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The Two American Lefts
Since the Great Recession, the American left has grown both in numbers and political influence. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a lifelong socialist, ran two competitive races for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Progressive Caucus in Congress has ballooned to over a hundred members. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) boosted its membership by nearly 1000 percent, with some 150 DSA members elected to offices around the nation, including five to the House of Representatives. And Joe Biden, a centrist through most of his long career, has done his best, with narrow congressional majorities or none, to enact the most far-reaching domestic programs since the Great Society.
Young people are driving this momentum. Not only do Gen Z Americans vote more for Democrats than do older cohorts, they also tell pollsters they are more positive about socialism then about capitalism.
However, a conflict between leftists who advocate constructive ends and those who want to bring down the whole system could jeopardize some or all these gains. Key actors in the constructive camp include Sanders, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and their little-known allies around the nation who are building a progressive force aligned with the Democratic Party. In synch with like-minded activists from a variety of social movements, they work hard for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, and a national right to abortion. To achieve these policies, they realize, will require convincing millions more Americans to embrace their analysis of what ails the nation as well as their agenda to heal it. In the meantime, these left officials vote much like their Democratic colleagues and have endorsed the president for re-election.
“My job, and I think the progressive movement’s job,” Sanders declared in April, “is to make certain that [Biden] stands up and fights for the working class of this country and does not take anything for granted.” Michael Harrington, co-founder of the DSA back in 1982, called on his fellow socialists to pursue “the left wing of the possible.” That’s precisely what Sanders and his compatriots are struggling to do today.
But some left activists scorn this balancing act as a treacherous compromise with an evil system. Last winter, several local DSA chapters and internal caucuses called for ousting three members of Congress who belong to the organization after they had failed to oppose the compromise agreement that Biden made to forestall a national railroad strike. “Expel” these “Class Enemies” demanded one caucus, while another opposed making any 2024 endorsements until DSA can impose “socialist discipline” on the politicians it endorses. That the three miscreants—Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and AOC—are among the most vocal and popular leftists in Congress seemed to enrage their critics who accused them of having “turned their backs on the movement that brought them to office.” This summer, the Boston chapter of DSA moved to expel a state representative who committed the political sin of endorsing Maura Healey, the Democrat elected governor of Massachusetts last year in a thirty-point landslide. That Healey is the first woman to serve in that position—and the first openly lesbian woman to serve as governor of any state—meant nothing to these exponents of the left wing of the impossible.
Such dogmatic gestures don’t just divide left activists from the politicians most sympathetic to their causes. They also make socialists seem like members of an ideologically purist cult instead of people who seek to enact policies that would aid the working people with whom they claim to identify.
But their destructive potential might pale in contrast to the academic Cornel West’s decision to run for the Green Party’s 2024 nomination for president. West is not as famous as Ralph Nader was in 2000 when, as the third party’s standard-bearer, he drew 97,421 votes in Florida—a total that far surpassed the 537-vote margin that gave George W. Bush the state and the presidency. But as a prominent left-wing intellectual and riveting orator, West has gained a following among academics and movement activists alike. His absurd claims that Biden is just “a milquetoast neoliberal” and his swipe at the Democrats for being servants of “war and Wall Street” could swing enough votes in close states to throw the 2024 election to the GOP. The third-party temptation has damaged the left wing of the possible before, and West’s candidacy could do so again.
The divide between two types of lefts is hardly a recent phenomenon. During the 1890s, the American Federation of Labor had to fight off a Marxist-led rival that insisted that all unionists endorse their radical party. In 1919, bitter arguments about whether the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia could be replicated in the United States split the Socialist Party into three warring camps. In 1948, the Progressive Party, staffed largely by Communists, nominated a presidential ticket that could have gained enough votes to put a Republican in the White House. And in 1968, Students for a Democratic Society, the largest group within the largely white New Left, condemned both parties equally and staged protests on Election Day with the slogan, “Vote With Your Feet, Vote in the Streets.”
Today’s destructive leftists, like those earlier ones, fail to recognize that the social movements they revere have won big, lasting victories only when they were able to convince, pressure, or force leaders of one of the major parties to take their side on a burning issue. That most abolitionists joined the Republican Party was essential to eliminating slavery and to winning citizenship for black people. Labor unionists signed up nearly twelve million new members between 1933 and 1945 with the aid, tacit and active, of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats who controlled Congress and governments in big industrial states. Responding to the protests of the black freedom movement, the mostly liberal party led by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson backed the civil rights, voting rights, and open housing laws of the 1960s. Then a bitter split among Democrats over the Vietnam War helped begin the drift of most white working-class and rural voters into the arms of an increasingly right-wing GOP.
Today, in a nation so closely divided between the two parties, radicals who insist on doctrinal purity could break up the coalition between constructive leftists and mainstream liberals that is the only viable alternative to right-wing rule. And in preaching that their unbending ideology is the only road to salvation for a wicked nation, they alienate the great majority of Americans who will never share their views.
Michael Harrington always insisted on the need to believe in the capacity of ordinary people to take action on their own behalf—and in his own moral obligation to inspire hope. “If you consider your country capable of democratic socialism, you must do two things,” he would tell audiences. “First you must deeply love and trust your country. You must sense the dignity and humanity of the people who survive and grow within your country despite the injustices of its system. And second, you must recognize that the social vision to which you are committing yourself will never be fulfilled in your lifetime.”
A dose of his strategic humility would serve the contemporary left well.
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.