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Who's left? Mehdi Hasan on the top 20 US progressives

The New Statesman profiles the leading American progressives who are keeping the cause alive.

The list

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Van Jones

Paul Krugman

David Graeber

Elizabeth Warren

Rachel Maddow

Matt Damon

Congressman Keith Ellison

Sonia Sotomayor

Noam Chomsky

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Markos Moulitsas

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley

Cecile Richards

Danny Glover

Angela Davis

Glenn Greenwald

Tim Robbins

Michael Moore

Bernie Sanders


Don't dare say the "S" word around Barack Obama - or his advisers. In March 2009, a New York Times reporter asked the US president whether his spending priorities might suggest that he was a socialist. "The answer would be no," Obama replied. However, following a discussion with his ultra-cautious, centrist White House aides, a panicked president called the reporter back to add, defensively: "It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question . . . It wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks."

The president proudly declared that he had been "operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principle" and that "some of the same folks who are throwing the word 'socialist' around can't say the same".

Obama, of course, isn't a socialist - except in the fevered imagination of far-right opponents such as the Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who titled a recent book of his To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. Over the past three years the US president has disappointed not just leftist radicals and card-carrying socialists, but even the mildest liberals, having refused to push for a bolder, European-style, single-payer reform of the US health-care system and having signed off on spending cuts that, in his own words, will result in "the lowest level of domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president". To the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (see page 26), Obama is a "moderate conservative"; to the former Reagan policy adviser Bruce Bartlett, he is the "Democrats' Richard Nixon".

Authentic leftists - either socialists or social democrats - are few and far between in the United States. There is just one self-described socialist sitting in Congress: the independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (see page 33). In fact, the US is the only advanced, industrialised nation whose political system remains bereft of a large, mainstream, avowedly social-democratic political organisation such as our own Labour Party or the French Socialist Party. "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" the German sociologist Werner Sombart famously asked in the 1880s. More than a century later, the question stands - and still has no adequate answer.

Signs of life

In his acclaimed new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, the US historian Michael Kazin argues that socialists and progressives have had a huge transformative effect on American culture, helping to boost the rights of women, racial minorities and
homosexuals. Yet even Kazin concedes that the US left has lacked impact: it has never succeeded in building durable institutions or movements, winning elections, or enacting its economic programmes. And the present era, he argues, could be described as "a nadir of the historical left". The latest polls show that only one in three Americans has a positive reaction to the word "socialism"; one in five Americans self-identifies as "liberal".
Yet all may not be lost. There are flickering signs of life on the US left. An energised Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Keith Ellison (see page 29), is now the single biggest Democratic bloc on Capitol Hill. In recent months, the CPC has helped push Obama to the left on job creation. In Wisconsin, public-sector unions mobilised tens of thousands workers who took to the streets to protest against Republican plans to restrict collective bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, the Occupy movement, which erupted on Wall Street in September 2011, has spread across the United States - from Arizona to Alaska, from California to Colorado. Astonishingly, a Pew Research Centre poll released in mid-December showed that 44 per cent of Americans support Occupy Wall Street and just 35 per cent are opposed to it.

What next? What forces can these nascent, populist left-wing movements call on for support in the worlds of politics, economics, academia and the media? We've profile 20 leading American progressives (see list above), from a range of backgrounds, who have been at the forefront of efforts to defend not just liberal, but left-wing, social-democratic ideals. Some of them are well-known names; most of them have little to do directly with the Democratic Party; all of them are defiantly and unashamedly partisan.

As Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog, once said: "I am a progressive. I make no apologies."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide