Aziz Rana, a political theorist and constitutional historian, anticipated many of the themes and crises of today’s politics. Amid the liberal optimism of 2008–10, he warned that Barack Obama’s presidency might prove to be the post-sunset afterglow of a very specific Cold War politics of meritocratic achievement and national unity. Rana calls the worldview of this unity “creedalism,” for its devotion to an “American creed.” It valorized bipartisanship and the idea that Americans had always been essentially committed to personal liberty, political equality, and competent but limited government, and just had to work out some imperfections through, say, the New Deal and the civil rights movement. Creedalism was the water of U.S. political life, the implicit grammar of presidential campaigns and of public education. It was how adults thought.
In his first book, The Two Faces of American Freedom (2010), Rana advanced a different interpretation of U.S. history, anchored in the paradoxes of settler colonialism. Early settlers in North America created what was then both the most egalitarian and the most savagely hierarchical society in the world. For its insiders—white propertied and enfranchised men—the early republic maintained an unparalleled degree of political equality and popular sovereignty. But its outsiders, especially enslaved African Americans and Native Americans, were exploited and eliminated with extraordinary cruelty and intensity. And the opposites were integrally linked. For Rana, the American story is not about smoothing out wrinkles or correcting inconsistencies. It’s about the struggle to radicalize and universalize settler freedom.
Rana sees the present moment as a return to the American norm, a fierce conflict between race-and-class domination and radical egalitarian democracy. The revival of a self-described socialist left and the broader turn of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing to “big, structural change” have brought back the understanding that robust democracy requires economic freedom as well as the political kind. At the same time, the highly visible ethno-nationalist right and new liberal awareness of the depth of racialized inequality have drawn attention to the central place that denial of real freedom has always played in U.S. political economy.
This interview is the result of many days of conversation and correspondence between Aziz Rana and Jedediah Britton-Purdy, the editor of this special section.
Jedediah Britton-Purdy: One reason you and I have talked politics over the years is that we come to similar commitments by very different paths. My political identity runs from Valley Forge through Gettysburg and Radical Reconstruction to today’s activists like the Reverend William Barber and efforts like the Green New Deal that aim to extend and radicalize a living tradition of self-rule. You self-describe as coming out of a Third Worldist tradition and being suspicious of all creedal national narratives, particularly one that belongs to an imperial colossus. If you were less personally charitable, you might call me a left creedalist. I think many people find themselves torn over what divides us, but also what holds us together: the problem of how to think about the depth and horror of inequality and violence in the United States while maintaining a sense that the country has also been, and is, a platform for people struggling to build ways of living together on more truly democratic terms.
Recently, your take has gone mainstream. The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” for example, tries to recenter American history on the history of slavery. You’ve talked in creative ways about what reparations could mean—how police reform, for example, could “decolonize” the institutions of U.S. law once we appreciate that they developed through a kind of internal racial colonialism—and how to think about global freedom of movement. Those once-fringe ideas are now running through the Democratic primaries. Is this a hopeful moment?
Aziz Rana: We are obviously living during troubling times—the return of open white supremacy and misogyny, the brazen corporate looting of the public treasury, the separation of immigrant families, the state’s disappearing of their children, the systematic demeaning of Muslim and Latinx populations. But the moment has also generated greater clarity about the nature of U.S. society and what is required to transform it. The left broadly is today more mobilized, self-conscious, and even aware of its own history—from Eugene Debs to the Combahee River Collective—than at any point in my life.
I also think that the politics of what is sometimes called “wokeness” is a tremendously positive development, and I’m glad to see that some of my arguments fit with the mood of the times. The cultural pushback against hateful speech and symbols (like the Confederate flag) is a real victory. Explicit white supremacy and misogyny were sustained in the United States not only through formal legal discrimination and extra-legal violence but by an overall culture that tolerated—and even valorized—everyday acts of humiliation toward marginalized groups. We can think of today’s very different climate as a basic rejection of this permissibility.
