As Facebook annoyingly reminds me, I’ve been quiet for the last few months. I’d therefore like to explain my absence – both as a personal record of my own changing views, and perhaps to provide some tentative ideas to other newbie activists grappling with the same questions as me.
To put it simply: I’ve been in retreat. Like many of you, the results of the 2016 election and the early months of the Trump presidency hit me hard, causing me to question, and in some cases abandon, my last remaining shreds of faith in the forward momentum of social justice; in the persuasive power of reason; and in the Democratic Party as an instrument of resistance. In the grand scheme of human loss, these were small casualties – especially when compared with the costs currently being born by the people targeted by the Trump administration. But losing them hurt nonetheless.
And so, in the absence of these articles of faith, I’ve spend much of the last year trying to regroup – searching for a path forward in the midst of Trump’s presidency. With apologies for the length, the following is a memoir of this process.
Whiggery and Writers
The first personal casualty of the Trump presidency was my faith in the inertia of progress. As the election results rolled in on the morning of November 9, 2016, I noticed amidst the fatigue, fear, anger, and sadness that roiled my gut, a profound sense of disappointment, too – disappointment that, as a U.S. historian, I had failed to see this coming.
Why, I asked, should I be surprised that 63 million Americans cast their vote for a racist, sexist, bullying, sexual assaulter? For years, I had been arguing, in the classroom and out, that the problems of America’s “past” – its racism, sexism, nativism, imperialism, and jingoism – are, in fact, far from past; that the pendulum of justice swings as swiftly backward as it does forward; that bigoted demagoguery has been a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic; and that, from Jefferson on down, Americans have repeatedly proved themselves easy marks for rich men masquerading as “populists.” I knew – or claimed to know all of this – and yet Trump’s election still came to me as a deep, existential shock. Turns out, I still retained a few tattered remnants of what historians call a “Whiggish” view of progress: a view that sees the march of justice as a mechanical inevitability rather than a residue of sacrifice. But, soon, even these remnants were gone.
Just as devastatingly, the 2016 election challenged my faith in reason, and in the power of language to change and persuade people. For years, I had operated under the assumption that writing and teaching were activism enough for me, thank you very much. But, over the year leading up to Trump’s election, and in the months following, I repeatedly saw that no one was listening – not, at least, to think-piece writers, or social media interlocutors, and even, perhaps, to their friendly neighborhood history teachers. What, I wondered, was the point of constructing a reasoned, researched argument in an age when the President of the United States was clearly just making shit up?
Losing My (Political) Religion
Last but not least, the election caused me to lose what little remaining faith I had in the Democratic Party. Since my conversion from libertarianism in 2008 – and, more particularly, since my adoption of socialism in the early 2010s – I’ve been pretty consistently disappointed by the Democratic Party. But that disappointment reached an all-time-low in late 2016 and early 2017. Locally, the Clinton campaign did a dismal job of recruiting volunteers and rallying voters – a rather mystifying lapse given that Gainesville is precisely the kind of liberal enclave that Clinton would need to win, and win by a wide margin, to carry the state of Florida. In fact, in the close to four months that I volunteered for the campaign, I failed to see any sense of urgency about canvassing or phone banking until the two weeks before the election. And, in all that time, I received hardly a moment’s training on how to articulate or advocate Secretary Clinton’s platform. Instead, I was given a rambling, unrealistic script, a list of doors on which to knock, and a friendly word of encouragement as I left the campaign office. Eager to be a proactive advocate, I was instead told to be a warm-bodied campaign flyer.
To be fair, volunteer education has never been, in my experience, Democrats’ strong suit. Arguably, I received even less support from the Obama campaign in 2012. But the problem of making a proactive case for Obama in 2012 was, in many respects, far less acute than the problem of defending Clinton in 2016. Whatever his shortcomings, Barack Obama is a charismatic politician who was running against a relative moderate with the personal charm of an oyster.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was running against a repugnant troll, yes, but a repugnant troll whose values and positions, however immoral and unreasonable, were nevertheless clear to all. Trump peddled a hard line on security. He trumpeted isolationist capitalism. And he advocated a hateful mish-mash of jingoism and nostalgia. In response to all this, what could we say? That Clinton advocated security but promised to bomb fewer brown people? That Clinton liked capitalism but with more trade deals, taxes, and regulations? That Clinton loved America, but with fewer deportations, incarcerations, and police shootings (which were, in any event, the work of bad eggs, rather than symptoms of something far deeper). Sure, we could (and did) point to Clinton’s experience and judgement, her impressive command of policy wonkery, or to the fact that her racism was limited to making dog-whistle comments about “superpredators” back in the 90s and (un?)wittingly supporting a dramatic expansion of the carceral state. But, at no point, did she or her campaign give us an affirmative, concise vision of America’s future that we could pitch to voters.
This lack of vision, of course, was (and is) hardly limited to the Clinton campaign. In fact, it’s endemic to the modern Democratic Party, which, since the late 1970s, has allowed conservatives to define the rules of political engagement – running a long list of candidates who, while donning the garb of social progressivism with more-or-less pride, nevertheless advocated a watered-down version of Republicans’ “Capitalism, Security, and Country” mantra. Clinton, I understood, was no worse, and in many ways far better, than a party that, as of 2016, was running to the right of Dwight Eisenhower on most issues save for racial justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, and a few others. Still, because she was a modern Democratic candidate, much of her platform only made sense in relation to the excesses of Republican policies. Thus, once more, campaign staff like myself found themselves in the awkward position of arguing that – on economic and foreign policy issues in particular – Republicans’ values were basically sound, but that Democrats would execute them more thoughtfully and prudently.
Nevertheless, despite mounting evidence that Democrats were, on economic and foreign policy issues, little more than an Amstel Lite version of the Republican Party, I continued to believe the opposite. In fact, deep down I apparently accepted that silliest of Republican talking points: that most Democrats were actually incognito social democrats, who, when favorable circumstances finally appeared, would – like Barack Obama on marriage equality – quickly “evolve” into the little Clement Atlees.
Meanwhile, even in my less optimistic moments, I continued to believe that, whatever the Democrats’ current shortcomings, a concerted series of primary challenges could surely push them to the left. And that, in any event, they were the best we could get: a necessary, albeit insufficient, backstop against all manner of villainy, from “right-to-work” laws, bathroom bills, Iraq War-sequels, and voter suppression to racist policing, mass deportations, restrictions on reproductive rights, and an eviscerated safety net. Suck though they may, I rationalized, they’d be there when we needed them.
And so, up to the 2016 election and for a few months afterwards, I continued to keep my faith in the Democratic Party.
Soon after the election, however, I was disabused of both these notions. My faith in the Democratic backstop was the first to suffer. When Trump announced his travel ban, Democrats – save for a handful like Elizabeth Warren – were all but MIA. When Trump pushed through a cabinet of climate deniers, Kremlin company men, Klan sympathizing ethno-nationalists, and education illiterates, Democrats puttered. When congressional Republicans began dismantling the ACA, Democrats objected but failed to obstruct. And when the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” went before the Senate, staffers for bluedog Democratic Senator Bill Nelson sounded surprised when I suggested their boss actually put up a fight.
Not long thereafter, my belief that Democrats might cast off their cloak of moderation and prove themselves hard-line progressives fell by the wayside too. I watched, for instance, how the majority of Democratic politicians failed to materially support, build upon, or even attend many of the protests following Trump’s inauguration – both in Washington and in communities throughout the U.S. I watched as leading national Democrats refused to endorse single-payer healthcare, even as support for the policy surged past 60%. And, in California and New York, I watched as Democratic legislatures with near super-majorities sabotaged their own state-level plans for universal coverage.
More recently, I recoiled in horror as a clueless Democratic leadership unveiled a party slogan straight out of an academic journal, complete with a colon separating clauses. Branded “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages,” the Democrats’ “populist” platform managed to insult the memory of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal while implicitly blaming workers – and their apparently deficient skills – for decades of stagnating wages and a sagging workforce participation rate.
Meanwhile, in the journalistic adjuncts to the Democratic Party, I listened with alarm to a growing chorus of pundits advocating gross concessions Trump’s agenda. Mark Lilla in the New York Times, for instance, argued shortly after the 2016 election that Dems should just STFU about “identity politics” (by which he seemed to mean any issue involving women, PoC, undocumented people, or LGBTQ folks). Peter Beinart in The Atlantic subsequently advocated that Dems get on board with Trump’s deplorable position on immigration. And Conor Freidersdorf, in the same publication, encouraged Democrats to be more like socialist radical Eugene V. Debs by being more like liberal centrist Barack H. Obama. In short, it seemed like Democrats, confronted with crisis, were intent on once more following Bill Clinton’s “third way” back to power (or, more likely, further into oblivion).
Even locally, I found spectacles of Democratic disappointment. Here in Gainesville, in a town controlled completely by progressive Democrats, from the mayor to the city commission – where the county sheriff has posted multi-lingual notices in the city’s jails, instructing inmates or how to resist apprehension by ICE; and where the Trump administration has already promised to penalize the county for non-enforcement of immigration law, regardless of what policy the city actually implements – even here, Democrats have refused to declare Gainesville a sanctuary city.
Thus, at long last, I decided that the Democratic Party was fundamentally broken. And that my misplaced faith in many of its members would count among the personal casualties of the Trump era.
