[This is the keynote address to the conference on Anti-Fascism in the 21st Century, held at Hofstra University on Nov. 2 and 3. — moderator.]
The answer to the first question posed in my title, I believe most here will agree, is easy – very serious indeed. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to fear that next week’s election could be the last real one in this country for a long time. And, even if reactionaries don’t win Congressional majorities or tighten their grip on state legislatures and governorships at the polls, there is little reason to doubt that some or many of them may attempt, as Bolsonaro’s forces are doing now in Brazil, to take apparent electoral defeat as the pretext for provoking political crisis by refusing to accept results as legitimate to the point of mobilizing violent opposition.
Of course, the dangerous, anti-democratic tendencies did not emerge with Trump. He became a useful symbol around which they have been able to condense strategically and advance rapidly as an electoral movement. However, those tendencies have been present in US politics and have been building in this direction for a long time. And it’s important to stress that Democrats and liberals have accommodated and abetted their growth by ceding important interpretive and policy ground to them all along. With your indulgence, I’m going to rehearse some points I made a little more than a year ago. I wrote
Discrediting government and the idea of the public has been a component of the GOP game plan since Reagan, and Democrats have reinforced that message in their own way. Jimmy Carter ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 1976 partly on his record of having cut the size of Georgia’s government as governor, and as president, he initiated deregulation as a policy priority and imposed the economic shock that paved the way for Reagan. And it was Bill Clinton who announced in his 1996 State of the Union Address, “The era of big government is over,” and he followed through by terminating the federal government’s sixty-year commitments to provide direct income support and housing for the indigent. Reagan attacked the social safety net as a wasteful giveaway for frauds and losers. Clinton, as avatar of what my son described at the time as the Democrats’ “me too, but not so much” response to Reaganism, insisted that publicly provided social benefits should go only to those who “play by the rules.” Four decades of retrenchment and privatization of the public sector—often under the guise of “outsourcing” for greater efficiency or “doing more with less,” which Clinton and Gore sanitized as “reinventing” government to make it “leaner” and “smarter”—combined with steadily increasing economic inequality and government’s failure to address it in any meaningful way to fuel lack of confidence, distrust, and hostility toward government and public goods, and eventually even to the idea of the public itself. And the reactionary capitalist interests that bankroll the ultraright have taken advantage of that unaddressed economic insecurity and stoked frustration and rage into a dangerously authoritarian political force.
It wasn’t such a big step from Rick Santelli’s faux populist 2009 meltdown calling, from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, of all places, for a Tea Party rising to the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection. McConnell’s openly declared strategy of stalemating Democratic initiatives of whatever sort made clear that the Republicans have no commitment to democratic government; every move they made was directed, consciously or not, toward takeover via putsch or putsch dressed up as election. The outcome of the 2000 presidential election was an early augury, as the George W. Bush campaign strongarmed a victory by means of actively partisan intervention by Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State, mobilization of corporate goons to storm the Miami-Dade recount, and turning to a reactionary bloc of Supreme Court Justices to place a fig leaf of legitimacy onto theft of the election. The Gore campaign’s reluctance to fight back aggressively was also an augury of the implications of Clintonism’s victory within the party, as Gore, Kerry, and Obama all ran, and Obama governed, in pursuit of a bipartisan coalition anchored normatively by nonexistent “moderate” Republicans. Hillary Clinton tried that approach as well and thus did her part to put Trump in the White House.
