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The American present regularly inspires the feeling that it is totally, horribly new. Just as often, it seems to give evidence that it is just the latest recrudescence of perennial American curses. In fact, our moment is deeply continuous with and shaped by something more specific: the collapse and revival of political possibility in roughly the last thirty years, from the end of the Cold War to today.
In those decades, three modes of politics gathered the energies of discontent. All began as rejections of the default mode of those decades: consultant-heavy, marketing-driven, all-tactics politics that assumed nothing ever really changed except the identity of the party in power (with some incremental gains for its constituents and some losses for the other side). All try to grasp something more from politics. But all remain deeply shaped by the premise they reacted against: that nothing really changes. All are, in some ways, evasions of politics more than renewals.
One is the testimonial politics of “speaking truth to power,” which is indifferent to majoritarian jockeying and calls instead on the charisma of conscience. It has sometimes seemed to work like magic, turning into a prefigurative proclamation of what then becomes true, words that bring walls tumbling down. When it does not confront a rotten and fragile regime, such as the ones that fell across the Soviet bloc in 1989–91, it is more likely to become a merely supplicant politics, seeking intervention from courts, philanthropists, or companies where democratic power is unavailing.
A second kind of politics calls for patriotic renewal and passionate sentiment without anchor in any concrete vision of how to make an egalitarian community real. The Obama campaign of 2008 exemplified the force and limits of this model, which the Democratic Party has now renewed in combination with an emergency mission to save the country from Donald Trump.
Third is a politics of force, more interested in the enemy than in the community to be made or defended, committed to the power of the energizing slogan more than to clarity, aimed at producing the experience of conflict and heady little victories amid an air of general catastrophe. The exemplar of this “burn it all down” politics is, of course, Trump, although he has inspired imitators, not all of them his supporters.
All of these politics are symptoms or aftereffects of the end of history, and the end of the end of history. Five to ten years ago, a genre of political essay flourished on the theme of how it had felt to imagine that the major political questions were settled and what we thought we saw when we emerged, blinking, from that particular ideological cave. (I contributed to the genre.) This is not one of those essays. It is about how the politics we live with now took its shape from the long, recurrent refusal of history’s end, about how we are still living with a political vocabulary born in the Long 1990s.
The past decade has brought the greatest revival of left energies in half a century, if not longer. The past year has also seen the rout of the left in the Democratic presidential primaries, ensuring a near-term future of dissent and supplication more than ruling. This situation makes the choices of the next years particularly important. Will they point toward accepting a marginal, gadfly role, with power in a few city governments (which are, sadly, mostly not very powerful themselves) and a visionary flank of legislators who rarely control key votes? Or will they continue to press toward the goal, not just of the Bernie Sanders campaign itself, but of the activists and energies that gathered around it: to build a majority that can wield power?
Famously, we don’t choose the circumstances in which we make (or fail to make) history. What can the defeated faction of the democratic left learn from the limits and distortions of the political world in which it grew up, to avoid recreating what it sets out to overcome? The basic lesson is not a new one. Building democratic power is both the only way and, by the same token, difficult and risky. It is so difficult and risky, and its practice has been so often distorted and debauched, that it is tempting to persuade ourselves it is what we are doing when we are not at all, when we are in fact doing something more pleasant and less effective. In the end, it comes down to the power to use the state to change institutions that change lives. That is what can make newly majoritarian phrases like “Medicare for All” and “Black Lives Matter” into realities. The less this is so, the more we’re caught in recurring whiplash between, “Hello, another world is not only possible, it is morally and ecologically imperative!” and, “Hello, there is literally nothing we can do to change the course of this global death cult, thank you for coming to my TED talk.”
