1. Politics, it is said on the left, is about power, usually with the P in the upper case. Fair enough. But it doesn’t follow that power should be either the point of departure or end game of left politics. What should? Vision and values.
Especially in these times when someone sits in the White House who is demonstrably without so much as a hint of an uplifting and noble vision, humane values, or a moral compass. If he has a lodestar, it is the accumulation, consolidation, and reckless use of raw power for vile and anti-democratic purposes as well as personal aggrandizement and enrichment.
In these circumstances, isn’t the embrace of a politics that gives pride of place to vision and values imperative for the left? This approach doesn’t ignore power. Power does matter. And in the strategic and tactical conversations of the left and the larger movement, it matters a lot. But it shouldn’t be primary and determinative, anymore than it was for the vision- and value-driven civil rights movement, led by the great revolutionary-democratic visionary Martin Luther King.
And it wasn’t as if King wasn’t mindful of power. How could he not be in the Jim Crow South, where racists used unchecked power and violence to enforce and sustain a system of racial subordination, oppression, and exploitation.
In the communist movement in which I spent most of my adult life, vision and values didn’t always frame political action. In too many instances they were expendable to the exigencies of power. And this was nowhere more so than in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in Eastern Europe where the ideals of socialism were no match to the desire of power and privilege for the ruling strata. This practice eventually caught up with them, resulting in the sudden and unexpected implosion of these pioneering socialist societies and the dramatic weakening of the communist movement worldwide. Some big parties disappeared; others became a shell of their former selves. Few fully recovered. As for me, it was, if not immediately, a wake up call to take a critical inventory of my understandings of socialism, marxism, politics, and the place of vision, values, and democratic accountability in my thinking.
In recounting my experience in the communist movement, I don’t want to inadvertently suggest that the subordination of values and vision to the requisites of gaining and consolidating power was peculiar to the communist movement alone. It wasn’t. Only its most egregious expressions were. This dynamic, in other words, has a broader history and application. Moreover, it is something that any left aspiring to assist and lead a movement of millions to the citadels of governance and power has to be mindful of.
2. The role of the left isn’t to take power in toto or “in chunks” from those who have it and then share it with those who don’t. There is no historical evidence to sustain such a position. Nor is a theoretical rationale found in most readings of Marxism. Shifts in power that realign politics in a progressive or radical direction are invariably the handiwork of millions. Movements of the left have a hand — sometimes a considerable one — in the process of change, but they are no substitute for expansive popular coalitions, majoritarian movements, and mass spontaneous eruptions from below.
If the left alone could take power, as a dear and deceased friend, co-worker, and Communist Party leader George Meyers was fond of saying, the left would have done it long ago. But it can’t. As essential as the left is to any thrust to the left, the power of its ideas and organizational know-how are no replacement for a larger popular movement.
The left is on an upswing at this moment and politics is shifting in a positive way, but we still have many a mile to go before King’s “beloved community” comes into view. In present circumstances, the challenge for the left is to redouble its efforts to assist as well as lead, where positioned, the diverse coalition of people, social constituencies, mass organizations, and the Democratic Party in resisting Trump and the extreme right. At the same time, we can have say in constructing and advancing a forward looking agenda on a political landscape that is more favorable as a result of the midterm elections.
In other words, the role of left isn’t to substitute for the purposeful action of millions. Rather its mission is to situate itself, as many on the left are now doing, among those millions and their organizational forms. In the course of doing so, it can share its vision and values, its understanding of the dialectics and imperative of unity, and its strategic and tactical insights.
3. If I had to single out one thing that will shape the contours of politics over the next few years, it wouldn’t be Trump and Trumpism or the polarization of the electorate or the impressive growth of the left. It would be the many layered, loosely organized, heterogeneous coalition that resists Trump at every turn and successfully at the ballot box a few weeks ago.
One of the social constituencies of this coalition is women. From the Women’s March to the just completed elections, the sustained actions of women as organizers, candidates, activists, opinion makers, and voters, have been, well, off the charts. In this, the participation of women of color and young women is particularly notable and inspiring.
But this should come as no surprise. After all, women, because of their multiple roles, identities, lived experiences, and understandings, are uniquely equipped to play this role.
Furthermore, when this dramatic intervention of women is aligned with the front ranking African American community in particular and communities of color generally and a labor movement pursuing a progressive agenda, it becomes, as we saw in the midterm elections, a powerful obstacle to right wing authoritarian rule, not to mention the material and ideological underpinning of a progressive turn in politics.