Some of the reactionary, authoritarian tendencies that condensed around Trump and Trumpism have been festering and growing in American politics at least since the end of World War II. First Barry Goldwater, then Ronald Reagan brought them out of the shadowy underworld populated by such groups as the John Birch Society, the World Anti-Communist League, various McCarthyite tendencies, Klansmen and other white supremacists, America Firsters, ultra-reactionary groups with ties to shadowy international entities like Operation Condor that has specialized in state-centered terror and death squads in Latin America and its equivalent in other regions, Christian Nationalists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes. During the Reagan presidency the treasonous Iran-Contra operation3 illustrated these reactionaries’ contempt for democratic government. The guide-dog corporate news media sanitized Iran-Contra as a “scandal,” and dutifully shepherded public discussion of it away from the magnitude of the crimes against constitutional government and toward the puerile, soap operatic question “What did he [Reagan, etc.] know and when did he know it?” They’ve been joined in the Trump years by a cornucopia of more or less organized thugs, militant racists and misogynists, open fascists, reactionary libertarians, delusional conspiracists, damaged true believers, and utterly venal grifters—a category that cuts across all the others—and they’re bankrolled by the American equivalent of German Junkers, billionaire reactionaries whose wealth largely derives from extractive and defense industries and other sectors that are particularly sensitive to the federal regulatory environment.
The ultra-reactionary Federalist Society was founded in 1982 by Yale, Harvard, and University of Chicago law students and now has stocked the federal judiciary up to the Supreme Court, including a hefty complement of Catholic fascists.6 Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Federalist Society member, is the son of Anne Gorsuch Burford, Reagan’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, where her mission—like that of current Justice Clarence Thomas as Reagan’s director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—was to gut the agency. Political economist Gordon Lafer documents in The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (ILR Press, 2017) how right-wing corporate lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business—all funded by the Koch brothers and other rich reactionaries—have organized at the state level to produce and pass anti-worker, anti-democratic legislation and to secure and fortify Republican control of state governments. In an August 2022 New Yorker article [“The Big Money Behind the Big Lie”] that, along with her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Radical Right, should be required reading for anyone who still diminishes the threat or clings to the view that neoliberal Democrats are somehow the greater danger for progressive interests, Jane Mayer examines the vast dark money network – the American Junkers whose immense wealth underwrites the accelerated assault on democratic institutions we face at this moment.
I’m not suggesting that some deep cabal has orchestrated an elaborate, decades long conspiracy to seize power. That’s not how politics, certainly not insurgent politics, in a mass society works. I’m also not interested in hashing out counterfactuals like whether this could have happened without James Buchanan, the Cato Institute, or the Koch brothers. What we do know that’s pertinent to what we’re up against at this moment is that after Goldwater’s presidential run was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, enough of the militant ultra-reactionary core of his campaign took the lesson that they’d been talking too much only to themselves and went out into localities among largely suburban potential constituencies to agitate and field-test messages and issue bundles that could enable building an alliance that extends far beyond the ranks of those who would benefit from realizing the capitalist class agendas that lie at the movement’s core. Historian Lisa McGirr [Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right] examines what was then called the “New Right” militants’ organizing strategies and the relatively homogeneous suburban ecological niches – typified by Orange County, California – within which their efforts gained traction. Political scientist Daniel Parker’s doctoral dissertation on the Conservative Political Action Conference is a distinctly informative account of how the ultra-right approaches building, sustaining, and directing the movement.
To be sure, elements of the reactionary right have held onto and are oriented by visions of the society as they’d like it to be organized, and those visions are neither democratic nor egalitarian. As their mundane political practice has evolved and their institutional power has grown, the movement’s engineers have also improvised, balancing the practical objective of expanding and deepening a base and disciplined attentiveness to building power toward overturning all egalitarian reforms that have been won since the New Deal and imposing an authoritarian government. That means, among other things, taking advantage of or concocting new issues that both inflame their broader base and permit them to set the terms of national or local political debate. Recall how quickly and thoroughly the GOP establishment went from trying to stop Trump to playing Renfield to his Count Dracula?