Pursuing majorities is especially frustrating in the United States because antidemocratic features of the political system make a political majority sharply different from a demographic or even electoral majority. The Electoral College, the Senate, gerrymandering, and disenfranchisement all stanch majorities, while the Supreme Court can thwart them even when they become effective. I’ve argued elsewhere that a democratic agenda in the United States should include constitutional reform and full enfranchisement for everyone who makes their lives here. But in any version, to get there, we have to go through the institutions we have. Political power is a thoroughly artificial thing, and votes are where you get it if you are not the financial industry, a retail empire, or big oil. (We are not.)
There are many perfectly good ways of thinking about politics, or practicing ethics, or pursuing institutional influence, that do not involve trying to bring a political majority into being to exercise power. Many of these might be corrupted, or at least confused, by a democratic political orientation. That last orientation, however, has to be primary when we are doing politics in a quasi-democratic polity like the United States. If we cannot explain how we are going after that majority, we should entertain the possibility that we are not engaged in democratic politics at all. The alternatives are well-practiced and familiar, the bafflements of the Long 1990s. We should stay alert to the various forms of anti-politics available, and keep in mind what we mean to be doing, and whether we are actually doing it.
The socialist revival will succumb to its worst fate if it becomes ironized, a way of signaling your subculture to an approving micro-public without catching any traction in the larger world—a fate well prepared by the always optional, always parochial platforms of social media. But earnestness has its own traps. The broader left revival will have a sad end if it becomes a new version of “speaking truth to power”—the chattering conscience of a world in which its egalitarian, democratic, and internationalist commitments correspond to no actual dispositions of power. Both are familiar politics substitutes, into which the extraordinary political experience of the last decade might curdle.
The rest of this essay tries to make these assertions more concrete by tracing some lines of political experience over a few decades of the left’s seeming exhaustion and inchoate renewal, alongside the rise of an increasingly rancid right. It is a political history of the present moment. It is also, in part, an answer to a call Alyssa Battistoni recently made in Dissent’s pages, for accounts of how politics feels these days. What are we able to say about the condition of this world and our desire for a different one? What transformation feels possible, maybe even just beyond the horizon of events, and what feels foreclosed? How did the foreclosure happen? How are we still shaped by the political exhaustion and confusion of the Long 1990s, and what does our revival have to do with transformations and revivals on the right?
The episodes I draw on will, of course, have felt different to other people for all kinds of reasons. But something happened in these decades, and is still happening, which I am trying to sketch from the places where I can get my hands on it. Although I am looking to history to anchor lessons, it is worth stressing that one recurrent warning of these decades is that people of good will and serious purpose regularly misunderstand their own times. We do not know what is possible, or why. We do not know where we are, or what is likely to result from what we are doing. Most of the time, we are guessing, projecting our own dispositions forward while assuring one another that we have it figured out. A certain modesty might come from taking this seriously.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall’s fall signaled the collapse of Soviet power, the rise of a unipolar American world, and the seemingly final interment of basic disagreement about the future of collective life. Although hardly anyone ever used the grandiose phrase “end of history” without a sense of irony, the world turned overwhelmingly to Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion that liberal capitalism was the only non-barbaric future. I was turning fifteen, an age when it seemed essential to master the grammars of rebellion. Radicalism, such as it was, came through a blend of aesthetics, ethics, and sentiment. Fugazi, the hyper-earnest, straight-edge punk act from D.C., was against violence and lies; so was U2, the stadium pop band with a hint of punk cred in its Dublin origins. Billy Bragg, a product of the final years of anti-Thatcher laborism who survived as a movement poet without a movement, was by then singing about “a socialism of the heart.” He echoed Czech president Václav Havel, a dissident playwright imprisoned under communism, who wrote, “Though my heart may be left of center, I have always known that the only economic system that works is a market economy.” Figures like Havel had resisted authoritarian regimes that most observers expected to last through their lives and longer. Almost necessarily, they had worked without a plan beyond what Havel called “living in truth”—being, like punks and some pop stars, against lies and violence, although at greater personal risk and expecting no definite reward. Their quixotic persistence and unexpected victory seemed testament to a magical version of politics: the world’s powers really might bend, or break, before the speaking of truth. Pronounce the right words, and the walls would fall.
