This Country Is Up for Grabs: A Call for a Populist Left
It’s November 10, 2016, two days after Election Day. On Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy, it feels like someone or something has died, and the silence is so heavy that even the thick, solid brownstones seem to be sagging under its weight. The eyes I meet on the street are haggard, as if they’ve been up all night fighting some new and violent truth, and I feel just as bowled over by this truth as anyone else. It surprises me that my lack of faith in this country, its systems and its flag have not insulated me moreâ€Š—â€Šthat my cynicism has not done a better job of protecting me from this heartbreak.
I wonder how this day is being experienced by those on whom this nation’s brutalities have always laid more heavilyâ€Š—â€Šthose who, perhaps, have always known America better than I do. It’s not that I thought this place was what it claimed to be, but I did think we were at a different stage in its history. It feels like waking up late at night on the subway home, realizing you’ve been on the wrong train all along. I wonder whether the trajectory of America has been abruptly altered, or merely revealed. And today it occurs to me that King’s arc of the moral universe is indeed long, but perhaps it doesn’t bend toward justice at all, but just bends. I feel a sharp pang of helplessness, and my body calls up a recollection of another time I felt this way, some years ago, when I first began to retreat.
It’s 2004, and I’m a senior in high school. Bush is president. The U.S. has recently paid for a coup to overthrow a democratically elected government in Haiti. Before that, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act and Extraordinary Rendition. On and on it goes, like some horrifying roller coaster you can’t get off. And the flags. The flags are everywhere now, laying claim to every crack and crevice of public life: Street corners and cranes and front doors and windows. They have even made their way inside my own home, screaming out through the television screen.
All of this transforms me. I find a pair of quirky, radical high school history teachers who take me under their wings, read Noam Chomsky and Malcolm X and Emma Goldman, and ultimately, I join the movementâ€Š—â€Šspecifically the anti-war movement. We march in the streets, shout at the top of our lungs, piss off our parents, and curse out our leaders. We are fierce, courageous and earnest, but honestly, most of the time it feels like the war is a gigantic, lumbering elephant and we are mosquitoes, barely even cracking skin. We have some of the biggest demonstrations in world history, and hundreds of thousands of people die anyway. It’s hard to describe the collective shame and helplessness that this kind of failure elicits in us, but I feel it in my body every dayâ€Š, â€Šin hardened eyes, slumped shoulders, an armored chest.
This country is doomed, we think. These people are too far-gone, we say. They call us anti-American, and in our defiance, we agree; we say that they can have their f**king America. Even the word itself erases an entire continent to our south. We don’t need it. If America is Bush, the war machine, austerity, the prison system, bombs at abortion clinics and mosques, Guantanamo, and Halliburton, then we don’t want anything to do with it anyway. If America is genocide and slavery and empire, then it was never ours to begin with. Besides, we have visions of freedom that span beyond these borders.
This sort of rejection seems like the only reasonable thing to do, the only way to make sense of history and the present; perhaps, even, it is the only way to survive this kind of loss. But for me, it is also the beginning of a long retreat.
I stop paying attention to electoral politics, stop thinking of the state as an avenue for any sort of change, stop even wanting to intervene in it, much less reform it. I stop thinking about scale as a relevant factor in our organizing, stop talking politics with people who aren’t in the movement, stop even reading the news. I join a left that seems, every day, to drift further and further away from trying to build political power, away from attempting to win over the public, away from working class people, and deeper into a bubble of its own. We have our own organizations, our own publications, our own trainings, our own spaces, and no need for anyone else. We find belonging in lack of belonging, and it protects us.
We do good work, learn important lessons, and have big dreams. But in the end, so many of those dreams remain our little secret, tucked safely away, out of sight to the rest of the world; and really, the rest of the world is out of sight to us too.
It’s the morning of February 3, 2017. I’m at my desk at home in Brooklyn, sunlight creeping through the blinds on the window to my left. I’m hovering between work emails and Facebook, following the rabbit hole of the Bodega Strike, in which thousands of bodega owners and workers from across New York City, —â€Šmost of them Yemeni and Muslimâ€Š, â€Šhave gone on strike and gathered at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to protest the immigration ban. The images show a jarring sea of brown people waving American flags. I watch the videos, and the deafening chants of “USA! USA!” vibrate through my speakers.
The flags blind me. An old reflex jumps from my body, transporting me back to 2004, when this country suffocated me with its flags, and I snap my laptop shut. I am struck by the competing emotions surging through meâ€Š—â€Šadmiration, humility, inspiration, repulsion, confusion, shame.
How can these people, of all people, find ownership, belonging, and even love in a place like this? Maybe they don’t get it, I think. Maybe they wave the flag for safety from those who speak most loudly in its name, act most violently on its behalf; perhaps this is what they think they have to do survive. Or maybe they really do love this place, even through the heartbreak. Or maybe they want to love it, and their flag-waving is not a celebration of the vision of the founding fathers but a calling into existence of a dream not yet born. Maybe it’s just better than the homes they left behind.
