The US midterm elections, held between presidential elections, determine the party that will dominate the legislative houses of Congress for the next two years. “Dominate” is more appropriate than “control”, because the rules requiring a 60-percent majority in some votes make it nearly impossible to break deadlocks when the division of Congressional seats is practically even.
Midterms were once sideshows, but there is a real threat of even more Trump-aligned candidates winning crucial federal and local seats. There is extreme political tension between the loose centre-right/centre/left bloc, which elected Joe Biden, and the rock-solid bloc of Tea Party Republicans and formerly marginal remnants of well-rooted reactionary groups. This reactionary bloc has broken old barriers and rules to bring fascist elements to centre stage and into circles of power.
Left in a Rut
The US Left is stagnant organizationally at the very moment when a strong counterbalance to mobilized neo-fascism is urgently needed. The defeat of the right/far-right bloc that controls the Republican Party (GOP) in the 2020 presidential election opened a door for the Left. However, with no organized national presence, its scattered forces were stymied.
The Left has increased its presence in electoral efforts since the Obama years, mostly attached to leftist or left-leaning candidates campaigning on the Democratic ticket in every state. There has also been an increase in union activity among service workers, teachers, and nurses, partly the result of left-wing activists organizing in workplaces more consciously and diligently. To the extent that the groundswell of activity is identified by the newly organized as politically “left-wing”, they are building mass strength for the push for direct democracy. As usual, however, the unionization push more reflects the immediate demand for professional and financial security from the public than a political project that counters the rightist thrust with leftist policy and strategy.
The right/far-right bloc that has captured the GOP has already displayed its fascist bona fides in unmistakable ways. GOP candidates speak openly of African Americans as criminals, ignore demands that they break ties with anti-Semitic white nationalists, rail against gender justice movements, encourage banning books that teach about the roots of racism, seek to suffocate the public service sector, and openly promote schemes to disenfranchise broad swaths of the population. The entire campaign has a clear racist tinge, with the rhetoric steadily harking back to the days when Jim Crow laws took hold.
This is on the mind of every non-MAGA voter in the US. Diverse contingents focus on any number of “small-d” democratic demands: the environment, racial justice, gender rights, and disability rights, among others. Defending civil liberties has become more urgent in an era of voter suppression, media monopolization, militarization of police, and increasingly ubiquitous private and public surveillance. The standard of housing, education, public safety, and health is in steep decline as neoliberalism exhausts the capacity of the state to function without the billions that are siphoned into the military and private fortunes. Each demand has its own counterpart in mass activity nationally, locally, and on the internet.
This is far from enough to deal with each problem individually, let alone the overall social crisis. The Democratic Party is not oriented to meet these demands, to the extent that it relies on a strong private sector which pushes to keep the social movement-oriented Left at bay, except for getting out the vote. This is felt most acutely among the poor and lower middle classes, enveloping most people of colour, but where whites and the college-educated middle class are steadily swelling the ranks as well.
Polling shows some elections in a dead heat in several states. But as Linda Burnham, co-editor of the book Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections, writes, “elections are not won by pollsters and pundits. The outcome often hinges on who’s got the best ground game — who’s doing the work at the granular level to educate and motivate voters and to resist voter suppression. This work is mostly unseen and uncelebrated, yet the preservation of democratic norms and institutions depends upon it.”
The voter mobilization problem lies squarely in the fact that the Left is confused and sometimes afraid of organizing politically and bringing unified popular power to bear on policy- and law-making. The political Left is made up of groups and campaigns that move people in that direction by promoting programmes and mobilizing. These groups are very much a part of US society, but many people find their strategies incoherent and fragmented by particularities rooted in scattered ideological legacies. The search for funding also plays a role in this fragmentation, which often appears to be irreversible.
The Left’s development has been stunted since the rise of conflicting factions of electoral activists. The Democratic Party’s old guard has treated young rebels as idealists and troublemakers (I use the terms “young” and “old” loosely: the most popular “young rebel” is Bernie Sanders, 81, while Vice President Kamala Harris, a firm centrist, is 57). Those who directly oppose working with or for Democrats include aspiring orthodox Marxists, anti-authoritarians, and hardcore sceptics with no particular label. This reflects the repeated undercutting of the Left’s historical memory by waves of repression by the state, and decades of deflection by educators and media — a system of social control in which party centrists have a political investment.
Every loss and every perceived betrayal reinforces this anti-political trend, as politicians furiously fight for advantage within a political class shot through with graft and mutual hostility. Even so, the non-politics of abstention does not hold up to continuing demands for social transformation from the base. Activists are aware of how the game is played, and how it might be overturned by having a united front.
