What Would an American Left Look Like?
Begin the walk: I propose that a consequential Left can only proceed as a project for
reconstructing American democracy, root and branch.
By Van Gosse / The Rag Blog
BEGIN WITH WHAT COULD be, ask what has been, and finish with what
should be done now, to move forward.
What could be is relatively simple. The term “an American Left” should
mean a convergence of movements and institutions capable of generating
permanent change, rather than the current de facto Left, a hodge-podge
of defensive, issue-focused groups, focused on immediate problems,
with little unity.
What has been is evident. There is ample precedent for revolutionary
change in this country. At decisive points, powerful movements
generated the institutions that won a “transformative egalitarian
order,” in the words of the political scientists Rogers Smith and
Desmond King, describing the antislavery movement that birthed the
After decades of defeat, in the 1930s the radicalized labor movement
took advantage of the New Deal to organize the industrial working
classes, then at the center of our political economy, altering the
balance of power in U.S. politics.
Most recently, between the 1930s and the 1970s, what the historian
Jacqueline Dowd Hall calls “the long civil rights movement” broke up
the South’s white supremacist oligarchy, and ushered in a new
democratic order which has spread out to include every caste,
ethnicity, sex, or gender formerly denied equal citizenship.
What is to be done? We are not finished with making this country a
real democracy. We need to complete the process of Radical
Reconstruction that began after the Civil War, and stalled until the
Second Reconstruction of the mid-twentieth century. A Third
Reconstruction is required to sweep away the power of
deeply-entrenched racial and regional minorities, which sharply skews
the U.S.’s political system in their favor.
As these references suggest, a strong dose of history is called for,
to escape the trap of “presentism,” the fixation with our own time.
Since the 1970s, American radicals have been plagued by two tendencies
-- either despair about the thuggish, backwards nature of this
country, or a pollyanna-ish optimism presuming the nation needs only
to be returned to its true self -- the Popular Front delusion.
Both are versions of romanticism, the opposite of historical
consciousness. Instead of these romantic illusions, a real American
Left will proceed from a grounded historical understanding that is
neither dystopian, as in “this is the worst of all possible
countries,” nor subject to the utopian fantasy that American Democracy
was always just about to be perfected.
To remove a perennial sticking point, we should dispense with the old
debate over parliamentary versus extra-parliamentary strategies. To be
viable, an American Left needs a long-term electoral strategy, not
occasional gambits focused on charismatic leaders, but a plan to
compete at all levels: town and city; county and state; finally, the
federal and national.
Whether that option is in or out of the Democratic Party is a
secondary question, because the Tea Party’s rise has made it evident
that our “parties” are vessels waiting to be filled, and what you put
in will determine what you can get out.
But however necessary, electoral power never will be sufficient. We
must be inside the state, making “the long march through the
institutions,” as Italian communists proposed back in the 1970s, but
at the same time, working outside and even against the state.
A permanent Left will consistently mobilize non-electoral pressure,
moving back and forth with agility rather than fetishizing particular
tactics, whether nonviolent action, mass demonstrations, lobbying, or
occupying and “sitting-in.” Keeping one leg outside will avoid the
snare of submergence in parliamentarianism, where what matters is
holding onto office, although this danger will never go away as long
as we are serious about taking and maintaining governance.
A coherent electoral strategy and a multi-pronged swarm of tactics for
popular mobilization will be nothing, however, without a long-term
project. So what is it? Where to start?
I propose that a consequential Left can only proceed as a project for
reconstructing American democracy, root and branch. What we have right
now are the seductive shreds of cultural and political democracy, bits
and pieces of power without actually threatening the core structures
of political and economic authority.
We need to focus on how to turn this vast, polyglot nation-of-sorts
into a genuine social, economic, and popular democracy based on
majority rule, a free and fair ballot available to every citizen (a
profoundly radical move in America’s historical context), and the
application of the one-person, one-vote principle at all levels of
The latter alone would immediately overturn the main anti-democratic
feature of our constitutional order: the composition of the Senate
and, in turn, the Electoral College.
Why should democracy be the focus for making revolutionary change,
rather than the depredations of corporate capitalism? Because until we
deal with the former, we’ll never be able to tackle the latter.
Despite the “Rights Revolution” extending from “Seneca Falls to Selma
to Stonewall,” in Obama’s evocative phrase, this is still a
halfway-democratic state pockmarked by anti-popular legal structures
and anti-majoritarian exceptions and exclusions, many of them dating
from the nineteenth century, if not before.
The problem is and always has been federalism, so-called, or “states’
rights,” which is to say, a license for local oligarchies to maintain
their control. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a
federally-guaranteed uniform right to vote in this country, other than
the negative prescriptions of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, and the
Nineteenth Amendment exactly 50 years later, which barred the explicit
use of race or gender (or previous condition of servitude) to prevent
someone from voting.
From the republic’s founding, state legislatures have tinkered with
their own state’s voting regulations, and county and township
officials have interpreted those regulations as they see fit, ignoring
the ones they don’t like, based on which construction of state law
will serve partisan interests.
We justly celebrate Brown v. Board of Education, but the Supreme
Court’s 1962 Baker v. Carr decision, invalidating imbalanced
legislative districting in the states (to minimize the potential black
or city vote) and insist on “one-person, one-vote” proportionality of
representation was, in its own way, just as radical. Along with the
Voting Rights Act of 1965, it’s one of the few instances where the
national government has intervened to invalidate the mechanisms used
to block the popular democratic will.
A perfect contemporary example of how to trump basic democratic rights
is the summary refusal of students’ right to vote where they attend
school. Even though the Supreme Court ruled as far back as 1979, in
Symm v. United States, that local or state officials could not use
student status to deny someone’s right to vote, massive evidence from
many states demonstrates that this right is largely dependent on the
whim of whichever of the three thousand county boards of elections
supervises the local process.
Just as some secretaries of state (the chief elections officials in
most states) proclaim, as did Maine’s in 2012, that they did not
consider students to be legal residents of their state, others issue
new regulations about which forms of identification will be accepted
at the polls, or where the polls will be located, or when they will
open and close.
A different case in point: this is a twenty-first century nation-state
with more technological and material resources than any government in
history. It can find and kill with surgical precision anywhere in the
world. Yet it still finds it either difficult or unnecessary to count
votes quickly and accurately.
President Obama’s victory margin in the popular vote has grown
substantially since election night, when it was reckoned at 2.3%, or
about three million votes. As of now, it is almost 3.9%, about five
million votes. Imagine if the election had been really close, what it
would mean to somehow not get around to counting two million ballots:
Mitt Romney declared the winner of the popular vote, and based on
extremely incomplete returns, of the Electoral College. Does anyone
imagine he or any other “conservative” would truly abide by the law,
if two million votes were duly counted for their opponent in the weeks
after Election Day?
Arizona is even more to the point. Long after Election Day, 600,000
ballots were still being processed in that state, enough to change
many local and state races, and only militant mobilization by the
state’s Latino citizens got those votes tabulated.
In these instances, as in so many other ways, ours is a deeply,
consciously undemocratic system, since the failure to count votes
immediately and transparently is the oldest trick in the book of
electoral manipulation -- “counting them out,” whether in Alabama and
Mississippi in the 1890s, or Mexico City in 1988, control of the
official tabulation and how it is reported is ultimately decisive.
To get to a true, deep democracy, so that the whole people participate
in making a new society together, we need to focus sharply on how
state power is articulated in our particular state, with its origins
in the late eighteenth century, and its archaic system of
gerrymandering in favor of small rural areas and states, so that a
citizen residing in North Dakota or Vermont has effectively 50 times
the electoral and legislative weight of a Californian.
