The Past and Future of the Left in the Democratic Party

The Past and Future of the Left in the Democratic Party

The Past and Future of the Left in the Democratic Party

Centrist Democrats who blamed the left for election losses would do well to remember the people who have fought for and shaped the party’s history.


We need to not ever use the word socialist or socialism ever again,” argued Representative Abigail Spanberger during a now-infamous House Democratic caucus call just two days after the 2020 general election. Spanberger, who just won a close reelection in Virginia, is one of several prominent moderates within the party who are blaming progressives and the left for why Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to gain a majority in the Senate. Pennsylvania Representative Conor Lamb, who also survived a close race, is another. He concluded in a recent interview, “Moving forward, we can’t be talking about socialism and defunding the police. We need to talk about things people like the sound of, things we can get done.”

After several years of leftist grassroots mobilization, including a historic summer of unprecedented racial justice protests (ones that saw liberals marching alongside leftists), moderates are pushing hard to move the party away from the left. But in trying to distance itself from slogans such as “Defund the police,” Democratic centrists (and some liberals) are conjuring a caricature of the left that distorts more than reveals the reasons for the party’s minority status and for its losses down-ballot. This is because the Democratic Party’s past electoral and legislative successes were largely achieved by members who expanded the coalitional boundaries and political imagination of the party because of their identification with the left. The Democratic Party has achieved electoral success because of, while remaining internally hostile to, the left—and left-wing activists—for much of its history since the New Deal.

Many of the Democratic Party’s historic victories—on civil rights, women’s rights, and economic justice—are due to the leftward shift after the Great Depression of many of its members who entered the party as liberals and embraced leftist ideas or who eschewed (or left) the Democratic Party as self-identified leftists but continued to work alongside liberal Democrats. From W.E.B. Du Bois to Henry Wallace to Shirley Chisholm to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the party is indebted to those progressive leaders—particularly progressives of color—who, when faced with growing inequality in a time of unprecedented prosperity, transformed their personal politics, and the United States in the process. Their demands were often labeled extreme by centrist or “moderate” members of their own party, but they continued to push the ideological boundaries of liberalism. Democrats should not turn away from their collective legacy.

This history of the left within the Democratic Party is presently obscured by moderates immobilized by visions of appealing to a well-defined bloc of center-leaning voters—dreaming that a cadre of virtue-minded crossover GOP voters will save the party on Election Day. This isn’t a new fiction; Democrats have long sought to attract voters with bipartisan rhetoric that simultaneously distanced the party from the left while appealing to the “center.” In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton told voters, “The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal; in many ways it’s not even Republican or Democratic. It’s different. It’s new. And it will work.” These moderates campaign and govern the way they do because they are haunted by the ghosts of George McGovern and Ronald Reagan. They implicitly accommodate and impart the conservative notion predominant since the 1960s that Americans dislike “big government.” The Democratic Party has resisted forming a meaningful alliance with politicians and activists on the left; and it has ceded ground to moderates reluctant to grant institutional space to leftists to build coalitions within their ranks.

The results of the 2020 election prove that this strategy is a failure. It fails to capitalize on left-wing sentiments expressed by liberals in the electorate who do not yet identify as leftists but echo left positions on issues like policing. For just as in the 1950s and ’60s, prolonged periods of racial and economic inequality over the past 20 years have pushed liberals leftward, which has forced the party to reckon with America’s inadequacies on issues of class and race, the limits of unfettered capitalism, and the party’s inability to deliver economic rights and social justice to Black Americans, women, and immigrants. The Democratic Party will fail to produce meaningful change for its most vital constituents if it continues to reinforce rigid intraparty boundaries and static notions of the left that excludes figures willing to join and lead multiracial movements for social justice. Its claims to inclusion will be gestural and moot, setting the party up for long-term failures beyond 2020.

The liberal-to-left lineage in the Democratic Party has a long history that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Du Bois, for instance, first sought to redress racial inequality through racial uplift, mobilizing an educated class of Blacks to lead the movement for racial justice. In 1912, Du Bois encouraged his readers to back Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson because of his campaign’s promise to support the cause of Black people in the United States. “Under Wilson came the worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that we had experienced since the Civil War,” wrote Du Bois in his 1956 essay “I Won’t Vote.” Looking back at his history of voting, Du Bois concluded that “there is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”

Du Bois’s path led him to join the Communist Party in 1961, and made him a leading figure in the fight for racial justice in the 20th century. But his ideological trajectory reflects the challenges and decisions faced by other progressive leaders who were either kept outside of the party’s big tent or attempted to redefine it. Eugene V. Debs, a former Democrat who served in Indiana’s state Senate during the 1880s, became an avowed socialist after the Pullman Strike and formed the Socialist Party of America, running for president as the Socialist Party nominee four times—in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Believing that both political parties ultimately represented the capitalist class, Debs fought for socialism outside the Democratic Party for the rest of his life.

Subsequent liberals were radicalized by the Great Depression and, inspired by FDR’s New Deal, sought change within the party, not outside of it. Once a supporter of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, Henry Wallace moved left in response to rampant inequality in the 1920s and embraced FDR’s efforts to “save capitalism” through the New Deal as his secretary of agriculture. Wallace initially resisted some of the New Deal’s most ambitious economic reforms, but shifted to the left in the mid-1930s, combining an agrarian populism with a robust progressive internationalism. As a Democrat turned Progressive Party candidate for president in 1948, Wallace championed the end of Jim Crow segregation, outflanking Democrats on matters of racial inequality. This is turn encouraged liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey to denounce racial segregation on behalf of his party at the Democratic National Convention that year. Indeed, activists like Du Bois supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ability to give Black Americans “a kind of recognition in political life which the Negro had never before received,” all while maintaining fierce criticism of the New Deal’s lack of interest in civil rights (and federal relief) for them.

The shift in the party’s positions on racial—and economic—equality opened avenues for liberals’ engagement in the rights revolutions of the 1960s. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Betty Friedan (a Wallace supporter who first worked within Democratic Party politics as a journalist in the labor movement) forced liberals to buckle to demands for an end to discrimination in employment, with figures like King actively working with Democrats and moderate liberals like Lyndon Johnson on civil rights legislation. As the United States experienced a golden age of capitalism—an “age of compression” caused by the postwar economic boom—forces on the left mobilized on behalf of distributive policies that achieved racial justice and gender equity.

The Democratic Party’s confrontation with the rights revolutions continued into the 1970s, with liberals moving to the left wing of the party in response to the center’s continued dependence on Southern Democrats and structural resistance to empowering women and Black people. In the wake of Kamala Harris’s victory, Shirley Chisholm was cited as a pathbreaker; her 1972 presidential candidacy was the first ever by a Black woman. But at the time, Chisholm’s politics (“Welfare Not Warfare,” support for LGBTQ rights) were eschewed by party leaders, and her candidacy and vision of a multiracial, working-class party viewed as too radical by many Democrats. Chisholm expressed frustration with the party’s hesitance to embrace Black women leaders (and more progressive policies), leading her to abandon any liberal bona fides before her presidential run in 1972. “I have already moved away from being a moderate, a liberal. My frustrations at trying to operate through channels and following the prescribed procedures, and failing to get any action, have radicalized me.” As she took her campaign throughout the country in 1972, she encountered resistance from moderate Black Democrats who claimed that “a vote for Shirley Chisholm is a vote for George Wallace.”

Yet Chisholm’s candidacy, and her politics, laid the groundwork for liberal to left movements in the Democratic Party, including Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Sixteen years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, Jesse Jackson sought to carry the multiracial progressive tradition into a new era with his 1984 and ’88 presidential campaigns. Operating in the “Age of Reagan,” Jackson pleaded with Democrats not to ignore the voters who made up his coalition. “My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief. The Democratic Party must send them a signal that we care,” said Jackson during his 1984 Democratic convention speech.

This history has shaped modern day liberal-to-left converts who have successfully channeled today’s grassroots energy into the Democratic Party. A year before her stunning upset over establishment stalwart Joe Crowley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former college intern for Ted Kennedy, cited her distaste for the influence of money in politics and her own economic hardships as reasons she decided to focus on left activism. After organizing for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the Bronx in 2016, she “hopped in a car and began sitting down with everyday people across the country to explore pressing issues facing our communities: we went to Flint, MI; Standing Rock, South Dakota; and Puerto Rico,” she said in an interview with National Hispanic Institute Magazine. Ocasio-Cortez is not alone; her experiences echo the growth of progressive politics since 2008.

At the same time, leftist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) offer space for liberal-left converts. With its more than 85,000 members, DSA has actively encouraged young people on the left to focus on local electoral politics and been instrumental in galvanizing the Democratic Party’s base. The organization has experienced another surge in membership this year, as Covid-19 has led more people to question a market-based approach to a global pandemic. “If the markets can’t even produce hand sanitizer or toilet paper or masks during a plague—what good is this system?” asked one DSA cochair in Detroit.

But even as American inequality (which shows no signs of receding) has regularly pushed liberals leftward, contributing to the growth of a liberal-left constituency within the Democratic Party, it has yet to force the party to create a legislative agenda that addresses racial and economic justice for most Americans. A bloc of left-leaning progressives in Congress, many of them women of color (Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and now Cori Bush), have shaped a new generation of social movements, often through their own grassroots activism. They regularly encounter intransigence from moderates and liberals who default to the party’s powerlessness as the baseline for electoral strategies.

Given this reality, the post-Trump challenge for the Democratic Party will be to support its constituents across the left-wing spectrum, particularly Democratic candidates who recognize that addressing the issue of inequality gets results at the ballot box, which will build enduring coalitions beyond it. If the Democratic Party is to significantly expand its political tent—even if that exposes it to charges of “socialism”—and roll back a revanchist right-wing movement, it must recognize its historical debt to those individuals who have personally moved left, shaping the collective possibilities for the Democratic Party and all of its members to enact meaningful social change.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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