question of generation. All generational ideas are, after all, also mythologies. The people we refer to as youth activists and organizers are only real in the sense that they are based on our understanding of ourselves, our families, our friends, our comrades and allies. But they are also chimera—hybridized creations that meld our own sense of the past with our hopes for a better future. When we refer to a rising generation of young leftists, we are partly talking about an aspirational fiction: a public that does not yet exist, but which we wish to create.
If there is still hope for some sort of left-liberal symbiosis today, built up from multigenerational and multiracial left-liberal coalitions, these are the actual gaps that need to be addressed.
What’s the Matter with Liberalism?
Thank you for these excellent thoughts—as socialist millennials with intersectional class politics, I think we agree on rather a lot. Before looking to the future, I too want to address the prompt that was provided by our editors here at Democracy: What do millennials like us have against liberalism?
Liberal pundits and politicians have leveled this question, sometimes bordering on accusation, not just at Bernie Sanders supporters over the last two years, but at young (and old) radicals since the financial crisis, when Marx came back into vogue and Occupy exploded. And as I address this question, I want to be clear about who I’m talking to. I’m not really addressing the average liberal voter who has progressive social politics, holds humane values when it comes to redistribution, and wants a party that will represent fairness. I’m speaking, really, to the raft of professional Democratic liberals who guard the fort of the party and its think tanks and journals against usurpers like Sanders or Keith Ellison, and seem to make their living telling other people what is realistic.
The assumption, I suppose, has been that young people should be liberals (and by extension Democrats) because the Democratic Party is the only serious organization committed to using state power for greater equality. Today, these inquiring liberals must confront a broader array of critics: Liberal governments have been thrown out by dissatisfied people all over Europe in favor of left and, more often, right populists. Clearly liberals are widely considered to be deficient, and not just by Americans under 30.
I’m going to suggest a broad vision of why. Since the 1970s, the political influence of labor has cratered, and the free-market right has ascended. Democrats responded by becoming, in the 1990s, technocratic believers in the value of markets and near-unfettered globalization. Working-class and young people feel that the globalization project has failed them on a material and political level, and they’re right.
As Thomas Piketty noted to great acclaim, inequality is skyrocketing, at great risk to democracy. Liberals committed themselves to equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, and by cooperating in the shredding of social safety nets, exemplified by Bill Clinton’s embrace of welfare reform and a weak commitment to labor rights stretching back to Carter, shifted the risks of globalization onto the backs of average people.
But let’s home in on our generation in America, those of us who describe ourselves as socialists or leftists. We came of political age during a financial crisis caused by actors on Wall Street who were not merely careless, but engaged in a calculated and cruel class war especially against low-income people trying to buy homes. Those same actors had their hands on our student loans, medical debt, and so forth—the story hardly needs to be repeated. The sides seemed so clear. And what we wanted was a vehicle for fighting back against a one-sided class war. Liberals insist that the Democratic Party is that vehicle, but that is simply not the case. America has never had a class-aligned major party—Mike Davis’s exploration of why, Prisoners of the American Dream, should be required reading for everyone right now—because it kept American politics on the plane of ideas instead of in the trenches of class conflict, a fact celebrated in the liberal historiography of scholars such as Louis Hartz. The problem with choosing between two parties with huge corporate influence in 2016 could not have been more obvious. Liberals in the Clintonian mold had made nearly unfettered globalization their project since at least the early 1990s; it wasn’t working, yet Democrats had millions of reasons not to change.
Lest anyone think that we’re mere purists who don’t deign to make use of our democracy, let us consider why simply increasing voter turnout and “making our voices heard” is insufficient. A now-famous study out of Princeton found that “the preferences of economic elites . . . have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.” In other words, we live in an oligarchy. We will not get democracy until we take power away from the very people who fund, among other things, the Democratic Party.
If there is anything that has driven the wedge between people who call themselves leftists and people who call themselves liberals, it is that even moderate departures from the failing status quo have proved too disturbing for them. Many liberal commentators said that they liked Bernie Sanders, the equivalent of a moderate social-democrat in much of Europe, very much. Unfortunately, they couldn’t vote for him for practical reasons that seem less and less practical the more we learn about the election. But they grew more and more vociferous and aggressive toward Sanders supporters over the course of 2016.
