The American left is at a crossroads — and it’s history repeating – RN
The Bernie Sanders campaign opened up rifts in the American left that are yet to be resolved. (Getty: David McNew)
No matter how you look at it, it’s clear that politics is changing in America — the word ‘crisis’ has become a go-to description for many commentators.
Spectators have fixated on a war within the Republican Party, triggered by Donald Trump’s presidency.
But as we dwell on Mr Trump and the divided conservatives, a parallel war is being waged on the left — one with perhaps even more profound implications for the future of the nation.
The failed presidential bid of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders exposed a rift in the left, and at stake is nothing less than the future direction of the Democratic Party.
But history shows sitting at an existential crossroads is a familiar position for the left: for two centuries a concoction of ideological and social currents has repeatedly led to its rise and fall.
The socialist left
Throughout the 19th century, progressive causes, like the anti-slavery movement that helped trigger the Civil War, were driven by Christian radicals within the Republican Party.
In the post-Civil War period, the traditional left, inspired by the burgeoning socialist movements of Europe, and writers like Karl Marx and Robert Owens, was focused on the unity of the working class.
This style of progressive politics was kept in perpetual infancy by the bloody conflicts between unions and industrialists, who were often in league with the US state.
In the Memorial Day massacre of 1937, police shot and killed 10 unarmed demonstrators in Chicago during a steel strike. (US National Archives and Records Administration)
It was also hindered by the failure of the union movement to establish a labour party — as had occurred in every other industrialising nation.
A socialist party, under the charismatic leadership of Eugene Debs, emerged in the early 1900s but had only mild success in an electoral environment hostile to third parties.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the arteries of commerce were clogged with 5,000 bank failures, the simmering socialist currents within the American left came to boil.
The businesses that didn’t fail entirely retrenched and contracted, leaving 15 million people unemployed.
A drought saw more than half a million farms lost, and hunger spread across the continent.
A suffering class of American workers, often under the leadership of the Communist Party and riddled with socialists, was unionised at unprecedented levels.
The trade union movement exploded, growing from 3 million members in 1933 to 15 million in 1945, demanding better wages and grievance procedures on the job.
This pressure found its political face in America’s longest serving president, Franklin Roosevelt, and his New Deal program.
It was the beginning of the welfare state.
An alphabet soup of federal programs and agencies provided support for farmers, the unemployed, youth, and the elderly, while re-inflating the economy after prices had fallen sharply.
“The measures Roosevelt passed in ’35 and ’36 were ideas out of the playbook of the older socialist left,” said American political historian Christopher Phelps.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was a New Deal-era government program that employed nearly 3 million young American men. (Getty: New York Times Co)
Vital to the New Deal was southern white voters who “hadn’t changed their views very much since slavery,” says Michael Kazin, a professor of History at Georgetown University.
“Southern whites wanted help from the government but didn’t want anything to do with racial equality or civil rights laws, so Franklin Roosevelt didn’t push for civil rights,” he said.
The next left-wing resurgence, 30 years later, would be very different to this racially homogenous voting bloc.
The new left
In the Great Depression, the Soviet Union — with its five-year plan, zero unemployment, and rapid industrialisation — could be pointed to as beacon of hope for the US left.
In the post-war period, due in no small part to Stalin’s habit of murdering his political enemies, the USSR lost its appeal.
Then, under president Harry S Truman — who was far less accommodating than Roosevelt had been — the Soviet Union became the new enemy.
The Cold War promoted by Truman generated ideological headwinds that would push the socialist left to the margins of US politics.
It began in 1947, when Truman set up a federal agency that would screen federal employees for association with organisations deemed “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive”.
In the early ’50s, senator Joseph McCarthy took to carrying out investigations aimed at seeding out communists in American society, with devastating consequences for those accused.
“You would lose your job, your income, your friends if anyone was openly declared Communist by McCarthy,” Professor Phelps said.
“The American left became a spent force.”
Senator Joseph McCarthy stands before a map claiming to chart Communist activity in the US. (Getty)
Within just 10 years the left reinvented itself, this time led by a new generation of radicals who were very different from the white working-class socialists who inspired the New Deal politics of the 1930s.
It would be coined ‘the New Left’ and at its vanguard was a generation of African-American youth under the leadership of southern minister Martin Luther King, fighting for civil rights.
In the mid-1960s the Civil Rights Movement met the anti-Vietnam War struggle and the Second Wave Feminist movement — all patronised by a new generation of young social liberals.
“It’s the baby boom and there are more youth than ever going to universities, it’s always young people who are willing to take risks,” Professor Phelps said.
This new left, like its class-based forbear, pushed the liberal administrations of John F Kennedy and, after his assassination, Lyndon Johnson.
The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act began to break down segregation, while other legislation introduced affirmative action for minority groups in employment and in education.
Martin Luther King, one of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, meets with Lyndon Johnson at the White House. (Wikipedia Commons)
The peak of the New Left’s trajectory was the nomination of George McGovern, who won the democratic presidential primaries, a sign that new leftists had transformed the Democratic Party.
“George McGovern, who was actually a labour historian, had a platform that was far more radical than anything the Democratic Party had ever stood for,” Professor Kazin said.
The splintered left
But McGovern never became president.
He was beaten by conservative republican Richard Nixon, who in pinning an economic downturn in the early ’70s on left-wing economic policy, thrust the left into crisis.
The conclusion of the Vietnam War, and the end of forced conscription, deprived the left of one of their galvanising issues.
“There was no sense of a shared purpose as there had been earlier, whether to oppose the Vietnam War or support black equality,” Professor Kazin said.
“There was still a left movement in the United States through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, but it never reclaimed the unity of the ’60s.”
Progressive movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ have lacked the direction and shared purpose of the ’60s left. (Wikimedia Commons)
The democratic socialist resurgence hitting the Democratic Party in recent years is in the lineage of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“Democratic socialism … builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” Mr Sanders said in one campaign speech.
Many activists, who want the mainstream left to go further than the moderate liberalism of the past 30 years, are joining the Democratic Party — some even being elected to parliament.
“These activists coming to the fore that are much more willing to be full-throated liberals in the New Deal sense of the term,” Professor Phelps said.
As the Democratic Party resolves its current existential impasse, a new generation of democratic socialists will undoubtedly have their say on its future.
Whether they will be heard is another matter.