Communicating and building coalitions across partisan divides on class demands

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, June 25 2020

A SIGNIFICANT IDEOLOGICAL SPLIT within GOP politics is as clear and vitriolic as the one within the Democratic Party. And that growing division means that, along with vehement differences, there is ample agreement on specific, consequential issues between the factions that identify as the “populist left” and “populist right.” Often there is more agreement between them than either group finds with the establishment wing of the political party with which they most identify.

In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on (though he most certainly did not ultimately govern) in opposition to numerous long-standing Republican orthodoxies: he railed against job-killing free trade agreements, vowed to raise taxes on the rich and eliminate corporate lobbyist control over the legislative process, venerated the need to protect and even increase social programs, and most viciously scorned the Bush family’s imperialism and regime change wars. That he won the GOP nomination against highly funded, establishment-backed candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio demonstrates that there is at least now tolerance, if not outright support, for those positions that had been taboo in mainstream Republican politics.

Polling shows that classic left-wing economic positions such as universal health care coverage and raising the minimum wage command majority support, proving those views extend beyond left-wing precincts. One of the political officials most devoted to and passionate about breaking up monopolistic power — long a central left-wing goal — is the right-wing Senator Josh Hawley, who also opposes international free trade organizations such as the WTO (the defining goal of the left-wing 1999 Seattle protests).

When Bernie Sanders wanted to impose limits on Trump’s ability to bomb Yemen, he found key support with the right-wing tea party Sen. Mike Lee; the same was true of Dennis Kucinich’s partnership with Ron Paul to audit the Fed and Cory Booker’s work with Rand Paul to usher in radical criminal justice reform. The host of the most-watched Fox News program, Tucker Carlson, has railed against the evils of predatory capitalismsupported AOC’s efforts to impede tax breaks to Amazon, given a sympathetic hearing to a pro-Maduro journalist opposed to regime change in Venezuela, and played a significant role in stopping air strikes against both Syria and Iran.

The reason these two factions have different names — left-wing populism and right-wing populism — is that, in addition to these convergences, they have serious and meaningful divergences. Trump as president adhered to almost none of his orthodoxy-busting campaign rhetoric. Hawley’s economic populist branding can ring hollow when set next to his support for corporate tax cuts that benefit the rich and his opposition to liveable wage legislation. And Carlson’s repellent-to-liberalism views — led by his support for authoritarian responses to protesters and his racially divisive rhetoric — are legion.

But none of those serious divergences negates the fact that the left — which does not come close to claiming a majority of the population — finds common ground with the populist faction of the right on some of its most important political positions. And there are millions of people across the country who identity as conservative or on the right — due to their views on social issues and immigration — but hold economically left-wing populist views.

The question then becomes: What should the left do in those cases? Should it work in conjunction with those on the right to build a majority and implement those policies, and engage in dialogue with opinion leaders and media figures on the right to reach more people who can be persuaded to think in trans-partisan, working-class terms? Or should it declare anyone associated with the populist right off-limits even for issue-by-issue collaboration on the ground that other views they hold are pernicious? And if holding pernicious views renders those on the populist right radioactive and off-limits, why is the same not true of establishment Democrats who have led the way to construct and champion the racist prison state, the drug war, jobs-destroying free trade agreements, regime change wars from Iraq to Libya, blind support for Israeli aggression, and a whole slew of other crucial policies utterly anathema to the left (all of which applies to Joe Biden, among others)?

This debate has been lurking for years as anti-establishment fervor and political realignment emerge — not just in the U.S. but across the democratic world — in the wake of the destruction wrought by the dominant neoliberal ideology. But in the U.S., it erupted over the last couple of weeks as the result of a vitriolic exchange between two smart, prominent left-wing commentators. In two separate articles, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson compared right-wing populist media figures such as Carlson and Rising co-host Saager Enjeti to Bolsonaro, Mussolini and even Hitler to insist that “right-wing ‘populism’ is simply a lie and nobody who is on the Left should have anything to do with it.” That provoked a stinging response from one of the principal targets of Robinson’s critique, Enjeti’s Rising co-host Krystal Ball, who says “the left should take yes for an answer” as she argued that it is morally irresponsible not to find allies where one can and not to communicate with as many people as possible in order to implement a left-wing populist agenda.