The Problems of “Resistance”
Fortunately, just as I was losing faith in momentum, reason, and the Democratic Party, activist communities and movements were blossoming throughout the country. In DC, and in dozens of sister demonstrations throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of people joined the Women’s March, the March for Science, the Climate March, and many others. In newly sprouted chapters throughout the country, outraged liberals and progressives joined Indivisible, a post-election organization designed to plan resistance efforts to the Trump administration. And in their free time, countless opponents of the incoming Trump regime donated unprecedented sums of money to activist organizations, jammed Congress’s switchboards with angry phone calls, joined protests at airports where foreign travelers were being detained, and packed high school auditoriums and churches for furious townhalls with Republican Congresspeople. They did so, moreover, with the scantest encouragement or direction from Democrats – who not only failed to provide concrete policy alternatives that callers and protestors could support, but seemed positively intent on squandering the revolutionary potential of this mass-mobilization.
But, inspiring as I found much of this growing resistance, I also found it stiflingly narrow in its goals and aims. I was (and remain) committed to resisting the policies of the Trump administration and the Republican Congress – to protecting my friends and my community from assaults on their security, dignity, and basic rights. But I was reluctant to make resistance the organizing principle of my political life. Already, I had given too much time and energy to a man who deserved neither. Though our ill-designed electoral system had invested him with terrifying power, Trump is nevertheless a hateful, vain, unimaginative, and impulsive troll who’s too stupid to know how stupid he is. As such, any movement that centers itself on him – whether in support or opposition – is doomed to the same vapidity and lack of long-term thinking that produced this disaster in the first place.
Moreover, I was distressed by the resistance movement’s seeming preoccupation with catharsis rather than long-term organization. The protests and townhalls I attended felt more like safety valves than funnels: ways to blow off steam and provide politically-insulated progressives with peace of mind, rather than a way to demonstrate focused strength or channel people’s anger into durable institutions. They felt, in other words, like an end in themselves, rather than a means-to-an-end.
Last but not least, these “resistance” organizations seemed to betray a misplaced faith in the instruments of governance – a tendency enshrined in Indivisible’s belief that bombarding elected officials with phone calls, petitions, and post cards will actually alter how they govern. I’ll admit that I continue to call my elected representatives, not least because it’s good for my soul to politely vent its spleen at the clogged voicemails of Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson, and Ted Yoho. But anyone who thinks that politicians are more scared of the private, polite comments of disapproving constituents than they are of losing their biggest donors’ support, has not, in my opinion, been paying close enough attention to the last few decades of American politics.
Meanwhile, Republicans’ catastrophic failure to actually pass meaningful legislation proved to me, once-and-for-all, the bankruptcy of the “resistance” model. Indeed, despite Republicans’ considerable ideological rigor relative to the Democratic Party, their failure to effectively govern during the first six months of Trump’s presidency provided ample evidence of why it’s dangerous to organize a movement in narrow opposition to a person, administration, or piece of legislation.
So, if I could not find a new sense of purpose in “resistance,” where could I find it?
First and most importantly, I found purpose in organizing locally. Though Gainesville boasts an extraordinary number of social justice organizations for a town of its size, I threw myself most energetically into one of its oldest and most successful, the Alachua County Labor Coalition (ACLC). There, I joined ongoing efforts to organize non-unionized workers, restore voting rights to non-violent ex-felons in the state of Florida, and win a living wage for Alachua County employees – primarily through the power of mass movements and persuasion, as Florida state law prohibits counties or municipalities from passing minimum wage laws that exceed the federal standard.
Local organizing, I found, carried three advantages that the newly-formed, nationally-focused “resistance” organizations did not. First, my work with the ACLC brought me into sustained contact with community members, many of them from outside academia. This experience was a marked departure from the atomized, show-up-and-leave protests organized by the likes of Indivisible. And it has proved immensely important, not just because meeting my neighbors has plugged me more deeply into my community, but because it has shown me that left activism must, by necessity, involve the long-term experience of community and solidarity. Solitary thinking, writing, and even protesting are, of course, valuable in their own right. But they do comparatively little to build democratic networks capable of responding to crises, wielding power, or demonstrating an alternative to existing power structures.
Second, my work with the ACLC has helped me reclaim a healthier, more realistic relationship with the problems we face. Since the summer of 2015, when Trump announced his presidential candidacy, he has succeeded in convincing huge numbers of people – myself included, at times – that he is either the solution or cause of all America’s problems; and that, for better or worse, his political presence represents a radical break with the past. This idea is no doubt false. But such is the gravitational power of Trump’s ego that he’s succeeded in turning the entire universe into a referendum on himself. Fortunately, the ACLC is packed with seasoned activists who, in many cases, have been fighting for social justice longer than I’ve been alive. As such, they’re aware that most of the problems that plague America in 2017, while exacerbated by Trump, were alive and well long before his candidacy. Even more importantly, they’re aware that, while resisting Trump’s power should be a priority, it cannot be our only priority. They understand, in short, that life will go on after Trump; that he is not our only adversary; and that we must organize, not just for the next few months, but for the next few decades.
