Backlash and Bad Vibes

Backlash and Bad Vibes

A roundtable on Democrats and the left.

A darkened stage after a Bernie Sanders campaign function at George Washington University on June 12, 2019 (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Across the left, it seems like we can all agree that politics today feels miserable. But how did we get here? And what should democratic socialists do about it? Those questions are at the heart of the following conversation, featuring some of the sharpest thinkers on the left today. 

Timothy Shenk: As we’re speaking in July, the polls show that only 13 percent of the public feels like the country’s on the right track. Joe Biden’s approval rating is somewhere in the thirties, and it looks like Democrats are heading for a bruising in the midterms. Meanwhile, journalists are talking about a vibe shift, a feeling that a big cultural change is underway. Is this what backlash looks like?

David Shor: I’ll give the boring political science answer. Nearly every Democratic president since 1945 became substantially less popular over the first two years of his term. Biden is no longer at the bottom—he recently overtook Harry S. Truman—but it’s fairly bad. Almost every single midterm since 1938 has featured large losses for the president’s party, with the exception of 2002. That is the baseline.

Political scientists call it thermostatic public opinion: the idea that whenever the country moves in a certain policy direction, it turns out that most voters don’t want radical policy change, while most people who run political parties do, though maybe not as radical as some of us in this discussion. Politics in the United States is this constant push and pull because of our two-party system. During the Trump era, the country moved to the left on a whole host of issues. And then the moment Biden entered office, the public gave much more conservative answers to questions like, “Do you want a government that does more or does less?” Or, “Do you think that we should take in more refugees or fewer refugees?” The child tax credit went from being popular to unpopular.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I do think we’re seeing a backlash, especially if we take into consideration what was happening in the summer of 2020. I’m wary about saying these are just trends—the party in power always bottoms out in the midterms—because there’s something more dynamic happening. I don’t think that the country has taken a right-wing lurch in the last two years, where everyone now regrets government spending. I think there’s been a concerted effort by the Republican Party to change the conversation about what the problems in the United States are. So you get this nonsense about critical race theory; you get what is described as a culture war.

The problem is that the Democratic Party has very little ability to argue effectively against all this. Its leadership goes to war against its left flank to further suppress discussion about what the role of the state might be right now. Even with things that they might ostensibly take credit for, like the $1.9 trillion rescue package in 2021, there’s skepticism among some Democrats about being seen as retreating back to big government. This schism within the party mutes political support. It creates an impression that people are more conservative than they are.

Shenk: The laws of political gravity say that backlash seems to be built into a party taking power. We also have nasty levels of inflation and some shaky economic numbers. There are a lot of structural factors at play that would make it hard for any party, no matter what they did, to have decent approval ratings. Against the headwinds of thermostatic public opinion and some bad facts on the ground, could the Democratic Party have done better? If the left had more power circa 2021, would we be in a better position now?

Shor: One of the most critical errors that the Obama administration made in terms of the economy was that it didn’t care about Federal Reserve appointments, which turned out to be pretty important. Obama also appointed banking regulators who ended up not doing what he wanted. That made things like cram-down [forcing the restructuring of loans in response to the subprime mortgage crisis] much harder to implement.

In Democratic politics, the most impactful decisions don’t necessarily boil down to how much power the left has. A lot of mistakes have been made by the Biden administration in the last year, and I don’t think they come down to raw power.

Shenk: In some ways, that’s a more hopeful picture for the left, because getting Democratic presidents to pick better people doesn’t require massive structural change. On the other hand, it seems like a big comedown from last year, when so many progressives were heralding the end of neoliberalism.

Alyssa Battistoni: One thing I think we should clarify is what we think this ostensible backlash is responding to—against which political faction, from which direction? When you are asked, “Is the country on the right track?” you could say “no” from the left or from the right. The fact that a lot of people said “no” indexes a general state of dissatisfaction—maybe a backlash against who’s in power. That seems to point to a question about whether people approve of Biden and the Democrats. But if we’re talking about a backlash against the left in a broader sense, which left are we talking about? The idea of a “vibe shift,” which Tim mentioned, has been focused on whether Gen Z is moving away from millennial socialism. I find a lot of that discussion to be fatuous—“I went to a party in New York, and I’m going to spin something out of it”—but what the “vibe shift” points to is a question about the trajectory of the socialist left, or a left that is not primarily associated with the Democratic Party. That American left really has solidified and become more organized since 2008. It wasn’t able to push Obama on Fed appointments, for example, because it barely existed in this form in 2009. So the question about a backlash against the left more broadly is in part a question about whether that period of growth is reaching an end.