When Sanders supporters insisted that taking Wall Street money should be a disqualifier, many liberals insisted that Hillary Clinton needed it to win—but as it turned out, Wall Street spent less money on her and on Democrats than Sanders raised from individuals, and she outraised Trump two to one, with little to show for it. Liberal Clinton supporters often accused Sanders supporters of being purists, but in the end, by insisting on an unpopular candidate associated with the past in a year of global populist upheaval, it was the liberals who looked like blind ideologues, and the young socialists who looked attuned to the times. Liberals who are unable to inspire Americans with their vision of the future and are simultaneously strongly resistant to change are very hard to take seriously, particularly these days.
But there is more to our preference for socialism than electoral success: Our concerns are ethical. I care about expanding democracy, not just in our ailing political realm, but into the workplace and the economy at large. In The Future We Want, which I edited with Bhaskar Sunkara, we aim to show how this might be possible through market socialism and through full-employment policies that give workers the freedom to quit their jobs. I believe in fully socialized public goods like health care and child care. I believe leisure time is the right of every human being. I think liberal meritocracy is a proven crock, and I believe in equality of outcome not equality of opportunity (if such a thing were even possible). Fundamentally, I believe that we should reach beyond providing people with services, though that is good and necessary, and create the possibility that people would control their own lives by decommodifying labor and offering every human the resources to flourish. And I believe political programs need utopian goals like these, not platforms that have already compromised our values away to imaginary moderate Republicans.
Zach, you focus in your piece on a program that I very much agree with, and an idea of coalition that I also agree is necessary. Racism against black people and immigrants has divided the working class for centuries, and the great left project is, of course, to fight racism among our allies and build a working coalition from the imperfect groups and people that make up the American landscape. I must and do believe that this is possible. I am encouraged by our generation’s adoption of intersectional politics because the only way to build a functional coalition in America is to develop a clear analysis of racism and to take responsibility for recognizing and fighting it.
Intersectionality is often dismissed as a millennial feel-good, safe-space way to prioritize purity over action. But in my experience, it’s the opposite. A deep intersectional analysis that includes class will be far more useful than a thousand “Yasss Hillary!” and “Mi abuela” T-shirts that aim to marry our identities to a project that will not serve us. For a good example, look to Chicago, where the Black Youth Project allied with the Chicago Teachers Union and other community groups to get rid of Anita Alvarez, the terrible prosecutor in the Laquan McDonald case, in a local election. Every element of our program was there: racial justice, economic justice, multiracial community organizing, voter turnout. Such efforts should be a model going forward.
I will conclude by saying that, as you note, Zach, most Americans don’t spend a lot of time contemplating whether they identify with the philosophical tenets of liberalism. But there are a lot of people who just want you to fight the right enemies when they can see that there’s a war on.
The problem with many prominent representatives of liberalism today, I think, is they don’t seem to know which side they’re on. Say Bernie, vote Hillary; say universal health care, but condemn its advocacy; say electable, lose everywhere; say you’ll don sneakers to walk the picket line, don’t show up. The name of my desire is socialism; do liberals know the name of theirs?
Zach Goldhammer Responds:
I agree with your response Sarah, and I hope that these critiques of existing liberalism—as it’s currently represented by the Democratic Party—are by now well known. The story of the Democratic Party’s 40-year decline—its loss of populist soul within the party combined with its milquetoast, symbolic commitments to race and gender equality—is one that has been retold many times this year.
Collectively, these stories reveal a party that has shown little to no interest in the types of real, redistributive, social justice policies that are at the core of youth activism today. These movement-based groups, championing causes that have been largely abandoned by the Democratic Party, serve as political havens for orphaned ideologies and social programs that have been left behind by so-called progressives.
My hesitancy in retelling the stories of Democratic Party decline, however, is that I don’t think they have had much of an effect on their narrative subjects: No matter how many times the failures and injustices of the present-day Democratic Party are reiterated, punch-drunk centrist pundits like Jonathan Chait—who is by now all too accustomed to such critiques—will still insist that “liberalism is working.” Similarly, no matter how many times the Democrats are reminded that their cautious centrism is outdated and out-of-step with the demands of its base, they will still double down on defending the same “third way” strategies as always.
