Why Liberals Have Failed In American Politics

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Duane Townsend

Jacobin - April 6, 2020

"... organizing the Left around a coalition of marginalized identities, as most liberals and even many leftists now do, cedes political debate to the preferred venue of the identitarian right. They want to argue over divisive cultural issues. The culture wars are also the preferred battlefield of right-wing ideologues who would rather political debate stay focused on identity issues than on enacting universal social programs, addressing inequality through wealth redistribution, or challenging the power and influence of capital."

... There’s no better way to hobble a popular agenda than to mislabel it as something divisive and unpopular. We’re doing the Right’s work for it here.

Worse, identity-based political organizing causes the Left to actually abandon its core mission of building a just, equitable society, shifting battles from broad struggles for the redistribution of wealth and resources to a fight for more seats at the table. The problem becomes not the unjust system itself but rather the lack of minority representation within it. In this way, the identity politics that Klein hopes to rescue, no matter how well intentioned such movements may be, end up reinforcing the neoliberal status quo.

Class Is More Than an Identity

Despite repeatedly emphasizing that our identities are pluralistic, Klein gives little attention to class in the book. This seems curious given that class cuts across racial divides and the geographic divisions that warp representation in the American political system. After all, Donald Trump would not be in the White House, nor would Republicans enjoy such an unassailable demographic advantage in the Senate, without having picked off so many white workers in the Midwest and elsewhere.

During a book tour Q&A session, Klein clarified that he doesn’t see class as a powerful identity in American politics. He notes that the Left line that “conservatives vote against their own interests” is a misunderstanding that arises from narrowly defining interests in terms of material resources. In Klein’s view, American politics is a fight over group identity and status, and policy debates are merely proxy wars in the struggle for group dominance. Voters are voting on identity, and the Left has mostly failed to create a class identity that speaks to the American public.

It’s true that the broader liberal left has largely abandoned class politics and that the rising democratic-socialist left must work harder to build class identity, but the implication that class is just another identity equal to others is inaccurate. Class consciousness may get activated like any other identity, but it functions very differently in practice. Whereas “identity politics” (as practiced by both the Left and the Right) divide the country into factions at war for group status, class consciousness cuts across racial, geographic, and cultural divides. Organizing around class puts most voters on the same side.

I’m under no illusion that white workers will unanimously join a class-oriented, multiracial, egalitarian movement — the pull of fascism and nativist nationalism is strong — but organizing around universalist policies at least provides material reasons to do so.

The Bernie Sanders campaign’s strength, once again, reveals the power in organizing around the commonality of class. Rather than trying to disguise universalist policies in the language of identity politics, Sanders consistently responds to the Democratic establishment’s pandering identity fetishization by underscoring how his policies — such as Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee — benefit everyone, marginalized groups most of all, in material ways that chanting vague platitudes like “X minority’s rights are human rights” does not.

It’s not enough to simply acknowledge injustice — we have to actually do something about it.

If the Democratic Party and the broader left want voters to vote on material interests, they need to make improving material conditions a priority and market it as such. Of course, much of the Democratic establishment has no interest in challenging the neoliberal order and is happy to spin its wheels arguing endlessly over whether our oppressors are diverse enough.

Those who are truly invested in improving material conditions will still find themselves pushing up against the gridlock inherent to our broken and undemocratic political system, but at least they’ll be able to credibly and honestly make the case that they are working to make things better, for everyone.

Democratization Is Not Optional

A popular platform will not spare the Left from contending with the constraints of the American political system described in Why We’re Polarized. Enacting policies, no matter how popular, requires political power. Unfortunately, malapportionment — which overwhelmingly benefits the Republican Party — prevents electoral majorities from translating into governing majorities that control political institutions. Furthermore, “checks and balances” prevent even governing majorities from enacting their campaign agenda.

Given that an excess of veto points favors neoliberal politics, this is particularly problematic for the Left when trying to create public programs and social policies. We won’t get to democratic socialism without democratic governance.

Under the current system, the American public is powerless to hold politicians accountable for policy failures and broken promises. Voters often don’t even know whom to blame. Divided government in the presidential system, a bicameral legislature, and judicial review create competing claims to democratic legitimacy that, as Klein points out, the American political system has no way to resolve. This is why Americans have such disdain for Washington. Legislators can’t legislate. The administration can’t govern. One party gets blamed for the other’s obstructionism and sabotage. Nothing changes no matter who wins elections, and voters are left demoralized. Ultimately, political disputes get decided by unelected federal judges, if they are addressed at all. ...
Read full commentary at Jacobin

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