It is certainly true that, as it’s grown, the left has become a punching bag. You see that both within the Democratic Party and from the right, as Keeanga mentioned. “Backlash” implies a response to something the left has done; but moral panics are drummed up regardless of what people on the left are actually doing. That feeds into the way that the Democratic Party is received politically, insofar as it is perceived to be aligned with a socialist or radical left in terms of vision or strategy or policy agenda, even though those groups may be in a tense or even antagonistic relationship to one another internally.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the pandemic has been a period of drastic change in daily life. It’s not surprising that people might say the government is doing too much as a reaction to very strong government action that still resulted in mass death, dramatic employment swings, a lot of insecurity and tumult. It would be very surprising if COVID-19 did not have a long aftermath in the way that 2008 did.

Nikhil Pal Singh: I don’t care for the framework of backlash. There’s never been a time in my life when the Republican Party has not been a reactionary party. It seeks to harness political action for inegalitarian goals and a defense of traditional hierarchies. It has mastered wedge-issue politics since the late 1960s. It knows how to do this; it is focused and committed and cohesive in a way that the Democratic Party often does not seem to be.

Figuring out how to make the Democratic Party the vehicle for our aspirations has long been our question on the left, and one that we’ve never really been able to answer. We want a more egalitarian society, a society that regulates and fetters capitalism in the interest of people who work for a wage, a society that protects the rights of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the excluded. But the Democratic Party approaches these challenges in a way that is ineffective, unambitious, and feckless, in the face of a determined opponent. It’s frustrating and demoralizing.

We also have to recognize what Alyssa’s saying about how extraordinary the conditions are right now. We’re in a kind of interregnum. There’s an effort to master economic, social, and political forces that most of us have never experienced: 1.04 million excess deaths in the last two years related to the pandemic; inflation that we haven’t seen since the 1970s; home ownership in the United States at its lowest percentage since 1980; the accelerated warming of the planet and associated extreme weather events. We look out toward a future that is going to be worse than our present.

Neither party right now offers a convincing vision of a future that will be better than the past. The Republican Party offers to manage a world that is meaner, more violent, hotter, and more penurious, in the service of a narrowing constituency. I often don’t know what the Democratic Party offers as it attempts to balance different interests. Biden came in with a set of plans. Those plans amounted to a massive stimulus, and then they basically fell apart. The modest fiscal achievements of infrastructure spending and especially the resurrection of the scaled-down plan for public investment in green energy are notable, the latter less for its magnitude, or for its predictable carve-outs for fossil fuel and big financial interests, and more because it represents an initial move toward a more imaginative type of public finance and state investment. But neither party really has a politically or fiscally sustainable vision for how to reorganize an economy that works for the majority of people, or for how to rethink the American role in the world. Neither party has a plausible conception of responsive and accountable government that people should have faith in.

We may not be in as bad a situation as we think we are, only because the Republican Party, even though it is a determined opponent, has fewer ideas about what to do to address the interrelated problems of energy transition, ecological decay, and corrosive economic inequality. The question of who masters these forces is up for grabs. So we need to have a discussion about what we should be doing—one that’s experimental, one that’s open-minded, one that’s visionary and ambitious but also strategic.

The Party-Foundation Nexus

Shenk: Keeanga, you’ve recently argued that one of the defining features of this moment is the failure to convert the energy from massive protests into legislative change. Two years after millions of people rushed into the streets after the murder of George Floyd, there’s been zero progress at the federal level on police reform. What do you think accounts for this breakdown?