Finally, working with the ACLC has helped restore my belief in the possibility – perhaps even the momentum – of progress. This belief, you’ll recall, was one of the first personal casualties of the Age of Trump. And, at the national level, that faith remains comatose, if not dead and gone. At the local level, however, I see glimmers of hope that we may yet move the needle of progress: faint signs of successful union struggles; growing momentum for restoring ex-felons voting rights; indications that Gainesville may one day be a living wage city; as well as evidence that time-tested communities will continue to the mobilize the energies of new activists like me long after our initial appetite for “resistance” has passed.
Talking to My Laptop
My second effort to find a new sense of political purpose involved starting a podcast with my good friend, grad school colleague, and long-time ideological frenemy, Paul Matzko. Our podcast, entitled Impolitic (impolitic.blog), features Paul, a libertarian, and me, a socialist, debating a revolving series of topics related to politics, culture, and history. Our goals, in creating the podcast, were as follows.
First, we wanted to demonstrate that talking with humane, thoughtful, well-intentioned ideological adversaries makes you a better version of your political self. After all, Paul and I have been arguing for years, and we’ve yet shift one another’s fundamental ideological footing. But, because of these arguments – and the way they’ve forced us to reevaluate and reinforce our most basic beliefs – we’re better libertarians and socialists, respectively, than when we met.
Moreover, in making this argument – that intellectual rigor is a major benefit of civil debate – we hoped to challenge one of centrist pundits’ most tired claims: that compromise policy solutions have been the main casualty of hyper-partisanship. While we agree that the near extinction of civil debate – a perennially endangered species, anyway – has come at a cost, we refuse to mourn the ideologically-bankrupt policy that typically emerges from bipartisanship. Instead, the real casualty of political incivility, we argue, has been the rigor of American political thought. Turns out, when huge chunks of the population barricade themselves in echo chambers and hurl memes at invaders, we all get dumber.
Second, Paul and I hoped to restore some of our lost faith in reason (which, you’ll recall, was one of the first personal casualties of the Age of Trump). Indeed, even if I cannot change Paul’s worldview, I’ve nevertheless enjoyed acknowledging Paul’s stronger points – as well as receiving Paul’s acknowledgement when I’ve made a good point of my own (such as when, at the end of an unreleased, preliminary debate on single-payer healthcare, Paul told me that he’d “never heard someone make a lack of choices sound more appealing”). Not surprisingly, I disagreed with Paul’s characterization of single-payer, but it was ultimately reassuring just to know that he’d been listening.
Nevertheless, while Paul and I have given up on the prospect of transforming one another’s foundational views, we’re both believers in the power of reason to persuade – and hope that our podcast can offer a model of what a reinvigorated culture of political proselytizing might look like. Indeed, despite our mutual frustration with op-eds lamenting hyper-partisanship and hearkening back to a mythical age of consensus, we agree that large, influential sections of the political class have basically given up on persuasion. On the left, political comedians, liberal cable news networks, and left-leaning print media offer many indispensable services. They provide a valuable outlet to the left’s frustrations; they supply the converted with arguments to support their beliefs; they mobilize allies’ energies in support of various causes; and they help mediate disputes among different camps of liberals, progressives, and socialists. But they hardly aim to persuade outsiders. Indeed, should some apostate conservative ever stumble into the liberal media landscape, s/he’d almost immediately suffocate from all the smug and find dearly-held personal beliefs the subject of biting, personalized attacks. The same, of course, goes for the conservative political ecosystem – which often feels, to a frequent visitor like myself, as if its attacks were aimed, not just at left-wing ideas, but at me as an individual.
To be clear: in making a case for reasoned persuasion, I am not advocating that proselytizers modify or moderate their views. Nor am I arguing that we should wholly abandon mockery as a response to powerful people or institutions. (The day I stop making fun of Trump will be the day I stop breathing.) Neither, finally, am I suggesting that people from marginalized backgrounds need to respond to ugly questions about their basic identity with patience or civility. Marginalized people already bear an undue “burden of explanation” – disproportionately calling out discrimination, explaining to Twitter inquisitors why a statement is horrible, or, worse yet, having to field questions about why they’re entitled to exercise their basic human rights. Folks in these situations are under no obligation to respond to hateful ignorance with patience or kindness.
Instead, I’m suggesting that those who can serve safely as persuaders – particularly straight, white, cis men whose inbuilt privilege often protects them from the vilest manifestations of trolling culture – offer unsparing rebuttals to ideas they believe are dangerous, while dealing as humanely as possible with the people advocating these ideas. Admittedly, interacting with Paul on these terms poses few difficulties. After all, we see eye-to-eye on most major social and foreign policy issues. And, even on economic questions, Paul’s pro-market views are so far removed from the morass of actually-existing capitalism that it’s impossible to see him as an advocate of the status quo. Just as importantly, Paul is a transparently decent person whose beliefs – however misguided they may sometimes seem to me – very clearly stem from a genuine and well-informed commitment to human welfare. But, no matter how easy Paul and I may have it, we nevertheless believe Impolitic offers a scalable starting point for a culture of unsparing, generous persuasion – as opposed to one of ungenerous, rancorous exclusion.
This culture begins with reasoned argument. But it culminates, as suggested above, with something more. Indeed, as many of us have discovered in fruitless arguments with internet interlocutors, simply reasoning with one’s opponents, however civilly, is not enough to change their minds. To do so, one must also build personal connections. In fact, looking back on my own ideological transformations (from conservative to libertarian to liberal to socialist), I now see that friendships often played as large a role as ideas or experiences themselves in changing my views – not least because these relationships shaped and informed what kinds of ideas and experiences I encountered, as well as how I interpreted them.
Thus, building sustained relationships with political opponents became, for me at least, the third and final goal of the podcast. To help cement these relationships, I decided I needed to move beyond the ephemeral bonds that a writer – or, at least, an un-prolific, middling writer like me – can develop with readers. Instead, I opted to build more personal connections with strangers: to check in week after week, communicate using my voice rather than my prose, and open up my thought process – allowing strangers to listen as I work extemporaneously through the same ideas many of them are struggling with. In so doing, I hoped to cultivate the kind of trust that can actually change minds.
Some of you might think this is a fool’s errand. But if my goal of making allies of strangers is, in fact, a hopeless task, it’s only because I’m a hack – and not because listeners are too deeply entrenched in their partisan camps to change their minds. On the contrary, I suspect that twenty-first century Americans are, in fact, ripe for persuasion, and that their partisan militancy is, in many respects, a defense mechanism – a tool they’re employing, not because they’re confident in the explanatory power of their beliefs, but rather because they’re wracked by doubt.
My prospects for effective persuasion, meanwhile, are further enhanced by the fact that, thanks to Paul’s status as a leading light of the anti-Trump, left-libertarian commentariat, a disproportionate share of our audience will be drawn from my erstwhile ideological compatriots. I’ll admit, my own political trajectory may make me overly optimistic about the prospects of winning libertarians, but I nevertheless believe that anyone who’s skeptical about institutional power and committed to participatory democracy is no more than a few steps away from raising the red flag. Indeed, as soon is that person grasps that the workplace is itself a form of government, and a tyrannical one at that; that one’s freedom of choice, as employee, voter, or consumer, is meaningless in a world of structural inequality; and that building democratic structures to govern both the political and economic realm is the only way to free oneself from unaccountable power – that person is well embarked on the road to socialism.
Ditching the Donkey
But enough about the podcast. Why explain what you can hear on the show? Instead, I want to close this already hulking memoir by explaining the third and final way in which I’ve sought to find purpose in Trump’s America: by leaving the Democratic Party and joining a small, independent socialist party called Socialist Alternative.
This decision may come as frustrating to those of you who favor incrementalism over more radical solutions; or who incline to view left critics of the Democratic Party as impractical, privileged purists who endanger the lives of marginalized people by sewing dissent among progressive voters, dampening Democratic turnout, and ultimately helping Republicans win elections. I sympathize with these views – not least because I used to hold them. But, ultimately, I think they’re mistaken. Here’s why:
First, while I genuinely understand many marginalized people’s discomfort with the potential impact of dramatic upheaval, I don’t believe that making “extreme” demands is the same thing as realizing them. Moreover, in the twenty-first century’s hyper-partisan political environment, I see few downsides (particularly on the left) to staking out radical positions – which, in any event, will be moderated by unrelenting opposition from the right. Consider, as proof, Democrats’ experience with the Affordable Care Act. After being swept into office on a wave of progressive enthusiasm, Democrats advocated a moderate, incrementalist, market-based approach to health care reform that had originally been advocated by conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation. They did so, moreover, in the hope that pursuing a moderate approach would help them win Republican support for the proposal. But, instead, they were greeted by claims that they were advocating everything from “socialized medicine” to “death panels”; and Republicans opposed the ACA as fiercely as if Democrats actually had sought to nationalize the medical establishment. The lesson: if you want incrementalism, start with radicalism.
Second, left critics rarely represent a large enough share of the vote to tip an election. The 2000 presidential election is the only exception that leaps to mind. But, even there, the root cause of George W. Bush’s presidency was not Ralph Nader’s candidacy, but rather an antiquated electoral system that gave the presidency to a candidate who lost the popular vote; an anemic Democratic campaign that failed to demonstrate vision or generate enthusiasm; and a classist, racist political class that either actively participates in disenfranchising voters or fails to mobilize the roughly 40% of voters who see nothing to gain from exercising the franchise.
Third, left critics represent a bulwark against the Democratic Party’s worst tendencies. As things stand, the Democratic Party already uses its near-monopoly on left-of-center (formal) political expression to push liberals, progressives, and socialists to the right. Imagine how much more aggressively the party would move to the right if it did not occasionally fear an organized revolt.
Finally, left critics of the Democratic Party, in my admittedly limited experience, play an outsized role in shaping the terms of politics, if not the outcome of individual elections. In other words, they work hard to ensure that, even if they do not cast a ballot for one of the candidates most likely to actually hold power, they nevertheless influence the kinds of issues, movements, and concerns that s/he will have to deal with. In practice, this means devoting long hours to mass movements – from opposition to police brutality and LGBTQ rights to the fight for $15/hour, single payer, and immigrants’ rights. Thus, in supporting these mass movements, they often do more to shift politics in a progressive direction than a casual Democratic voter will ever do. Want proof? Think about how dramatically Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Sanders primary challenge, and other groups outside the Democratic Party have altered national politics. Then consider the comparatively minor impact of the Democratic Party itself.
Ultimately, however, I’m more interested in offering an affirmative case for the leaving the Democratic Party than I am in rebutting critics of third-party voters. Presented below, then, is a brief overview of my reasons for leaving:
Democrats don’t share my beliefs: I believe that workers should control their workplaces (and the economy at large); Democrats believe that a small ownership, bureaucratic, and management class, accountable largely to itself, should control workplaces and the economy. I believe that workers are entitled to the full value of their labor; Democrats believe that owners should profit from that labor. I believe that government programs should benefit all; Democrats believe in means testing. I believe that poverty is a structural feature of capitalism; Democrats believe that people are poor because they lack adequate education or job training. I believe in transcending capitalism; Democrats believe in making it work for as many people as possible. I believe in social, economic, and political equality; Democrats don’t.
Democrats demobilize the left: Let’s not even talk about Barack Obama’s efforts to tame Occupy Wall Street, or Hillary Clinton’s attempts to silence Black Lives Matter. Instead, let’s just focus on the deafening silence with which Democratic assaults on progressive values have been met by large sections of the party’s rank-and-file (myself shamefully included) for much of the past thirty years. Consider, for instance, that Democratic leaders, as well as rank-and-file Democrats, bit their tongues – even cheered! – when Bill Clinton pushed through welfare “reform,” a mass-incarceration “Crime Bill,” and a free trade deal that accelerated the dismemberment of rust belt communities. Consider, too, many liberals’ shrugging response to Bill Clinton’s plans for social security privatization or, more importantly, his well-established pattern of sexual assault and sex with workplace subordinates. Then consider how those same Democrats and Democratic voters would have (or did!) respond to Republicans and conservatives who did (or tried to do) the same. Consider that, when Congressional Republicans pushed for social security privatization in 2005, they were swept from office the next year in a wave of anger; or consider the outrage with which Donald Trump’s horrifying history of sexual assault has (rightly!) been met.
Liberals’ pattern of standing idly by as Democrats dismember ostensibly progressive goals is particularly striking in the case of the Clinton presidency. But it was also on display during the eight years of the Obama presidency, as rank-and-file Democrats along with their allies in journalism (myself guiltily included in both camps), let Obama off the hook for failing to end, and in some cases expanding the “war on terror”; for bailing out major financial institutions while allowing struggling homeowners to lose their homes; for deporting more undocumented people than any previous president; for adopting a market-based health care program that, if proposed by a Republican, would have been greeted with righteous howls of disapproval; and for repeatedly insisting that a sluggish economic recovery, in which virtually all gains accrued to the top 5%, represented a period of great, widespread prosperity.
Indeed, time and again, folks on the left stall the momentum of their own movements by falling in line with a party that consistently betrays their values. To an extent, this phenomenon is true of the relationship between any political party and its base. During the 2016 campaign, many traditionalist conservatives fell all over themselves trying to excuse Donald Trump’s innumerable breaches of conservative orthodoxy. But Democrats’ tendency to command silence from their disappointed supporters, to betray their goals, and to move consistently to the right of their base has proved particularly damaging and demobilizing.
Democrats do not change until they’re confronted with independent left movements: From the 1890s to the 1930s to the 1960s, Democrats have been at their best when they felt most threatened. At the turn of the twentieth century, they began their slow march away from Confederate apologetics and toward Progressivism, only when confronted with Populist and Socialist insurgencies. In the 1930s, they embraced the New Deal (and the more radical Second New Deal), not because Franklin Roosevelt was a beneficent social democrat, but because he worried that an alliance of Bonus Army veterans, CIO radicals, Dust Bowl exiles, Huey Long acolytes, and CPUSA cadres might overthrow the government if he didn’t throw them a bone. And, in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson finally got behind civil rights legislation and the Great Society, not because he was a visionary, but because the mass mobilizations of the black freedom struggle, antiwar movement, New Left, and second wave feminism brought the country to the precipice of revolution.
