The current state of American two-party politics is profoundly depressing—and shameful. In Congress, the Republicans rail against any program that helps workers and the poor, block any chance for undocumented women and men to become citizens, oppose every attempt to regulate corporations and wealthy donors, and preach that a boss’s religious credo should trump the health needs of his female employees. The Democrats swat away at these outrages but—whether due to their fear of alienating swing voters and their own rich contributors or the president’s lackluster leadership—seldom do so aggressively, even though polls show a majority of Americans agree with them on the issues.
It’s tempting to reject the whole game and spend one’s time building or rebuilding a progressive social movement, or taking part in a fresh and innovative cultural project. But the idea that one should decide between working “inside” or “outside” a distasteful political system has always been a false dichotomy. Every national election, and most state and local ones too, presents an opportunity to nudge both the discourse and programs of government in one direction or another. For all its flaws, the Democratic Party represents groups and social forces—labor, feminists, African Americans and Latinos, environmentalists—that benefit, however slightly, when its candidates win and have … to retreat, sometimes a long way, when they lose. Despite what some on the left believe, elections always matter.
Activists on the right have never doubted that. From the John Birch Society in the 1960s to the Tea Party today, conservatives groomed candidates and canvassed energetically for them. Even when a Republican nominee is not reactionary enough to please them, most vote for him or her anyway. If Americans who favor progressive positions turned out in the same proportions as do those who stand on the right, Democrats would control both the White House and Congress—and name a majority on the Supreme Court—for many years to come.
“Our country … is fast becoming two separate nations,” the journalist Sam Tanenhaus, a conservative of sorts, wrote recently. He may have been echoing the famous line with which the novelist John Dos Passos condemned the executions in 1927 of Sacco and Vanzetti: “All right, we are two nations.” Elections are not the only way to help turn America into a far more progressive and less severely divided nation. But they are essential to making that possible.
Beginning with this issue, Dissent has a new co-editor. Actually, for a decade, David Marcus has been as responsible as anyone for what this magazine prints and posts. David became a mainstay of the staff before leaving to attend graduate school in intellectual history at Columbia. Most recently, he has been helping edit our books section.
David’s talents and dedication are extraordinary. He was our first online editor, has written smart and eloquent pieces about literature and political theory, helped recruit and train the staff members who succeeded him, and is one of the best line-editors I have ever known. This issue features a special section on “Politics and the Novel,” which David conceived. Yes, he writes fiction too.
Since he’s barely thirty, David will play a vital part in continuing Dissent’s inevitable, necessary transition to becoming a magazine written and edited largely by members of his generation, those of the Next Left.
Michael Kazin is the co-editor of Dissent.