After Sanders, the Future of the Left is Wide Open

Many of the obituaries of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign that have been published in recent days following his departure from the race for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States of America last week have, broadly speaking, fallen into two predictable camps. The first camp is that of the victorious liberals, such as the writers at Vox and the New York Times, who seek to inform us of the critical flaws that prevented Sanders from gaining enough ground among key demographics within the Democratic Party base. They have spent a good amount of time gleefully dissecting the campaign's tactical errors in the play-by-play post-game analysis, which is all well and good. But of all of their criticisms, their one key insight could be summarized thusly: that older Black Southern voters, for whom membership in the Democratic Party is essential to Black identity in the post-civil rights movement era, are understandably skeptical of outsiders who seek to criticize the party establishment, and without Black voters, no candidate can win. As Vox put it: “While a significant share of black voters have conservative views on policy issues, overall they are overwhelmingly committed to the Democratic Party as an institution… But it seems that Sanders’s insurgent identity, his explicit decision to run as an outsider in order to appeal to habitual non-voters, may well have doomed him with this vital constituency.”

The second camp is that of the defeated Left, exemplified by the Jacobin, who lean not on data-driven analyses of the electorate but on romantic talk of a future after Bernie Sanders, in which mass mobilization politics replaces movement politics, in which class solidarity motivates voters more than identity politics. Their key insight is that, contrary to what the data wizards over at Vox have argued, ideology can win elections, as it did in primaries across the country this year. What this nascent new Left lacks is an institution to organize its efforts going forward and building that institution must be the focus of the socialists now that Sanders is out of the race. As the Jacobin put it: “Other than the questionable Democratic Party, the Left lacks a movement-building, spirit-sustaining, power-accumulating institutional home, which is part of why so much energy has gone into the essential but limited vehicle of campaigns. Movements can dissipate quickly, especially homeless ones in moments of crisis and distraction. If timing and events had been just a little different, Sanders might have gathered a decent and bold approach to COVID-19 around his campaign. Instead, the fight is to save it from disintegrating in the fear and exhaustion of pandemic.”

While I don’t disagree with either of these points, I have come to a different conclusion about what they imply about the proper course to chart for the future of the Left. A little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece titled ‘Why Bernie Sanders Will Lose the 2020 Democratic Nominations — Again.’ Many of my predictions from that piece did not pan out, but I did get one thing right when I wrote that, for many Democrats, “the rise of Trumpian politics is not the dawning of a new era in American politics, but an aberration that must be corrected.” Early this year, a few weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, I reasserted that position in a piece titled, ‘Why Bernie Sanders (Still) Won't Win the Nomination.’ After watching Democrats react to each of the 10+ candidates who had launched campaigns for the nomination over the past year, I had come to the realization that “the truth is that Americans are scared. We are feeling risk-averse right now.” Moreover, “fear is a powerful motivator, powerful enough to overcome hope, contrary to what Obama would have us believe. Biden, like Trump, is a candidate of fear, and Americans are scared. For all of his grouchiness, Sanders is the candidate of hope right now. That is why he will lose the race for the Democratic nomination.” By labeling Biden the candidate of fear, I meant that he is the candidate that Americans who are afraid of the future will choose. Biden represents the tried and true. To quote myself again, “Biden is offering a vision of a recognizable, comfortable, Obama-era normalcy that appeals to vast swathes of the Democratic base as well as many disillusioned conservatives. After 4 years of chaos, Biden is not offering radical change.” He is offering stability. Now more than ever, Americans crave stability.

Out of all the hot takes and obituaries that have come out in the past few days since Sanders exited the race, the only real insight one needs to understand about the Democrats right now to understand why Sanders lost is that they are scared. They have been scared for 4 years. And scared people are risk-averse, they do not try new things that might not work, and they do not vote for candidates they do not understand. 