Were members of all these groups Democrats? In some cases, yes. In many cases, no. But even when members of these radical groups remained within the Democratic Party, they were, at best, thorns in the party’s side – factions that convincingly threatened to bolt if the party didn’t heed their demands. The point, then, is that mobilizing outside (or at the margins) of the Democratic Party is an effective, time-honored strategy. At best, effective separatist mobilization will succeed in supplanting the Democratic Party with a more radical organization – much in the way that the Republican Party of the 1850s supplanted the Whig and Know-Nothing Parties. At worst, separatist organization will succeed in mobilizing the grassroots, shifting the Overton Window, and forcing the Democratic Party to compete for its left flank (instead of the political center, as it now instinctively does).
Either way, history suggests that Democrats rarely reward loyalty with progress. And, either by supplanting the Democratic Party or forcing it to focus on its left, independent organization is the only way to put working people at the center of American politics.
Democrats barely exist: And I don’t mean this merely as a snarky comment on the fact that Democrats have been MIA for many of the early struggles against the Trump administration. Instead, I’m referring to something far deeper – to a fundamental shift in the way political parties are organized and the opportunities this shift presents for organizers at the margins.
For better or worse, we no longer live in the age of political machines. Yes, pundits have argued that the Clinton family represents a kind of twenty-first-century political machine. But we all saw how well that apparatus served them in 2016.
Instead, we live in an era when political parties are more accurately described as coalitions, brands, or even ideas, rather than institutions. Indeed, outside of officeholders’ legal authority, party elders’ connections to an influential donor class, and the party’s collective reputation, the Democratic Party doesn’t wield any real power: it doesn’t own newspapers or media conglomerates; it exercises minimal control over appointments; and, outside of high profile races, it has a limited ability to influence who gets to wear the party label. In short, the party is a confederacy of free agents, rather than a centralized, disciplined organization.
Why does the ad hoc nature of the Democratic Party matter? It matters because machines, as intricate, powerful institutions, are difficult to dislodge or replicate. They provide concrete political and economic services that a new organization than cannot easily replace. Loose coalitions, by contrast, can easily be dislodged.
In other words, any sense of loyalty to the twenty-first-century Democratic Party is misplaced, not just because the party is an unseemly marriage of neoliberalism, imperialism, and bureaucratic managerialism, but because the party is so weak. In fact, U.S. history has offered few moments more favorable to organizing a new, mass political party than the current moment of Democratic crisis and dissolution.
However, in arguing that the present offers an outstanding opportunity to organize an alternative to the Democratic Party, I do not mean to suggest that such a party could immediately adopt far-left positions. While few Americans now identify with ultra-conservative economic views, and a majority of millennials have favorable views of the word “socialism,” those views are still shy of left radicalism. Many moderates’ frustrations with the economic status quo, for instance, extends to budget austerity measures, trade deals, offshoring, and entitlement cuts, but not to fundamental questions of who should control productive enterprises. And, for many millennials, socialism means little more than liberalism on steroids – an idealized (and inaccurate) vision of Sweden transplanted in North America. Meanwhile, the 2016 election amply demonstrated just how far right large sections of the American voting populace has moved on questions of gender, racial, sexuality, and immigration justice. And, last but not least, a half-century of union busting, mass incarceration, and conservative cultural backlash have thoroughly eroded the kind of grassroots labor, advocacy, and civil rights organizations that could help sustain far-left politics in the face of right-wing reaction.
But, even if the present moment does not offer an opportunity to create a party that immediately advocates far-left political goals, it does at least offer a chance to build a party that casts off its reliance on corporate cash, and with it, some of the structural constraints that consistently push the Democratic Party in the direction of corporate-friendly policy. Indeed, by 2020, I think it’s possible to believe that Americans could build a nominally social democratic party – a member-funded, democratically-accountable People’s Party – that, even if it could not immediately advance transitional social democratic demands, could at least advance aggressively liberal policies.
The biggest barrier to such a new People’s Party, I suspect, would be brand recognition. The Democratic Party, after all, has been around for virtually the entirety of American history. But, in an era of accelerated cultural change, where many Americans lack long-term historical consciousness and the Democratic brand is already severely tarnished, that barrier is likely lower than at any point in the recent past.
All that said: I do not believe that Democrats and Republicans are the same. I continue to believe that Democrats are the lesser of two evils. I freely acknowledge that some – perhaps many – of my fellow far-left critics of the Democratic Party are sexist, racist assholes who should spend a lot more time critiquing Chuck Schumer, Chris Murphy, and Steny Hoyer than Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, or Kirsten Gillibrand. Moreover, I do not believe that any independent, far-left party is better than the Democratic Party. For all its misdeeds, the Obama administration did, at least, help tame Wall Street’s pre-recession’s excesses, raise the federal minimum wage, legalize same-sex marriage, grant de facto amnesty to DREAMERS, extend unemployment insurance benefits, roll back police militarization, make gestures toward curbing the War on Drugs and the carceral state, expand Medicaid to millions of people, and prevent health insurers from capping benefits or refusing patients with pre-existing conditions. True, in virtually all these cases, Obama was pushed to action by dedicated, grassroots activists. But he heeded their call nonetheless. The Green Party, by contrast, has, in its recent history, seemingly accomplished little more than nominating a second-rate folk singer for the presidency.
