Steady Work

Steady Work

When left activists divide their energies between the immediate present and the distant future, we miss the necessary political work between now and then.

At a Bernie Sanders rally in Grand Prairie, Texas, February 27 (Steve Rainwater / Flickr)

Left intellectuals and activists often make a tragic mistake when it comes to time. We think in terms of days or decades, weeks or centuries. Either our energies are directed toward the present, with its immediate tasks of protesting, organizing, fundraising, and planning; or we look toward a distant future, hoping that the longue durée of history might do the work for us. But it is the critical period of time between now and then—the months and years of disciplined organization and institution building—that often goes neglected.

Take this past year, for example. For the first time in nearly a century a democratic socialist caught the attention of the American voting public. At first, Sanders and the many people who volunteered for his campaign directed their energies toward the short-term goals of a protest candidacy. But then, to our surprise, the junior senator from Vermont started to win—in New Hampshire and then in Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Colorado, and then in Kansas, Nebraska, and Michigan. He began to look like a plausible nominee, and we started dreaming bigger, shifting our energies from the daily tasks of protest to the long-term goals of a potential presidency.

But many of us missed the political work that lay in between the short and long terms. Elections are not only about who will run the country. They are also opportunities to identify new constituencies, build new coalitions, publicize new arguments. They are, above all else, plastic moments in the political life of our republic when everyday citizens—men and women out of office—can finally be heard. The Populists and Socialists of turn-of-the-century America never won enough votes to win a presidential contest or effectively challenge the two-party system, but they did push public discourse to the left. Likewise, McCarthy’s challenge in 1968 and McGovern’s in 1972 did not lead to the presidency, but their campaigns helped enroll a new generation of activists into electoral politics and transform the Democratic Party. Even in defeat, there can be the hints of a future victory—victories that can only be achieved through the kind of “middle-durée” work that conservatives in the 1960s and ‘70s used to take over the GOP.

In this way, Sanders’s campaign is just the beginning, not the end. Having won the support of more young voters in the primaries than Clinton and Trump combined, he has helped reveal an emerging left-wing majority that is dissatisfied with the social and racial inequalities created by the Democratic and Republican establishments. Until November, this emerging majority will need to do everything it can to ensure Clinton’s victory over Trump. But in the months and years that follow—in that borderland between now and the future—this new left will need to begin to build the institutions and public support that can push a potential Clinton presidency to the left.

This middle-durée work is slow and arduous. It will require long hours and late nights. (Oscar Wilde was right when he complained that the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.) But it is “steady work,” as Irving Howe once mused, and work that will not only have its pleasures but its rewards. In her DNC speech, Clinton committed the first years of her presidency to expanding Social Security, creating debt-free college, raising the minimum wage, and reforming our prison and campaign finance systems. This is an ambitious program for any president, let alone one potentially facing a Republican Congress, and it will be up to the progressive organizations within and outside the Democratic Party—groups like Minnesota’s TakeAction, New York’s Working Families Party—to press her to make these promises legislative realities. She’ll need, in other words, the pressure that comes from the middle durée.

It is on this note of the slow, steady work that lies ahead that I must also share some news of my own. After ten issues as Dissent’s co-editor and another thirty in other editorial capacities, I will be moving to a more at-large role at Dissent as I become the Nation’s literary editor. I began writing and editing for Dissent back in 2006, in a moment darkened by a term and a half of Bush’s presidency, and I take considerable pleasure in joining Dissent’s rank and file at a moment full of possibility and hope for the democratic left. To be sure, there is a lot of steady work ahead of us. But I am also convinced—as this excellent issue on feminist strategies demonstrates—that our magazine has the scrappy grit and intelligence to get the job done.

David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent.