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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

Michael Cooper/AFP/Getty Images
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The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

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