There is a political Left involved in electoral politics, and it is making inroads in political institutions. It includes some socialist groups, most significantly the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). There are smaller groups that are unequivocally aligned with left-wing Democrats, including the Communist Party USA and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
There are also left-wing groups working in and around the Democrats, nationally and locally, that do not proclaim a socialist orientation, but whose policy proposals are usually no different from the socialists’. Most of these groups, such as Our Revolution, Indivisible, and many others appeared on the scene in the wake of the 2016 and 2020 Sanders campaigns. Some other older groups found new momentum from Sanders’s breakthrough as the most popular socialist leader since Martin Luther King Jr. (a politics the Reverend Doctor chose not to highlight, for understandable reasons).
The Working Families Party was originally formed as a vehicle to leverage labour movement influence in heavily Democratic areas. While basically joined to the Democratic Party Left and centre-left — elected officials, activists, and voting base — it has a life of its own in the volatile world of electioneering. So does DSA, a remnant of the old Socialist Party of America that was granted a new lease on life by supporting Sanders, resulting in a rapid rise in membership, especially among open-minded youth.
These groups have helped bring the most radical contingent to national and local elected offices in memory, led by the outspoken “Squad” made up of Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman (both New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), and Cori Bush (Missouri). These officials, along with their ally Sanders, are the most widely recognized spokespeople for the Left in the US.
Meeting the Moment?
The notion that the US has no Left — a thought meant to comfort reactionaries and moderates — is uncomfortably close to, but not quite, the truth.
The Left is active in nearly every US city. Much of the US population shares a broad opposition to neoliberalism, corporations, corruption, and xenophobia. They are scared of fascism and are slowly understanding the type of violence and subjugation it represents as a political movement. They encompass the recently estimated 36 percent of the public overall that have a positive view of socialism, and likely the majority of the 39 percent who don’t like capitalism. For a culture steeped in the demonization of “alien socialism” and the glorification of “all-American capitalism”, these numbers are remarkable, even if they are moving downward. The Pew Research Center writes:
In 2019, nearly two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners (65%) had a positive view of socialism. Today a smaller majority of Democrats (57%) say they have a positive impression. There is a similar pattern on views of capitalism. Today, fewer than half of Democrats (46%) have a positive view of capitalism, down 9 points from the 55% who said this in 2019.
The rising numbers of alienated, furious, disillusioned, and desperate members of society turning to popular (but not necessarily populist) forms of left-wing activism would seem a good place to start from scratch. But, for reasons mentioned above, that seems to be the perennial starting point for each new generation of the US Left. Add the new toehold for the Left in the legislature and local administrations, and the prospects seem better — until the current critical situation is taken into consideration.
The Left finds itself confronted by a political threat far graver than the Cold War red scare, or the murderous COINTELPRO campaign of repression against Black revolutionaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Formerly fringe neo-fascist elements found a welcome home at the centre of the Republican Party, which a Gallup poll found to be roughly equal in influence to the Democrats at the end of 2021.
The 2022 midterm fight over House and Senate seats, as well as state administrative offices that the GOP aims to use to control voting results, could decisively shift the balance of power to the right/far-right bloc, despite the majority of votes concentrated in urban areas where Democratic voters dominate. This is the same battle of urban centres vs. rural towns that has cemented the power of white supremacists since post-Civil War Reconstruction was destroyed starting in the 1870s.
The surge for power from this direction gained substantially through appointment of far right justices to the Supreme Court under Trump. Now, the goal of transforming the US into a self-identified white, Christian nation is closer to legal consolidation if, out of the elections, one particular government-defining party assumes command over the other.
The Left is completely on the defensive in this setting. The egregious violent power grab at the counting of votes for president on 6 January 2021, engineered by Trump and far-right attack squads like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, raised expectations of a popular left-centre alliance emerging to protect the republic. Some on the Left (including the author of this article) saw a clear path to a left turn among the dominant centrists in the Democratic Party, led by newly elected President Joe Biden, many of whom faced their own possible murder at the hands of Trump supporters on 6 January.
Instead, the Democratic centrists, who dominate through tradition, political machines, and ties to capital, dug in their heels. With the pandemic and climate disasters, with young people gathering in fierce opposition to racist violence (by police in particular), mass shootings, and the Right’s onslaught on abortion rights, there was no path back to the pre-Trump status quo. Change is the order of the day as never before in human history. But the centrists refused to budge, preferring to concentrate on working with traditional Republicans who were maligned by Trump and the MAGA wing of the party.
