The election of Trump has upended US politics. Across the political spectrum, activists and organizations are reckoning with the ascent of authoritarian white nationalism to the White House and the GOP’s headlock on 25 state governments and Congress. All of us feel it: the urgency to think and act in new ways, to expand our vision and take risks.
The questions of power and scale – how will we develop a base large enough to contend for power? – have moved to the top of the left’s agenda. The existing left, made up of unaffiliated activists and organizations with real strengths but also significant limitations, cannot meet the challenges ahead. We need a leap.
We believe that building a left trend – an alignment of organizations and individuals – based on strategic unity is key to making that leap. The current fragments that make up the left are agreed on many things, such as: being rooted in oppressed communities and the working class, and the need for grassroots social movements. We understand that elected officials, regardless of party or political belief, are pushed and pulled in many directions, making vibrant, disruptive social movements necessary to any project for social transformation.
But the left is badly divided on how to relate to the country’s political system and engage in electoral politics. This won’t work. Only determined, long-term, energetic efforts to break out of the margins based on a common view of how to engage in our electoral system, while also building mass protest, offer a chance to make the left a force in U.S. politics and, eventually, a contender for power.
Based on this thinking, a number of left organizations and activists have begun discussing the possibility of creating a higher level of political alignment based on an inside/outside political strategy.
“Inside/Outside” means organizing both inside and outside of electoral politics, and building power inside and outside the Democratic Party. We believe this strategy offers the best opportunity to build a force that directly fights back against white nationalism and the far right, while also working steadily to challenge the neoliberals in the Democratic Party. We also think this strategy is the only one that will set the left on a path to grow with the surging activism that takes civic engagement seriously, the large numbers of leftists and progressives deciding to run for office, and the increasing pull of an inside/outside perspective across the social movements we’re immersed in. The alternative, we believe, is to be consigned to the political margins at a moment when everybody else left-of-center is embracing the fight against the right wing at all levels, including in the electoral arena.
Engaging in elections and inside the Democratic Party will be crucial to political strategy in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Let’s look, for instance, at the 2016 presidential election. We understood that a Trump victory would mean the emboldening of white supremacist organizations, a ramping up of state terror in communities of color, an assault on basic democratic rights, and – given GOP control of the House and Senate – an opening for the far-right to push a maximum policy agenda.
The presidential election was not unique. Although the Democratic Party leadership has been heavily influenced by neoliberalism since the 1990s, the polarization of the electorate according to ideas about race, gender, and religion, the growing organizational capacity and communications apparatus of the most reactionary sectors of the GOP, and the Republican Party’s links to sectors of capital most staunchly opposed to environmental regulation, drives very real differences between the two parties. In elections around the country, stakes is high.
All this means something for our political work. The utter ruthlessness with which the right-wing wields power – look at the states where the GOP controls the state legislatures and the governor’s office – means that ignoring elections, or seeing them primarily as opportunities to propagandize, puts our movements perpetually on defense.
And although working-class alienation from electoral politics is real, most civic organizations and politically engaged folks – especially union activists and people of color – understand that the outcomes of elections will have serious consequences for their lives. Most activists who care about progressive change, for instance, reasonably feel that defeating Trump in 2020 is an absolute priority, as is defeating Republican rule at the state and Congressional level in 2018 (while also challenging neoliberal Democrats in primaries). And electoral politics in general is one of the few ways the left will be able to engage with people at the scale we have to.
The fight against the far right is strongest when it is energized by an inspiring vision for economic and social justice. Campaigns for openly socialist candidates and progressive challenges to neoliberal Democrats must all be part of the political mix. And the opportunities for broadening the reach of progressive and left forces will be greatest when they both struggle within and work in tandem with the larger anti-Trump or anti-right front. That is, we have to “walk on two legs” by building the movement against the far right, while also challenging pro-corporate neoliberal hegemony within the Democratic Party.