Taylor: It’s more than the failure to translate the desperation and optimism of 2020 into legislative change. It’s a deeper problem than that. It has to do with the capacity to organize around a set of issues over a period of time. The Democratic Party was very good at corralling the energy from protests into the presidential election, into the Georgia Senate races, and into this idea that if we got a Democratic majority, we could not only stop Trump but provide a response to the pandemic, which was very much a part of the protests that summer. It wasn’t just the maneuvering of Democratic Party operatives; there was a lot of buy-in from movement organizers, people in NGOs, and people in foundations who control funding for NGOs, who were on board with this strategy.

Patrisse Cullors from Black Lives Matter was invited by the Democratic National Committee to address the group that was composing the party’s platform in 2020. She went with the intention of getting the party to adopt the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE Act, which is an overarching 128-page bill about defunding the police and reinvesting in community organizations. She said she was going to model her remarks after the remarks that John Lewis had intended to make in 1963 at the March on Washington. Minutes before he was supposed to give his speech, it was censored by Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, who thought that it was too incendiary, because the point was to get the Democratic Party on board, not to further alienate them. Cullors’s speech was critical of the Democratic Party, but, like King and Randolph, she envisioned collaboration between activists and the party to implement the BREATHE Act. In 1963, Lewis had come to very different conclusions: “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political, and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.”

What do you do when politicians that you perceive to be your allies get elected? How do you maintain the same level of intensity that moves Biden from the primaries of 2019—he told donors “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected—to 2020, when he has to change everything in order to be a credible electoral alternative to Trump? What should the posture of activists and movement people be toward this administration, when you have the threat of an increasingly reactionary Republican Party in the wings? Throughout the Trump administration, we saw the largest mobilizations in American history. They really disintegrated.

People flock to the Democratic Party because the alternative is so existentially frightening. And yet it is protest and pressure that get the goods. The collapse of these movements is part of the story of 2020. Biden’s people abandoned voting rights; they abandoned even the most watered-down police reform. Instead, they attacked activists for wanting to “defund the police,” in the same way that they attacked abortion rights activists, referring to them as “out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”

Shenk: How confident are you that this nexus of activists, progressive foundations, and the Democratic Party is capable of pushing forward meaningful change?

Shor: When a political party tries to push an idea, that might make the policy more likely to happen; it depends on the vagaries of Congress, bargaining power, and a lot of other things. But when it comes to polling, the more a president talks about an issue, the less popular it becomes. This has been true going back to the 1940s. It’s not a surprise that opinions on the government’s role in healthcare and the economy moved sharply to the right under Obama. The bully pulpit doesn’t exist. That creates real constraints on behavior, even when your political party is not in power. If you look at support for gay marriage from 1990 to today, it looks like this linear increase—except in 2004, when many national Democrats embraced gay marriage, reluctantly. Not all of them did, but a large enough fraction of them did that it became a partisan issue. In response, it became less popular. This is frustrating. Democratic politicians have a lot of influence on what Democrats believe, but if swing voters took their cues from Democratic politicians, then they wouldn’t be swing voters.

When I say that foundations have an enormous amount of power in the Democratic Party, people think I’m crazy. But everyone I know who works in politics at a high level agrees with me. And it wasn’t true twenty years ago. Issue advocacy groups and foundations are run by people who are quite left-wing. And they have an iron grip on the Democratic Party apparatus. This has some benefits. It’s not a coincidence that climate was on top of the reconciliation agenda. But it also makes these issue advocacy groups politically responsible. If foundation groups say, “Defund the police,” even if Biden says he doesn’t support it, voters can correctly see that Democrats actually believe this. And Democrats are paying a political price, because voters understand that, deep down, large swaths of the Biden administration don’t want oil to be cheaper, or don’t want there to be more police, regardless of what Biden says.

Because these groups are so tightly attached to the Democratic Party, they’ve also lost some of their ability to actually persuade swing voters. If you look at how the marijuana legalization movement has gone, it is very different from climate activism or healthcare. They’ve been more successful at persuading swing voters. Obviously, some of that is because they’re not threatening capital. But I do think that because the Democratic Party kept its distance from them, they were able to make rapid progress.