At every point in our history, the net effect of this arrangement has
been to protect various forms of racial and ethnic privilege. The
United States was organized as a racial state, and despite the massive
changes and the effective democratization of much of that state, it
remains one today, because of the bulkheads of white privilege
guaranteed by federalism. Until we overcome that problem, everything
else we try will be hamstrung, stymied and defeated by the white
super-minority using the tools of our antiquated state system.
Embodying the SNCC imperative of “move on over or we will move on over
you,” we must confront the federal character of the American state
order, and either reform its profoundly undemocratic features, or
wall-off and disempower those polities (e.g. the Deep South states)
which we cannot control and which, much of the time, rule over us.
Our majorities, when we achieve them, must not be blocked by arbitrary
devices. “One-person, one-vote” must be fully extended in all
respects, to guarantee equality of power between all citizens.
Systematic electoral reform mandating a universal, binding processes,
and the banning of the many forms of quasi-legal voter suppression, is
an imperative demand.
At the most basic level, to trump the ability of reactionaries to set
up roadblocks to democracy, we should start with a constitutional
amendment specifying that “the absolute right to vote of all citizens,
born or naturalized in the United States, 18 years of age or older on
the day of election, shall not be abridged on any grounds, including
but not limited to residency, student status, employment, proof of age
or identity, or any previous conviction for a crime.”
In addition, a new Voting Rights Act should guarantee early voting
procedures and a uniform national voter registration process,
Moving beyond that premise is the biggest boulder in the road: the
Senate. Remember that for the majority of our history, this was an
openly undemocratic body, insulated from any form of popular control.
Party caucuses made deals with each other in state legislatures, and
sent a grab bag of hacks and genuine leaders to Washington, including
many who never could have won an actual election.
Finally, exactly 100 years ago, progressives in both parties pushed
through the Seventeenth Amendment, providing for the direct election
of senators. What we need now is an amendment guaranteeing each state
representation (one senator) and additional seats on a proportional
basis, by expanding the body and dividing up the seats.
For those who say it is impossible to imagine such a constitutional
reform achieving sufficient support to pass, consider how far we have
come on the question of the Electoral College, once considered
sacrosanct. After a series of elections whose results (as in 2000),
and process (ever since then) have made a mockery of popular
democracy, we are moving steadily towards a consensus that, in one way
or another, it must be abolished or reformed into irrelevance, such as
by a compact between a majority of the states to instruct their
Electors to vote for the candidate who has received the highest number
of votes nationally.
What is keeping us from getting there?
Our own ignorance or arrogance, functionally the same thing. What the
glum, dystopian liberal intelligentsia and impatiently radical, often
anarchistic youth have in common in the Obama era is an impatience
with the challenge of understanding their country, the notion that it
is too provincial to be worth really studying, coupled to the
well-founded sense that as citizens of a profoundly chauvinistic world
empire, we have an obligation to learn about the world.
But study the U.S. we must, the way people like Karl Rove have done in
their diligent exploitation of its dark side, its fears, if we want to
bend it towards the arc of justice.
Never mind loving “America” or feeling patriotic, we had better get a
handle on what is effectively not one but five or six nations defined
by specific geographies, political economies, and regional cultures,
tied together mainly by power and self-interest.
Right now, the level of uninformed distance on the Left from this
political and cultural complexity is profound. Few progressives get
further than wondering. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” If they are
serious, they might read about “America in the King Years,” but that
still only addresses the second half of the last century. Anything
before that is treated as the dead hand of the past.
That Lincoln is the only real revolutionary to hold power in our
history; that the high tide of American radicalism came before the
Civil War, not after; that for most of its history, the Democratic
Party existed to defend white men’s privilege -- this makes no sense
to people who think that “the Left” can only be seen through the prism
of a European-style Marxist party (or a Third World-style national
A big caveat: among people of color, these strictures do not hold, at
least not to the same degree. African Americans, Chicanos, Native
Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans -- they can’t afford to live
in a fantasy world where history either doesn’t exist or is made up to
justify unearned privilege. Adopting the stance of “I’m not really an
American, I just live here,” so proudly articulated by white
progressives, doesn’t work for peoples who have had to fight every
inch of the way to enjoy some of the basic rights of Americans.