A Left Trend
A left trend is an alignment of left organizations and organizers that self-consciously share a political analysis and strategy, and pursue some collaborative work. We see the left inside/outside trend as one crucial piece of the progressive alliance that we hope will lead the anti-Trump fight. This trend has an indispensable role to play in the anti-Trump front: strengthening the anti-militarist wing of the progressive alliance, projecting a vision of economic and racial justice, and elevating an intersectional feminist politics. There is also a conflict within the Democratic Party over which voters to outreach to and what its political vision will be; we don’t believe the left can afford to sit on the sidelines as those questions are settled.
But in order for the left to seriously tackle these challenges, it must do two things. First, it needs to find a way to connect with the tens of thousands of newly active people who may identify as part of the broad and ideologically diverse social justice left but who do not see themselves as part of a collective left project. This social justice left encompasses, as Bob Wing has written, “socialists, radical anti-racists, nationalists, and feminists, liberation theologists, strong social democrats, labor militants, pacifists, anti-imperialists and everyone else” who will fight against corporate and concentrated power. A stronger and more cohesive left depends upon connecting with the social justice left to develop a new sense of the “we” who are working towards fundamental social transformation based on a shared strategic perspective; this will be much harder to accomplish without a left trend.
Second, the organized socialist left needs to balance out the strengths and weaknesses of its different organizations and activist networks. All of the organizations and networks we belong to have important strengths, but also very real limitations in terms of size, demographics, or geographic or sectoral concentration. None of them, in their current form, are capable of playing the strategic role we believe the left must play in the next period. A left trend might have that potential – the ability to reach far beyond the existing left to create a force that can move us from defense to offense.
Having an alignment of left organizations and activists will allow us to move political discussion past the current debates – as important as they are – about whether or not to engage in electoral politics, whether or not to engage with the Democratic party. Instead, we can measure our ideas against our most exciting and inspiring victories, as well as draw lessons from our efforts that come up short. We can debate the questions we confront in our on-the-ground work: how do we build a winning majority while advancing the struggle for collective liberation? How do we scale up from local or state-level efforts? Through our dialogue, debate, and organizing work, we can build a deeper strategic unity (and clarify our differences) around the left’s role in electoral politics and U.S. politics more generally. To do that, we need to create a venue for frank discussion across organizational and other boundaries, and a way for activists to communicate about and summarize their work.
The current lack of a left inside/outside trend has created real weaknesses. To take one example, racial justice organizers operating mainly through 501c3’s have done important work with some of the most marginalized communities in U.S. society. But the constraints of working in a c3 means that, with some very important exceptions (you know who you are), our deep organizing has not translated into political power. At the state level, this has meant that even massive street protests such as the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina could do little in the face of a scruple-less right-wing with complete control of the state government. Nationally, this meant we could not provide an effective counterbalance to Clinton’s machine in communities of color during the presidential primary, nor (besides some key protests) were we able to effectively shape the Sanders’ campaign’s program around racial justice.
Today, more and more 501c3’s are asking questions about the limits of their work and how to move beyond it, looking to those community organizations that have made serious gains by integrating civic engagement work. A strong left trend with deep links to racial justice organizing could accomplish much; it could, for instance, shift local or state-level politics to push for effective civilian oversight of police, decriminalization of poverty, and funding basic social infrastructure in communities of color. All of those demands require both the hard, patient work of grassroots organizing and the willingness to use elections to move the political center-of-gravity in legislatures.
The 2016 presidential election marked an historic failure of the left; despite some important efforts, we were unable to unite in leading the fight to defeat Trump and the far right, to stand alongside the oppressed and the exploited. This has made it even more urgent to throw down in the struggles ahead that will shape the future of U.S. politics, to move the left out of its narrow silos towards the scale that can create collective liberation. The left we want to build is all of us.
In unity and struggle,
John Bachtell, Communist Party USA
Sendolo Diaminah, Freedom Road Socialist Organization
Adam Gold, LeftRoots
Shuron Jones, St. Louis Workers’ Education Society
Chauncey Robinson, Communist Party USA
Joseph Schwartz, DSA*
Thomas Walker, Freedom Road Socialist Organization
(* indicates organization is for identification purposes only)