The Soapbox Left

The Soapbox Left

The democratic left has always operated on a theory of trickle-up politics. Strikes, protests, and acts of civil disobedience all begin at the bottom—on the shop-floor, in the university, at the town square—and then make their way up. The abolitionists got their start on the steps of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, decrying the moral corruptions of the North as well as the human degradations of the South. Early labor radicalism grew out of a band of discontented mechanics and tailors in Philadelphia. And American socialism—yes, there once was such a thing—emerged from the tight-knit immigrant communities of cities like New York and Milwaukee; its candidates—“sewer socialists”—ran on platforms calling for clean streets and better public transit.

Cities in particular have been sites for this kind of bottom-up political organization. In part, this is because cities have always been, as Hannah Arendt put it, our most democratic and “talkative of all bodies politic”: places for soapboxes and street marches, for the commiserations and conspiracies that are so often born out of living in close quarters. But it is also because so many of our American cities—Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore—have been home to some of capitalism’s harshest realities: poverty, crime, racial violence, and extreme disparities in wealth, access, and status.

This issue, with a section on urban politics edited by Michael Kazin, reminds us that despite these realities, the American city can still be a center for progressive, even radical, action. After decades of decline, New Haven has reinvented itself as a beacon of union- and immigrant-led municipal activism. Los Angeles and New York, having survived several generations of pro-business politicians and pillaging, are now ripe for progressive experiment and reform. Leftist victories in Seattle—the election of a socialist city councilmember and implementation of one of this country’s highest minimum wages—have spurred on low-wage labor activism throughout America.

Our cities will almost certainly never become Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill.” There are significant limits to city politics: to the scope of its policies, to the reach of its jurisdiction, and to its freedom to effect change in the absence of federal and state support. But the city will always be a place where the democratic left can make its case for equality. We may be disappointed by the outcomes, but as Whitman once wrote lamenting a “vast and ruined” nineteenth-century New York, “This is the city and I am one of its citizens.”

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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