But these shifts inevitably come with their own challenges—and not just because of backlash from the right. In the age of Trump a pop version of the critique of the United States as a white-supremacist society has gained currency outside the left, in centrist circles. This has less to do with meaningful reform or even genuine self-examination than with a type of political absolution.
Take the embrace of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work by establishment liberals—including his presentation of Trump as a white repudiation of Obama and as an inevitable endpoint of a white-supremacist national project. Coates’s account may be diametrically opposed to Obama’s own outlook, which was based in American exceptionalism and bipartisan deliberation. And Coates himself is not interested in providing political absolution. Still, there is no doubt that his arguments have been adopted to serve this role over the last few years.
This is because many Democrats—party elites and voters—connect almost viscerally to the way his writing can mix despair for the present with nostalgia for the Obama years. Some elites want to avoid blame for the Obama era’s limitations and reduce current problems to the revenge of whiteness. This framing plays into an ingrained suspicion especially of non-college-educated white voters, often presented as at fault for our prevailing catastrophe. Thus, the pop mainstreaming of radical critique forms one piece of a psychic pendulum that defines the center-left. If you watch MSNBC, you can experience this whiplash in real time. Commentators move between the wild extremes of an uncritical and abstract faith in American perfectibility and a bleak pessimism, bordering on class contempt, about the actual people in the United States.
Britton-Purdy: An odd thing about this time is that everyone—notably the right—is grabbing for the mantle of marginalization. A 2017 public opinion study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that majorities in just about every group, including 55 percent of whites, said members of their group face discrimination. Trumpism is a politics of grievance and threat, not triumphalism.
Rana: A profound long-running effect of the civil rights–era victories has been the way anti-discrimination talk has become pervasive across the political spectrum. It has become the way to make demands on the state and on society. In part, this is due to the collapse of class-based institutions like unions and to the rise of neoliberal austerity. As class-based demands retreated in U.S. politics, a call for inclusion became the only way to talk about group justice.
This takes two forms. On the right, anti-discrimination rhetoric is, ironically, how you can express bigotry and sustain subordination. Rather than explicitly defending homophobia or racism, conservative activists attack the achievements of the civil rights movement—a person can’t be denied service because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation—by invoking religious liberty to protect white Christians. Classic anti-colonial tools like boycotts and divestment get denounced as discriminatory when activists try to apply them to today’s colonial and ethno-nationalist states.
For centrists, anti-discrimination rhetoric can serve as cover. Big institutions from Facebook to the CIA embrace corporate diversity speak or “lean-in” feminism. This rhetoric allows the Clintons and Bidens of the world to treat centers of economic power like the Silicon Valley giants as civil rights allies unjustly maligned by the left. Take Hillary Clinton’s notorious rejoinder to Sanders during the 2016 campaign: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” she asked, “would that end racism?” Centrist multiculturalism and inclusion separate class and race, often directly pitting the latter against the former.
Britton-Purdy: Any approach to equality that can make Hobby Lobby seem like a victim or Facebook seem morally heroic has some rough spots to work out.
Rana: These versions of equality talk can foster a message that poor and oppressed people should keep faith with meritocratic inclusion, despite all its failures. This is a message that has obviously spread in the culture, even in touchstones embraced by left-liberals. Take the sensation around the musical Hamilton, maybe the cultural creation that best embodied the Obama years and its politics of racial and professional uplift. It is a moving assertion of U.S. diversity and multicultural pride. Indeed, there is a subversive power to seeing black and brown people depicting white settler founders on the stage—until one notices that hardly any actual black and brown people are part of the depiction of the time. Virtually no oppressed people from the era—those expropriated or enslaved at the founding—are given the chance to articulate the meaning of those events in their own terms. And the hero of the whole production is the founder most associated with monarchism and most suspicious of mass popular democracy. These facts are irrelevant because of his personal and meritocratic achievement; regardless of his actual politics, he’s embraced as a self-made man of the people.
This just means that the left needs to keep critical antennae up when centrists or those in power talk about white supremacy, equality, or multicultural pride. Anti-humiliation is essential in any community premised on solidarity and liberation, but—especially when the ideas get invoked by political elites—one has to assess whether the language of equality is being used to uproot or instead to entrench status quo hierarchies.