I do not mean to be reductionist about this, because there have certainly been complex intersections of class and racial identities at work in the decision-making process we call the Democratic primaries. We need to understand these dynamics as we transition into the general election over the coming months. But liberals who wish to characterize Sanders as having erred in emphasizing class solidarity over racial justice in his campaign are focussing on the effects and not the cause, the smoke and not the fire. The results of this election (and Corbyn’s loss in the UK in 2019, which they love to compare Sanders to) demonstrate not that class-based politics is anachronistic and not a viable strategy in contemporary American politics, but that class consciousness will not be strong enough to convince older Southern Black voters to trust White people when the current president threatens to undo much of what they have fought for their entire lives. If Trump weren’t president right now, and if Sanders had been a Black civil rights leader, he absolutely could have crushed Biden with Marxist messaging.

As for the Left, their dismissal of any criticism of class-based tactics in the wake of Sanders’ loss borders on willful blindness to the realities of the Democratic Party base. When pressed, many Sanders supporters will point to Sanders’ focus on building a youth movement as the major flaw in his strategy. As we know, young people are notoriously unreliable voters. They simply do not show up to vote. If Sanders had instead focussed on winning over older people, including older Black people, he may have been more successful, they say. But this tendency to discount race and the reality that identity politics, not class-based politics, currently dominates politics in America is a major flaw in their post-mortem analysis. The tendency to see what you want to see is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, the hallmark of good leadership is that they imagine the future wish to create and then communicate that vision to their followers, and in the process, make reality conform to their fantasy, thereby willing their vision into existence. Sanders has that quality of leadership, and the Left does too by extension. But in the current climate, when the Democrats are in full retreat, running for their lives back to Obamaland, the Left was calling on liberals to regroup, about-face, and chargeback into the fray of a new battle on a new battlefield against the same opponent who had just beat them in 2016. That is a tall order in the best of times. The effort to rally was heroic and valiant, but ultimately failed, not because the fundamentals of the Left were wrong, but because the political climate in which they were applied was not favorable. So back to Obamaland we go.

What comes next? That is the question the Left will now begin to answer. This is the part of the essay where I get to make predictions, and in a year or two, I’ll look back on them and see how right or wrong I was. So here we go.

The Left has already begun to advocate for the need to found a new institution to house their efforts, as the Jacobin piece demonstrates. I think the Left will now begin the true work of growing a democratic socialist institution in earnest. Perhaps such an institution will come out of the coals of the still smoldering Sanders campaign infrastructure. What certainly will not happen in my opinion is what the liberals hope for: that the socialists will retreat back into American subcultural oblivion. Many Democratic party loyalists are breathing sighs of relief because they mistakenly believe this strange socialist monster has been vanquished. They believe this in part because they mistakenly think that Bernie Sanders has built a personality cult around himself that has no substance to it. ‘Cut the rose from its stem and the plant dies,’ is their working theory. But what they do not realize is that Bernie Sanders has already won the future of Leftist politics. By making strong inroads with youth across America, he has fathered a generation of hardcore leftists who will grow up to vote Democrats out of offices around the country over the coming decades. Sanders was the start of a new era of Leftist politics, and liberals are in for a rude awakening if they discount the power of Sanders' vision to echo in the minds of the young people of this country for the rest of their lives. Long after he is gone, the current generations, especially the Millenials on down, will remember that the older Democrats betrayed their hopes and dreams out of fear, and they will not forgive the Party easily. Democrats will either evolve or prepare to face heavy losses to a 40-year-old Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

That being said, there is a problem that liberals have rightly pointed out with advocating for socialism in America: namely that socialism, unlike capitalism, is not seen as American by many people on both sides of the aisle. Socialism smacks of European and Asian politics. American prosperity has not been built by Socialism but by capitalism (or at least that is the perception of many, and therefore has the weight of truth, as any story that is believed to be true does - see Orwell). The American dream is not a socialist dream, though it is not technically a strictly capitalist dream either. It is, in reality, a social-democratic capitalist dream, and as such, Scandinavia more closely embodies the American dream than America does currently. By aiming for socialism instead of social-democracy, the Left has overshot the mark. 