Instead of attacking the sclerotic ideology of liberalism today, we should focus on creating a real, sustainable alternative, one that can be built up from a more radical sense of the usable past.
If we need to need to inherit the sixties, we shouldn’t settle for the cynicism of ’69 and the proceeding years when the New Left slowly dissolved. We should try to hold on to the more visionary impulses of the early New Left.
In particular, we should hold on to the moment in 1962, when a group of 60 or so Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members gathered together at a United Auto Workers retreat in Michigan and drafted the Port Huron statement, a radical document that tried to define “the agenda of generation.”
We should also remember the early Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots: identity rooted radical groups who tried to unite the shared interests of black and brown people with those of white working class Appalachian migrants in Chicago.
We should also remember some of the structural reasons for why these movements ended and the people who did not live long enough to grow cynical. Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther, was a youth activist, arguably one of the best, and was largely responsible for the original Rainbow Coalition. He was also assassinated by the FBI in 1969. He was 21 years old, four years younger than I am now.
There may be a less violent threat of suppression facing activist movements today.
Still, we should remember young people in our era who did not get a chance to grow old, and who also were not necessarily activists: Michael Brown was 18. Trayvon Martin was 17. Tamir Rice was 12.
When we think about youth activism today and the real challenges we face, these are the names that should be remembered.
We should also remember the early Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots: identity rooted radical groups who tried to unite the shared interests of black and brown people with those of white working class Appalachian migrants in Chicago.
Today, there is real promise in the platforms presented by democratic socialist groups and anti-racist coalitions to address those issues that liberal Democrats have ignored for far too long. In thinking about ways to imagine the best of the millennial left today, we should look at organizations that have, in some ways, inherited the best of the past and which respond to the pressures of the present.
The Movement for Black Lives, for instance, might be a model for how we can build new Rainbow Coalitions today. Their Vision for Black Lives platform offers a comprehensive mission statement committed to ending “the wars on black people.”
But the MBL statement doesn’t just deal with question of racialized police violence. It also includes radical redistributive economic proposals that should be taken seriously by anyone on the left who believes in universalist proposals built up from particularist demands.
Similarly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the group that Michael Harrington founded in 1982, has tripled its membership in the last year, building off of both the enthusiasm behind Bernie and the fear following Trump. While their exact platform and plans for the future are, for now, somewhat diffuse, they may present the best hope of updating the Port Huron agenda for today’s generation.
When I think about the best hopes for building the left in our generation, these are the organizations I think about the most. Still, we should view the situation of these groups realistically: While participation in democratic socialist and anti-racist groups has grown rapidly over the last year, these groups by and large still lack any real access to legislative power.
Sarah, as you suggest, our battles do not necessarily need to be electoral: Moral and theoretical critiques of the (neo)liberal economy, the exploitative nature of work, and the “meritocratic” culture are all important. Yet, in some ways, this ideological battle has already been won: The 2008 crash exposed the fundamental immorality of the market economy. The precarious, on-demand jobs which many of us have—even those with advanced degrees—show that individual achievement will not necessarily save us from humiliating and demeaning labor.
Likewise, the post-Cold War generation has no real reason to fear the ideological label of socialism; instead they’ve embraced it, as has been shown in poll after poll. But the utopian desires for a better society will fade into disillusionment and acquiescence unless we can provide real victories, electoral or otherwise, that are needed to sustain hope. Despite the stereotypes of our generation, I don’t think younger organizers will be satisfied with winning participation trophies in political contests. In order for the momentum to be sustained, they need to start picking fights that we can win.
The problem is that no matter which path we may take in the pursuit of real victories—whether through theorizing, protesting, or voting—our opponents will try to dismiss these programs with the rhetorical triple bind of liberal “realism”: If we try to discuss Marxism or intersectionality, we will be told we’re being too theoretical. If we favor direct action and participatory democracy, we will be told we’re being too impulsive. And even if we pursue an electoral path via a center-left candidate—one who is well within the boundaries liberal democratic possibility—we’re told we’re hurting the Democratic Party and being too idealistic.
