This past June, a D.C. citywide referendum came up in conversation with friends. We were discussing Initiative 77, which—although now in danger of being revoked by Washington’s Blue Dog-style Democratic City Council—had just been approved at the ballot box. The proposal would have gotten rid of the city’s tipped minimum wage, raising the minimum wage for service workers to $15 by 2025 from its current rate of $3.33. Some friends, I found out, had voted against it. They had spoken to other friends—fellow Democrats, many in the restaurant industry—and decided it was simply too risky and disruptive. I was taken aback; they were, as far as I knew, staunch progressives.
The Internet has been overrun of late with articles, some positive, others dire, about the supposed leftward “lurch” of the Democratic Party and the growing schism on the American left. Yet this movement evidently has its limits. The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over long-term incumbent Joe Crowley, in office for nearly 20 years, was an important one. So far as I write these words, though, it’s the only recent one of its kind at the national level, and she has only been able to go so far before incurring backlash.
On the other hand, there has been a surge in support for a number of policies still considered of the “far left”: Around 59 percent of Americans now support Medicare for All. Yet for democratic socialists to make real, lasting inroads they must contend with the fact that many of the principles of American politics are still viewed—even among a certain segment of progressives—through a prism that favors market-friendly approaches.
There are numerous reasons this remains the case. For starters, nothing looms larger in the American political consciousness than the Constitution. Barack Obama described it, during a 2001 interview, in the following terms (words that would later come back to haunt him): “We still suffer from not having a Constitution that guarantees its citizens economic rights.” He went on to call the Constitution “a charter of negative liberties” that asserts “what the states can’t do to you [and] what the federal government can’t do to you, ” but not what the government “must do on your behalf.” Although liberals scoff at the dogmatic adherence to the Constitution of, say, Supreme Court justices like the late Antonin Scalia, Americans of all political stripes are more likely than the citizens of any other Western country to support things like allowing all forms of hate speech in public.
Another way in which the American political creed differs from that of other Western countries is, of course, its focus on individualism. And, in part because of this, one can seemingly only achieve human dignity by “pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps.” In other words, your attachment to the labor market alone provides you with dignity. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans claimed to get their sense of identity from their jobs; for those with a college degree, this number was 70 percent. In 2016, while 73 percent of Americans claimed that hard work “is very important for getting ahead in life,” among European countries polled, a median of just 35 percent of people agreed. To the question “What’s more important in our society, that everyone be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state, or that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need?” The United States stood out by being the only country surveyed where a majority chose the former. The idea that pursuing one’s goals will ultimately lead to success also means that a majority of Americans unsurprisingly view themselves as middle class: around 62 percent. By comparison, in Britain 60 percent consider themselves working class. As Nick Bromell explains in the Boston Review, poverty, when it does occur, is then attributed to personal failure, and “Americans are reluctant to admit that they feel injury to their dignity, for to do so is tantamount to confessing a loss of self-respect. Yet because we individually remain silent about our own fragile dignity, we cannot collectively call for policies that affirm and protect the dignity of all.” This easily lends itself to more conservative than progressive conclusions.
And for decades, the Democratic Party did much to concede the concepts of “freedom” and “dignity” to the right, promising to soften the blow of trickle-down economics, but in essence acknowledging that only the free market could confer either. Making large-scale changes to the established political order was deemed too “risky.” Bill Clinton emphasized “personal responsibility” as he helped take apart welfare. Throughout the Obama years, the Democrats promoted education to equalize “opportunity,” which was placed above “inequality.” In his State of the Union address in 2014, Obama declared that: “Opportunity is who we are, and the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise”; his speech spoke of “opportunity” about four times more than “inequality.” Former economic advisor to Joe Biden, Jared Bernstein, rammed home the point at the time, saying: “We always have inequality, and in America we’re not that upset about inequality of outcomes. But we are upset about inequality of opportunity.” The problem, as Thomas Frank has noted, is that “[T]here is no solidarity in a meritocracy. A meritocracy really is every man for himself.” The fallacy that children could be lifted out of poverty while their families remained, that equality of opportunity is possible without any real measure of equality of outcome, continued to be peddled, undisrupted, until very recently. As former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put it in 2015, “[T]he left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies.”
The effects of these long-accepted conceptions of freedom and dignity are evident today in battles on the left over how we view our relationship to the labor market, as well as our class identities. For example, although in theory most liberals support unions, their defense of the institution has often been lukewarm. For the most part, we’ve posed little concerted, active opposition to the growth of the sharing economy, despite the destructive effects of such an economy on the value of labor. Although Americans do favor unions by a slim majority, according to a 2014 poll, 71 percent of them would also vote in favor of “right-to-work” laws. These results usually come from polling asking whether Americans should be obliged to join a “private organization,” including a union, “against his will.” A 2014 Gallup poll showed that even 65 percent of Democrats would vote for right-to-work, noting: “It is possible they may be sympathetic to the concepts of unions and what they stand for in theory, but may disagree with some specific policies unions favor that could interfere with the opportunities for non-union members to secure employment.” Although most Americans like the idea of unions, they may also find it difficult to accept that they are, by nature, involuntary; they require the needs of society to supersede those of “individual liberty.” This is a hard case to make if your belief in freedom corresponds to that proposed by the right: negative liberties. Yet as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein explained: “The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union.”