Havel’s dissident organization, Charter 77, made its founding act a statement of support for the principles of civil and political liberties in the Helsinki Accords, which were also a key origin point of the modern human rights movement. That movement, from Amnesty International letter-writing groups in high schools to new theories of international politics, became the bearer of what Samuel Moyn has aptly called “the last utopia”: With socialism seemingly ruled out, the minimalist liberty of human rights—the negative protection of every person from state abuse—was the only radicalism that still seemed viable. Human rights embodied the same ethical-cum-aesthetic politics as the dissident playwrights and punk radicals. It was about the truth one spoke to power.
This magical idea of politics turned out to have affinities with the most disenchanted forms of power: markets and, not far behind, militaries. If there was no political critique of capitalism, just a socialism of the heart, then there was, really, no truth to speak against the market’s decentralized and quasi-voluntary forms of power. Markets were just there, a morally neutral form of power, an implicit truth. The American conceit of that time was that the rest of humanity was waiting to become us, to shake off the accretions and abuses of history and become just people, unmodified—like us, but maybe with different outfits or spices. And such people would, beyond doubt, live in a marketplace, as pervasive and invisible as the air. They would also live in plenitude. The American supermarket was the cornucopia at the end of history, the promise of abundance that supposedly had pulled the East inexorably across the borders to the West. It was, maybe, the other last utopia, the promise of scarcity’s end.
The alliance with military power was still more portentous. In Havel-style humanitarianism, the human rights sensibility contained a large dose of the anti-systematic ethics of conscience that Albert Camus had marked out two generations earlier with his injunction never to be history’s executioner and always to take the side of its victims. But power whispered in the humanitarian’s ear: why not launch a few guided missiles at the executioner’s palace? “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” the liberal hawk Madeleine Albright once demanded of General Colin Powell, and other humanitarians felt the tug of the question too.
The days of fear, confusion, and national solidarity that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, were galvanizing for some political moods and projects, stifling for others. I learned that the air attacks on Afghanistan had begun, in those days before smartphones, in the middle of a long run. I passed two D.C. neocons, whom I knew as former junior faculty from college, sitting at an outdoor café. “The war has begun,” one intoned—Scout’s honor, that is the word for what he did—and I realized all of a sudden that he was thrilled.
Things had been shaken loose. Who could say what liberal pieties and ramshackle geopolitical arrangements would tumble and shatter? High-minded liberalism developed a war camp: the journalist and peripatetic ethicist Michael Ignatieff, the New Yorker’s George Packer, Peter Beinart of the New Republic, the New Leftist Paul Berman, and the soon-to-be-former leftist Christopher Hitchens. It remains hard to untangle the reasons: a clear-eyed bet on humanitarian violence, a wish not to be irrelevant as the world swung into action, the charisma of power. Hitchens was the least inhibited in his jouissance: here at last was a revolution, heads rolling. No more hand-wringing! History’s arc toward justice needed its own executioners.
Those who couldn’t join this cavalcade, for whatever reasons—loyalty to battered anti-imperial traditions, sensibilities that resisted organized violence, discomfort belonging to a self-assured majority—found that the years that followed suffocated dissent. September 11 took on a mandatory meaning, as if to remember the ruin and death necessarily implied embracing the appetite for revenge, the manufactured fear, the whole enterprise of surveillance and war that followed.
The imperative of revenge (questionable in any case) was transferred from Afghanistan, whose government had actually had connection with the attacks, to Iraq, which had not. Afghanistan, it seemed, was too small to satisfy. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who was then still regarded by serious people as a theorist of globalization, told Charlie Rose in May 2003: “What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?’ You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well, suck. On. This.”
