Left to their own devices


Within hours of news outlets declaring that Donald Trump had been elected President in November 2016, #resist began

circulating on Twitter. By December, a Google Doc composed by the former Democratic congressional staffer Ezra Levin had started to make its way among members of the self-described Resistance. “Indivisible: A practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda” offered twenty-three pages of advice – about what to say in a phone call to a senator’s office, where to sit in a town meeting, how to bring together like-minded resisters. One year and some $6 million in fundraising later, Indivisible has a staff of about forty in its Washington headquarters, and more than 6,000 local chapters.

Indivisible is not alone. Money and volunteers have poured into organizations with names like Our Revolution, #KnockEveryDoor, Emerge America, Operation 45, Run for Something, Color of Change, Movement Match and the Pussyhat Project. One (unidentified) long-standing Democratic activist told the New York Times, “The growth in activism that these groups have both spurred and harnessed outstrips anything I have seen in decades previously”. By September 2017, over 400 Democratic House candidates had already raised more than $5,000 for their 2018 campaigns, more than four times the total among Republicans.

While individual Democrats have benefited from the resistance, the party establishment has struggled to keep up. The Democratic National Committee raised almost the same amount of money in the first seven months of Trump’s term as it did during the same period of President Obama’s second term, an especially sad result for an organization that, according to the political scientist Lee Drutman, “prioritizes fund-raising at the expense of everything else”. Political engagement has skyrocketed, and Trump is more unpopular than any president at this stage of his administration in the history of polling, but the energy – and money – of the opposition has disproportionately boosted organizations outside the control of the Democratic Party elite. A new political movement is forming alongside the Democratic Party, and the relationship between the two is as yet undetermined.

Among the millions who have taken part in this movement, a small but growing number describe themselves as socialists. Their chief inspiration is Bernie Sanders, who in 2016 received more votes than any other socialist in American history, and who is, according to multiple polls, the most popular elected politician in the United States today. Sanders’s most ardent support came from younger voters with no memories of the Cold War and a keen awareness of how the anaemic recovery from this century’s Great Recession has warped their lives. In poll after poll, American millennials report having a more favourable view of socialism than of capitalism. They

The insoluble conflict within the Democratic Party


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have their favourite podcast (Chapo Trap House), magazine (Jacobin), and emoji (a red rose, used for signalling their politics on social media). Membership in Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s leading socialist organization, has risen to 30,000 – still trivial when compared to the major parties, but almost six times its total before Trump’s election, and moving closer to the 67,000 members of the Tea Party during its height in the spring of 2010.

Sanders correctly portrayed his programme as more of a twenty-first-century New Deal than a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. But if socialism has taken on a more moderate cast than in its mid-century heyday, when radicals called for democratic control of the means of production, it has provided the label for a rebellion against the chastened liberalism that has dominated the Democratic Party longer than many of Sanders’s millennial supporters have been alive.

American socialists know they have company around the world. While right-wing populists reaped the initial, and largest, political gains from the financial crisis, in recent years their counterparts on the Left have been catching up: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise in France, and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. As populism rises, parties of the Centre Left have faltered. Last year alone witnessed the implosion of the French Socialist Party and the worst performance

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Democratic candidates debate, 2016

of Germany’s Social Democratic Party since 1932. The failures of a global elite have given rise to a global backlash – but each country has been shaped by a particular set of national challenges. In the United States, the issues that have contributed the most to the breakdown of the status quo include mounting economic inequality produced by stagnant wages for most Americans and exploding incomes for the wealthy; racial anxiety over a country that is becoming more diverse by the day; and frustration with a gridlocked political system that seems incapable of action. These issues gave rise to Trump, and they have determined the outlines of the resistance. Their combined influence has revived what could be called zero-sum politics – a sense that in the battle for scarce resources there will be winners and losers, and that nobody can afford to be on the losing side.

Resisters today are occupied with a more practical question: how to get Trump out of the White House as quickly as possible. The opposition has split into two main camps. One faction insists that only the broadest possible coalition can mount an effective counterattack. The other holds that an alliance large enough to include George W. Bush and Bernie Sanders is doomed from the start. One group focuses on Trump the man, the other on Trumpism the ideology. A person can be crushed by personal attacks; an ideology can only be defeated by another ideology.

This dispute over tactics has its roots in a fundamental disagreement over why resistance is necessary in the first place. Is Trump a departure from the American political tradition, or is he the predictable result of a broken system? Do the norms that prevailed before his arrival need to be restored, or did they help to bring about the current crisis? These arguments, in turn, are proxies for debates over the

future. How to defeat Trump is the issue of the moment for everyone on the Left and some on the Right. But what comes next?

Defeat is nothing new for the Left. The history of socialist politics in the twentieth century is one of a movement accommodating itself to the demise of its would-be saviour: a growing working class united by shared material interests and a common political identity. As the ranks of the industrial proletariat in advanced capitalist nations dwindled, radicals cast about for a new agent of revolution. Peasants, students and an inchoate global multitude were all auditioned for the role before eventually being ushered off the stage. Activists found reasons for hope in the proliferation of movements that expanded the reach of left-wing politics, including feminism, environmentalism, the nuclear freeze movement and gay liberation. But right-wing parties continued to rack up victories at the ballot box, and advances on the cultural front did not slow the opening of a yawning chasm between the richest 1 per cent and the unlucky 99. Politicians on the Left with their eyes on the next election had a grim set of calculations to make. With the promise of a working-class majority fading, they decided to look for support higher up the socio-economic scale, moderating their platforms to strengthen their appeal to the middleclass voters and wealthy donors.

Democrats in the United States – the nearest substitute the country had for a major socialist party – faced the added challenge of holding together an electoral coalition that was breaking apart. In the century after the Civil War, the party’s most reliable support came from the South. As civil rights gained support among northern liberals, and African Americans became vital to winning elections for Democrats, the ties holding Martin Luther King, Jr

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