Today’s episode of SYSTEM UPDATE on The Intercept’s YouTube channel is devoted to exploring this vital question, and I speak to both Robinson and Ball about their very different views on this question.


June 2020 — From Reforms are actually very important; reforms are not counterpoised to revolution. Reforms are how you get people to join together and develop institutions, and develop skills, and develop confidence to be able to fight for more and more ambitious things down the line.

…when Bernie Sanders first came on the scene, there were people on the socialist left who had been socialists for a long time, who took one look at the guy and said he may call himself a socialist, but that’s not socialism. I mean, look, the guy wants Medicare-for-all–that’s not even the nationalization of all of health care. That’s not even, like, an American equivalent of the NHS. This is just like a reform; it may be an ambitious reform, it may be hard to win, but it’s not socialism per se.

I can certainly understand why people would say that. Typically, what Bernie Sanders is proposing is often referred to as social democracy, which means, you know, a mix of capitalism and socialism with a very, very strong socialistic element. So a very strong labor movement, very strong worker protections, higher wages, strong welfare state, high progressive taxation, and so on. And yes, that is what Bernie Sanders is proposing the United States start to look more like in the near future. And so when people say that’s not socialism, that’s social democracy–I understand where they’re getting that impulse.

At the same time, I think that it’s possible for Bernie Sanders to himself be a socialist, which is to say someone who believes that if you continue to live under capitalism, and allow people to exploit each other through the very structure of the economic system, then you will always have a violation of human rights, a continuous violation of human rights. Capitalism itself is a violation of human rights, because it is predicated on, as Karl Marx would say, the appropriation of surplus labor value from workers. Which is to say, stealing the value that workers create through their work, stealing it as profit, and that’s how people become wealthy. And that is the engine of capitalism. And so we ought to replace capitalism with a system of collective ownership down the line.

Now, the question is, how on earth would you get yourself there? How would you get yourself from where we are now, to a system predicated on collective ownership that is egalitarian and democratic and preserves the rights of all individuals to live free and happy lives? You would need to set people into motion in what’s called class struggle. You would need to invite people into a movement that actually fights for reforms. Reforms are actually very important; reforms are not counterpoised to revolution. Reforms are how you get people to join together and develop institutions, and develop skills, and develop confidence to be able to fight for more and more ambitious things down the line.

So, you know, certainly revolutionary socialists of the past have actually understood this perfectly well. This is–if you are familiar with revolutionary socialism, you’ll recognize the name Rosa Luxemburg. She’s often held aloft as the perfect example of a revolutionary socialist. Well, in her essay “Reform and Revolution” she, you know, talks about the perils of reformism, which means simply hoping to stack reforms on top of one another until you have a more bearable society. And she says, no, we’re not going to do that. We do need a total revolution, right? At the same time, why would we abstain from fighting for short-term reforms?

That’s a terrible idea; saying, you know, I’m not going to fight for that because that’s not actual, that’s not pure, unfettered socialism. That’s not the kind of socialism I have in my mind, and therefore I’m not going to fight for it–well, you’re just simply abstaining from class struggle in that case.

And so this is my view on what Bernie Sanders has actually done, is he’s given us an agenda of reforms that we can unite people–they’re popular, they’re necessary, they speak to the real needs of the vast majority of people in this country. And they give us an opportunity to unite people in class struggle, which is something that’s so critical if what we actually want to do is build our forces enough that we can actually break through in a revolutionary manner, and actually one day replace capitalism with socialism itself.

So this is why I sort of reject the dichotomy of people being like, well, is he a socialist or is he a social democrat? Or, what does democratic socialism mean? Does it mean, you know, real socialism, or just Scandinavian social democracy? No, I think democratic socialism actually means fighting for socialism, and fighting to preserve democracy and expand democracy through socialism. Democratic socialism, in case people are wondering, actually, is not a term that means halfway to socialism. And it doesn’t mean nicer, gentler socialism. It’s a term that actually just is intended to differentiate our contemporary movement from the 20th century authoritarian socialism of Stalin and Mao.

RS: So tell me, what–I’m trying to inspire people to read your book, and I got it by the way for $2, the e-version, on Verso. I don’t know if that was the bargain rate, pre-pub or whatever, but anybody who wants to read this book, you go to Verso, or I guess you could go to Amazon too, but you can go to Verso, the publisher. You can get the print, hardcover copy, you can get the e-copy or whatever, it’s quite reasonable. But tell us why you wrote the book, you and your partner. And what does it basically state, briefly, and what does it urge you to do?

MD: Right, so Micah and I decided to write this book because we understood that something very significant was happening in the Bernie moment, which is that forces were amassing on the left that had great potential, but that there was not really a roadmap for what to do with that potential after the Bernie moment was over. So Micah and I decided to sit down and write this book, and of course it was difficult, because we didn’t actually know what was going to happen. We had to write a book that would actually be relatively useful if Bernie Sanders won or lost. We sort of assumed he would–I mean, if we had to pick, we would have assumed that he would lose, because you know, he had the forces of the entire capitalist class and political establishment aligned against him. But we tried to leave it open and make it capacious enough to be useful in any scenario, which meant that it actually forced us to really boil it down to what we think are some of the guiding principles for the emergent socialist left in the coming years.

And the main arguments that we make are that the left cannot abandon electoral politics, even though it’s quite difficult; there’s no question about that. And it’s got plenty of pitfalls, too, but you need to engage on that terrain of struggle, because otherwise you’re simply abstaining from what most people think of when they think of politics, and you’re also ceding a very important site of class struggle to the capitalist class itself. You’re vacating it, right? So it’s important for the socialist left to engage in electoral politics, but we have some guidelines for what we think that looks like. We call our theory of how the socialist left should engage in elections “class-struggle elections,” and we have several criteria for what we think that consists of, which we lay out in the book. And we also give some examples of Democratic Socialists of America chapters in particular, because we think that’s probably the most promising site of emergent socialist activity in the United States right now.

RS: And you have people in Congress already, who you–

MD: We do.

RS: –mention in the book, who have managed to get elected. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the role models there?

MD: Well, I think that–well, let me put it this way. DSA when it first–it was reborn in 2016; it’s existed for quite a while, but a totally brand new organization–so you might as well say that DSA in its current iteration started in 2016. And when it did, people would come along who seemed like they had relatively–they had, like, aligned political views, and then DSA would endorse them. And those are the DSA candidates who are currently in Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What’s really exciting is that in the intervening years, DSA has actually been able to produce its own political leaders from its own ranks. And those people tend to have even more of a relationship to DSA, even more of a sense of accountability to the organization, and it’s starting to develop a real political identity in the electoral sphere.

So, yes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and various other representatives who’ve already been elected are incredible role models. But what’s even more exciting is what’s happening now. For example, in New York City, five DSA members–no, sorry, six DSA members are currently running on a slate. They’re aiming, five of them are trying to go to Albany to the state legislature, and one is trying to go to Congress to join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You could look it up, it’s the New York City DSA slate. And a lot of these are homegrown DSA activists who have finally, you know, developed the skills and the confidence and the political vision to be able to run for office. And this is extremely thrilling. And the fact that they’re running on a slate together is a sign of the maturation of the group. So I think that’s really exciting. And we try to, in the book, we try to give examples of successful electoral campaigns.

Now, I want to stop, I want to quickly move on and say, because I don’t want this to get lost, that that is just the beginning of the book. The electoral stuff is an important argument, but that’s not the whole argument of the book. About halfway through the book, we then pivot to building movements outside of elections, which are absolutely critical. We focus on social movements; in particular, we focus on the labor movement, which we think is the most important site for socialists to be investing our energy as we gear up for the post-Bernie moment and try to take advantage of the fact that we have renewed left and renewed working-class energy in this country.