Americans are also more likely to believe that it is within their employer’s rights to do as they wish with regard to their labor, a right conferred by the free market. Initiative 77 was indeed approved, in the end, with 55 percent of the vote. Yet D.C. is also about 96 percent Democratic, according to the most recent national election results. Initiative 77 opponents argued that restaurants would suffer, and so would the workers who would (potentially) receive less in tips. The ecosystem of the D.C. service industry would be thrown into chaos by untested left-wing idealism. Through arguments appealing to progressive-oriented voters, it was said that the initiative would make it particularly difficult for women of color to open their own business. With the right language, it didn’t take much for many liberal D.C. residents to oppose more robust rights for workers.
A majority of Americans also continue to support many other employer “rights” that would most likely be thought intolerable elsewhere. The American Society for Human Resource Management, on its website, warns employers that they “face a much different landscape once leaving U.S. borders.” The page notes, first off, that the United States stands “virtually alone in the developed world” in allowing employment-at-will. Randomized drug testing is also rare in most other Western countries. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada held that randomized alcohol tests were an “invasion of privacy and an invalid exercise of management rights.” These more rigorous privacy rights exist across Europe. But despite the loosening of marijuana laws in many states, a majority of Americans—61 percent—told Rasmussen that drug testing should be required for most jobs, while only 26 percent were completely opposed. A 2016 survey by YouGov found that even 51 percent of Democrats were in favor of “unlimited drug testing.” Employers should be “free,” therefore, to impose whatever terms they see fit. Employees who object can find work elsewhere.
In his essay, Varoufakis also laments the fact that “instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organizing concepts, [the left] opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals.” In the United States—because, again, so many individuals see themselves as part of the middle class and thus do not feel themselves unequal—calls to fix “inequality” in and of itself often ring hollow. Social democratic politicians would do well then to return to Franklin Roosevelt’s focus, instead, on “freedom from want.” Doing so could have helped Democrats better portray the Affordable Care Act as a step toward increased freedom (from being forced to stay in your job), countering the rhetoric equating the individual mandate to a mechanism for “enslavement.” It is actually the commodification of our labor to the market that is unable to confer freedom, in other words. Privatized higher education leaves students with mountains of debt, forcing people to climb their way out through the market, while a lack of truly universal health care and less than robust unemployment helps keep them there.
Nick Bromell, in his piece, advocates for a new emphasis on the value of “human dignity” as well, one that takes direct aim at that construed by Republicans trying to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. “In order to break this silence, we must . . . make plain that, while [dignity] is inherent, it is also vulnerable and deserves protection,” he explains. In other words, we need to redefine dignity, hewing more closely to how it’s seen in Western Europe. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has, on more than one occasion, made reference to such a form of dignity: “I think that no person should be homeless, if we can have public structures and public policies to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.” Americans should be made to feel, at least in part, that their government owes them some of their dignity. When so much emphasis has been placed on achieving an impossible “American dream,” failing to do so because of factors beyond one’s control, Bromell argues, has created an easy sense of bruised dignity that brings about politicians like Trump. We can, and should, attack this sense of “ressentiment” by making this new form of dignity a key part of our left-wing democratic bill of rights.
Today, many leftists do finally see an opening in the rigid paradigm that long restricted the rise of the “radical” left in the United States. Ocasio-Cortez has, like Bernie Sanders, done a good job at making democratic socialism seem straightforward and nonthreatening to more moderate liberals. (In doing so, though, she’s also created a contentious debate about what, today, is meant exactly by “democratic socialism.”) In one interview, she described democratic socialism as follows: “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. . . . So what that means to me is health care as a human right. It means that every child no matter where you are born should have access to a college or trade school education if they choose it.”
Leftists are continuing to challenge incumbents in primaries across the country; their success, at the moment, is inconsistent, but they are creating strong waves. We may indeed be seeing the beginning of a Polanyian “double movement,” when a period of free-market liberalizing is followed by a pushback from a variety of actors in order to finally help insulate us from the untamed market. To democratic socialists, it is evident that receiving a fair minimum wage is far more dignified than relying on the goodwill of strangers for a tip; that randomized drug testing is dehumanizing; and that paying union dues is not an assault on freedom. For this to become instinctual among fellow Democrats across the country, though, democratic socialists will need to continue making effective arguments in favor of progressive policies—but they may also need to reclaim, for the left, the basic principles that continue to form the backbone of American political consciousness. No concept has stood larger in the collective imagination of this country than the idea of what it means to be “free.” We have foolishly allowed the right to claim an ideological monopoly on this term for far too long. It is time we finally undo it and conceive, instead, of another view of freedom, one that allows for the flourishing of true human dignity and justice for all.