Although Donald Trump told a 2016 GOP debate audience in South Carolina that soldiers had died for George W. Bush’s lies, Trump’s politics is an elaboration of Bush-era hedonist nationalism. Much of Trump’s manner is neither new, as liberals often say, nor some perennial American horror, as strands of left pessimism have it, but instead a continuation of the Bush years after September 11, minus some of the inhibitions. If Trump is an American id, his bigotry and xenophobia voice the id of a Bush administration that avoided outright racism and Islamophobia but organized its entire claim to rule around wars in Muslim countries and a perennially renewable foreign threat from brown people who “hated our freedom.” Those years were an object lesson to anyone paying the ordinary modicum of attention: Behind American power’s pieties are its real meanings, which are fearful and fearsome, rank and proud, and can make it secretly fun as hell to wield. On the strength of these energies, Trump could win in 2016 as an unapologetic enthusiast for this kind of power, whose satisfactions were no longer secrets.
The Bush years, now fondly remembered for their notes of personal decency, produced a grotesque of politics: patriotism without principle (rallying behind extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo); realism without reality (a fantastical and wildly destructive “war for democracy” in Iraq, launched by people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, whose intellectual charisma was in grim brows and hard noses); a surveillance state operated in secrecy and often by private contractors (such as Edward Snowden, who disclosed it); and a nationalism that walked the brink of Islamophobia (and that is a very charitable assessment). But it did, in the end, give those who were neither persuaded nor consumed by it something to fight against.
And so, almost seven years after September 11, Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign was, among other things, a kind of peace movement. John Kerry’s patriotic war-against-war campaign had failed in 2004, but Obama’s suavely moral-technocratic opposition to a “dumb war” in Iraq promised that the country would no longer be commandeered for vain crusades. (Actual results varied; see Libya; but cf. Syria.) He rose when the country had sickened of war and was looking for a trust-inspiring voice to express that exhaustion.
Besides war, the world was to be saved from Hillary Clinton’s consultant-heavy politics, a reprise of her husband’s “triangulation” toward post-partisanship between 1992 and 2000, premised on the certainty that winning elections was a game with definite, fixed rules, which an expert could master. Obama’s campaign renewed a different feeling: that mobilized people could remake the rules, even become—sometimes, to some degree—different people through politics. We were, he said in effect, more, better, something else than this country we found ourselves in; and, in a bit of imaginative alchemy, we who carried this unrealized possibility in ourselves also were America. “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” he assured us (cribbing from Alice Walker)—a brilliant phrase of imprecise political meaning but exact emotional aim.
Treading the back roads of South Carolina for Obama in the days before he dominated in its primary, it really did feel as if the campaign had rediscovered something buried for decades: that an election could be the arena for a movement, and that in a movement citizens could face one another and ask what kind of country they wanted to share. I felt I was living in political time as I never had before, at least since hearing the news from Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
In hindsight, the first Obama campaign had the spirit, the feeling, of democratic transformation without the substance of a transformative program or a strategy for building power beyond winning the presidential election. In those ways it was another magical politics, one too keyed to the incantations of its charismatic cynosure. It was, by the same token, too inattentive to the loss of majorities in state legislatures, the Republican gerrymandering that followed after 2010, and the retreat of the Democratic electorate to the cities and some suburbs. In power, Obama, an institutionalist and small-c conservative by nature, drew toward the technocratic authority of generals, bankers, and economists, along with hardball political fixers of the Rahm Emanuel variety. Reports from people who dealt closely with his administration describe a pervasive contempt for idealists and “the left,” an attitude emanating from the president, who regarded himself as a thoroughgoing realist. It may be that the only thing Obama shares with his successor in the White House is contempt for those who are too easily gratified by his spiel.
