After the #Bern: What’s next for the progressive left?

It will no doubt feel to many on the left that a strategy that’s less reliant on national leadership is too slow and requires more work on the part of voters to not only become activists, but to participate in local elections and make an effort to look at the records and policy proposals of down ballot candidates in national ones.


Before the still ongoing health crisis upended ordinary life for most of us, the last six or so months were already a story of disappointment for the international left, especially in majority English speaking countries. It’s as if we’re slowly waking from a bad dream and having difficulty remembering that, just a short time ago, Jeremy Corbyn was leading the most radical British Labor Party since at least the 1980s and Bernie Sanders appeared to be creating momentum for a progressive takeover of the U.S. Democratic Party.

There was even a moment when the Vermont senator’s nomination was deemed inevitable by many of those who tried from the beginning to dismiss his campaign.

In Corbyn’s case, as revealed by leaked chat logs, we now know that the right wing of British Labor, dominant from the Tony Blair years until 2015, was willing, at the risk of a hard Brexit, to sabotage its own party’s electoral prospects in 2017, and probably again at the end of last year, if it meant keeping Corbyn from leading a government.

Somewhat ironically, Boris Johnson’s Tory government has had to enact some of the Labor left’s more radical policies to deal with the economic impacts of the global pandemic. Apparently, there actually is a ‘magic money tree’, it’s just a shame that successive British governments never looked for it (perhaps by going after tax dodging corporations) to shore up the country’s National Health Service and social care, which have been relentless victims of austerity.

While I think that the vast majority of American working people would still prefer to have a healthcare system like the NHS or the less comprehensive one we have here in Canada, these safety nets haven’t been immune to an uncontrolled laissez faire economics that has seen empty hospital beds during normal times as an unacceptable cost. Both countries are now paying for this kind of thinking in human lives.

One point of comparison between Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and in a way one of the most endearing things about both, was their unwillingness to ‘go negative’ and directly fire back at their opponents in any but the vaguest of terms, preferring to campaign on policy and principle.

While part of the reason for Sanders’ pre-Super Tuesday rise as compared to Corbyn’s precipitous fall was a mainstream U.S. press that tried to simply ignore the former, the Vermont senator’s seeming refusal to highlight the records of his opponents during debates and in interviews, especially Joe Biden when the contest for the nomination became a clear two way race, handicapped his campaign until he suspended it in April.

The likely reasoning for this approach may seem more sound given time, in that Sanders probably wanted to ensure he could return to his Senate duties without enmity from a future Democratic administration and his own colleagues in that body, where he can potentially do some good in the years ahead. Still, and it’s entirely anecdotal, but if left social media is to believed, his surrender feels like a betrayal to many of his ardent supporters, who gave him their time and money and may now be disillusioned with politics altogether.

Although she often seemed forced into walking a tightrope in terms of Sanders’ presumed desire for a civil campaign, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner was much more effective at the kind of messaging that the candidate tried to stand above and recently reminded his supporters that the movement she helped build was always meant to be about more than just one candidate.

Worse, at the time when he is needed most, the Vermont senator has faded from public view, even missing a Senate vote on an amendment last week that would have prevented the government from accessing the browsing histories of American citizens without a warrant. It failed to pass by just one vote, greatly expanding an already terrifying surveillance state.

Add to this that progressive members of the U.S. Congress have, with notable exceptions, mostly voted for a series of bailout plans that heavily favor corporate interests over the increasingly dire needs of citizens and the small businesses that power the country’s economy. .html What should most enrage the party’s supporters, regardless of where they stand on the ideological spectrum, is the missed opportunity to shame a Republican-controlled Senate in advance of November elections, something that still seems less important to the House leadership than pleasing the deep pocketed donors that steer the economic policies of both parties.

One of the few politicians with a national platform who has been a strong voice for millions of workers facing uncertain futures is Pramila Jayapal, who represents Washington state’s 7th Congressional district and is co-chair of the House’s growing Progressive Caucus.

As reported by Politico, Jayapal, “…pushed hard for inclusion of the “Paycheck Guarantee” program in the new bill [the Heroes Act], but senior Democrats contend they weren’t able to turn the proposal into legislative text, saying it is too costly and complicated. The Jayapal plan — which is backed by more than 60 House Democrats — has a price tag of more than $650 billion for six months.”

Rather than being just a token gesture, Jayapal’s principled stance built relationships, reaching out to unlikely allies among swing state Democrats considered moderates who want to distance themselves from Nancy Pelosi’s focus on unemployment rather than keeping workers in jobs through the current crisis. Pelosi’s strategy has opened the party up to Republican criticisms, as reported by Ryan Grim of the Intercept, that hers is the “party of unemployment”.

While it was invigorating to watch socially democratic ideas win over so many people in the English speaking world beginning in 2015, especially a broad coalition of young voters, progressive leaders need to articulate these policies more forcefully as the economic crisis deepens or risk leaving the path of economic populism open to domination by cynical actors on the right, who are now presenting themselves and their trust fund baby leaders as the ‘true’ economic populists.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #Black Live Matter to Black Liberation, recently made an important point to Jacobin about the mask being lifted on our Neoliberal culture, as during more normal times, “the contradictions of US society are buried beneath Hollywood and popular culture and sports. There are all these distractions that usually exist and now there aren’t any. And so right now.  . . we’re just witnessing all of it, you know? The rich white dudes of Congress who are running the country, ordering the poor and working class and black people and immigrants to go back to work, even if it kills you. The idea that this is the best place on earth is really being pulled apart in a thousand different pieces right now.”

As has been widely reported over the last week, it seems that some of those working on the Biden campaign, plagued by technical difficulties created by the new necessity of running a virtual campaign and a candidate who sometimes struggles with what are politely called gaffes, have shifted to the left. While this should be encouraged, judging from his record, it probably shouldn’t be counted on, although the appointment of Alexadria Ocasio Cortez (who will co-chair a task force on climate change with John Kerry) and Jayapal to unity task forces shaping six aspects of the party’s 2020 platform is a promising sign.

In the U.S. there is a now visible struggle between federal and state power that may come to favor progressive ideas if the larger movement returns to a more localized strategy that can enhance the working class power made so clear by the newfound importance of low wage ‘essential’ labor and revives the idea of mutual aid for the millions who will be left behind in any eventual return to ‘normal’.

Rebecca Solnit quoted an anonymous activist in a recent piece for the Guardian about the explosion of solidarity represented by mutual aid on both sides of the Atlantic, who explained, “Hackney in London has all the usual stuff like grocery buying and support, plus people are sourcing donated phones for people in hospital, laptops for kids who need them to access home learning and cars for healthcare staff redeployed to the makeshift Covid-19 hospital.”

It will no doubt feel to many on the left that a strategy that’s less reliant on national leadership is too slow and requires more work on the part of voters to not only become activists, but to participate in local elections and make an effort to look at the records and policy proposals of down ballot candidates in national ones. With the expansion of already existing mutual aid networks and renewed labor organizing as places begin to slowly reopen, working people on both sides of the Atlantic may see more substantial returns than they would waiting for the next Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn to take the stage.


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