Britton-Purdy: Let’s come back to your criticism of what you call creedalism, or constitutional veneration. Can you spell it out further, and say why it matters now?
Rana: My work has focused on a specific ideology that was cemented during the Cold War. This is the idea that the United States has always been committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence: self-government, universal equality, and personal liberty. Believing in the creed concretely has usually meant believing in market capitalism, the near-perfection of the U.S. Constitution, and the legitimacy of U.S. imperium abroad. All this goes hand in hand with viewing racial reform as mainly a problem of formal legal discrimination, which the country is steadily overcoming—in the process, fulfilling its own inherent liberal truth. This creedal faith has been the heart of U.S. nationalism for decades and the driving ideological project of the center-left/center-right political establishment.
But during these very years of establishment consensus, a series of rolling social crises gripped the country—permanent wars overseas, the after-effects of near-financial collapse, mass incarceration, and deindustrialization to name a few. I believe that these crises are in part the product of bipartisan policy choices—the Iraq War and other destructive military interventions across the Middle East, over-policing, racial meliorism, the neoliberal policies of deregulation, austerity, and privatization—generated by the creedal nationalist compact itself.
As disturbing as Trump is, I worry that there is intense Cold War nostalgia in influential segments of the center-left and center-right who hope that simply removing Trump will return the United States to the old preferred course. In my view, the fundamental failures of that course mean that unless the official story is itself confronted, the country will remain trapped in the same cycles of social crisis and popular disaffection. In other words, Americans have no choice but to reconstruct society on new ethical and institutional terms.
Britton-Purdy: What does a democratic future look like?
Rana: It requires nothing less than changing the electoral process, the economy, and the political-legal order more broadly to commit all of it to equal and effective freedom. This would include more familiar goals like campaign finance reform, universal healthcare and child care, and ending felony disenfranchisement and gerrymandering. But it also would mean eliminating the colonial status of the territories, providing a full job guarantee, implementing unionization by default, decriminalizing the border and embracing presumptive admission, demobilizing the security and carceral states, confronting U.S. police power overseas, giving immigrants the vote (through residential rather than citizen-based voting), and so on.
These are revolutionary reforms, or non-reformist reforms. Their goal is to alter the basic distribution of power in society and make it harder for an unequal social order to reproduce itself. The point is not to offer a technocratic fix to markets or institutions, but to improvise something properly democratic from within the existing system. At a time of elite fracture and rule by what amounts to a wealthy and white national minority, I see no alternative.
Precisely because it seeks to take power away from those who have it, a movement that pushes for these changes will face an intense counter-response. Just think of the corporate state’s violent reaction to ideas like the eight-hour day or the minimum wage, or the white supremacist response to black voting rights.
Britton-Purdy: Mobilization and conflict raise the stakes of politics. That’s good, says the left today: it’s what we need.
What comes next? Democratic politics needs to create and maintain majorities. It also needs to sustain, or create, resources of solidarity and legitimacy so the people who lose politically will accept, maybe even come to support, the settlement whose terms the political winners set.
One pessimistic scenario for the next ten years is that left-powered Democrats win majorities but lose the power to rule as conservative states, populations, and institutions effectively opt out. Maybe this means refusing to implement national mandates on the state level. Maybe it means disengagement from public institutions, along the lines of the white secession from public schools after desegregation. Maybe it means a mass tax-refusal movement. Maybe a right-wing Supreme Court generates new federalist doctrine that helps along some of this.
Rana: I recognize that heightening social conflict will likely cause greater elite fracture—“polarization,” “partisanship,” and so on—with no guarantee of success. All the great democratic changes in American life have come with real and open political struggle. But I see no other way to overcome the cycles of crisis in the United States than this path—with all the dangers that entails. That to me is the country’s predicament, and it cannot be wished away. But we must refuse to romanticize conflict. We need an ethics of political responsibility—recognizing the real-life consequences of political choices and the likely stakes of reform strategies.
