Why the Left Needs Liberals

Why the Left Needs Liberals

Every reform era came about, in the main, when left-wing movements compelled liberal politicians to back some of their key demands and then collaborated with those lawmakers against their common foes.

The revival of democratic socialism in the United States is a marvelous thing: it has helped spur mass opposition to corporate power, persuaded a majority of Americans to endorse Medicare for All, and inspired its adherents to run competitive races for every office from city council to the presidency. But the surge has also emboldened some on the left to echo an old charge that will do its future prospects no good: “elite” liberals are a major obstacle to achieving the changes we need.

Of course, Nancy Pelosi and Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo will never endorse a vision of radical equality, and the reforms they favor, if enacted, might well strengthen the capitalist system rather than undermine it. Yet they are currently in charge of the only institutions with the potential to stymie or stall the despicable plans of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and their enablers in big business and the Christian right. And no Democrat will win the presidency in 2020 unless she or he can mobilize a broad coalition in which socialists would still be a distinct minority.

In the United States, a strategic alliance between liberals and leftists is the only way durable changes have ever been won. Every reform era, and there haven’t been many, came about, in the main, when left-wing movements compelled liberal politicians to back some of their key demands and then collaborated with those lawmakers against their common foes. Abolitionists who joined the Republican Party drove Radical Reconstruction; union activists with socialist convictions helped make the Democrats a semblance of a labor party in big industrial states; the black freedom movement worked with white liberals to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Such coalitions were short-lived and frustrated radicals who wanted more far-reaching results. But when liberals and leftists remained at odds, as during the final decades of the past century, they made it easier for the right to triumph.

Keeping a broad Democratic coalition intact does not require remaining silent about the limits of liberal ideas or the dependence of office-holders on donations from the ultra-wealthy. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have shifted the policies of the party leftward by challenging the cautious, foolishly “bipartisan” approach followed by the last two nominees. But neither will be elected in 2020 if they, or their most ardent followers, spend their time bashing liberals they must have on their side. This summer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed how to balance principle and political realism when she first criticized Pelosi for scorning the Green New Deal and then took a meeting with her, after which the congresswoman from New York announced, “I think the speaker respects the fact that we’re coming together as a party and a community.”

Only with the defeat of a president and his party hell-bent on a program of white supremacy, nativist bigotry, corporate domination, and environmental degradation will leftists have a chance to realize any of the aims they cherish and that the United States and the world so urgently need.


Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels