On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIC U.S. Populist Left on the Ground; Activist Organizations

Commentators, especially those on the liberal left of the spectrum, are reasonably clear about what has stirred and ratcheted up the discontent on the right:

  • Stagnation and decline deeply rooted in rural America with a larger non-urban percentage of the population than a country such as Canada
  • Loss of faith in traditional institutions – democratic, legal, financial, and even educational – but, ironically, not the military, even though the latter, the mightiest in the world, has been unable to win a shooting war in over fifty years
  • A legitimate suspicion of elites, particularly financial, technocratic and political, which they see as engaged in enormous and unprecedented enrichment at the expense of the average American
  • A distrust of immigrants and immigration, though not unequivocally refugees, for immigrants appear to step aboard a rising ski lift while their trip into the future is projected downwards
  • A propensity to blame others, including the reason for divine desertion; they do not see themselves as responsible for current calamities, including the worst, climate change and its effects
  • Even though America is the most important single driver of the international economic system, their country has lost control of that system as the levers of power became shared and America was induced to lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy to compete
  • With stagnation has come despair, drugs and post-industrial anomie
  • A mood of disaffection, discontent and even despair.

The liberal left is not as clear about the problems that have aroused the populace on their own side of the political divide. What stirs that disaffection among the supporters of the liberals and the left, among suburbanites, women, youth and the middle class in general? They accept climate change as their responsibility to correct. They still believe they can control and direct their futures, even though time does not seem to be on their side. They have not lost faith in their democratic, legal, financial and educational institutions except when control has been seized by a leadership that does not believe in those same institutions. They have lost faith in the military which keeps promising an end to specific wars but does not deliver.

However, they also feel caught in a suburban cul-de-sac because they are convinced that the way out of current dilemmas does not entail going back the same way as they arrived, but they are not clear about any alternative route out of their trap. They are well aware that the costs of homes in thriving cities have grown well beyond the reach of their children but are conflicted over whether this gentrification is a necessary cost of prosperity. Monies are not being allocated sufficiently to mass transit and they spend a higher and higher percentage of their time locked in a solipsistic universe, not only on route to and from work, but upon return to their tiny islands in the sky or in a bleak suburbia.

They feel unrooted because:

  • They have lost the support of the energy, industry and discipline of the rapidly shrinking manufacturing working class in post-industrial America
  • The economic leadership betrayed them in the past, not only in leading them into a financial dead end of 2008, but have benefitted most from the recovery while the pensions and economic futures of the middle class have become increasingly insecure at the same time as their children lack the securities of “trust” children
  • Political leadership has been controlled by cowards and gripers, by obstructionists who have been determined to destroy the good faith in discourse and compromise necessary to make a democratic political system work
  • That political leadership has now been seized by uncivil philistines seemingly content not only to obstruct justice and sell out America to foreign bullies, but to engage in the basest felonies and frauds to retain power.

Thus, they share with their rural compatriots and the disaffected and shrinking industrial working class a sense of neglect and distrust that enrages them in the effort to ward off despair. They are also discouraged in foreign policy because key states freed from the yoke of the oppressive and repressive left, and the ones that most symbolized that lurch to freedom, seem to have reverted back to an autocracy, but one of the right rather than the left. Poland and Hungary provide prime examples.

At the same time, the country that once held the imaginations of the world for rebirth and resurrection of a nation, while joining the ladder of outstanding success on the technological and economic fronts, also seems to have betrayed the most fundamental premise of the modern nation state, the very gift that the Jewish nation gave the modern world, a belief in national self-determination. Why – by the seeming resistance to the national self-determination of a kissing cousin nation, even though the majority of those on the progressive spectrum recognize how external forces and sources of resistance have contributed to the situation. Those who have taken the leap to blame the corporate elite and the wealthy sometimes even despair of self-determination itself and want to deny that right to its inventors.

The rise of the latest crop of grassroots organizations that have entered the political fray on behalf of the Democratic Party may provide indicators, not only about the motives that propel their anger and their actions, but about the path they see as the route out of the quandary in which they find themselves. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) with 90 members, co-chaired by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), is home to the progressives and “far-left” in the U.S. It is made up of and/or supported by significant numbers of members of Justice Democrats, Swing Left, Indivisible, Women’s March, Data for Progress, MoveOn, Democratic Socialists of America and Codepink. All were given an impetus by the showing of Bernie Saunders in the 2015 Democratic Party primaries, but mostly by the election in November 2016 of Donald Trump as president. All were grassroots creations organized by fervent progressives but most with a short track record and some with little political experience.

The above organizations are explicitly political and aim at enlisting the support of those who are disaffected, but on the liberal and progressive and even far-left of the political spectrum, to become active in the Democratic Party. The organization Justice Democrats is a case in point. Tech for Campaigns is another such organization, but explicitly targeted at bringing the best-in-class technical talent and skills to assist in political campaigns. At the same time, a number of members of the super-rich have joined George Soros working mainly internationally and donated large sums domestically to the Democratic Party, perhaps led by Michael R. Bloomberg.