Shenk: You’re saying that activists should be very careful about which issues they inject into the partisan polarization wars.

Shor: I’m going to be more specific: they should really question how closely they want to explicitly identify with the Democratic Party, and even with the left. Criminal justice reform could be a racialized, hyper-partisan issue, but the organizers who pushed those reforms purposely chose not to do that (and a lot of them are left-wing). As a result, a bunch of Republican legislatures passed criminal justice reform. So don’t just be skeptical of working with the Democratic Party; be a crypto-socialist.

Shenk: Alyssa, can you explain what this looks like to someone immersed in the politics of climate change?

Battistoni: When Biden came into office, he seemed to have learned some lessons from the Obama administration’s response to 2008: Biden was going to take a more aggressive approach to stimulus in the face of a major economic crisis. There was obvious pressure on climate from the Sunrise Movement, the 2020 Sanders campaign, and the left wing of the party, where the Green New Deal framework originated. Then the takeaway from the uprisings of the summer of 2020, this moment of clear discontent, was that you need to do something big to address these foundational, structural problems of racial and economic inequality. I think all of this contributed to Biden putting climate at the center of an ambitious stimulus program of industrial policy. His classic line was, “When I think of climate change, I think about jobs.” Some of this was problematically linked to an anti-China discourse, but at least the administration was going to put some actual money into green industrial policy, even if it was less than what left climate activists would’ve wanted—less, for example, than the $16 trillion GND proposal that Sanders put forward in the primaries.

But there were structural and institutional limitations to what was possible politically. We had this rollercoaster of negotiations and ended up with the Manchin–Schumer deal: the Inflation Reduction Act. David Wallace-Wells has argued that the IRA is a vindication of the climate left’s work to push climate change into the mainstream, and I think there’s truth to that. But the IRA itself is very much a product of internal party negotiations in which the left played basically no role, plus all the constraints that the reconciliation process imposes.

The bill obviously makes a lot of concessions to the fossil fuel industry, in terms of expanding drilling permits and expediting pipeline approval. But the IRA is mostly a bill for green capital. Its approach to decarbonization is largely in line with the model we saw in the Obama stimulus: subsidies and tax credits for private industry and middle-class consumers to bring down the cost of green tech and outcompete fossil fuels. There’s a lot more spending this time, but it isn’t at the level of genuine industrial policy. It is also a really different model from the GND, in that there is not much real public investment or planning, and almost nothing that directly helps working-class people. There are some environmental justice elements, but they are fairly marginal, especially compared to the administration’s own rhetoric last year.

It’s symptomatic of this uneasy interregnum, where there have been gestures toward a more significant political shift, but we’re still stuck in this older model. The whole episode is also a microcosm of the broader dynamic we’ve been talking about: the left pushes, and the mainstream of the Democratic Party sometimes responds rhetorically; but when it comes down to it, it’s the center-right that has the power to drive the agenda, and the left that gets blamed for overreach.

To go back to some of the earlier discussion, I think the idea of “backlash” to specific policies or discourses tends to understate the role of deeper political conditions and constraints. I don’t think that Build Back Better failed because Biden talked about climate too much, for example. And I don’t think there are easy strategic or discursive answers to the challenges we face from various counter-majoritarian institutions. That feels like a longer-term crisis that’s really heading toward a boiling point. I’m curious to hear what people think about what to do in the face of some of these more structural issues: the Supreme Court, the Senate, the distribution of rural and urban votes.

That said, I also don’t think it’s in the left’s best interests to spend all of our time oriented toward these problems. Many of the things that are happening right now are the fruits of long-standing organizing on the right, whether around anti-abortion politics or gun ownership. The left needs to do that kind of deep, long-term organizing. The problem, of course, is we need things to happen much more quickly than we have the time for. That’s a challenge I worry about a lot. It’s obviously pertinent to climate change. There are these crisis moments when a lot seems up for grabs, but it’s clear we do not have the forms of political power we need to capitalize on them.

The Party Is the Message

Shenk: It seems that progressives have come up with a simulacra of activist politics that’s neither good activism nor good politics. But what’s the alternative? Would both sides be better off if they could stick to their respective lanes—just let activists be activists and politicians be politicians?