Behind the Front
This is the context in which the upcoming midterms will be held. What many fail to understood, however, is that the centre and Left need each other if they hope to see fascism defeated again. This is not a simple matter of cross-class alliances. The Democratic Party centre has the organization, national coordination, and money. The radical Left has the fire for organizing, the popular democratic focus, and a lot of crucial data for expanding the Democratic vote. Their forces must be combined to head off Trump’s second attempt at an Eighteenth Brumaire.
The centrists navigate their campaigns by urging patience, while paying lip service to law and order, or foreign enemies, or the greatness of Americans. Promises are made to intervene on behalf of a population facing many kinds of terror, but few non-voters have confidence they will be kept. One result is the demoralization of radical electoral activists, which becomes a gift to the Right. Another result is the closing of ranks in the old guard around the least controversial platform possible, at the worst possible time.
The position of today’s centrist Democrats is far away from that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who decided to loosen corporate control of the country and join the war against fascism. FDR enabled the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the labour federation that spread industrial unionism on a massive scale. The Keynesian Democrat who led the country from 1933 to 1945 encouraged the unpopular idea that political fascism was the reason for World War II (as opposed to Axis nationalities, especially the non-white Japanese, a Jewish plot, or simply evil). He became the face of the popular front that united Democrats, workers, Communists, and others in a broad progressive movement for change.
Today, mounting a fight against fascism is not a matter of whether but how, and the Left has to respond quickly. We find another paradox in the fact that those who look for the earliest opportunity to break ties with the Democratic Party have found their foothold, due to the first setbacks of the new left-wing electoral insurgency utilizing the Democratic Party. Most everyone understands that the Left alone is in no shape to beat back the threat of government takeover by MAGA in league with rich Nazis.
An alliance between the centre and the Left, on the other hand, represents a fairly realistic means to that end. With fear of fascism growing across the country, the majority needs to be mobilized — and that will take everything the Democratic Party can bring to bear. This will represent the fulcrum of politics in the coming months. When a majority of the top brass of the ruling class regroup the centre in order to preserve the republic against fascists, that raises the question of broad front action to the top of the Left’s agenda. If the Left is not in there, it’s courting its own demise, literally and figuratively.
The Left has little choice but to chart a course that can maximize the capacity to unify and regroup whole movements in times of isolation and danger. If we learn anything from the last century, it should be that a strong popular front requires a strong Left front.
Rolling Back the Backlash
The rise of the Reagan Right brought an ideological onslaught against political “liberalism”, the welfare state, and a regulated economy. With the rise of neoliberalism, that platform succeeded beyond expectations. The far-right in those years more overtly and aggressively pushed white nationalism and religious repression of democratic rights, and from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have been eroded and could be eradicated. The dystopian allegories of The Handmaid’s Tale and Get Out are looking more like documentaries, year by year.
This is due in part to the political ground offered up by the MAGA Right to the armed, violent, far-right. But ultimately, it reflects the isolation, incoherence, and fragmentation of the Left and far Left, even in traditional strongholds like New York City and Northern California. The political Left is the missing piece around which the left end of a resistance to fascism can be built. Ideological contingents, whether in the form of identity politics or doctrinal factions, cannot effectively integrate and coordinate scattered forces.
Today we find the right/far-right bloc controlling the Republican Party, and building its voting strength and social dominance through the MAGA movement, right-wing church groups, the military and police departments, and right-wing media (both social and corporate), as well as the power of the right-wing judicial united front, the Federalist Society. What was a worry for everyone to the bloc’s Left, including moderates in both parties, namely the overturning of Roe v. Wade, is now an everyday fact of life in the US.
This leaves the fate of the bourgeois democratic state in the hands of a shaky centre/left alliance. The centre and Right are not divided by race, gender, or the influence of unions. All these lines run through the Democrats and social movements, but the fundamental division is over money, along with the fear that working-class whites really are as reactionary as MAGA supporters claim. Instead of stepping forward with political explanations about the fascist movement that Americans would find challenging, the centre and the right-wing old guard go for an unconvincing, apolitical argument about fighting “evil”. This task, i.e., exposing the fascists’ con, is now up to the Left.
Two long-time movement leaders, Bill Fletcher Jr. and William Gallegos, had this to say to advocates of willing a new party into being:
Most immediately progressives need to be at the core of constructing a broad front opposing the Right, one that makes the fight against racism and national oppression central to its work. This is more than GOTV for the midterms. It involves taking on the Right in its suppression of literature; its attacks on women and gender nonconforming individuals; its voter suppression and intimidation, and its attacks on immigrants. And it also must involve preparing for varying levels of self-defense against the armed and aggressive far Right.