Britton-Purdy: What are some of those stakes and consequences?
Rana: Centrist commentators often confuse the problem of elite fracture, which results in political paralysis and institutional corruption, with a broader anxiety about “polarization” producing general social violence—a “civil war.” Simply put, Trump’s America—for all its real terrors for oppressed people—is as a whole no more a place of lawlessness and violence for the marginalized than George W. Bush’s America—or if one is being frank, Clinton’s or Obama’s America. The Trump era in many ways simply extends a general culture of state-backed lawlessness that had become so commonplace as to pass unremarked by the very same commentators who are now fixated on norm-breaking.
My main worry about the collapse of elite cohesion is that it will mean the existing institutions continue to fail as sites for addressing basic social problems, with the result that those problems get deeper. To the extent that I view “tribalism” as a real concern, it’s because it will trap the United States in its current state, and it will no longer be plausible to imagine that politics can offer a meaningful response.
Britton-Purdy: On account of so many crises, including the climate crisis, the most important strategic question at the moment is whether the Democratic Party becomes a movement party committed to basic change or remains a mildly reformist party whose platform is getting back to 2015, when what you called our “rolling crises” were easier for Democratic commentators and donors to stomach. That means the imperative to build majorities that can stick is very great. What vision of community and mutual obligation should we be advancing, if the old “American creed” is both fatally compromised and past its time?
Rana: It’s worth distinguishing between what it takes to elect Democrats and what it takes to build an insurgent mass movement on behalf of democracy. The latter is clearly related to electoral politics. There have to be genuinely left-wing candidates running for office across the country. But creating such a majority is not reducible to electoral politics alone. One of the biggest challenges facing the left is to restitch its political memory, to develop the cultural institutions (which existed in the past)—from sites of popular education and workplace activism to party structures themselves—that collectively create a daily experience of liberation and community. I view organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party as pushing in these directions. Still, much more needs to be done—the left needs a permanently mobilized set of parallel institutions that stand outside electoral life but continuously intervene within it.
This point is especially critical given that political discussion is already so focused on the 2020 elections. If Sanders or Warren were to win the presidency, that would be a significant victory for social democratic forces in the United States. Especially in a moment of profound struggle with forces of reaction, these elections are critical. But such a presidency would not mean that a transformative majority now exists or is in fact wielding political power. Nor would even a Sanders legislative agenda actually encompass a fully emancipatory politics.
One can see this clearly through issues like immigration and foreign policy—where the progressive wing of the Democratic Party still hews pretty closely to the old Cold War consensus. In part these limitations are because in this moment there is no electoral majority for a more liberationist position, like resident voting. But even so—and this is key—the political horizon of an insurgent movement cannot be defined simply by what friendly politicians believe to be electorally feasible.
And in thinking about that horizon, I am personally very suspicious of left-liberal claims that movement building requires Americans to rally around a single national narrative. Such arguments are built in part on a false image drawn from the Cold War, in which change supposedly came about because all Americans magically agreed on the goodness of the creed. This never happened. Cold War elites and their progeny projected their own consensus politics onto a public that was always far more fractured and conflict-ridden than the view from Washington suggested.
My main opposition is thus to political organizing and electoral politics that begin by assuming that the only way one can talk about change is through the creed—as if that’s the single meaning of either labor radicalism or the long black freedom struggle. Indeed, one of the things that defines living in the United States as an African American, Native American, Muslim, or poor person more generally is the seeming requirement that to make demands, you have to accept a self-congratulatory narrative of the country. Native peoples are told that simply to gain minimal respect (not even actual sovereignty and political autonomy), you first have to agree to your own expropriation as the natural order of things. Similarly, African Americans are told in ways small and large to deny that their sustained experience of enslavement and subordination embodies an essential, perhaps irredeemable, truth about the nation’s character. And for poor people, the dominant cultural framing is that society is more or less meritocratic and that your precarity is largely a function of individual failing. No real politics of solidarity can start from these premises.