Singh: Criminal justice reform is an interesting issue, because it’s an extremely popular project, and it has been for many years now. The coercive power of the police is experienced in every part of the country. This is a country where 77 million people have criminal arrest records. The extraordinary problem of mass criminalization directly or indirectly touches at least a quarter, if not a majority, of U.S. adults, to say nothing of its impact on children and families.

The Democratic Party—and many activists—always have a finger in the wind. “Is this going to work? Is this not going to not work?” Or, “There’s going to be a backlash if we do this, so we have to discipline our activist base, which uses a language or an approach that we think is going to alienate swing voters.” They do this instead of trying to formulate what creative leadership would look like. What would Democratic leadership on the issue of criminal justice reform look like? How do you keep experimenting with it? How do you have the courage of your convictions over the long term, even if you experience a setback like what happened in San Francisco with the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin?

I maintain that criminal justice reform is one of the issues that you could really continue to make headway on. I do a lot of work with police and corrections, and I’m not necessarily going to go out there and start by talking about defunding the police. But I still think it is possible to win serious incremental gains and produce forward momentum toward more radical goals. Maybe not everybody is on board with that, and incremental gains will always feel like entrenching what’s terrible about this system. But I live in a city where there are more than 30,000 police officers. They’re one of the most powerful political forces in the city. They can effectively hamstring the city’s political establishment. You have to consider how you will deal with that in a way that’s actually going to move the ball forward.

We can make a similar argument about labor—about supporting and increasing the capacities for people to organize to improve their wages and working conditions. Again, this has not been pushed to the center of the discussion in the way that it could be. I agree that the bully pulpit is of limited value at the presidential level. But that doesn’t mean that disciplined party action on these issues at multiple levels can’t be effective. The Republican Party has proved that this can work. And their energies are not in the foundation world; they’re in the state legislatures, which have been laboratories for reactionary politics for the last twenty years. There seems to be something happening at that level with Democrats. In New York State, despite falling short in some areas, we have seen movement on a range of progressive goals, from criminal justice reform to transit access and renewable energy. I feel like that has to be where our energies and attentions go now.

I’m also extremely concerned about our timescale. We are facing some dire challenges, and we don’t have time to rebuild everything quickly. But the time has to be put in to organize at different scales. And I want a political party that does some of that work, and that doesn’t abandon the field as soon as there is a sign that something is going to be unpopular with swing voters. Often, that’s a misreading of the political situation and the openings that are actually there.

Taylor: There’s a structured conflict here that isn’t just about fear, or about the Democrats reading the tea leaves incorrectly. If you run on small government for forty years, it becomes a part of the Democratic Party brand. And when you then have rising crime rates and social dissolution in the aftermath of the pandemic, then there is a very quick reversion to law-and-order politics. Today in Philly, the front page of the newspaper has the Black head of the Philadelphia City Council saying, “We have a lot of citizens in the streets of Philadelphia talking about, ‘When are we going to look at stop-and-frisk in a constitutionally enacted way?’” No one has actually asked him that. But in the newspaper that gets translated into the idea that residents are calling for the reimplementation of stop-and-frisk.

Eric Adams in New York, Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, and London Breed in San Francisco are leading the charge to law and order. The idea that you would implement any sort of response to the social crisis that is the pandemic is politically untenable. What is tenable, what is comfortable and familiar, is throwing money at police. Even if they don’t believe that it is effective, it looks like you are doing something. This has been part of the playbook for more than a generation.

The Democratic Party is a big tent that tries to acquiesce to all of these different currents within it, but it ends up with this muddled message—crap like “Healing the Soul of America”—that doesn’t actually communicate anything, so as to be the least offensive to any of the particular factions. Except the left: the party leaders will come together to try to discipline, shut down, and abuse the left faction. The big tent ends up suffocating the left and any kind of coherent political message that might otherwise come out. The Republicans, which are also a warring band of brothers, can cohere very quickly around particular political messages—there might be disagreements, but they all seem to get on board.