Socialists will call me an incrementalist or a liberal spy interested only in half-measures for not advocating for the immediate seizure of capital from the wealthy elites, but they miss a core truth about this new generation of American Leftists, namely that we view socialism and capitalism as just two options among many for potentially viable ways to structure a society or segments of society. This new generation of Leftists correctly sees that free-market capitalism is in essence theft, but that socialism is in essence prison, where trades and deals must be done in secret, where individuality is devalued in favor of the collective will, and innovation stifled by misaligned incentive structures, or even disincentivized by burdensome regulatory and tax policies. Both capitalism and socialism can be effectively applied to aspects of the economy where one or the other simply does not produce better outcomes. They are not mutually exclusive, and both are just and unjust in their own ways. I may be alienated from the products of my labor under capitalism, but if commodification produces greater innovation at the cutting edge, then for some problems where the solutions demand expediency, so be it. Where centralization leaves us open to the effects of poor leadership or privacy concerns, decentralization and federalism might be necessary. These are conversations the Left has been having for decades, and the new Left is tired of the demand for strict allegiance to a doctrine that groups like the Democratic Socialists of America demand. Are there no other options worth considering?

Now we come to my major prediction for the future of the Left. Crucially, where neither capitalism nor socialism is satisfactory, alternative ways of organizing society should and will be explored in the coming years. To explore new social structures - that is the true project of the new Left, in my opinion. I remember seeing members of the John Brown Gun Club at a protest last year and thinking to myself that I was seeing a living fossil from the 20th century. The politics of socialism are somehow no longer relevant in the 21st century, not because they do not have anything to say, but because the ideas are almost 2 centuries old. It is time for the Left to develop new ideas worthy of our 21st century world instead of mythologizing and rehashing the arguments of the 19th and 20th centuries.

For all his flaws, the one candidate who embodied the spirit of the future of the Left was Andrew Yang. His assertion that UBI could solve the coming automation apocalypse was perhaps overwrought and narrow (UBI cannot be the antidote to every problem we face currently - that's simply too much weight for a glorified grain dole to lift), but it is a policy position that is thoroughly modern, thoroughly outside the Socialist-Capitalist dichotomy, and it fits our times. The argument I am making is not so much that UBI in particular or Andrew Yang in particular are the way forward, though his supporters are convinced of this. The argument I want to make is an aesthetic argument about the quality of ideas. Ideas, systems of thought, and ideologies all carry with them a flavor the time they come from, some more intentionally than others. Religions carry the qualities of the time of their founding, no matter how many centuries old they are or how much their adherents attempt to update them. The science of evolution and the engineering of gas powered vehicles will always carry the hallmarks of the 19th century. Where they depart from their origins, as in the modern use of satellite global imaging to track the degradation of the Amazon rainforest or the advent of the Tesla electric car in comparison to which gas power vehicles seem as out of date as locomotives, there are still the vestiges of 19th century conceptions of nature and 20th-century logistics hidden in their latent semantic references. So too with Marxism. So too with globalism and global capitalism. These ideas are old and belong to older times. But the purpose of Leftist politics has always been progression. When Socialists dismiss Yang’s ideas as utopian, they miss the point - that it is a new idea with new, decidedly cosmopolitan aesthetics driving it forward. UBI has yet to be claimed by any region or nation. It comes with no baggage from the 20th century. It is fresh, it is clean, and it could be an American idea if we claim it first.

My prediction is that, just as liberals will be surprised by the continued proliferation of socialism in America over the coming decade, so too will socialists be surprised by the proliferation of new ideas like UBI. If there is one lesson from the failure of the socialists during the 2020 primary season and the retreat of liberals back into neoliberal globalism, it is that the meadow of Leftist politics is wide open for anyone to claim. There have not been so many left-leaning independents in America since before Reagan, and all of them could be brought back into politics by a new vision of what America could be in the 21st century. The wildflowers of the Left are blooming. The first politician to discover a uniquely American daisy among the weeds will lead the Left into the future. I predict, and I hope, we will see the plucking of such a fresh daisy, or perhaps the plucking of several such flowers to make a Leftist bouquet of UBI, socialism, mutual aid networks, neoliberal capitalism, anarcho-communist collectivism, techno-futurism, humanism, and who knows what else, sometime in the coming years. Let’s see how right I am.

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