But the political energy that Obama had conjured took new forms at the margins of power. As Obama pulled rhetorically toward an American center that sometimes only he seemed able to see, new movements announced a sense of crisis and possibility. In different registers, Occupy Wall Street, North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement (now the national Poor People’s Campaign), and Black Lives Matter all insisted that conditions were very bad for distinct, but overlapping, reasons: oligarchy (Occupy), a far-right takeover of a divided state’s government (Moral Mondays), and police killings (Black Lives Matter). Such movements always arise from many causes and years of uncelebrated organizing, but they had in common a radical hope placed in politics. Starting from the premise that things were worse in the country than Obama allowed, they all asked more of it than he permitted himself to do.
In this respect, Trump is a Bizarro Obama. It is not just that his racist and xenophobic themes negate Obama’s blackness and cosmopolitanism, that his logorrhea is the opposite of the forty-fourth president’s lawyerly precision, that his open corruption gives the finger to an administration that made sure its personnel waited until after office to enter the American revolving door of public power and private wealth. Obama’s first campaign, like Trump’s, was a movement that promised to reclaim America. It, too, produced a government that could not contain or channel the energies that had brought it there. From the best of us to the worst, no one knows what to do with these irruptions of remake-the-country energy, but it is hard to succeed without them. What defeated Hillary Clinton, besides the misogyny and anti-Obama animus that Trump rallied, was her deafness to that political music—the same that Obama had used to stop her in 2008—and palpable desire to pass through the formalities of election to the business of administration. By turns high-minded and brutish, the last two presidencies, these American opposites, are aspects of a revival of political energies that is irrepressible but inchoate. It is the most dangerous and the most hopeful thing.
In the movements that sprang up in the Obama years, I was in many ways a typical participant. I showed up for BLM vigils where I lived, and a die-in where I worked. I spent time at Zuccotti Park, the Wall Street site of Occupy, where I volunteered in the People’s Library and joined in the community mic that made unamplified debate possible by repeating speakers’ words, phrase-pause-repeat-phrase-pause-repeat, slowing down argument and giving it the mood of ceremony. In Moral Mondays, I was a loyal demonstrator in weekly rallies at the North Carolina statehouse and joined an early wave of civil-disobedience arrests in protest of the state legislature’s attacks on healthcare, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. In the way you do in a smallish place, I knew people closer to the center of organizing as well as a sampling of the many kinds of people, from churchgoing retirees to farm punks, who showed up. I was there out of commitment to specific issues—the curtailment of voting rights and denial of Medicaid expansion made my blood boil—and solidarity with certain people, including some of my students, my neighbors, my friends. I was also trying to find a politics that could seize a lever and shift a world that needed shifting.
In each case—and I speak more confidently of the ones I know better at first hand—an extraordinary kind of politicization happened. To harbor radical thoughts, to dissent in some basic way, had been for many years an isolating condition, and its isolation robbed it of charisma, made radicalism seem per se marginal and friendless. The Obama campaign had revived the spirit of political energy and enthusiasm, but gathered its radical potential to a cipher.
There is a caesura in the new millennium between people who adopted Obama as a charismatic near-prophet and, even disenchanted from that dream, still see him as embodying the country’s best possibilities, and those, a little younger, for whom he was always the voice of a comfortable adult world that had no idea how bad things had become. The younger group might like and even admire him, but they do not expect him, or his epigones, to set things right.
It would be hard to prove, but I think the radicalisms that came after Obama benefited in ironic ways from what he had done. He raised promises that could be disappointed, promises that seemed vital and sincere in his campaigns, in ways that worn-out exhortations to idealism never had in the Bush-Clinton-Bush era. His campaigns revived mass mobilization and the feeling of a movement in everyday political experience—taking up the scattered energy of the antiwar efforts of 2002–4 and drawing them into something more persistent and mainstream, which nonetheless had a radical pulse. It seemed that we should be able to save the world, or at least save one another from it.
Although stories about how “the internet changed everything” are such truisms that one instinctively doubts them, I have trouble imagining the movements of the Obama years emerging as they did without it. Dissent was no longer isolating. Radical phrases found echoes. You now learned, often to galvanizing surprise, that a neighbor or coworker or classmate had the same feeling, or a feeling that could be fitted to the same phrase. An identity is, in good part, a practice of mutual recognition: I am the person you are willing to see and respond to, and vice versa. In new patterns of mutual recognition, more or less radical dissent became a shared identity, around the nucleus of a movement’s core supporters, and then beyond.