Finally, I level all of these criticisms against the Democratic Party with the greatest humility. I recognize that people are suffering today who would not be suffering had Hillary Clinton won the presidency. Trans people would not fear for their future in the armed forces, for a future federal “bathroom bill,” or for legislation that will legalize discrimination on the grounds of “religious freedom.” Undocumented people would not be facing the same degree of pressure from ICE that they do today. The grandparents of foreign-born residents from large parts of the Middle East would not be wondering when they’ll be able to see their grandchildren. Voters would not be worrying about whether Donald Trump’s nonsensical voter fraud commission will strip them of the franchise. Young black and brown men would not be wondering what Donald Trump’s brazen endorsement of police brutality, or Jeff Sessions’s reinvigorated War on Drugs, will do to worsen the ongoing reign of terror. And all of us would not be wondering what will happen when an ignorant, paranoid, delusional, narcissist gets his hands on the nuclear codes. I know it’s easy for me – a straight, gainfully-employed, cis, white guy – to say all of this: but, at least in an abstract way, I do get what this presidency has already cost to so many people.
But I also think it’s safe to say that the Democrats have proved themselves incapable of meeting and resisting the challenge of Trump’s presidency. And that Americans – and, perhaps more importantly, the victims of American imperialism – can scarcely survive another generation of the status quo.
I can, and will, join with others, in whatever way I can, to bring Trump’s presidency to as swift and decisive an end as possible. As long as he remains in the White House, he poses a unique threat to human rights, basic constitutional freedoms, social justice, and whatever semblance of world peace currently exists. But in pursuing this goal, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Democrats have played a considerable role in shaping the conditions that made a man like Trump possible.
They eviscerated welfare, deregulated Wall Street, and made peace with a vision of globalization that disproportionately benefitted the rich, speeded the devastation of rust belt communities, and gave power to unaccountable technocratic organizations like the World Bank and IMF.
They abandoned a politics of class and did little to make it easier for workers to organize.
They endorsed and participated in the upwelling of hyper-nationalism following 9/11 and supported the disastrous war in Iraq that disproportionately left poor and working-class Americans suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, mental illness, and addiction.
They speeded the trend in mass incarceration which, while uniquely devastating to communities of color, swept up tens of thousands of future Trump voters as well.
They supported a policy of mass deportation during the Obama administration.
They refused to dismantle a surveillance state that Donald Trump now has at his fingertips.
They bailed out the banks that caused the 2008 financial crisis, refused to break up or nationalize them, and turned a blind eye to public demands for accountability.
When they possessed a super-majority, they opted for a market-based healthcare scheme rather than a single-payer system – leaving millions of people un- or under-insured, and thus singularly vulnerable to a for-profit medical system intent on keeping the greatest number of people as sick as possible.
And then they had the audacity to insist, amidst a sluggish economic recovery and the all-time lowest workforce participation rate in postwar U.S. history, that things were getting better and everything was fine.
In short, they did nothing to dispel the notion that the system was (and remains) profoundly rigged against ordinary Americans. Instead, they eagerly participated in the rigging.
None of this is intended to excuse Trump voters – even the relatively small portion of working-class white Trump supporters who, for whatever reason, loom largest in the liberal imagination. Black and brown communities have often suffered even worse at the hand of Democrats’ “Third Way” and yet did not fall victim to Trump’s lies. But we can, at very least, recognize that white supremacy, like any disease, emerges most virulently when white people and their communities are in a weakened state; that the Democratic party has invested little effort in courting poor whites, whom many liberals smugly dismiss as “white trash”; and that white supremacy is not unique to poor white people.
Indeed, the hard truth about why a majority of well-off white people voted for Clinton has nothing to do with moral superiority. Beneath their mastery of approved social justice nomenclature, upper-middle-class and rich white folks are, in my experience, more fearful of black and brown bodies, more aggressively disconnected from their communities, and more violently racist than their poor and working-class white counterparts. Instead, they demonstrated a stronger resistance to racist demagoguery because they saw nothing to gain from it; after all, it’s not their communities that are suffering in twenty-first century America. What reason do they have for turning to a spray-tanned strongman?
Nor do I say any of this this with the expectation of quick, revolutionary change. As an historian, I know only too well how slowly the arc of history normally bends. But the least we can expect from a mainstream left political party is that it not get in the way of progress; that its first instinct is to lean left rather than right; that it be organized around the interests of working people and the poor rather than the rich; that it be guided by a coherent, simple vision; and that it constantly seek creative ways to mobilize and engage new constituencies. Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, warts and all, was such a party. So, too, is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Should the Democratic Party one day remake itself in the image of these worthy examples, I will happily return. Until then, I’ll go to the place where, according to my podcast host, all change occurs: I’ll be at the margins.