But most importantly it means being unafraid to build and participate in coalition with those with whom we may have a variety of differences or who themselves may even be connected to the ruling elite and participating in a policy arena that might include policies to which we are opposed. Our movement has to overcome the fear of being politically uncomfortable.
The last sentence points to the ideological hold of a cult of amateurism and ingrowth within the US Left. But if politics is about power, and left-wing politics is about transforming society, then united front politics is about pulling more and more people into mass democratic political action. Political core groups will always exist in the united front, but it’s working people, operating consciously for necessary reforms (no matter how radical), that have the capacity to loosen the grip of capital.
Ukraine and the Peace Movement
Today’s historical conditions are unprecedented, forcing some rethinking of history as our current reality continues to unfold. At the moment, the issue of war and peace is taking on new relevance.
The peace movement, mass and vital in the 1970s, is a shell of its former self. This was partly the result of the radical/liberal split when the Middle East became the focal point of war. Liberals (pro-reform politics that writes off socialism as unrealistic) tended to sympathize with Israel, while the radical wing saw Palestine as a counterpart to Vietnam and saw peace tied to Palestinian rights. Liberals were also persuaded by Bill Clinton’s claim that his doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” served the oppressed. Radicals, on the other hand, focused on demonstrations as the movement’s main tactic, often insisting that street action would bring the armies down without mobilized education and voting. Efforts to keep the peace movement afloat were complicated by sectarianism, which in the case of the Gulf wars brought faction fights over whether to criticize Saddam Hussein’s role, ignore it, or sympathize with it.
Now the peace movement is more marginalized than at any time going back to the height of the Cold War. Several institutions have taken up the argument of left-wing historian Gerald Horne, that the way forward is to support states that are “against the West”, that “the ascendancy of the Anglo-sphere commencing in the 16th century is arriving at a crashing conclusion, while ascending are the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [Russia and China in the first instance].”
There is a growing face-off between those who see Putin as principally responsible for the war in Ukraine, and those who view any criticism of Putin’s war role as giving aid to US imperialism and an expansionist NATO. The crux of the difference is in the hardened view that all wars are part of a geopolitical chess game in which the stakes are US hegemony against rising humanity (in the form of anti-US states fighting for sovereignty). The opposing view to this does not reflect a strong trend in the movement, although it is probably more widely held: that the crisis touches every society, and the democratic response is emerging in the form of mass political upsurge that writes its own demands and makes its own allies. In some cases these involve sovereignty, in others social peace, in others financial or health security, and in still others in response to climate destruction.
This showdown is still merely ideological, but probably not for long. Underlying politics will begin to emerge, hopefully, breaking through the fetishization of Cold War divisions that cannot address or explain the existential perils of this century. In particular, demands for more direct democracy, in the form of transparent elections, or antimilitarism, antifascism, disenfranchising foreign or domestic corporations, or breaking the chains of religious fundamentalism are appropriate in any country. The response these demands get from institutions, positive or negative, have a cumulative effect that cuts across geopolitics. How masses respond becomes the new definition of international solidarity and the path to peace.
Building the Future
One lesson of the last century is that fighting fascism does not necessarily serve as the doorway to socialism, while the defeat of fascism not only opens the door to democracy, but reinvents it. As the eyes of the world watch the American fireworks, the Left must recognize and declare that there is no golden age to which we can return. The democratic masses will intervene in the crisis as best as they can, facing ruthless adversity. They can, in the process, take democracy to a new, class-conscious level, at the same time transforming themselves into conscious agents of social production and reproduction. It’s an aspiration, not an expectation. Make the most of it.
Veteran Italian communist Luciana Castellina said in response to the recent election of a neo-fascist in her country that, “It is possible to relaunch a Left, even bringing with it a part of the cultural heritage and experience that ought not to be discarded. But it has to start from society, reconstructing a network of communities and projects.”
The democratic masses can intervene in the crisis, and in the process, take democracy to a new, class-conscious level, at the same time transforming themselves into conscious agents of social production and reproduction.
The twentieth-century Italian Communist experience can teach us a lot about “communities and projects” that became not just a social, but a political force involving millions. The political Left is responsible for explaining to a scattered movement the potential strength of a broad front. This applies to the growing fascist threat here, and rebuilding the peace movement based on antimilitarist sentiments that have quietly persisted since the Vietnam War.
It’s just an aspiration at this point, not an expectation. But it falls to the people, not their leaders, to build the kind of democratic society that neoliberalism, climate crisis, war, and fascism make so urgently necessary.
Ethan Young is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Left Labor Project, and a moderator for Portside.org.
Photo: Union members look on during a rally for the midterm elections held at the National Education Association in Washington, DC, September 2022. Credit: IMAGO/Zuma