Occupy has been distilled in memory to the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” Although it elides the large-hearted anarchism, the strange forms of spontaneous political theory, and the blend of festival and fetid desperation in the encampments, the phrase is nonetheless a fairly apt summation of Occupy’s legacy. It helped people who had never been near an encampment to authorize one another to say the recently unsayable: that inequality mattered, that it was not humiliating to complain about the crushing debt a bank or college had encouraged you to take on or to resent the bonuses of the people at the top of the economic order. Moments when these kinds of permission arose, when the unspeakable suddenly became sayable, are central to the political history of the last two decades. Such changes happen in movements and communities, and have for centuries; they were centerpieces of public testimony about the burdens of medical debt in the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign; they are also among the signal effects of social media politics. Centerless networks of communication are brilliant at picking out what people are hungering to say, finding ways to express them, and letting the speakers find one another and take courage in the words—for better and worse. This new permission to name inequality and to denounce it prepared the way for the reception of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century two years later, and the Sanders campaign’s reorientation of Democratic politics to economic inequality two years after that.
The 2016 Sanders campaign did more for social democratic politics than any other effort or event in this country for at least fifty years, and more likely for something closer to a century. It did so in a political landscape that, in 2015, presented no obvious social base for such a politics. No long game of labor or left organizing supported an electoral strategy far to the left of the Democratic mainstream. Hence Sanders’s campaign began as a classic protest run, with hardly a thought of upending Clinton’s richly bolstered expectation of the nomination. The movement that gathered around him would not have taken the form it did without his candidacy, but in many ways it took Sanders as its occasion, rather than his conjuring it. The underappreciated leading indicator in 2016 was that Sanders, a politically marginal maverick from a small state, was among the most-followed politicians on social media. His clarity and forcefulness on economic inequality and political oligarchy made him a gathering point for a new climate of opinion that was emerging from mutual affirmations of radicalism. (This is not to say that Sanders’s strength by the end of his 2020 run was entirely, or perhaps mainly, a product of online left opinion. In particular, his dominance among Latinx voters in western states showed how a radical campaign, once seen to be viable, gives constituencies a vehicle for ideological self-redefinition.)
There was something of magic in the experience of a new public opinion rising up to meet the Sanders campaign. It was as if long-marginal policies such as free college, Medicare for All, and a job guarantee had only to be pronounced, and majorities sprang up to lend them support (at least nominally). We named utopian horizons, and the next day a sun rose over them. In a time when respectable left theories of political change emphasize long-term base-building and bottom-up efforts, it seemed almost to instantiate romantic political voluntarism: Build the platform, and they will come. The 2020 rallying of establishment support around Joe Biden, combined with nearly unrelenting derogation of Sanders by liberal media, brought events more in line with standard left expectations. But still, something astonishing had happened. The center of the Democratic Party had moved well to the left in response to an unheralded campaign that seemingly produced its own constituency, rather than responding to ones prepared by untiring political labors. Radicalism that had once seemed unspeakable, almost ontologically foreclosed by history’s inexorable march to liberal capitalism, now displayed the spontaneous verdant ubiquity of kudzu along Southern highways.
What now? Real engagement at many scales gives politics the veins and tendons that keep it together when there isn’t much magic. One of the more heartening things in the last five years of left politics has been the flowering of state and local progressivism, from the New York and Virginia legislatures to city governments in places like Durham, North Carolina, and Philadelphia. Policing and prosecutorial reform, changes in state tax policy, solidarity with immigrant workers in the community: these are partly local work, at a scale where individual effort matters. Sometimes it billows out and elevates an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mostly it puts flesh on the idea of a politics of repair, maintenance, and responsibility, and makes possible concrete judgments about engagement with power, as it exists, as it might be (somewhat) recast.
