Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Where Does the Left Go From Here?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Illustration: Jim Cooke
Illustration: Jim Cooke

Last week, the Democratic Party failed to fulfill its most basic function as an institution: winning elections. That failure has put innumerable lives—the lives of the people the party purports to represent—at risk.

It is natural, in such a circumstance, to indulge fantasies. One such fantasy is a counterfactual: that Senator Bernie Sanders would have won the presidential election over Donald Trump where Secretary Hillary Clinton did not—an entirely plausible speculation and also entirely unverifiable.


Another, far more insidious fantasy is that Trump’s victory was inevitable. It was not; in fact, his victory, all things considered, was quite narrow. Trump himself—and the people surrounding him—did not even expect to win. In fact, there are any number of material things her campaign and the Democratic Party could have done that they did not do, or things that they could have done better, or things that they should not have done at all. (President Obama appeared to acknowledge this himself at a press conference on Monday, even lightly scolding the Clinton campaign for its defeat: “I believe that we have better ideas. But I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them.”) In any case, all of those failures added up to Tuesday’s humiliating defeat—the consequences of which are likely to resonate long after 2020.

However, neither of these fantasies will prove to be of much use when venturing forth from the shadows cast by the Pandemonic White House and into the hellscape of Trump’s America. If we consider Trump inevitable, we foreclose the possibility of resistance—a possibility that the Sanders hypothetical, to the extent it is useful at all, at least implicitly allows: the hope that another world is possible. Still, it is too backwards-looking to pin those hopes on Sanders the man: What we should take from his insurgency is that there is an appetite for change both within the strictures of the Democratic Party and without it.


Donald Trump did not win the election last Tuesday; Hillary Clinton lost it. This simple fact makes whatever comfort platitudes about unity, compromise, and waiting to see whether Trump really is who he said he was all the more cold. This is real. It’s happening. Steve Bannon, a white supremacist, will be chief White House strategist. The Ku Klux Klan is celebrating. Billionaire vampire Peter Thiel is assisting Trump’s transition to Washington. Racist slug Rudy Giuliani may very well head the Justice Department. The revanchist, neo-fascist far right is more empowered than it has been in a generation.

So, in this context, where does the Left—or, more generally, people who would aspire to build a more just and equitable society that conveys all its members with dignity and respect—go next? Is the Democratic Party as rotten as it appears? What can people do? What, as Lenin asked, is to be done? I spoke with some leaders on the Left, and here’s what they told me.


J.M. Smucker Director, Beyond the Choir

“If we are to win in 2018 and 2020 and to do effective damage control in the meantime, progressives will have to expel the current failed leadership of the Democratic Party. Social movements will have to push from the outside. Savvy progressives will have to run for office and/or support other progressives who are doing so. We will need to articulate a progressive aspirational vision of an America that works for all of us. We will need to force the Democratic Party to stand up and actually fight for working people. Our united front against a dangerous Trump Presidency will not be effective if we don’t win a long overdue fight over the leadership of the Democratic Party. Spineless centrist neoliberal careerists have had their day. Their failure to fight for—and thus inspire—working people is what enabled a Trump Presidency. It is time for them to step aside. It is time for us to step up.


Roqayah Chamseddine Sydney-based Lebanese-American journalist and co-host of Delete Your Account

There are already people in our communities that are doing the work, so find them, direct others towards them, and only mobilize once you have organized strength. The Left is fractured and will continue to be exhausted by weak job prospects, collapsing social services, and pervasive state repression. It’s not enough to simply mobilize an ever-shrinking Left that will be further weakened by a Trump presidency.

Once involved with these organizations it’s imperative that people feel like they have ownership over them. They should be made to feel that they aren’t serving the organization but that they are the organization. Hillary Clinton not only failed to address material needs of marginalized people, her campaign offered no space for their voices and concerns. Instead of a movement owned by constituents and bolstered with her support, voters were expected to amplify her voice while stifling theirs. The impact that this had is what’s arguably led to the beginnings of the Democratic Party’s death knell.