In fact, a significant part of how left political memory was broken in the United States was through the basic denial of the existential truths that marked many of the lives of those oppressed—including, unintentionally, by some of those fighting on behalf of the poor and marginalized. How can you go about organizing oppressed people if you are unwilling to begin from the existential truths that define them? Left political education is a two-way street and requires meeting people where they are.
I’d also say that one need not embrace my brand of Third Worldism to be part of a transformative majority; convergence on an emancipatory agenda can be a way to link together a variety of political identities. It is inevitable that in forging new social bases, groups will disagree about nationhood and self-understanding. (In that spirit, I should note that I’m not a fan of the “or barbarism” phrase, which for obvious reasons has never sounded the same outside the Global North.) That is okay and simply an unavoidable part of pluralism. Instead of trying to resolve questions of first principles and existential identity, the focus has to be on finding working agreements between constituencies on concrete material goals. This is precisely what movement actors did during those moments when labor and civil rights activists were able to create cross-racial and class-conscious political coalitions.
Britton-Purdy: The Constitution remains a very important symbol across quite a political range. Ironically, even while it’s used to defeat majoritarian and egalitarian politics, it still stands for the ideal of popular sovereignty and a just community. Do those meanings make it a resource as well as a problem?
Rana: One of the great reactionary achievements of the last half-century has been to reduce constitutionalism as such to the mainstream worship of the federal Constitution and its founders. Radicals from the IWW to W. E. B. Du Bois to the Black Panthers all invoked their rights under the Constitution as a way of fighting back against state and corporate power. But at the same time, they were clear about how and why they were making those claims. They saw these rights as foundational to any legitimate legal order—they had a dissenting constitutional politics—and thus to be defended even under a fatally flawed text. They viewed their creative legal interpretations in the courts as a way to provide necessary relief for those harassed and targeted. And, perhaps above all, radicals used constitutional positions to make a public argument about whom people should view as lawless—to show that oppressed groups were the ones committed to the rule of law, and it was actually those with power who behaved in ways both criminal and violent.
But those earlier radicals combined this strategic use of the Constitution with a political vision that viewed genuine democracy as entailing the overcoming of the constitutional order, whose antidemocratic features enabled a wealthy and white minority to obstruct economic reform and racial reconstruction.
Britton-Purdy: Once you acknowledge deep political conflict, you have to distinguish among those you can stand with, those you have to try to defeat but are also committed to living with, and those you should try to anathematize.
I know some very progressive Democrats (one currently the likely front-runner in a gubernatorial primary) running for statewide or national office in West Virginia, my home state. In a state that went nearly 70 percent for Trump, they will need a lot of his voters. What sort of alliance is this, in your terms?
Rana: For starters, simply writing off most working-class and non-
college-educated whites as permanent opponents is a huge mistake. A centrist line, connected to that class suspicion I mentioned earlier, assumes that the only non-racist alliances are those built around educated whites—the Obama/Clinton coalition—and aims at both meritocratic uplift and market prerogatives.
Given the decline of class-based institutions and consciousness, racial solidarity is often all that remains under neoliberalism as a way for some to articulate group experience. And this distorted version of solidarity gives shape to the grievances of working-class whites that social scientists measure as “racial resentment.” Centrists use this reality to preempt social democratic alliances. The left must not fall into the same trap. Instead, we should see ourselves as in battle for such constituencies—whose politics are far more fluid than the data may suggest. As you’ve reminded me, Sanders won the 2016 Democratic primary in every county in West Virginia. Part of a left emancipatory project is to contest racial solidarity as the defining white working-class political consciousness.
Your question points to thorny political judgments. But those difficulties can obscure something else that’s just as important. Until quite recently, bipartisanship has been taken as an unalloyed good. Mainstream politics has promoted a fiction that all Americans—regardless of real hierarchy—have the same interests and are in solidarity with one another. This is a lie.
That means that if we’re asking the questions you pose—who can one be in alliance with? what types of pragmatic accommodations may be politically necessary in furthering transformative ends, and what types simply reproduce hierarchy?—then we’re already in a far better place politically. We’ve accepted there are genuine political friends and genuine enemies, and seeking consensus across these divides is in fact often tantamount to abandoning a commitment to liberation.