The problems that the Democrats are experiencing are much deeper and more existential than just messaging. Tweaking this or that will not somehow materialize the party that the left has been in search of for the last fifty years.

Shor: I’m going to out myself as a left pessimist. On the question of what the Democratic Party can do, where they can go from here, we should be grounded in the massive realignment six years ago on educational lines. College-educated areas swung twenty points toward the Democratic Party, and working-class areas swung twenty to thirty points against the Democratic Party. Obama won white voters without a college degree who made less than the median income by four points. Trump won that group by twenty-three points.

This shift has a lot of underappreciated angles. It’s made boardrooms much more liberal; it’s made big donors start to lean Democratic. It’s made the military officer corps more Democratic. The flip side is it has moved police officers from being a roughly 60 percent Republican group to being an 80 percent Republican group and has reduced the union premium (a political science term for how much more Democratic union members were than you’d expect purely from demographics) from 13 percent in 2012 to literally 0 percent in 2020. But the most important impact is that the Electoral College and the Senate have massive biases that did not exist six years ago. Obama could’ve won with 49.5 percent of the two-party vote. Joe Biden got 52.3 percent; if he had gotten 52 percent, he would’ve lost.

This educational realignment has happened across the West. According to research by Thomas Piketty, the only countries in the OECD where this hasn’t happened are Portugal and Ireland. And the extent to which educational polarization has happened in a given country is statistically associated with how much center-left parties have increased talking about social issues in their platform.

In the immediate postwar era, only 4 percent of the population had a college degree. Now more than 35 percent of the electorate has a college degree, and we’ve turned vanguard politics into mass politics. We’ve managed to do a good job shaping the discourse and the priorities of the Democratic Party. But the way we’ve been doing it is to appeal to highly educated people.

The status quo is going to lead to disaster. If we get 51 percent of the vote in 2024, which is what Hillary Clinton got in 2016, then the Republicans could win not just the presidency and both houses of Congress—they could get sixty Senate seats. Trump, or maybe Ron DeSantis, will have more power than anyone in American history since FDR. It could make the Reagan Revolution look like child’s play. The only way around that is, in short order, a radical transformation of our politics to appeal to more working-class people. I’m not sure how to get there. Sanders doing so well in 2016, maybe less well in 2020, points to a lot of potential for the socialist project to play a role in making things better. But the status quo is very bad.

Battistoni: I agree that we should be trying to rebuild that kind of mass working-class party, and the success of the Sanders campaign pointed to the possibility of the Democratic Party reorienting in that direction. But it was not a consensus project within the party—to the contrary. The Democratic Party is not a disciplined party, other than disciplining its left flank. But you can’t have internal discipline unless you have a shared political project, and the Democrats do not. That’s why there’s so much internal combat. So reorienting the party is very challenging, and as David points out this is not just a U.S. problem. It’s a problem that spans many countries in a similar economic position to the United States, which suggests that there isn’t one strategic answer that would solve it.

I think what we are experiencing on the left is not so much backlash, but the limits of how far you can get organically from the protests in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the various waves of Black Lives Matter, the response to Trump—all these moments that generated a growing and more organized and more militant American left. You need institutions to carry forth this project in moments of setback and defeat and challenge—at, say, the level of the state legislature. The Democratic Party is not that vehicle right now; maybe it could be at some point, in the same way the Republican Party has taken cues from what used to be its fringe. But whether it’s the party or some other organization, a lot of work has to be done to build institutions and organizational forms that can sustain political energy in the longer term.

Again, this is a project that I wish had started a long time ago. I’m not going to pretend to have clear answers for how to reorient the Democratic Party toward a multiracial working class and serious commitments to left projects in the span of the next couple of years when so much is up for grabs.

Singh: I’m a left pessimist, too. I fight against it. I try to think about ways of being constructive. So, what do we do?

There may be a big problem in two years with the national government, but white nationalists are a force with their own weaknesses and fissures. They don’t have geopolitical answers. They don’t have economic answers. They don’t have answers to the big social questions people are facing. So maybe the shellacking of the Democratic Party over the next four years will provide the place for us to creatively salvage a different kind of politics. I’m not saying that we have to have a disaster to rebuild something. But it may be a disaster, and we will deal with it.

