This article is one in a series of arguments on elections and coalitions in our summer issue.
Let’s wrestle with two refrains.
The first: “We’re all in this together.”
Do these words describe or prescribe? The pandemic and Mar-a-Lago populism have shown that it can’t be the former. True, there’s been peril to everyone. But dramatic inequalities—those decades-old American growth industries—allowed some to navigate COVID-19 more safely, even prosperously, than others.
So, who is the “we”? The “all”? What’s “together”?
The second: “We are the 99 percent.” Description? Prescription? In 2020, Joe Biden won 51.3 percent of the vote and Donald Trump 46.8 percent, with the highest voter turnout of any American presidential election. In 2016 Hillary Clinton received 48 percent and the “winner” got 45.9 percent. As of this spring, some 60 to 75 percent of Republicans claim that the last election was “stolen.”
If “99 percent” is not descriptive, it also should not prescribe—not if we want a pluralistic, egalitarian society to displace our pluralistic, inegalitarian one. A 99 percent majority, economic or cultural, is meaningless.
The left has long envisaged universalizing forces to incarnate its goals. For Marx, industrial workers were the universal class. When they did not play that role, intellectuals substituted the Third World. After Third Worldism failed, “post-colonial societies” became the surrogate.
The conditions of working people and victims of imperialism have rightly been central preoccupations of the left. But from their struggles a universalizing force of liberation—proletarian, Third World, subaltern, or otherwise—never follows.
With populism, “the people” is the universalizer. There has always been a populist facet to left-wing politics simply because it protests inequality. But populism evokes a blurry collective, usually as one kind of world (historically an agrarian one) recedes before the advance of a new one. Moreover, assertion of homogenized masses against undifferentiated elites lends too easily to bigotry, to conspiratorial beliefs about minorities, and to the worst forms of nationalism.
Racism never targeted African Americans as abstract individuals but as African Americans; sexism never victimized women as abstract individuals but as women; anti-Semitism never abused Jews as abstract individuals but as Jews. Particular afflictions need particular redress, not remedies addressed, often rightly so, to broad social evils. But if those evils are bracketed, specific problems cannot be tackled adequately either.
If the people should not be a blur, support by a sizable majority of the citizenry is nonetheless prerequisite to major changes any intelligent socialist would want. Republicans have been proficient at minority rule in the name of the nation—even as most of their policies, when made plain, are not embraced by that nation. The left should not err likewise, imputing a vision to a majority that doesn’t necessarily share it. The public needs to be persuaded by successful policies, by public argument, and by organizing in order to tug a troubled, pluralistic society in an egalitarian direction, to move the center left, and to give increased substance to being “in it together.”
Building consensus for an expansive liberal welfare state is a first step. Some prospects for change came last November with the victory of a more-or-less New Deal Democrat backed by a coalition of social liberals, leftists, and centrists. Biden’s rescue plan in response to the COVID-19 calamity was, in Bernie Sanders’s words, “the most significant piece of legislation for working families . . . in many, many decades.” Its passage should have shamed leftists who refused, in the name of the true interests of the people, to support Biden against Trump. Circumstances differ, but their “clean” hands recall early 1930s German Stalinists who lambasted “compromised Social Democrats” rather than the elephant in the room.
Add in the new administration’s job-creating, green-friendly infrastructure strategy, linked to raising corporate taxes, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s call for a global minimum corporate tax rate, and it is evident that there are new possibilities—but only possibilities. If these reforms prove effective, some of those who claim that the last election was stolen might begin to think twice. After all, a clear majority of citizens, Republicans among them, support Biden’s measures—and in recent decades Democrats very often won national majorities while undemocratic electoral quirks, built intentionally into the political system, delivered power to the GOP.
Jean Jaurès, the French socialist assassinated on the eve of the First World War, remarked that you must navigate unexpected tides before another continent becomes visible. You don’t plunge into swells imagining that enthusiasm alone ensures safe arrival. But you can’t learn to swim without going into the water (I borrow from Hegel).
Rosa Luxemburg cried: “Socialism or barbarism!” Well, sure socialism (my kind). Yet what if purity makes you insist that everything depends on a universalizer that turns out not to be one? You are then disarmed if, say, nationalist zeal runs amok.
My drift: the left needs to be reformist and determined; it must change itself as it seeks to change what’s wrong around it. It is hard not to bristle when Senator Mitch McConnell or Bret Stephens harumph Pravda-like canards about “socialism.” But it is more important to make left values persuasive to people who once had decent union jobs, or whose parents did, and then voted for the right, having accumulated despair after being sacrificed to Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.”
That’s why the priority is to ensure that today’s novel New Deal coalition, left to center, stays together. It offers the only plausible chance for progressive reforms. Perhaps with some unhappy compromises, but it is the left’s real brief that must be sustained: making people’s lives better.
And there is another, urgent reason why the coalition must stay together: grave anti-democratic dangers burgeon. We beheld them on January 6; we behold them in assaults on voting rights, especially targeting black Americans. Liberals are not the menace.
Populist impulses ought not drive the left but be integrated into much more substantial frameworks. Populism, socialism, and nationalism are forms of collectivism; each, in distinct ways, tends toward social blurs that impair pluralism. Simply overlapping two or three of them can inflate the problem. That’s so even if, say, socialism points toward universalism and nationalism toward particularism. Such overlies should perturb the left no less than classical liberalism’s blinkered individual, standing apart from social contexts or fetters.
The alternative to populist socialism can be called social democracy—or liberal socialism. The appellation doesn’t matter; what matters is a left that inherits the best in liberal ideas—the value of individuality, political equality, equality before the law—while maintaining that there are only social individuals, that political equality curdles without social citizenship, that equality before the law shouldn’t mean, as Anatole France said, that millionaires and beggars have equal rights to sleep under bridges.
A liberal socialist wants ongoing tensions between individualist and collectivist values, correcting each other, not a quest for vaster syntheses that are unmanageable politically and suspect philosophically.
Mitchell Cohen is an editor emeritus of Dissent and teaches politics at Baruch College, City University of New York. His latest book is The Politics of Opera.