Is The Contemporary Left A Lifestyle Brand?
3 February, 2023
"Through our journeys through the heartland of the United States, we really saw, and understood the rise of the far right’, " Jason says. ‘Living on the coast, in what looks to be one of the more thriving economies, most people here don't really understand how the new global economy affects us as a nation. “Deindustrialization”, creating, as author Chris Hedges calls them, “Capitalism Sacrifice Zones”. We just wanted to make a record to expose that, so maybe we can start to have the conversation.’”
My band, La Fin Absolute Du Monde, had been together since 2009. Our final album, Killing the Host, came out in 2017. The press release above seemed to capture what it attempted to do. The music was a reflection of what we were hearing from the people we’d meet in the parts of the country journalists call “America’s heartland”; places we’d visit on tour like Parkersburg, West Virginia, Butte, Montana, Victoria, TX,and Lawton, Oklahoma. Those people would tell us about their frustration with the lies of “hope and change” peddled by the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. They felt cheated. And the one person who wasn’t speaking to them in the typical bullshit language of partisan politics was Donald Trump. His speeches weren’t just racist rhetoric. He spoke in a vengeful tone about the way neoliberalism was laying waste to the idea of the American dream. His campaign was perfectly designed to defeat whatever establishment candidate the Dems would throw his way. That spooked the DNC establishment, of course–but so did Bernie Sanders and his condemnation of his own party and their neoliberal assault on the working class and poor. Both candidates had an ability to electrify their respective troops and disrupt politics as usual.
His speeches weren’t just racist rhetoric. He spoke in a vengeful tone about the way neoliberalism was laying waste to the idea of the American dream.
Trump was going to Make America Great Again, a rehashed Reagan-era dog whistle about a better, whiter America. Juxtaposed to Trump was Bernie Sanders, who ran on a different kind of nostalgia. His rhetoric harkened back to the New Deal vision of a better society brought about by government largess. And instead of just recapturing past glories, he wanted to go further with new universal programs like Medicare for All.
Sanders ran a campaign that was laser-focused on specific policy proposals. He attracted the attention of the downwardly mobile and politically frustrated with his repeated denunciation of a private healthcare system that denies care to the uninsured and bankrupts millions of people who do have insurance. He talked about the multi-generational crisis of debt peonage that was staring a frustrated voting populace in the face. The same way Trump shocked some viewers and delighted others by criticizing Bush’s wars on the Republican debate stage, Sanders wasn't afraid to call out the failures of the elite liberals in his own party who were in the pockets of big pharma and the healthcare industry. And unlike Trump, Sanders didn’t just offer rhetorical denunciations. He had real policy solutions.
Since Sanders was a long-time socialist, and he had a degree of independence from the Democratic Party brand—until his Presidential run, he’d always run as an Independent—he was able to popularize “democratic socialism” as a political identity distinct from regular “progressive” politics. Many young voters, and even some Gen-X-ers like me, no longer equated socialism with failure. The terms Communist, Socialist and Democratic Socialist were no longer associated with gulags and breadlines. “Socialist” politics now felt like a viable pathway to equality.
The terms Communist, Socialist and Democratic Socialist were no longer associated with gulags and breadlines.
There was a momentum building and many people across racial and economic lines were motivated to donate, door knock, and phone bank for Bernie Sanders. In this septuagenarian, many found a new leader – a Eugene Debs 2.0. But why wasn’t Sanders able to turn this political energy into a movement? Organizations like the Green Party, PSL, and most of all DSA, who were usually marginal, saw an uptick in membership during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns due to the renewed popularity of socialism. But why couldn’t Sanders and his coterie capitalize on this momentum and form either a viable third party or a leftist organization that could exercise real power in Democratic politics? Was Sanders simply a sheepdog for the Democratic Party?
While Trump was a marketing machine during the run up to the election and even during his time in office, Sanders was concerned with making his campaign centered on issues and people. Sanders, who believed that you can’t critique corruption while taking part in it, was able to raise over $96,000,000 from small money donations. No PAC money or special interest money was accepted. After the Sanders loss in 2016, this would become a standard expectation for other self-identified leftists running for office.
Sanders's critique of the for profit healthcare system and his insistence on Medicare for All became a leftist signifier. The media portrayal of this as socialism/communism became a defining tenant of socialism for newly minted leftists. It also became a rallying cry for anyone running for office after the Sanders loss in 2016. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a social media star in a way that was a first not only for the resurgent left but for any American politician (except perhapsTrump himself). Her tweets and Instagram posts became national news. And she was running on the Sanders program of free college, Medicare for All (by now, just “M4A”), and a Green New Deal. Cortez was able, like Sanders, to amass a large national following as an insurgent candidate. The majority of the donations to her congressional campaign came from out state, and even the ones from New York City came from outside her Queens/Bronx district. From an article in Open Secrets in 2018:
“About 6 percent of Ocasio-Cortez’s itemized contributions have come from the 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx in New York City. The city was Ocasio-Cortez’s largest source of funds by metro area. She brought in at least $138,000 from New Yorkers, with Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Chelsea neighborhoods being her most lucrative zip codes.
AOC won her Congressional race and the media framed her and three other freshman Congresswomen as the leaders of a leftist insurgency in Democratic politics. Grassroots democratic socialists were excited, and no one was talking about the need for strong organizations that could hold these people accountable and make sure their energy wasn’t simply absorbed into the Democratic mainstream.
The hero worship of the AOC and the squad was infectious until it wasn’t. The expectations of what these Congresswomen could actually accomplish were often in an alternate dimension from the boring political realities. On one hand, people wanted AOC and the rest of the Congressional “Squad” to bring about massively consequential political reforms like the passage of Medicare for All. On the other hand, they wanted them to act as disruptors, not unlike the Freedom Caucus in the Republican Party–whose members are free to cause attention-grabbing chaos precisely because they’re cynical nihilists more concerned with building their own brands than accomplishing much of anything legislatively.
The hero worship of the AOC and the squad was infectious until it wasn’t.
Such schizophrenic expectations predictably generate confusion, frustration and anger. But there’s a deeper problem here. Is it wise to attempt to build a left through the electoral realm? If so, what would that realistically look like?
Ultimately you have to pick a strategy. And whatever it is, you have to find a way to hold allied politicians to it, even as they’re buffeted by competing pressures from party leadership, from us, and from their own constituents. We’re still suffering from the hubris of the New Left of the 60s, where radicals were removed from the working class and entrenched in campuses. Without a working-class base, the concerns of the New Left simply morphed into bourgeois liberalism and identity politics. Even those strains of left-wing thought that retained a nominal commitment to Marx’s ideas didn’t escape this. “Marxism” can become one more form of high art for an academic elite. Do we just want liberal altruism with a hammer and sickle? If not, we on the left can’t simply be culture warriors reacting to whatever our enemies are saying in the day-to-day political circus and putting a radical gloss on it all. We can’t fall victim to the culture of deconstruction – the culture of “no”.
Fighting about which flavor of left media you consume, or even about how everyone individually votes–when you enter the privacy of that voting booth, do you “vote blue” or cast a symbolic protest vote?--all I hear are squabbles about consumer choice. You might as well say you only vote for locally sourced organic politicians. It means about as much.
You might as well say you only vote for locally sourced organic politicians.
Proclaiming your politics to be “more radical” than AOC or Bernie Sanders, if the proclamation isn’t attached to a realistically actionable plan for bringing about more radical results, is an exercise in personal branding. Socialist politics has to be more than what you feel in your heart. We need to continue to try to build strong organizations based in the working class. Until the left is willing to do that, it’s all just aesthetics – and I’m sorry, but I don’t see the point.