This installment of “It Is Happening Here” features Max Elbaum’s opening comments from a panel discussion on the state of the American Left. The July 12 forum was co-sponsored by the New York City and Mid-Hudson Valley chapters of Democratic Socialists of America and held at People’s Forum in New York City. The event was recorded and is available here. In an interview with Allen Ruff of WORT-FM in Madison, WI, Max addressed similar themes and elaborated on his last column, “MAGA Authoritarian Rule or Third Reconstruction?” That conversation, from WORT’s program “A Public Affair,” can be heard here. And Max teamed with Jason Negrón Gonzalez of Seed the Vote for a July 18 presentation to the San Francisco chapter of the Gray Panthers on “Voting Rights and Fighting Fascism”; that recording is available here.
The main dynamic shaping US politics today is the drive of the MAGA bloc to impose authoritarian rule and a white Christian Nationalist agenda on the country. We are living through the most intense and dangerous phase of the counterattack against the gains of the 1960s and the 1930s that started within hours of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It is driven by two of the most powerful and deeply rooted forces in US society, a sector of the capitalist class centered in the fossil fuel industry and the Koch brothers network, and the large layer of people of many classes who consider a society ordered by racial and gender hierarchies to be the only legitimate way to organize the United States.
Trump’s election in 2016 was the fruit of 50-plus years of both electoral and non-electoral organizing by those forces. It further whetted their appetite for power. An outpouring of resistance by the larger but much more fragmented and less well organized anti-MAGA majority prevented MAGA from achieving its goals via the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections. This has produced a kind of stalemate between the MAGA and anti-MAGA blocs. The drama being played out today centers on whether MAGA will succeed in gaining full federal power in 2024 or soon after; and, if they are beaten back, what will be the character of the anti-MAGA governing coalition.
Broadly speaking there are three contending political currents in this drama: MAGA, the centrist bloc anchored in the Biden wing of the Democratic Party, and a progressive bloc whose most prominent figures are Bernie Sanders and the Squad. Within that progressive current there is a growing socialist trend.
MAGA is the strongest of these currents. It has captured the Republican Party and the Supreme Court; it holds trifectas in 22 states. It is lavishly financed, has an organized political base in the white Evangelical churches, and has a powerful narrative that appeals to white grievance and provides a deep sense of meaning and empowerment to those who accept it. It has an unmatched propaganda and disinformation apparatus in Fox News and other right-wing media; its loyalists are active within the armed bodies of the state at all levels; and it has incorporated openly white supremacist and fascist militias into its coalition to serve as modern-day brownshirts. The MAGA bloc makes no secret of their agenda if they take full power: a national abortion ban and national “right-to-work” law; austerity for the majority and more tax cuts for the rich; an eliminationalist program for transgender people; energy policy turned over to the fossil fuel industry; Jim Crow 2.0; and a combination of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO for the Left.
The centrist and progressive currents contend against one another for power in many arenas, including bitter battles in Democratic primaries. But the bulk of both blocs have joined together in voting to defeat Republican candidates in the last three elections.
The centrist bloc controls the executive branch, is the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Senate delegation and a slim majority of the Democratic House delegation. It is rooted in important sectors of capital, but retains a substantial social base not only among well-off professionals but among sections of the labor movement, the Black, Latino and Asian American communities, and the mainstream women’s and LGBTQ movements. It is more committed to U.S. global hegemony than to the neoliberal model of capitalism, and with Bidenomics has junked many elements of neoliberalism for a program that has more appeal to important popular sectors. There is little enthusiasm for the centrist leadership in its social base. But the combination of deep fear of MAGA and lack of confidence that progressives and leftists have either the tenacity or capacity to deliver on what sound to many as abstract promises, keeps this base more committed than many leftists like to think.
The progressive bloc’s strengths and shortfalls
The progressive current has grown by orders of magnitude since 2016, with key factors being Bernie’s two campaigns and the George Floyd Uprising. There is large-scale sympathy with many of the Left’s ideas. Important fresh energy in labor and other movements. If we compare the progressive current or its socialist component with where we were in 2016, we have come a long way. And folks in DSA can be justifiably proud of the organization’s role in that.
But if we look at progressive strength compared to the other players in national politics, we remain well behind the curve. The progressive current does not have a unified compelling narrative or the media apparatus necessary to get its ideas out in systematic form to tens of millions. Bernie’s campaigns showed the degree of sympathy for Left ideas, but the infrastructure needed to turn sympathy into a consolidated political base is lagging way behind and all but completely absent in many parts of the country. The labor movement and the Black Church are the two structure-based as opposed to self-selection based mass organizations that have been the traditional anchors of the US left. Because of that, the level of durable, institutionalized working-class power correlates directly with the size, politics, and level of combativity of these organizations. Today we see the stirrings that offer potential for revitalization and growth, but as things currently stand both labor and the Black Church are weaker than they have been in decades.
The socialist movement has experienced tremendous growth; barometers of this growth are the number of socialist electeds and the recent conference of socialist electeds sponsored by the DSA Fund. But there are few campaigns, electoral or non-electoral, that can be won by socialists alone. The gains made have in almost all cases come from situations where socialists were able to galvanize or participate in a coalition with the wider ecosystem of progressive groups.
Block and build
The potential to build on the gains made since 2016 is substantial. But it will be realized only if we have the political space and time to do the kind of organizing required to sink deep roots in the multiracial, gender inclusive working class. This is why progressive leaders who have led key battles and acquired the most acute sense of the balance of forces in the country—Bernie, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, key figures in the state-based power building groups, unions and issue-based groups that gained strength and experience by throwing down against MAGA in 2020—advocate a strategy that can be characterized as Block and Build. This strategy calls on us to participate in and work to expand and cohere the very broad anti-MAGA coalition that includes both centrists and progressives that is required to defeat MAGA candidates at every level and then protect the results; and at the same time, by organizing and being the most resolute and far-seeing opponents of MAGA, grow independent progressive power along the way.
That can lead to coming out of 2024 with a strong enough progressive bloc to work both inside and outside of a new governing coalition to start a new progressive cycle in U.S. politics. The goal of such a cycle, given the specific history of this country as a settler colonial enslaver state and the bitter and still far from complete struggles to bring about a multiracial democracy, is a Third Reconstruction, which is the potential gateway to a socialist United States.