I have no idea how extensive the consciously putschist tendency has been among the right. The best that one might say for Mitch McConnell, for example, is that his aspiration perhaps didn’t extend much beyond immobilizing government, precluding any progressive legislation or appointments. Nor do I imagine that the likes of Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy had been impelled by radical ideological commitments more elaborate than advancing the immediate interests of the class they represent and suppressing those who might want to do anything else. That doesn’t really matter; the policy steps necessary to prepare for ultimate authoritarian victory are the same as those favored by less far-sighted reactionaries: rolling back the regulatory apparatus, which includes civil rights enforcement, politicizing and attacking climate science, using taxation and other federal policies to generate massive upward redistribution, stocking the judiciary, gutting the social safety net and demonizing government at all levels, undermining labor rights and unionization, and more, expunging even the very idea of the public.
Watching Rand Paul doing his best Joe McCarthy impression going after Anthony Fauci brought home to me that Trumpism helped to bring the notion of extra-Constitutional takeover of government in from the fringes of national politics and out from the dark ideological core of the Republican right. Trump’s preemptive refusal, months before the election, to accept a defeat as legitimate opened a portal through which the goal of authoritarian transformation could move closer to explicit political strategy. The dangerous rubes who were foot soldiers of the January 6 insurrection were only acting out in public, albeit as a kayfabe lynch mob that was a hair’s breadth away from becoming a real one, a political objective that had already condensed among a popular right-wing base.
The notion that any Democrat officeholder is by definition illegitimate and inauthentic isn’t new of course. Birtherism was predicated on that general conviction; Obama’s race facilitated spreading the claim about him, but it was already visible within rhetoric positing Republicans as the “real Americans;” it underlay fervor around the 2000 election theft, as well as right-wing jeremiads that electing Democrats threatened the end of civilization, long before Obama even became a glimmer in Wall Street’s eye. Restriction of the franchise to property owners and the rich has been a strain in ultra-right politics across the sweep of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. (It’s interesting in this respect as an illustration of the deep, antediluvian character of the right’s anti-democratic reflexes that the arcane demand for repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which since 1913 has mandated the direct election of the U.S. Senate, has routinely popped up on right-wing political laundry lists.) And the “real Americans like us” qualifier gives this hostility to democracy a popular appeal for those outside the upper class who can be suckered into identifying with them. That qualifier also underscores the work that race ideology, broadly understood, does to provide the illusion of commonality among those identifying with the right.
The rallying cry that the 2020 presidential election was stolen or rigged, or both, is a fantasy originating from Trump’s malignant narcissism. It’s also a convenient vehicle for exhortation of putschism. The novel coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s militant denialism opened another portal. There’s no need to catalogue the many ways the Republican right has actively sought to undermine public health efforts to control, limit, or slow the virus’s spread and minimize the harm it causes. We’re living with them every day, and because having any basis in fact isn’t a limitation on their proliferation, the fantastic claims grow and morph even more quickly than the virus itself. A couple of stratagems in the ongoing anti-public health panic are worth noting because they echo really old-school reactionary ideology, from a time before when the fiction of appeal to a popular audience encouraged public politesse. Recall that early in the pandemic, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged elderly Americans to go out and contract the virus and “sacrifice” themselves to keep the economy open, referring to it as their patriotic duty. Nor was he alone in floating that suggestion. (It’s a parochial reference, I know, but that call brings to mind the up to 20,000 immigrant Irish workers who were buried where they fell from yellow fever and malaria while digging the New Basin Canal in 1830s New Orleans, along with the untold scores of millions of others around the world who’ve been sacrificed for the sake of “the economy.”) More recently, Newsmax talking head Rob Schmitt contended that vaccination goes against nature, opining “if there is some disease out there—maybe there’s just an ebb and flow to life where something’s supposed to wipe out a certain amount of people, and that’s just kind of the way evolution goes. Vaccines kind of stand in the way of that.” Schmitt and Patrick give voice to the element of the ultra-right that frets about propagation of unworthy populations, or losers, or, to capture that snappy old-school sensibility more directly, Lebensunwertes leben. Pandemic denial and opposition to public intervention to address dangers to public health come organically to this element, which has been part of the institutional foundation of ultra-right politics since the late nineteenth century, among them bankrollers of the eugenics movement from its beginnings. Recently, Nafeez Ahmed – “The Dark Heart of Trussonomics: The Mainstreaming of Libertarian Theories of Social Darwinism and Apartheid,” Byline Times, October 10, 2022 – examines the “key ideological driving force” of Truss’s and her allies’ economic program in the UK, which he identifies as “the reshaping of neoliberalism into an extreme nationalist economics rooted in a form of social Darwinism. Under this ideology, it is impossible to reduce inequality because characteristics such as race, gender and class that cause disparities are fixed.” Ahmed perceptively notes the centrality of underclass ideology as a normative foundation of the essentialized inegalitarianism.