I approach this issue as two separable questions. First, getting policies through Congress may mean that groups that are otherwise structurally opposed might back the same position for different reasons. When to participate in these types of temporary arrangements can turn on complicated assessments about who to take money from or who to put one’s name onto a shared statement with. Take left efforts to mainstream both prison reform and critiques of the national security consensus. At times this has entailed left collaborations with right-wing entities like the Koch brothers. That is a provisional strategic choice that can only be entered into with a clear-eyed understanding that, at some point, these arrangements will break down. The basic conflicts of interest are too great.
Even more challenging is a second question: with whom do you actually become allies? Who do you build shared community and a political movement with—or develop underlying policy goals alongside? And for whom are you willing to face real threat out of solidarity with their interests, even when you yourself are not directly under attack? This camp of real allies is an inevitably smaller one, but again shouldn’t be determined in advance.
In thinking about these alliances it’s important not to fetishize voting blocs—to reject, say, educated white voters as such because of an idealized version of class politics. As long as the politics is rooted in cross-racial and class-based solidarity—and people are responding to the same liberationist demands—one should willingly bring into the tent those that may not fit idealized categories. In part, this is important because, even if solidarity begins with shared material interest, for real community to develop it has to transcend material interest alone. It has to speak to a sense of common ethical endeavor—the willingness to bear real costs even if not in one’s immediate self-interest, as occurred at various moments in the national past, from Radical Reconstruction to labor struggles in the long Gilded Age to student anti-imperial and anti-capitalist politics in the 1960s.
Britton-Purdy: Who is in your democracy, in a highly interdependent world where the United States still calls a lot of shots? How does a radical democrat think about borders?
Rana: The issue of the border is a key reason why I think understanding the United States in settler terms is so important. The traditional Cold War story of the United States as an immigrant nation presents the country as a republic that out of moral beneficence has been kind enough to admit those in need beyond its shores. But that’s not the national history nor the circumstances today. The United States instead has policed migration, both from abroad and within its borders, in order to do three things at once: first, racially define who counts as American; second, remove indigenous and local peoples that asserted their own autonomy; and third, coercively extract labor from outsider groups. I should add that not all oppressive forces in the United States, even if they intersect with settlerism, can be fully analyzed through the frame. For instance, the patriarchal character of the legal-political order—and gendered migration policies specifically—are certainly filtered through colonial structures. But settler analysis alone is not nearly enough to make sense of the sustained history and distinct structures of patriarchal domination.
Still, what settler analysis does is allow us to see a basic dichotomy in demographic control across U.S. history. The United States had a long practice of essentially treating the border as a port of entry for European migrants that could help the state demographically claim indigenous land, even giving them land and voting rights before citizenship. Indeed, it wasn’t really until the 1910s and 1920s, with the frontier closed and as industrialization and class conflict strengthened nativist sentiment, that literacy tests and immigration quotas reached European migrants, effectively closing the border for them too and treating Europeans less as settler co-participants and more as economic rivals. But for non-Europeans, from the very earliest days of colonization, the United States controlled the movement (within and outside the formal border) of African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and indigenous peoples whose labor or land may have been necessary but whose humanity was effectively disposable.
Racially restrictive quotas may no longer be in effect, but this disposability continues to define the U.S. relationship to those from the Global South, especially Latin American migrants. It is the reason why I argue that the current treatment of immigrant labor reproduces earlier Jim Crow economic and political practices. Undocumented migrants in particular often find themselves engaged in hard and exploitative work, the result of longstanding and state-sponsored capitalist patterns of production, and under the continuous threat of legally sanctioned terror. Just like African Americans under the old Jim Crow system, such migrants constitute a racially subordinated group further denied meaningful rights—from ordinary legal recourse to political rights like voting—in order to maintain their dependent status.