Any protests we organize must be done with the purpose of pulling people into a sustained movement, not just for expressing anger, and that means, for example, having people with clip boards collecting email addresses, or at least handing out literature with contact information. The work doesn’t end when the protest does—knock on doors, talk to coworkers, engage with people in your community who want to do something but don’t know how to get involved. Connect with people outside your comfort zone. Preaching to an ever-dwindling choir isn’t enough if we want to win.

The growing #NotMyPresident protests are important for giving space for communicating rage, creating a show of force, and for plugging people into organizations, but it’s not enough to confront and reject Trump and his worst supporters. We must [be] engaging with those who are supporting him out of ignorance and desperation. Our rejection of Trump and his ideology must always be clear, but this doesn’t mean leaving no room for redemption for those attracted to his, and Hillary’s, false promises. We must engage with well-meaning people fooled by both candidates. Our future depends on building with those we disagree with, and moving them towards our positions.


Zephyr Teachout – Fordham law professor and anti-corruption activist

The most important thing people can do is get off the internet and join their local democratic club, and then recruit others to join, and become part of team of moral resistance fighting for the rights of unions to organize, joining cause in the fights for clean water around our country, and elect local democratic leaders who care about the basics: good jobs, union power, clean water, infrastructure.


Melissa Mark-Viverito Speaker, New York City Council

Like everyone, I’m crushed, but we’ve got to get off the mat. Our work is now more urgent than ever. Roe vs. Wade is on the line and I’m going to work every day to make sure women have full and accessible reproductive care in New York City. This city of immigrants is going to remain a place that keeps families together and respects the contributions of all New Yorkers. And we are going to get more women elected to office so that boys and girls growing up today understand that women are leaders worthy of respect. We will be stronger, we will fight harder, and we will win. This is New York City and we know how to stand up to bullies.


Luis K.C. FelizFreelance journalist and organizer

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a referendum on capitalism’s failures to serve the interest of working class people. In keeping with reactionary trends in Europe and Latin America, the protest vote threw into garish relief a nationalist chauvinism underpinned by racism, sexism and xenophobia. A generalized feeling of despair and economic decline produced by a vicious declension cycle of widening income inequality, job loss and wage stagnation found its most potent expression in the hateful rhetoric of the consummate demagogic Little Man. And yet while the losers of our globalized market economy have spoken in the most direct and unequivocal voice of reaction, no clear consensus on the left is at hand about what is to be done.

Trump won, in part, because Democratic Party liberals share with traditional conservatives an unquenchable disdain for the ‘unwashed masses,’ and their supposedly outmoded economic demands—juxtaposed against respectable calls for tolerance, dialogue and diversity—are moot. It’s a testament to the weakness of the left that in aligning so closely with Democrats, they are indistinguishable from mealy-mouthed liberals and have thus failed to mobilize working class grievances. Slightly revising Walter Benjamin’s old thesis, every lurch of the working class into the death embrace of reaction bears witness to the failure of the left to build its party, its independent institutions, the very institutions that defend workers as a class against exploitation, death and injury. We must stand together in combating reactionaries that threaten sexual assault against women, physical violence against Muslims and queer folk, death sentences against people of color and deportations of undocumented immigrants. The task before the left, the revolutionary left, is clear: build the left while ruling class collaborators reveal their opportunism with overtures to work alongside Trump.


Mike Sylvester Democratic State Legislator from Portland, Maine. He is currently the only open, Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) member holding state office.

We just saw an election where a “change candidate” beat an “establishment candidate.” To most of us on the left, the changes that were being proposed by Trump were abhorrent, inhumane or even ridiculous. Most of of our fellow Americans saw it differently or stayed home. Trump’s supporters saw a broken system and figured any change would be better than more of the same.