The left will need, too, to work out relations—not necessarily one relationship—between its internationalist disposition and the fight for national majorities that is, and is likely to remain for our lifetimes, the main arena of constructive politics. Those majorities, and their states, are the actual agents of any fundamental transformation. No such agents exist for a democratic, egalitarian politics on an international scale. A left politics that rejects national sentiment as such, or refuses on principle the idea that a state should often put its own people’s welfare first, will cut itself off from the workings of politics. There are perfectly respectable reasons to advocate a more radical internationalism, but such advocacy tends to be a retreat from politics here and now, back toward the more testimonial moralism of “truth to power.”
Lowest-key, most subtle, and maybe trickiest is patience with disagreement, even about questions that touch, as so many do, on fundamental principle. Cooperation or dissent, with mainstream candidates or a moderate city government, and how and when? Judgments will differ. So will stomachs and patience. It will be essential to resist the impulse to collapse judgments about basic principle into judgments about practical reason. It is possible for egalitarians to fight over how history should be taught, for anti-racists to disagree over priorities for the next decade of policing reform, for democrats to clash over whether to interpret or overcome the Constitution.
It might be some help to remember that we are not the first to try to get some traction for radical, or just decent, principles in a damaged and misruled world. It is ordinary and inevitable to misunderstand what is happening, to miss what is coming next, and then to adjust yourself as best you can and get back to work.
This point softens the major argument of this essay: that it is essential to orient radical politics toward a possible majority, and that if we are not doing that, in this country, we are doing something other than politics. The fact is that we are never sure what will spark a democratic movement, what voice will find others joining in. The political managers of the Long 1990s thought their tactical, triangulating realism had limned the limits of American politics. The Sanders campaign and the tenuously majoritarian movement for racial justice that Black Lives Matter has spurred both suggest otherwise. The need for majoritarianism doesn’t entail a revival of bullying pseudo-realism, but keeping the orientation toward possible majorities, to keep the sense of the democratic task.
Very little in the present irruption of outrage and utopian horizons will succeed if it does not become part of a democratic majority’s vision. This work is often unwelcome and unpleasant. The democratic problem is not just to fight for someone you don’t know—whom you get to imagine in ideal or at least sympathetic light—but for someone you do know and can’t stand, or someone you don’t know but suspect would detest you if they knew about you. A democrat must take seriously, recognize as moral facts to be grappled with, the identities of everyone in the polity. These are not fixed points; the power of democracy is sometimes in its power to recast identity by free joint action, to be a vehicle of our becoming other people; but the existing identities of people you mistrust, fear, even suspect you might hate, have to be among the main materials of democratic life. They are part of the potential majorities that a democrat consents to be ruled by, and to whom she addresses herself when she speaks politically.
The basic social fact in the country today is that people are divided: into the vulnerable and the secure, the treasured and the disposable, those who fear the police and those who feel better when they are around, those who fear a doctor’s visit and those who find it reassuring, those who can withdraw from a pandemic and those who are thrown into its front lines. The basic political fact is that people are afraid of one another—in all directions, wherever they fall on the lines of power and precariousness. At the end of the day, what they most want from politics is to keep out of the hands of the people they most fear, whoever those are. Any faction can thrive in this anxious ecology, but the left, which needs to use the state, can succeed only by helping to overcome it.
If there is no majority for majority rule itself, if members of a polity cannot stomach the idea of being ruled by one another, then democracy is not possible. Unable to make a world together, people will have to accept other arrangements that may at least keep them safe from one another. The rhetoric of common purpose and civic unity that came easy in the Long 1990s was spurious not because it was pernicious but because it was unreal. We were divided, along the lines the crisis has made so vivid. Struggle and world-making have to precede a greater unity and harmony, but they are worthwhile in part because they just might.
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.