Increase membership. Increase the use of technology. Attract money. Get volunteers out working in constituencies. The latter seems to be the niche cut out by Swing Left, an organization dedicated to old fashioned canvassing, recruiting door-to-door and telephone callers as well as raising monies from small donors. Swing Left raised $10 million. Bloomberg, a single donor, is estimated to have given $80 million. Therein lies one dilemma of the Democratic Party and its strain between centrists versus progressives and leftists with liberals caught between.

Swing Left, founded by Ethan Todras-Whitehill of Massachusetts, focused on the swing seats in the 2018 midterm elections in order to identify those seats and allow progressives (those who promote tolerance, equality, unity and fairness) to locate the nearest swing seat to where they live and go to work in that district to win that district for the Democratic Party in the 2016 midterm elections. A minimum of 23 districts would have to be flipped. On the other hand, the Democrats had to defend 8 marginal seats they held so if some of them were to be won by Republicans, Democrats winning 23 seats would be insufficient. Further, marginality has to be understood in context – some seats are far more difficult to swing than others. However, Swing Left provided an easy and direct tool for identification, even if somewhat oversimplified, by using a margin of victory by the GOP of less than 15% in the 2016 election. The organization went further and helped organize leadership teams and house parties for each district in contention and raised funds to influence the voting outcome in the 84 districts that they had identified.

Swing Left, though clearly progressive, did not attempt to influence primaries or, more generally, support only candidates based on specific issues. Instead, the organization raised money for whomever won the Democratic primaries and used the new media to organize like a Silicon Valley start-up focused on usability and effectiveness, that is, on a tool that filled an existing need of a user (the “customers’ of the organization) while having a clear and clean appeal. Of course, on route it attracted not only hundreds of thousands of volunteers, far beyond original expectations, but a plethora of entertainment and media types to enhance that effectiveness. The name indicated its aspiration to be a movement and not just a tool, but a methodological more than substantive movement.

There were two main objectives – to ensure a larger turnout of those voters with a propensity to be Democrats AND to attract disaffected Conservative Republicans who supported limited taxes, limited regulations, limited bureaucracy but otherwise globalist free marketers. In some regions of the country, Democrats were handicapped by too much grassroots democracy. Democrats and Republicans appear on the same primary ballot and the top two winners could both be Democrats or Republicans. If the GOP supporters concentrated on only two candidates and democratic votes were divided among a host of candidates, it is possible that the only names on the election ballot would be Republicans. Thus, Swing Left’s decision not to support people or platforms in the primary could have been suicidal.

Indivisible, in contrast to Swing Left, had a very different political agenda, not simply to recruit members and volunteer action, but towards electing progressive leaders and shifting the Democratic Party towards progressive policies. The organization was more focused on enhancing its role in the party as a long-term strategy for both defeating the GOP and shifting the roots of the Democratic Party left. The focus was not simply on swing seats, but on long term civic education and training to build solidarity on the local, regional and national level. Political action expertise and strategic and coordinated actions became its modus vivendi.

Women’s March was targeted towards a specific constituency – women – and also seemed to focus on artists and the larger artistic creative wing attached to the mission of the Democratic Party. This organization was determined to disrupt and invert the quietude expected and relegated to women, as well as counter detachment from politics of the artistic community in favour of direct action and community involvement.

Data for Progress defined itself as the think tank for the future of progressivism. It has a clear programmatic agenda – universal single payer Medicare, abolishing the ICE and using green policies to enhance employment opportunities. While advertising itself as a think tank to understand and explain the 2018 victory in the House of Representatives, the focus is on the analysis of data and on the motivations behind youth involvement. There is no indication in its think pieces will address the contradictions within and among the liberal left in America. Instead, the effort will be on a “how to” concerned with answering an already established progressive agenda.

Similarly, MoveOn and the Democratic Socialists of America, both of which have been active for much longer than the past two years, backed Bernie Sanders and the candidates he endorsed. These organizations focused on a more left political agenda emphasizing global justice, equality and sustainability. The organization boasts of melding technology with grass roots energy and organizing, but with an unequivocal leftist agenda. Democratic Socialists of America has turned away from a history of accepting defeat as its inevitable fate to examine telltale victories, most notably the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but also a number of other primary wins, specifically in Pennsylvania. However, it is not clear how the group reconciles its dissing of Nancy Pelosi, especially the latter’s spurning of any idea of a socialist ascendency, and Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Pelosi as House Speaker.

Finally, Codepink is an explicitly anti-Israel organization that stood up in support of Mark Lamont Hill, and did not remove that support even though Hill apologized for and retracted his comments on support for Palestine from the river to the sea. What is clear is that there is no deep effort to resolve the differences and contradictions among the various strains in the Democratic Party along the spectrum from centrists, liberals, progressives and far leftists. They are clear markers to define where any organization is on the spectrum, but there is also an absence of any serious effort at intellectual reconciliation. Instead, what unites Democrats is opposition to Republicans and, more particularly, hatred of Donald Trump. What also unites them as well as Republicans is the American emphasis on “how to”.

I could not find a substantive program with a deep basis in ideas and a determination to at least probe the contradictions on the liberal left. Instead, I repeatedly read the catch-phrases that undergird the left – protection of minorities, diversity, the rule of law, expanding and protecting voter rights.

Has there been an effort on the intellectual left to at least face the contradictions?


With the help of Alex Zisman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s