With a startling quickness that bespeaks the depth and breadth of their organizational capacity, the Republican right has mobilized an alliance of committed reactionaries, opportunist political operatives, anti-vaxxers, survivalists and other more or less dangerous anti-government hobbyists, internet conspiracists, unhinged psychopaths, militant anticommunists, zealous anti-abortionists and other Christian fanatics, would-be libertarians, gun nuts, unambiguous fascists and ethnonationalists, actual (i.e., not simply people who say or do things that affront liberal anti-racists) white supremacists, xenophobes, sexists and anti-LGBTQ militants, desperate people seeking answers and solutions to the material and emotional insecurities that overwhelm their lives, and, of course, the grifters who follow alongside the herd looking to pick off the weak and vulnerable. Even the right-wing Catholic bishops have gotten into the act, at least when they can stay off Grindr, defying the Pope in pressing to deny Biden the Sacrament, if not to excommunicate him. Notwithstanding their idiosyncratic identities and issues, Trumpism has developed as the umbrella under which they converge, with MAGA as the symbol that condenses all their disparate aspirations. And that didn’t just happen either; it’s the result of years of propaganda and organizing.
Birtherism and Pizzagate built on the kayfabe principle to establish the movement’s foundation in a truer Truth than the world of facts and contradictions. That’s how Trump supporters can declare sincerely that he’s “the only one telling the truth,” even though practically every other word out of his mouth is a lie. No matter where he was born, Obama’s essence was not American; if Democrats and cosmopolitan liberals are hidden pedophiles—and the image of the pedophile as quintessential, unqualifiable, conversation-stopping evil is the product of a bipartisan sex panic in the 1980s8 —and, more recently, cannibals (the latter presumably included to inflame those who may be softer on pedophilia), then the problem is not what they stand for, what positions or policies they advance. And that’s why belief in the Stolen Election is so impervious to rational argument; Biden stole the election because real Americans’ votes were not permitted to prevail. Votes cast for him were fraudulent by definition because people who voted for him could not be legitimate Americans. (In Oklahoma, where Biden didn’t carry a single county, a Republican legislator petitioned, unsuccessfully, for a “forensic and independent audit” of the 2020 vote in Oklahoma City and other counties in the state on the pretext that the Biden vote was in his view nonetheless suspiciously high. This is shades of the high period of disfranchisement in the late nineteenth-century South, when Democrat putschists considered even one Republican vote too many.)
Perhaps most important and most telling is how COVID conspiracy and resistance to masking and vaccination have been articulated and fed into widespread, round the clock, frenzied agitation asserting the absolute primacy of individual “rights” over any public concern. This is the fruit of the half-century of relentless, right-wing attack—again, abetted by neoliberal Democrats—on the very idea of the public, which was already evident in proliferation of the belief that my “right” to carry an assault rifle into any public space overrides concern for the public safety and now that my “right” to refuse to wear a mask even in establishments that require them or vaccination in the throes of a pandemic supersedes regulations intended to safeguard public health. That narrative reinforces castigation of any public intervention as government overreach or even tyranny. The apparent irrationality superficially driving the hysteria stands out and prompts bewilderment and astonishment. Yet, although characterizations of the Republican party as having become a “death cult” and the like can be arresting as metaphor, they miss the vector plotted by this movement’s political trajectory and the gravest dangers it poses. It is useful to recall Margaret Thatcher’s three most infamous dicta: 1) “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first”; 2) “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul”; and 3) when asked to identify her greatest achievement, she replied “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” The extent to which that sort of solipsistic individualism has spread in American life, irrational or not, reflects the success of the Thatcherite vision.
Many liberals, and not a few leftists, may dismiss the account I give here as wildly hyperbolic, although in the past year more liberals have come around to acknowledging the real threat to democracy and what they fetishize as “rule of law.” Liberals have an abiding faith in the solidity of American democratic institutions; some bookish leftists have internally consistent arguments demonstrating why a putsch can’t happen because it wouldn’t be in capital’s interests. It always seems most reasonable to project the future as a straight-line extrapolation from the recent past and present; inertia and path dependence are powerful forces. But that’s why political scientists nearly all were caught flat-footed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. To be clear, I’m not predicting the possible outcome I’ve laid out. My objective is to indicate dangerous, opportunistic tendencies and dynamics at work in this political moment which I think liberals and whatever counts as a left in the United States underestimated or, worse, dismissed entirely for far too long. If forced to bet, based on the perspective on American political history since 1980, or even 1964, that I’ve laid out here, I’d speculate that the nightmare outline I’ve sketched is between possible and likely, I imagine and hope closer to the former than the latter.
A key practical reason to stress the danger on the horizon is the possibility that the national and global political-economic order we’ve known as neoliberalism has evolved to a point at which it is no longer capable of providing enough benefits, opportunity, and security to enough of the population to maintain its popular legitimacy. I am hardly alone in suggesting that we may have come to a significant crossroad. People with much greater faith in and commitment to contemporary capitalism than I have, and who have much more sophisticated knowledge of its intricate inner dynamics, also have expressed that view, though in somewhat different terms and in relation to different political concerns. And that’s in addition to a broader consensus among globalist economic technocrats that the tendency to financial crises is chronic and that the goal of management of the global financial system must center more on recognizing them quickly and mitigating their effects than on preventing them. No less decorated a Doctor of the neoliberal Church than Lawrence Summers as early as 2013 invoked, albeit gingerly, the language of “secular stagnation,” long rejected by his brand of economists, as perhaps useful for making sense of chronic underperformance of U.S. GDP. He elaborated further on the stagnationist tendency in the national economy in a co-authored 2019 Brookings paper [“On Falling Neutral Real Rates, Fiscal Policy, and the Risk of Secular Stagnation”]. BlackRock, Inc., the world’s largest asset management firm which has a significant voice in the Biden administration, most prominently through Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council, also sounded the alarm about stagnation and discussed heterodox responses, including industrial policy, another neoliberal bugbear, in a 2019 report, “Dealing with the Next Downturn.” At the same time, the already astonishing patterns of regressive redistribution of wealth and income that largely have defined neoliberalism globally, and in the U.S. particularly, have accelerated since the Great Recession, and even more during the coronavirus pandemic. How could such an order not slide into the throes of legitimation crisis? That’s even more likely to the extent that approaches to mitigation of the effects of periodic fiscal crises mainly are intended to protect the investor class at the expense of taxpayers and public goods.
If neoliberalism has reached such an impasse, I’ve argued, there are only two possible directions forward politically: one is toward social democracy and pursuit of solidaristic, downwardly redistributive policy agendas within a framework of government in the public good; the other is toward authoritarianism that preserves the core neoliberal principle of accumulation by dispossession by suppressing potential opposition. The latter direction, commonly anchored rhetorically by what Colin Crouch has described as “politicized pessimistic nostalgia,” has proliferated since before the Great Recession. Parties or movements organized around that sort of reactionary politics have come to power, electorally or otherwise, in Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, and I’d add Boris Johnson’s Tory government in the UK and Trump’s here. Elsewhere—e.g., France, Austria, Germany and throughout the EU—they’re significant enough to require being taken into account in electoral political calculations. It’s short-sighted not to note that similar forces are on the rise in this country and that Trumpism has emerged as a vessel for cultivating and deploying that politicized pessimistic nostalgia as an alternative to more social-democratic response.