In this way, the liberalism we encounter in our daily lives seems to function primarily as an ideological barrier, arbitrarily demarcating the realm of political possibility. This dismissal of supposed idealism is in and of itself dangerous, as well as unrealistic. Rather than trying to combat these arguments, I’d prefer to ignore the naysayers in the chattering class, and continue the struggle on all three fronts.
But it is the approach of a real electoral strategy that I would like to focus on right now. Maybe it’s because of the micro-generational gap between us, but I am less interested in the post-2011 Occupy model of purely horizontal movements than I am in the post-2016 Sanders model of a radicalized electoral strategy.
While both models are critically important, my hope is that the movement groups today will strive for some form of vertical orientation and develop political representatives who can help move their causes beyond street-level protests and action.
Here in Massachusetts, one example we might think about is the recent election of state representative Mike Connolly. Connolly started out his political career as an Occupy Boston organizer in 2011. In 2012, he ran as an independent without major financial backing (“No Money Mike”) against Tim Toomey—a well-entrenched Democrat who, over the course of three decades had won 38 elections in a row. After losing in 2012, Connolly finally won Toomey’s state house seat in 2016 by running as a Sanders-style Democrat and campaigning on a “democratic socialist” platform—$15 minimum wage, single-payer health care, free college education.
Connolly may now nominally be a member of the Democratic Party, but he still speaks out forcefully against neoliberalism and economic inequality; articulating critiques which he first inherited from Occupy and has now smuggled onto Beacon Hill. His election is one practical model for adding legislative muscle to direct action demands.
Still, the Mike Connollys of the world are few and far between and working with the Democrats is not an ideal arrangement. I don’t think all left activists should be shepherded into voting booths and made to vote down the party line.
As you say, Sarah, we will not have real democracy until power is taken away from the big-money funders of the Democratic Party. There is still good reason to be skeptical that the Democratic Party as a whole will earnestly embrace the demands of left-wing coalitions instead of, say, a more moderate, George Soros-backed platform. In the long term, I believe the development of a non-spoiler, third-party system—as outlined by Seth Ackerman and others—will be necessary. But in the absence of a strong third-party alternative, I still think younger left organizers should think critically about electoral strategies in near-term elections.
Even if these organizers choose to vote for—or run as—candidates on the Democratic ballot, I don’t think they need to pledge allegiance to liberalism.Liberalism is not, for many of us, an actual organizing principle. If present-day Democrats see themselves as heirs to some form of actually existing liberalism, they imagine it primarily as a conservative project. Ideally, they are dedicating themselves to a relentlessly present-tense conservation of the world that exists. In a limited sense, that project might be seen as necessary, but it’s not something we need to fight or defend.
If anything, the situation today resembles the one C. Wright Mills described in 1955: “On the one hand, we have seen a decayed and frightened liberalism, and on the other hand, the insecure and ruthless fury of political gangsters.”
Today, we might have a gangster-in-chief, but we may still need this increasingly frightened and decaying form of liberalism as a bulwark; a defense against the naked fury of the radical right. But it’s also not our job to make liberals less frightened.
Instead, we should try to imagine what forms of organization we already have and what can be built up. How can we create more collaboration as well as more ideological density between groups like MBL and DSA and the overlapping models of the left that they represent? How can we imagine pursuing both new direct actions as well as new styles of electoral strategy? And what, in the end, might a more radical world look like?
Sarah Leonard Responds:
That we will all have to engage with the Democratic Party in coming days is beyond dispute. Take, for example, Keith Ellison’s run for party chair—his control over party resources could have been a boon to left-leaning activists, and so we supported his candidacy. The radical horizontalism of Occupy was not a scalable, practical template for organizing; what it represented was the desire of our generation for real democracy. Occupy groped toward that goal; today, many of those same activists are increasingly sophisticated organizers. I suppose the strategic question is largely one of proportion: How much effort should we put into electoral efforts versus extra-electoral activity?
In the absence of an organized, popular left party, the best candidates for office often arise out of already-existing social movements when those movements find they need someone on the inside. That social movement must, however, be strong enough that it is not immediately absorbed entirely into government, as well as being strong enough to keep the politician honest. Abroad, consider Ada Colau, now mayor of Barcelona. Colau was a longtime activist who helped set up the grassroots organization Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH) after the financial crash. When she ran for office, she was backed by a coalition of left-wing groups. Since her election in May 2015, she has made good on several promises: fining banks with vacant lots, restoring meal subsidies for poor kids, and attempting to rein in the tourist industry that has driven up rents throughout the city.