Personally, I am not that interested in philosophical debates about open borders in general or who constitutes the demos. In the abstract, these conversations—especially about the demos—can fall back on false assumptions of national community and obscure both internal social conflicts and transnational solidarities. For this reason, I am interested in how structural oppression is actually reproduced in the United States. Given the country’s own settler structures and ongoing imperial politics, whatever may be the theoretical legitimacy of closed borders for a small, postcolonial state in the Global South, those arguments do not apply to the United States. I believe it is essential for this country to embrace presumptive admission for all (what long defined the approach for Europeans alone). I can think of very few non-reformist reforms more potentially consequential than decriminalizing entry and including immigrants as political equals.
Britton-Purdy: I think this is a powerful case, particularly about the southern border. I agree with you that vulnerable migrant labor in the United States parallels the non-white labor force of Jim Crow. Your argument takes the U.S. state and American national history very seriously as sites of collective ethical responsibility. It’s hard for me to see how someone who takes those ideas seriously could deny in good faith that the United States has a special moral burden along that border.
I do think your “presumptive admission” raises hard questions. If it applies to all countries of origin, it reaches well beyond the historical argument about the southern border. One has to think about how to make appeals to potential electoral majorities in this country. “No caste here” is one radical (and sometimes creedal!) argument with a long history and touches directly on the situations of present migrants. “This country has special ethical obligations in this hemisphere” is another. One is on less familiar terrain making your more sweeping argument.
Being both a democrat and committed to the most vulnerable—not just in this country but in the world—imposes a very difficult series of judgments about how to make a majoritarian appeal that will also unsettle majority interests and identities. The creed, it seems to me, won its adherents partly because it purported to square that circle. We have to keep asking, what’s the alternative?
Rana: I think what you’re describing is the perennial challenge for emancipatory politics in the United States. The country’s settler structure has meant that who counts as worthy of full membership has always been narrowly drawn. How do you get a majority within a polity—including insiders who enjoy material and status benefits from the subordination of outsiders—to alter the terms of who is seen as part of that very community? Indeed, how do you get insiders to participate in the reconstruction of their own society?
To make matters even more complicated, those on the outside have occupied structurally distinct political spaces from each other. For instance, black freedom and indigenous liberation, while jointly challenging the settler framework of the society, consist of critically different substantive projects.
The present is the latest iteration of this long story. I see all the great episodes of potential change in the United States—Reconstruction, Populist revolt, labor insurgency in the 1930s, the long black freedom and feminist struggles—as having had at least one quality in common: a white (historically male) majority was not primarily moved by moral suasion, even if some eventually came to see themselves as part of a shared ethical and emancipatory project. Rather, a significant portion of that majority was confronted by how the basic structural hierarchies within the society reproduced unfreedom for them as well. These hierarchies denied even many insiders economic independence and political control. During each of these episodes, a group of these insiders realized that the only way to overcome that reality of domination was by universalizing freedom. In this way, some insiders embraced, for material and eventually moral reasons, class-conscious but also cross-racial and multi-communal coalitions—coalitions that aimed either implicitly or explicitly to undo the settler roots of the nation.
Immigration today offers us yet another moment for confronting this dilemma. Trumpian nativism promotes whiteness as the basis for solidarity; it repeats the lie that workers are primarily threatened by foreign labor rather by than by the realities of U.S. capitalism and white elite co-nationals. Responding requires linking the shared material experiences of citizens and non-citizens, across racial divides, and demonstrating in everyday life how freedom for one depends on freedom for all.
This is the same struggle the left has long faced: how do you build a transformative majority? There is no magic discursive frame—creedal or otherwise—that will somehow paper over the conflicts or make the challenge less difficult. This is the struggle that we in the United States must face together, with eyes open and with a politics committed to making the existing order—in ways small and large—harder to sustain.
Aziz Rana teaches at Cornell Law School and is the author of The Two Faces of American Freedom. He is completing a book, Rise of the Constitution, that explores the modern emergence of constitutional veneration in the twentieth century and how it has shaped popular politics.
Jedediah Britton-Purdy teaches at Columbia Law School and is the author, most recently, of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.