There have been many disasters in our lifetimes: the Reagan Revolution, a war on drugs that built a prison complex unheralded in human history, the Iraq War, and the catastrophic consequences that ensued. I worry about what the next unified Republican control of government will bring should it come to pass, because they are an adventurist party, and they will do things that are destructive. But they will also do things that engender significant opposition throughout the country. We used to ask, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” But the recent vote to defend abortion rights in Kansas is one such indicator.

Part of the conversation today is about how we’ve squandered the opportunities presented by 2020 to come up with a winning program. Keeanga’s right that there are structural problems, and we’re going to continue to contend with them. But the idea that the Democratic Party can be a winning party by relying on affluent suburbs is not a pathway to durable political transformation. There has to be a much more progressive vision on corporate taxation and labor policy, and much more pointed and thoughtful strategies about how to peel away the other party’s working-class constituencies.

We act like there’s a profound urban-rural divide, yet urban and rural poor people are facing the same things—whether it’s the criminal justice system, increasing mortality, public health problems, or police abuse. Why can’t somebody talk about that? I see that happening sometimes at the state level, with someone like Nikil Saval in Pennsylvania, or some of the state legislators in New York. But in the national Democratic Party, besides Sanders . . . I don’t know. We need to encourage more creative, ambitious, and experimental approaches to what our politics can be.

That does require a willingness to speak about the blockages posed by the nonprofit complex, or to be critical of the way the Democratic Party operates at a national level. And maybe the fight for a more just future will involve alliances with people with whom we fundamentally disagree on certain questions. That doesn’t mean that we have to make compromises on things like abortion rights, or the rights of sexual minorities. We have to be clear about our convictions. But we aren’t going to agree on everything. The greatest gains of the Democratic Party in the twentieth century came at a time when it brought together urban Black voters and Southern segregationists. You couldn’t have had two more opposed constituencies.

Taylor: I agree about the lack of a coherent plan on the right. That’s why they have resorted to force—violence, stealing votes, rigging the electoral system—and why they lean so heavily into nonsense like the CRT panic and the trans panic. They’ve seen that it’s effective. They don’t necessarily need a plan. The problem the Democrats face is that they have no response. Their response is to play by the rules.

The power of the summer of 2020 still resonates for me. Not only were these the largest demonstrations in U.S. history, protracted over an extremely long period of time; these were multiracial protests, and that was not just driven by altruism. The protests became ways for a wide variety of people to express grievances about the direction of this society. The sociologist Dana R. Fisher sent out teams to survey protesters in D.C. that summer. For the Black people who were there, anti-racism and opposition to police brutality were the main things. But there were people who had cut their teeth in immigrant rights’ protest, in abortion rights’ protest, in a whole range of issues, who saw these things as connected to each other. The problems that brought people into the streets have not been resolved. And in many ways, things are worse now than they were two years ago.

The question is, how do we have sustained campaigns that ride the electoral wave but have independent objectives that are not tied to that? That’s a challenge, but it would be much more challenging if people just didn’t give a shit. People care, but they don’t know what to do. The political message from on high is completely confused.

Consciousness is fluid. It’s constantly changing based on what the dominant message is. If the Republicans cohere around a message that big government is a problem, that people don’t want to work because they have stimulus checks from two years ago, then we will see a reaction against big government programs. But the fluidity of these ideas creates the political battlefield that we have to engage with. Is that optimism or pessimism? It’s what we have to do. The good thing is that there are people who want to fight. It’s a matter of trying to figure out what to do.

Alyssa Battistoni is assistant professor of political theory at Barnard College and the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.

David Shor is an American data scientist and political consultant known for analyzing political polls. He serves as head of data science with Blue Rose Research in New York City and is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Shor advised a number of liberal political action committees during the 2020 U.S. elections.

Nikhil Pal Singh teaches history at NYU and is the faculty director of NYU’s Prison Education Program. He is the author, most recently, of Race and America’s Long War.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at the New Yorker. She is the Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University and the author of several books, including Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History.