At the same time, the movement from which she emerged has hardly taken her election as a sign to switch to parliamentary politics altogether: Waves of protests against tourism have continued, as has squatting and clashes with the police. The left wing is operating under an effective inside-outside framework. In Greece, the election of a popular left-wing government has faltered in part because nearly everyone who campaigned for Syriza was instantly sucked into governing—the young party had to fill an entire government, the agencies of which were corrupt and staffed by patronage. Today, there is little organized outside opposition to force the party to live up to its principles.
At home, consider Chokwe Lumumba, who became mayor of Jackson, Mississippi after years of local organizing by his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. The movement included People’s Assemblies, during which residents could voice complaints and raise issues. Before he died, seemingly of heart trouble, only eight months into office, Lumumba began to implement his movement’s Jackson Plan, which called for economic democracy built on local ownership and worker control. The plan was laid out in advance and stuck to by the new mayor. He owed his power to the grassroots organizers with whom he had worked for years and who were, themselves, committed to the roadmap. The People’s Assemblies continued into his term, regularly confronting Lumumba with ideas and complaints. Since his death in 2014, the Jackson movement has struggled to recover its momentum, but has continued to fight for the plan.
Notably, the Democratic Party has none of this obligation to its membership. The party platform is a joke—symbolic at best. In 1978, United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser formed the short-lived Progressive Alliance—a coalition of organizations dedicated to labor, feminism, civil rights, and more—in the wake of Jimmy Carter and elected Democrats’ failure to pursue the party’s 1976 platform. The coalition failed to ensure that the Democratic majority would get the Labor Law Reform Act through Congress. Likewise, the party disregarded minimum wage increases, national health care, full-employment, and more. A couple years later, the Alliance was defunct. Platform accountability had turned out to be primarily a problem for organized labor, which wielded influence in constructing that platform, but failed to excite other constituencies. Today, platform accountability is not even a topic of discussion, so irrelevant is it as a political mechanism. Democratic politicians have the freedom to be as opportunistic as they like. Running as a Democrat imposes no set of priorities on a politician, so obligation to a program must necessarily come from an outside force.
For all these reasons, we are lost if we put energy into electing more progressive Democrats who are not reliant on powerful outside movements for their political survival. Seth Ackerman’s proposal for a non-incorporated party structure is, as you note, an excellent medium-term goal. The outpouring of energy on the left needs an aggregating structure. He suggests that this party would require adherence to a platform and enforce party discipline in the mode of many European parties, with suspensions and expulsions. For this mechanism to operate effectively, such a party would need to possess a powerful coherence.
This brings us, of course, to the perennial problem of the American left—the lack of racial solidarity. Organizations like the coalition Movement for Black Lives and the Democratic Socialists of America are tantalizingly similar in their goals, but remain structurally far apart. American labor and left parties have broken apart along ethnic and racial cleavages for centuries.
American workers simply cannot win without solidarity between black and white workers. It is a fact. The most important thing is to build bridges right now—as we’ve noted, the platforms for the MBL and DSA are very close. Building bridges generally means arriving at a place where people see their interests in common. Nationwide, members of both groups are enmeshed in local political struggles, and it is first through base-building that we need to do that. Crucially, DSA in New York, for example, is involved in labor, housing, and policing issues, uniting these under a socialist analysis. Engaging in local political action, and increasingly adding layers of service provision, will be fundamental to helping working people see common goals.
When I talk with my friends in Greece about lessons from their struggle against a series of austerity governments, they all say the same thing: Imitate the solidarity movement. The solidarity movement was and is a loose network of service provision locations, set up to help Greeks with basic needs like medical care and groceries. The experience of working in and being served by worker-controlled spaces radicalized many Greeks and boosted Syriza. This crucial function has yet to take center stage on the new American left, but it should, and, hopefully in time, it might. When people start to see that the left is working for them, it may surprise you who might just work with the left.