A transatlantic argument has broken out over the US election result and what it means for the left: there, here and across the world. It’s the right argument, even though the danger of a Donald Trump power-grab has not receded, because it concerns the future of the planet.
Joe Biden won a clear majority of the popular vote (51 per cent to Trump’s 48 per cent) and retook swing states across the so-called rust belt from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. But because Trump increased his 2016 vote by nine million, despite his record of open racism, impeachable conduct and incompetence over Covid-19, the Democrats’ future challenge is clear.
The party’s base is eroding – as shown not just by swings to Trump in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas – but in the loss (so far) of ten Democrat-held seats in the House, many of them with significant numbers of Hispanic voters.
The centrist explanation is that Trump’s attack on Biden as a “socialist” worked because the radical wing of the Democratic Party, and much of its urban activist base, campaigned for universal healthcare, “defunding the police” and the transition away from fossil fuels.
The left’s retort is that the losing candidates were deadbeats who failed to match Trump’s blitz of online disinformation with modern, networked campaigning, and that the national Democratic campaign team is trapped in the methods of pre-populist politics.
The problem is they are both right. The Democrats, like all progressive parties, are a coalition of radicals, progressive liberals and mildly conservative middle-class voters – and Trump’s campaign spotted the cracks between them.
What they did in the actual campaign was secondary, because the values divide – over race, gender, policing and climate change – was relentlessly widened over four years of resistance by black communities, women, Native Americans and their supporters.
When centrist Democrats chide their radical colleagues for supporting the slogan “defund the police”, they conveniently forget that it’s probably the most resonant demand emanating from “we the people” in a decade. Bloated, militarised and overpaid police forces, in places infiltrated by the far right, have become a menace to black communities. The demand to reduce their funding to a level commensurate with consensual, community-based law enforcement is logical and just.
Likewise the demand to “transition” away from fossil fuels was not dreamed up by some left cabal in Brooklyn but is the stated position of the global community, and probably the number-one obsession of young voters. If we don’t do it, human society will be in chaos within a century.
Even if the so-called squad of left-wing Democrats (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib), now augmented by Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, were to delete their Twitter accounts and stay off the airwaves, the demand for climate, social and racial justice among progressive voters would continue to rise, as would the demand to further subject policing to the rule of law.
But the centrists have a point. First, if you are not truly proposing socialism, why go around talking about it? Nothing in the measures proposed by the Justice Democrats in Congress constitutes socialism: it is the radical reform of capitalism. Second, if you do want to use the language of socialism, what is your advice to candidates in areas with socially conservative white electorates, or those with Hispanic communities historically hostile to the left?
It was this point that Labour’s pro-capitalist wing rushed to amplify on the day of Biden’s victory. Ben Bradshaw MP, Wes Streeting MP, Andrew Adonis and other avatars of Blairism claimed that the lesson of the US election was for the left to pipe down. In the wake of the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn it looks like a concerted attempt to sideline the left within Labour.
There is an answer to this, and it is generic – not just for the UK and the US, but for much of western Europe – but it needs honesty at the level of analysis. The progressive voting coalition is fragile while the conservative coalition is unified around a set of strong negatives: against migration, against the rapid transition away from carbon, against redistributive tax measures and against the shared progressive culture of educated people. Over the past five years, with the emergence of pervasive extremist propaganda on social media, the conservative electoral coalition has moved right.
The progressive coalition, meanwhile, is fragile along real, material fault lines. It is still overwhelmingly composed of working people. But since work is no longer the primary site of exploitation, and the class struggle also takes place over rents, interest payments, data extraction, monopoly pricing, racial justice and climate justice, it is easily divided over values.
The low-income Hispanic voter in Texas has (roughly) the same economic grievances as the low-income white voter in Michigan, and the low-income black voter in St Louis. But the racial injustice, the migration-linked precarity and the geographic inequality they experience is not “super-structural”, compared to a more “material” base layer of economic exploitation: their cultural, ethnic and spatial realities shape their exploitation and pervade their life experience.
As a result, “class reductionism” – which is overtly theorised by sections of the left but practised just as strongly by traditional, pork-barrel centrists – does not work. It doesn’t work in conditions of austerity because “who gets what” becomes a question of cultural and community rivalries. Nor does it work in the present era of central-bank funded fiscal expansion, because governments that can hand out money for free can create a narrative based on dependency that is, unfortunately, stronger than the narrative of resistance.
What’s the alternative? Those who oppose class reductionism have argued since the mid-2010s for a “left populism”. Create a gut narrative, emotively expressed, around power and self-organisation, and you can reach across the cultural divides, goes the argument. You have to stop privileging white, working-class groups, and indeed workplace struggles. Critically, as the social theorist Chantal Mouffe writes, you have to create a “frontier” between the people and the oligarchy that transcends left and right.
So far, however, that hasn’t worked. In Spain it succeeded to the extent that the Unidas Podemos party won 13 per cent of the vote at the November 2019 general election and entered government as the junior coalition partner of the unpopulist social democrats. In France, this strategy delivered 20 per cent of the vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the 2017 French presidential election. This approach has worked in Bolivia, where Luis Arce’s Movement for Socialism hegemonised the popular vote (winning 55 per cent in October’s general election), against equally populist candidates of the right and far right. But the dynamics of Bolivia are different.
In the UK, unfortunately, I do not think this populist strategy has even been tried. For a few days in advance of the 2017 general election, Corbyn caught the imagination of some undecided working-class voters, breaking through the media scattergun of lies and disinformation. But it has not happened since.
This means either that left populism is being done badly, or not enough – or that it’s inadequate in the face of the solidified nativist, socially conservative voting bloc. An effective American left populism has to communicate to socially conservative, working-class people, whether they’re white or – as is now the challenge in Florida, Texas and parts of California – people of colour. In the UK, the left has to win back the “Red Wall”, followed by places such as Bolton West, Swindon South and Milton Keynes.
It has to show not that the lives of people in these places are “the same” – because they are not, and nor are their perceived interests. What they share in common is powerlessness, the absence of voice and a deficit of hope and progress.
If progressive parties can create a single narrative, embodied in a single person or team, which looks capable of mediating the conflicting interests and demands created by multiple forms of exploitation and oppression, we are in the game. The game is keeping the right/far-right coalition out of power long enough to strengthen democracy and save the planet. My hunch is that to do so we are going to need either a new iteration of left populism, not led by men over the age of 60, or a more formal alliance between liberalism and the left.
The game has barely started. The genie of nativism, white supremacism and pervasive misogyny is out of the bottle, and is coursing through online conversations, even if its disinformation efforts are currently blocked by tech giants. The electoral battles of the 2020s, and therefore the future of the planet, will be decided by who can marshall the strongest progressive political movement around a clear vision of the future, not who can persuade the swing-voters of the centre with retail offers or vacuity. There are currently not enough of them to matter.