I ran for state office to support a socialist vision of change. Within days of filing my papers, I attended a training where an “expert consultant” explained that candidates should be as vague as possible so that we couldn’t get “trapped” by our beliefs. My campaign responded to this advice by creating signs that said DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST and LABOR DEMOCRAT and PUBLIC WATER NOT FOR SALE and MORE LOVE, NO HATE with a cartoon figure of me in my hoodie and jeans, leaning against my name. Here I am, the signs said. Here is what I believe. Big mistake, some said. We won by 82%.

If economics is the dismal science, political science is the deceitful science. It flourishes by spreading a false narrative of ‘the other’ which is just as popular in racist circles as amongst us lefties. Political Science also tells a false narrative of ourselves. We are not better than we are. If we are going to win on our justice issues, we must not fall prey to these comforting but false narratives. We must base build, teach the base how to run tight campaigns, get out of the way and not think we know better. We must say to the working poor of every class, skin color, race, gender and sexual orientation that “your fight is my fight” if we want our fight to be their fight. We have to march down dirt roads and into broken cities. We have to tell our honest truth, warts and all. We have to listen.


Dan CantorNational Director, Working Families Party

First things first: we’ll need to resist Trump’s agenda and defend the people his administration will most likely attack, including immigrants, Muslims and women. New York’s progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio sets a good example in pledging to refuse to cooperate with Trump’s attacks on immigrants. Cities and states can defend immigrants, enshrine reproductive choice, protect religious liberty and more. And we’ll need to encourage progressive members of Congress to have the spine to use every tool at their disposal to block Trump’s dangerous proposals, at least as ferociously as the Republican’s tried to stymie Obama.

But we can’t just be on defense. Let’s make 2018 into a disaster for Ryan, McConnell, and Trump and a victory for progressives.

There are two ideological battles we need to be prepared to fight: first, against Trump’s brand of phony populism that seeks to “build a wall” between “real Americans” and “others” and says only some of us are truly deserving of America’s promise; and second, against neoliberalism — which overtook much of the mainstream of the Democratic Party starting with Bill Clinton — and backed financial deregulation, privatization, corporate mega-mergers, cuts to the social safety net and ‘market-based’ solutions to every problem.

To defeat both we’ll need to start with a new vision for America with a democracy that truly works for all of us, and seeks justice: economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, environmental justice, educational justice and so on. We’ll need to wage a fight for the direction of the Democratic Party. In 2017, we’ll aim to recruit, train and elect hundreds, or even thousands of candidates seeking local office to run on a shared platform. And in 2018, we’ll have candidate seeking state and federal office on that bold vision as well. Democratic candidates will either embrace that vision — instead of the neoliberal framework — or else risk challengers. In times like these, only progressive populism will defeat phony right-wing populism.

And we’ll be launching chapters across the nation to do it. Want to start or join one?


Alex Press – Writer, organizer, and PhD student in sociology.

I spent the week at a summit on housing in a Rust Belt city, the type of place where a left alternative to right-wing demagoguery is badly needed. Yet at the summit, no one dwelled on Trump. Community organizers—predominantly low-income black women—mentioned him, but only to say his election was reason to double down on their efforts to build power.

When a college student, a young white man, asked one of the organizers what he could do to contribute to her work (“My landlord sucks too—my heat won’t even turn on!” he proclaimed), the organizer didn’t hesitate in her response. “We need everyone we can get! They try to divide us but this affects you too—you know it and so do I.”

After approving murmurs from the crowd, she continued: ‘We need people who can research the policies that got us here, that can help us communicate across neighborhoods. We need you to knock doors, talk to tenants. You can do all that! And you call me Monday, we’ll get your heat turned on right away, trust me.’

With that, the student was brought into the work.

On a national scale, millions of people are similarly asking what they can do in the wake of Trump’s election. While I’m nowhere near as effective an organizer as the woman above, here’s my advice to anyone uncertain of what to do: Join grassroots organizations active in your area. For starters, look at the organizations in the Movement for Black Lives and see which members of that coalition are active where you are. The anti-police brutality movement needs more support than ever now that the man police unions endorsed is President-elect.