Sooner or later, refusing to acknowledge one’s membership in this
polity looks like just another species of privilege, the political
equivalent of being a tax exile.
Which of these problems are self-inflicted and subject to our agency?
What strengths do we have to call upon?
We, as leftists, liberals, and progressives, can educate ourselves
politically and historically; we can find a common ground about what’s
deeply wrong with the United States, and what is worth building upon,
celebrating, or reviving. We lack the will, not the means.
We have, collectively, the active or passive affiliation of tens of
millions of people, in local community and environmental
organizations, public sector institutions like libraries, hospitals,
schools, colleges and universities, unions and cooperatives, and a
vast array of issue-based lobbies.
We raise and spend billions of dollars, and have the capacity to raise
and spend far more, entirely apart from the multi-billion dollar major
donors like George Soros, and their philanthropic apparatuses.
We are the legatees of extraordinary movements, not just for abolition
and civil or union rights, but feminism’s second wave that began in
the 1960s and continues unabated today, the remarkable movement for
gay and lesbian equality which has generated a revolution in gender
and sexuality in just the past ten years, and the post-Vietnam
campaigns for solidarity and global justice in South Africa, Central
America, and now Israel-Palestine.
What are those factors for which we must account but which are out of
We will have no capacity to shape the international political economy
for a long time to come; all we can do, for now, is to (like the rest
of our fellow citizens) seek to weather its storms, and lobby for the
least punitive response globally and at home, and equally shared
burdens via sharply progressive taxation policies.
There will be massive demographic changes in the U.S. for the
foreseeable future, akin in their scope to the suburbanization of the
post-1945 era, and later, the transfer of populations, production, and
wealth to the Sunbelt. It is impossible to predict what these shifts,
premised on increasing multi-racialization of the U.S. population,
will mean politically, and it would be optimistic in the extreme to
think that a new non-ethnic right, premised on the mystique of “free
markets” and entrepreneurialism, was impossible.
Finally, unlike much of Europe, most of Latin America, and parts of
Asia, we do not have deeply-rooted traditions of a “statist” provision
of public goods, transcending divisions between left and right. So
let’s stop pretending that the New Deal and the Great Society, a
thirty-year lurch in that direction, is the equivalent of those
traditions. What we do have are the legacy of the Declaration of
Independence, the egalitarian implications of birthright citizenship
and due process built into the Fourteenth Amendment, and the world’s
oldest systems of free public schools.
What, therefore, should be our program?
That is entirely the wrong question to be asking, if a radical
reconstruction of American democracy is the task ahead. Yet it’s the
question we on the Left keep mistakenly answering, proposing lists of
substantive or even revolutionary reforms.
Instead of demanding this or that, we should focus on empowering the
great mass of citizens -- both the 40 percent who never vote, and the
60 percent who only vote in presidential elections -- to think for
themselves what this country needs, what they need.
Do we trust the alienated, desperate, disfranchised poor and
working-classes of the United States to work out their own revolution?
We had better trust them, because their solutions will probably be
less orthodox and more radical than any of us can imagine right now.
So rather than invoking any of our genuine radical heroes, whether Dr.
King, Ella Baker, Frederick Douglass, Eugene V. Debs, or Dorothy Day,
I will conclude by quoting a revolutionary thinker from a different
part of America, the Brazilian Paolo Freire, who urged us to “make the
road by walking,” by engaging in the struggle itself rather than
laying out a plan for revolution.
That is really what we need to do -- begin the walk.
[Van Gosse is an Associate Professor of History at Franklin and
Marshall College and author of numerous books and articles on U.S.
politics. He has been active in antiwar and solidarity politics since
1982. His historical and political writing can be found at his
website,www.vangosse.com. He is co-founder of the Post-Capitalist
Project, a cooperative, nonsectarian venture of Left journals, popular
education centers, and electronic media, and blogs on The Huffington