The reality that the processes of neoliberalization at their core rest uneasily with popular democracy makes reckoning with this right-wing tendency’s growth all the more urgent. Insulation of policy processes as much as possible from popular oversight—at local, national, and international levels—is at the heart of neoliberal accumulation. To that extent, it’s naïve to presume a capitalist class preference for democratic over authoritarian government, particularly if the democratic form comes with an opening for efforts to impinge on capital’s prerogatives. Even if we take the corporate rush to affirm support for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder as expressing genuine endorsements of anti-racist equality of opportunity and opposition to unequal and criminal hyper-policing, and not tainted by opportunism, is it reasonable to expect that, say, Uber, Amazon, McDonald’s, or Goldman Sachs would actively fight for a form of government that might regulate their labor market practices and methods of accumulation and force them to pay taxes against one that promised to protect them? As Walter Benn Michaels and I have observed repeatedly, earnest institutional and individual commitment to an anti-disparitarian ideal of justice is entirely compatible with support for a society that becomes ever more sharply class-skewed and unequal in the aggregate.
So far, I’ve focused on the nature of the authoritarian threat, an assessment with which I assume many may agree at least in general terms. Although the two are related, the more important question is how to combat that threat. I want to stress that in my view the only hope for thwarting that tendency is to concentrate our efforts on formulating, organizing around, and agitating for an ensemble of policies that reinvigorate the notion of government in the public good, which has been a casualty of more than four decades of bipartisan neoliberalism. The “pessimistic nostalgia” that Trumpists and other authoritarians propagate and mobilize around is most consequentially the result of decades of bipartisan failure to provide concrete remedies that address the steadily intensifying economic inequality and insecurity that have driven so much of the working class to the wall. We need to provide an alternative vision that proceeds unabashedly from the question: What would be the thrust and content of public policy if the country were governed by and for the working-class majority?
Of course, for the moment, very much hinges on Democrats’ beating back or holding off the Republican electoral efforts next Tuesday. But building a broad working-class based movement is the only way we might successfully defeat the reactionary right wing, and we need between now and 2024 to begin trying to build the sort of popular movement that we need. And we must be clear that such a left movement does not yet exist, no matter how many internet announcements of imminent victory show up daily on our various electronic devices. There are many leftists and people who support leftist causes and programs, but a left with real political capacity has been absent for so long in the United States that even most sympathetic people can’t conceptualize what one would look like, how we could distinguish it from the “pageantry of protest” or the effluvia of premature proclamation and branding. Several years ago, Mark Dudzic and I suggested salient features of an institutionally significant left.
By left we mean a reasonably coherent set of class-based and anti-capitalist ideas, programmes and policies that are embraced by a cohort of leaders and activists who are in a position to speak on behalf of and mobilize a broad constituency. Such a left would be, or would aspire to be, capable of setting the terms of debate in the ideological sphere and marshalling enough social power to intervene on behalf of the working class in the political economy. Some measures of that social power include: ability to affect both the enterprise wage and the social wage; power to affect urban planning and development regimes; strength to intervene in the judicial and regulatory apparatus to defend and promote working-class interests; power not only to defend the public sphere from encroachments by private capital but also to expand the domain of non-commoditized public goods; and generally to assert a force capable of influencing, even shaping, public policy in ways that advance the interests and security of the working-class majority.
Clearly, this is not the sort of formation that can be generated overnight. And that has long been a catch-22 for leftists, especially those whose political thinking is shaped by moral outrage or its practical expression, activistism. On the one hand, the magnitude of the immediate dangers we face is so great that we don’t have time to concentrate only on the sort of slow organizing that building such a movement necessitates, and this moment’s urgency is at least as great as any other any of us has faced in our lifetimes. On the other hand, arguably one of the reasons we’re in the current predicament is that a left as Dudzic and I describe has been absent for decades. So, even as surviving the 2022 election looms in our political calculations (as Walter Benn Michaels notes regarding the stakes of the current moment, “even those of us who don’t love liberal democracy will love even less what we’ll get from [Josh] Hawley et al.”), we aren’t going to be able to turn the tide against the rising reaction unless we begin to organize in that way and to rebuild broad working-class confidence in a public good approach to government. It’s clearer now than ever that only by agitating for a solidaristic political agenda and perspective on politics can we even hope to forestall, much less defeat the assault that has already moved well in from the horizon.
An implication of that imperative is that the challenge of beating back surging reaction must go well beyond electing Democrats. In fact, since 2015 we’ve seen ample evidence – first in their intense mobilizations against the Bernie Sanders insurgencies in 2016 and 2020 — that mainstream Democratic elites are more concerned with preempting emergence of a left faction within the party than with combating the rising authoritarian or fascist tide in the polity. (I know some object that the Pelosi/Schumer/Clinton wing of the party were so hostile toward Sanders not because he was too far left but because they were convinced that he couldn’t win. However, that is a distinction without a difference. They were convinced that he couldn’t win because they embraced the view, associated with the Clintonite party’s embrace of neoliberalism, that winning elections requires chasing the phantasm of the moderate – socially liberal, fiscally conservative — Republican voter or what the pollsters’ and political scientists’ fetishize as the median voter.)
This offers a sharper perspective on the flood of support for antiracist arguments and gestures after George Floyd’s murder. It also, in addition to however genuine the political and business elites were who embraced it, shifted the focus of progressive politics away from economic inequality. Antiracism in this way functioned much as Trumpist and other reactionary forces did in mobilizing race and other ideologies of ascriptive difference to undermine politics based on fashioning working-class solidarities. It is telling in this regard as well that in 2022 Democrats more or less concertedly solicited people of color, women or LGBTQIA candidates to embody – literally – “progressive” values rather than candidates who first of all stood for working-class programs and agendas.
Of course, we can’t possibly generate anything on the scale of what Dudzic and I describe by 2024, and next week’s outcomes as likely as not will pose new, more immediate and possibly desperate challenges and dangers. The larger goal of building a grounded working-class movement, however, should inform how we go about responding to the immediate imperative of turning back the reactionary assault.
Trumpism’s success also has shown that making headway on this front will require undoing decades of bipartisan disparagement of public goods and propagation of both the Thatcherite fiction that there is no realm beyond the individual and Democrats’ at best self-deluding fantasies about doing more with less. Many readers will recall from the 2008 presidential campaign the agitated cries among McCain supporters to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” There is an ample social science literature finding that whether or not one recognizes that government is the source of benefits one receives has an impact on trust in and regard for government. I’ll cite only one study I know most intimately. Political scientist Ashley Tallevi, in a sophisticated study of Medicaid managed care and federal contraceptive policies, [“Making the Political Personal: Health Insurance, State Visibility, and Civic Perceptions” (unpublished Ph.D. diss., Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, 2017)], found that recipients of the services who knew they were provided by the state had more favorable views of government than those who, principally because service provision had been privatized or outsourced, did not know. This research, which dovetails with experience from the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute’s trainings with rank-and-file union workers on economic inequality and the health care crisis, underscores that privatization and outsourcing are not merely objectionable insofar as they turn the public sector into a woodlot for profiteers. They also have been instrumental in implanting Thatcher’s first dictum as common sense. Proliferation of that common sense marks the success of her second dictum, and the Democratic Party’s trajectory from Bill Clinton to the Biden presidency is testament to the boast in her third. We can only even chip away at those critical setbacks on the ideological front if leftists—including left or progressive leaning advocacy and interest groups and most of all the labor movement—lobby and agitate for that public good perspective and approach.