Two other key battles over the next four years will be over unions and reproductive rights. If you can join a union or help build one at your workplace, do so. Check out feminist organizations in your area, particularly those that operate without establishment backing or large grants - they’ll be most in need of your skills and time. Finally, consider joining the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, or Socialist Alternative—all are socialist organizations operating independently of the Democratic Party.

Above all else, don’t wait for direction from political elites or pundits. They’ll be fine under a Trump presidency—it’s us that need to get organized.


Tsedeye Gebreselassie Senior Staff Attorney, National Employment Law Project Action Fund

Things are going to be hard. But complacency or hopelessness are not options. Here are three things progressives can do:

1) Remember that many of the decisions affecting our lives don’t just happen on the federal level—they also happen in statehouses and city councils across the country. State-level voter suppression laws, anti-LGBTQ equality laws, laws dismantling collective bargaining and other worker rights, laws attacking access to reproductive health care—all are the result of state legislatures that shifted further and further to the right in each election cycle. So while we push back at the federal level to preserve all of the positive changes we were able to make under the last administration, we also need to be engaged on the state and local level. This means active volunteering with community groups working on issues important to you in your state and city, and voting in every state and local election, not just presidential campaigns. That’s the playbook the right wing used to get us where we are today – building power at every level of government.

2) Realize that the time for symbolic protest and mobilization has ended. We need to peacefully disrupt. The Tea Party disrupted for 8 years and did an effective job. On our side, when there is a town hall calling for more policing or registration of Muslims, we need to show up that town hall, mobilize our networks to attend and peacefully disrupt it to make it impossible for these ideas to gain traction. We can’t just march for women’s rights, but peacefully disrupt efforts to defund women’s centers and use our power to call upon well-funded foundations to invest in community health centers.

3) Educate ourselves on the role that race played in this election, because that will be critical in developing strategies to bring about change over the next years.


Libby Watson – British journalist writing about transparency in Washington, D.C.

Every time I try to think about Trump’s victory, I feel like I’m being attacked by a swirling cloud of bats. In this bad metaphor, these bastard bats are all the competing, unsatisfactory, overlapping explanations for How The Fuck This Happened. There are so many factors, and none of them feels like enough to explain the enormity of what’s going on. I cannot think straight. I certainly can’t imagine the future.

How do we fight Trump and Bannon (and the other Death Eaters LOL), other than doing Facebook statuses and tweets that say, I will fight, one RT = one fight? I don’t know. I expect it will involve a lot of calling congressional offices and taking to the streets; I am eager to hear from successful left activists on this. More than anything, I think it involves remembering this: resistance is good, it is patriotic, it is necessary. Resistance gets results. The “high ground,” whatever the fuck that is, does not. The radical/Tea Party right didn’t remake American politics and defeat the public option and obstruct Obama’s agenda for years with the high ground. When pundits tell you to “settle down,” or try to analyze it as if it’s normal politics, please, for the love of God, ignore them.

So many things hang in the balance now. Lives are at stake; our future is more uncertain that ever, and it’s been a long time coming. This is an opportunity for the left to change the debate, to put the Third Way Democratic politics of the last 30 years in the ground and push for the working class, for welfare, for the people that feel so thoroughly fucked over and left behind by the way things are. It’s more than just an opportunity: it’s our only hope.


Perry O’Brien Common Defense; US Army 2001-2004

For the last ten months, veterans around the country have been speaking out against Trump’s reckless campaign of hatred and division. Now it looks like we’re just getting started. We swore an oath to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. If anyone is threatening our basic freedoms, we feel we have a duty to fight back—even if that person is headed for the White House.

Most urgently, we have to be ready to put ourselves on the line and defend - through nonviolent means—Muslims and other communities being threatened by Trump and the right-wing extremists he has emboldened.

Second, through political action and grassroots organizing we’re going to ensure that Trump and his enablers pay a heavy price in 2018 and beyond. I think we can look to the Popular Front of the 1920-30’s and see the kind of political alignments that could emerge. Then, as now, the future of American politics does not belong to fascists.