Or maybe they are being strategic. Maybe they know, better even than most of the organized left, that this titanic crisis in which we find ourselves today is also perhaps the grandest opportunity we will see in generations. Maybe they can see that this country is up for grabs.
The system is unstable. A self-proclaimed socialist almost won the Democratic Party nomination, and a right wing populist insurgency has entered into government, effectively displacing the Republican establishment and delivering a devastating blow to the status quo of the Democratic Party as well. Some 40% of the voting population wants this president impeached, and Bernie Sanders is literally the most popular politician in the country. There is an opposition to Trump organically rising up beyond both the Democrats and the organized left alikeâ€Š—â€Šin the streets, the courts, even the White House itself. What’s more, the right wing offensive underway will likely create even further instabilityâ€Š—â€Šmore deportations, more black and brown people locked up, more debt, more unemployment, more pipelines on indigenous land, more policies that hurt women and queer and trans folks, more impacts of climate change, more surveillance, more war.
We can expect more crisis. But where there is crisis, there is also opportunity, and our opponents know this. As Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine teaches us, crisis is part of their playbook.
For Trump, a deepening crisis is an opportunity to continue barreling forward as planned; after all, crisis has always been part of his narrative. He will blame it on his political enemies and those communities already under attack, and use it to expand his agenda. The rest of the Republican Party, the defense industry, and much of the business class, will likely go along with it, unless and until they think the ship is actually sinking. The white nationalists and other far right wingers coming out of the woodwork in droves will use it as an opportunity to keep pulling the whole political map in their direction; they now have a man in the White House to help them do it.
For establishment Democratsâ€Š—â€Šas well as for Republicans who defect if and when the instability deepens enough to effectively incapacitate the administrationâ€Š—â€Šthe crisis will provide the opportunity to name Trump as the problem, while preserving business-as-usual. If we get rid of him, they’ll tell us, everything can go back to normal. Normal will be ushered in by corporate Democrats and “moderate” Republicans, protecting many of the same interests, featuring a reversal of only the most egregious elements of Trump’s policies, and keeping in tact the restâ€Š—â€Šmuch of which was already enshrined by the administrations that came before this one.
But as Alicia Garza, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, George Lakey, Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, and many other leaders and mentors are telling us, this crisis is an opportunity for the left too. It’s an opportunity to grow and become popular, an opportunity to build visionary organizations and multi-issue movements that go on the offensive. It is an opportunity both to take the streets, and also take over real levers of power. It is our chance to reject both Trump’s white economic nationalism and the corporate Democrats’ multicultural neoliberalismâ€Š—â€Što bring to life a new kind of politic that combines racial, gender, and economic justice to unite the majority of the population against the elite. It is a chance to build a mass movement that has equity and solidarity at its core, that takes leadership from those impacted by the systems we’re fighting, that works for all of us. It is a golden opportunity to finally translate our proven ability to shift the national discourse into a concrete capacity to actually achieve our own purposeâ€Š—â€Što move from having influence to having real power.
This crisis is, in the end, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the left to lead. The big question, then, is whether we will be willing to do so.
All of this possibility flies through my mind as I think about the bodega strikers. I open my laptop again, take a deep breath and stare my ambivalence straight in the face.
I think back on that grand rejection I was part of as a younger activistâ€Š—â€Šremember how honest it felt, remember the history lessons that informed it. I wonder how I can possibly hope to belong to a place like this, how I can identify with a dream that has caused so much pain to so many people. I know, also, that to be a popular movement, we will have to make a bold claim that this place belongs to us instead of them, and I wonder if it’s really possible for me claim this place belongs to me, when everything I know here stands on land stolen from people who were murdered for its theft, where everything I touch was built with labor extracted from people brought there in chains, where so much of it is made of wealth taken from around the world at gunpoint.
It occurs to me that it is a huge risk to identify with this place and its mythology, to be popular, to enter into struggle over the whole of this country, knowing that so many of the examples of populism before us watered down their politics to accommodate the ruling class, sold out their grand visions of tomorrow for partial gains of today, abandoned those most oppressed at the finish line. It feels dangerous to growâ€Š—â€Što welcome into our movements the many people who are becoming politicized in these timesâ€Š—â€Šknowing that the greater pains and burdens of entering into the delicate and never-ending experiment of solidarity will fall on those already most impacted by the system. It strikes me, too, that it’s frightening to have the kind of hope a struggle like this demands. After all, where there is hope, there is also often heartbreak.
But I know, just as well, that our past failures are not inevitable. We can embrace the malleability of this place called America, contest our enemy’s hegemony over its dreams, care about this country and this land and these people, while telling the truth about its brutal history and present, honoring the people who lived here before us, and seeing nationhood not as a barrier to internationalism, but a stepping stone towards it. We can join with the growing majority of people standing in opposition to Trump, while still going on the offensive against all of his enablersâ€Š—â€Šthe Republican Party whose agenda he is carrying forth, the huge corporate interests he has since installed into government, and also the Democratic Party establishment whose marriage to Wall Street helped create the conditions for this upheaval in the first place.