Concretely, that means taking advantage of the openings—ambivalent and limited as they may be—to press where possible, in our own networks, workplaces, civic engagements, and institutional affiliations, in the public realm for those with ready access to it, for the administration’s infrastructure plans to reinvigorate the public sector, not simply stimulate private investment opportunities. It means similarly working to anchor climate change policy to job creation and a serious commitment to make whole those workers who are displaced in the economic and social reorganization that addressing climate change requires. It means also agitating and building public support for initiatives like postal banking and eliminating the income cap on social security tax, even though the latter may produce little more than a holding action against Biden’s long-demonstrated proclivities regarding “entitlements.”
In the electoral domain, at DJDI we have observed in our worker trainings that even allusion to candidates or signature partisan issues for many workers sets off alarm bells of distrust, barriers of unnecessary resistance to our training program. Others have recorded the same phenomenon, noting that even in states that characteristically vote Republican, voters have also passed ballot initiatives that raise the minimum wage and legislate other pro-worker initiatives that Republicans steadfastly oppose. This underscores the importance of getting outside the Democrat/Republican divide and gearing electoral interventions to push clear working-class programs and policies. That in turn suggests that electoral engagement can be more productively directed toward pursuit of ballot initiatives that place clear working-class oriented proposals before the electorate without all the noise and confusion – e.g., personalism – that accompany candidate-centered campaigns. Issue-centered ballot initiatives also can be useful tools of political education. The new episode of DJDI’s podcast, classmatterspodcast.org [https://classmatterspodcast.org] discusses one such campaign, the Massachusetts Fair Share Amendment, which will levy a 4% tax on incomes over $1 million a year, and which is projected to generate $2 billion revenue annually that will support education, transportation, and public infrastructure.
Finally, I sometimes hear that I don’t want people ever to be happy or to celebrate political victories. So I’ll close with what may at first blush may not seem like an upbeat note, which I’ll preface by pointing out that a few years ago, I binged-watched several political films from the 1960s and early 1970s – “The Organizer,” “Battle of Algiers,” “Z,” and “State of Siege” – all in one day. I was struck that each film ends with a defeat but that each was broadly understood in its moment as a profoundly optimistic film. I realized that such films couldn’t be made now – what! no superheroes or magical intervention?! Fast forward to the present and the perils facing us. During this past summer, I faced up to the likelihood that, even if we began to generate a working-class movement of the sort that could meet the challenge, the greater likelihood is that we won’t be able to defeat the fascist tide; it has too great a head start because it is so deeply rooted institutionally. And that led me to consider that our efforts now may be more for those who’ll be around when the authoritarian regime begins to unravel, and who will be looking for ways forward. I found that thought immediately somewhat depressing, if not defeatist, which is why I more or less consciously repressed it for a while. After all, an implication of that realization is that, as a 75-year-old, not only could this November 8, or maybe at best 2024, well be the last real election in the U.S. in my lifetime; another, more significant implication is that we simply can’t hope to fend off the authoritarian threat at this juncture. However, I mentioned my sad little epiphany to a colleague who has been experiencing the same concerns about our lack of capacity for mounting responses to the reactionary horrors. I was surprised that the response was elation because, like the sensibilities of that earlier left, the colleague understands and is rooted in appreciation of protracted struggle and saw in that observation the basis for a practical sense of purpose. And that recognition of the protracted character of our struggle is a reminder, first, that as a left we face the same imperative to build a politics of broad, working-class solidarity no matter whether we hope to defeat fascism now or farther down the road than we can currently envision, and that a realistic source of optimism in a moment like this is recognition that the ruling class’s fantasies of its omnipotence are just that.
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