4. The conventional wisdom is that the country is permanently polarized on a left-right axis. The moderate center has disappeared, pundits say, leaving one half of the country at loggerheads with the other half. To make matters worse, one side of the divide is trapped in a political silo, complete with its own media outlets, websites, and alternative facts. Moreover it’s implacably hostile to what it considers “fake news” and uncomfortable facts, while hanging on Trump’s every word.
There is some truth here, but if taken too far can obscure some other competing truths that are germane to the nature of the divide in the country and to seeing a way out of the present impasse.
First of all, the division isn’t straight down the middle. A significant majority oppose Trump. And this has been the case since his election. In the midterms, the spread between Democrats and Republicans in the raw vote was nearly 9 million.
And, let’s not forget, this spread doesn’t include suppressed and discouraged voters who in all likelihood would have either voted for Democrats or did vote Democratic, but had their votes thrown out (sometimes literally) by Republican chicanery.
But this isn’t all. According to Democratic Party pollster Stan Greenberg (and some other recent polling), Trump voters are less permanently encamped in Trump’s bubble than many of us have thought.
Across much of the Midwest, Greenberg shows, that some Trump supporters migrated back to the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. Other pollsters show that Trump’s support in rural America, where the conventional wisdom is that he has an unbreakable lock on this constituency, showed some erosion too.
It is also common knowledge that suburban women up and down the income ladder crushed Republican hopes of retaining control of the House as they cast their votes for Democratic candidates in formerly held Republican seats.
How big a deal is this?
Plenty big! It suggests that the Trump bubble isn’t quite as solid and impenetrable as we may have thought. If we despaired that it was resistant to the growing contradictions between Trump’s outrageous demagogy, behavior, and policies on the one hand and the lived experience of his supporters on the other, including the much talked about and often analyzed, non-college-educated, white working class voters, we have to make some revisions in our thinking.
If these fissures grow wider, which they easily could, the ground will be set to beat Trump decisively in 2020 and throw the country on a democratic and progressive trajectory.
5. Trump’s lock on his mass base as well as control over important levers of governmental power enables him to act independently not only from his own party, but also from his closest advisors and those sections of corporate capital that support and, might in some circumstances, restrain him. This makes him free to act simply on own angry impulses and resentments. This should scare any sober minded person regardless of their political affiliation.
6. The center of gravity in the Democratic Party is shifting in a progressive direction, but it is far too early to conclude that the space for moderates — some say the center — has nearly evaporated as a broad current in the Democratic Party or the country. Thus, it is a mistake, even as a first cut, to reduce the Democratic Party or the democratic coalition to two wings, one corporate and the other progressive. That characterization not only misses the complexity, multiple tendencies, and heterogeneity in Democratic Party and the larger democratic coalition, but also blurs, even misconstrues, the tactical challenges facing progressive and left people in the near and longer term.
7. In any accounting of the resistance to Trump much of the major media and its brave and thoughtful journalists can’t be left out, not to mention some prominent civil servants and appointees — still serving and retired — in governmental institutions and the courts. Trump is well aware of this, even if we aren’t. Probably none of them would call themselves progressives, forget about left, but their role in the resistance to right wing authoritarian rule and white nationalism shouldn’t be dismissed.
8. For the past two years we have been fighting from a defensive position. The midterm elections changed that to a degree, and that is a “bfd.” But not so much that the strategic focus on resisting Trump and Trumpism should change. It remains the main challenge. Thus, the tactical emphasis on unity of the many and the diverse shouldn’t change either.
9. Can we in the wake of the elections jettison the notion, long embraced by many on the left, that the terrain of electoral politics is an inferior form of struggle? I hope so. In my view any hope of transcending the present moment and positioning the country to move in a democratic and progressive — not to mention socialist — direction will depend in large measure on what happens in the electoral arena in 2020 and beyond. Since the 1960s, too many on the left have been captive to insurrectionary, anti-electoralist politics, a product of either one or another revolutionary tradition or simply inexperience in practical politics.
The good news is in the just completed election, many on the left set those politics aside. It was hard not to. In the face of a rising right-wing, racist, authoritarian danger, it became obvious that participation in electoral politics and on the Democratic side of the two party system was crucial, if we have any hope of transcending this moment and resuming our struggle for a more humane, just, equal, peaceful, and sustainable society and world.