We can be popular, and big, and speak in a language that the public understands, while bringing a critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy into the mainstream, while holding up a vision for the world we can have if we fight for it, while saying words like single payer healthcare and universal basic income, even reparations and socialism. We can grow our movements dramatically, invest deeply in the transformation of the millions of people looking for a political home in this moment, and build deeply across race, class, gender, and sexuality, while still demanding more from each other, while practicing solidarity and accountability with the wisdom to know that we will fail and try again and fail better if we keep trying.
We can enter powerfully into electoral politics, build grassroots political power, take over every potential vehicle for change available to us, while still insisting that movements are what really drive social change, that nothing can replace the hard organizing it takes to bring people together to liberate themselves, that meaningful change demands powerful and uncompromising civil disobedience that removes our consent from the institutions that cause harm. And as Rebecca Solnit often reminds us, we can be courageous enough to have hope, and we can do it while still leaving room for the inevitable heartbreaks we will experience on the way.
I still don’t know exactly what it will mean to reclaim America. I’m not going to hang an American flag from my window or praise our so-called founding fathers; I’m not convinced that we need to ground every thing we say in the constitution, and have no intention of standing up for the national anthem until Colin Kaepernick does. But maybe it’s simpler than all that. Maybe the important thing to recognize is that, at the heart of it all, we are being called into a massive struggle over belongingâ€Š—â€Šof who gets to have it and who doesn’t.
Arundhati Roy writes, “To call someone anti-American, indeed, to be anti-American, is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination.” And as I think back now on my past retreat from America, I know that no matter how justified, no matter how grounded it was in principle and history, there was also a secret, scared underbelly thereâ€Š—â€Šthe very fear of imagination Roy highlights. I can still find traces today of what I felt then: A helpless anger, an arrogance covering up shame, a lack of confidence to step outside the comfort of my leftist bubble, a deep and paralyzing fear produced by my smallness in the shadow of a towering enemy. Now, years later, I know to call this tendency the politics of powerlessness, and it suddenly hits me that instead of fighting over this place and its future, I let my enemy have it.
In the end, only a genuinely liberatory popular movement can defeat Trump and the right-wing populist tidal wave he rode in on. Only a truly left populist movement can ensure that this regime not only falls, but also takes the entire Republican Party and the establishment Democrats along with it. Only a movement like that will be powerful enough to actually reorganize this society, so that it meets both the very real material needs and the soaring potentials of the people in it. In order for the left to provide the leadership that is required in this moment, we will have to learn to say this country’s name out loudâ€Š—â€Šsay that it belongs to us, in all the complicated ways that the many giants before us have said it, from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, to Fannie Lou Hamer and Howard Zinn, from Ann Braden and Dr. King, to James and Grace Lee Boggs. Ultimately, we will have to do a better job imagining; we will have to tell a story about America that gives meaning and home and a sense of belonging to the millions of people who are ready to fight for the bigger, better, bolder dreams that are waiting for us at the tips of our fingers.
Americaâ€Š—â€Šboth its past and its futureâ€Š—â€Šis a story that can be written a thousand different ways, and our opponent knows this. That is why the fascists and would-be dictators, the wealthy oligarchs and Wall Street politicians alike, always claim to speak for the wholeâ€Š—â€Šfor that great, big America. They wrap themselves up in the flag, project a vision for the future of this entire country, and call up people’s greatest fears and deepest dreams. The country they describe is not for most of us. But they say they will make it greatâ€Š—â€Šor great againâ€Š—â€Šand that promise floats up into the air and captures imaginations, encapsulates real pains and longings, speaks into existence that grand possibility for which people are willing to do the most beautiful and heinous things alike.
To cede the simple truth of this nation’s possibility to our enemy is a massive shirking of responsibility. It relegates us to the margins of political life, which, in turn, dooms the people we love, the planet we live on, and the values we cherish. It is a failure to show up to the field of battle, which doesn’t mean the war doesn’t take place, only that we’ve surrendered before it has even begun.
Yes, America is the Trail of Tears and chattel slavery, the Ludlow Massacre and Jim Crow, Hiroshima and bloody interventions around the world. But it is also slave rebellions and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Flint sit-down strike and the occupation at Wounded Knee, the Stonewall Riot and the uprising at Attica. It is Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, the immigrant justice movement and the uprising at Standing Rock, the Bernie wave and the climate movement. America is working class, and indigenous, and Muslim, and queer. It is undocumented, and black, and Sikh, and trans. It is the 99%, and women and immigrants. It is all of us.
Perhaps we are not the America they planned for, but we are, as much as anything else, the America that could be. And in the end, that is the choice before us: We will either build a fierce, honest, vibrant, populist left, take responsibility for this country, call our America into existence, and lead, or we will loseâ€Š—â€Šnot just this America and our loved ones in it, but all the Americas that might have been, and the people we might have become.