So we have a particular orientation toward the labor movement, which we call the rank-and-file strategy. The idea is to build a layer of radicals, to rebuild a layer of radicals in the rank-and-file of the labor movement. Not just people who work for unions, not just leaders, but people who work, you know, in their workplaces and are trusted by their co-workers because they work among them. That link has been severed. In the middle of the 20th century, radicals were purged from the labor movement; this was a part of the second Red Scare. And the labor movement has never really recovered from that. And so it’s our view that building back in that layer of radicals on the rank-and-file level in the labor movement is absolutely critical to taking advantage of and maximizing the opportunities that we now have at our disposal.

RS: Let me just–we’re going to run out of time, but I just want to point out, it’s quite true that the movement you’re connected with, Democratic Socialists of America, is basically a youth-driven movement, or at least it seems to me that way when I see them at rallies and so forth. But America has a long history of socialism. It’s as American as apple pie, and most of the things that people identify with as being civilized in America–including the end of slavery and segregation, the development of safe working conditions, started of course in other countries, in England and Germany and elsewhere. But the whole idea of not having child labor, of people being able to have a decent living, of getting Social Security, of having some medical coverage–all of these came out of a long history of struggle. And you had people like Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, who was so important to the March on Washington in the Civil Rights Movement. You could go down–obviously Debs, who ran for president and was jailed for his ideas at the time of the First World War. And so it’s interesting because you have, you know, even what they used to call Reagan Republicans, you know, working-class people who because of identity politics or jingoism or chauvinism got disoriented. But the reason they had those good jobs in auto and elsewhere, good union jobs, was because the people, like the roofers and others who formed those unions, considered themselves democratic socialist.

So this is not a new invention. It’s not a new idea. And by the way, worldwide, if we bring it back to the pandemic, one reason that Germany, for example, has done better than any other country in Europe in handling the pandemic is that Germany has a strong labor union history. And the Social Democratic Party in Germany, which has held power during many years when they put in these sensible measures, they trace themselves to that tradition. That’s why the National Health System in England now, even the New York Times last week admitted is a great success in this pandemic. So most of what even conservative people in this country, working people, might think is, you know, obviously a good thing–they don’t want to get rid of Social Security, they don’t want to get rid of minimum wage, they don’t want to get rid of all these things–they came out, basically, of a democratic socialist movement in this country.

MD: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to trouble the simple dichotomy between on the one hand, you know, real, hardcore, full socialism, and on the other hand some, like, weaker, sort of softer, gentler social democracy. I actually think that it’s not that you can have one or you can have the other. On the contrary, I think that if we look around the world at what we consider to be social democracies, or what are essentially capitalist countries with very strong socialistic elements, the truth of the matter is that most of those were won through class struggle. And the movements that engaged in that struggle were often led by people who identified as socialists, who were part of organized socialist movements, and who were fighting for an actual socialist future.

And so the social democracies that we’ve seen–the successful social democracies, including in Scandinavia, for example, and in Western Europe, that are actually able to withstand this pandemic much, much better than in the United States–they have very strong socialist, working-class political traditions. And I think that with Bernie Sanders, what we saw was the beginning–or I shouldn’t say the beginning, because you’re right, there’s a very long history of American radicalism. But I would say the resurgence of an American class-struggle, social democratic movement–that is, it has, would appear to be somewhat modest social democratic aims, but it’s mobilizing people to fight for those aims in a way that points to something much more ambitious, something far beyond them. Hopefully one day, eventually something that we might be able to actually call socialism. So I hope that people will take the time to pick up the book. We explain these ideas and many more, including what to do about the Democratic Party in the book, what we think we should do, in any case. So yeah, thank you so much for having me on.

RS: Yep. And the book is called–thank you for being here. And the book is called Bigger than Bernie. It’s not a put-down to Bernie, it’s a big celebration. But it makes the point that his great contribution is the very thing he was attacked for by the Democratic Party and the mass media, for the use of the word, or the phrase, “democratic socialism.” I’ve been talking to Meagan Day, who is the co-author of this book. It’s terrific, check it out with Verso, it’s a great British publisher, and you can just go online and check it out and read it. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producer is Joshua Scheer. The producer at KCRW is Christopher Ho. Natasha Hakimi Zapata did the introduction. And with Joshua Scheer’s leadership, we’ll be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.