In the current crisis, two post-neoliberal futures are blinking into view like holograms: one catastrophically vicious, miserable and authoritarian; the other more just, caring, and democratic. This is the political fork in the road we find ourselves confronting, and the decisions we make now will shape the next several decades of life in the United States and around the world. Which version of the future materializes very much depends on how progressives show up in these next months and years.
For most of the past year before the emergence of Covid-19, liberals and leftists have been swept up in a passionate debate about who the Democratic nominee should be. Though that debate has been suspended, we can learn some valuable lessons from that fractious process to help us meet this extraordinary moment in history with big vision and grounded strategy.
To see how this may be so, play along with our modification of the classic teenage party game.
Truth #1: Bernie Sanders supporters’ critique of the oligarchic nature of our society, our politics, and our economy, of the rigged system that puts corporate foxes in charge of worker and community henhouses, of the need for big solutions and a mass democratic movement to restore democracy—is fundamentally right. This is in fact a country largely run by and for the 1 percent. The realities of climate change, massive inequality, and the too-often-invisible suffering they create require an urgent, passionate, and indignant response. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the savagery and consequences of that inequality for all to see, while upping the urgency and perhaps the possibility for radical change. We can’t and shouldn’t go back to the way things used to be.
Sanders’s supporters are also right that neoliberal Democrats share responsibility for this situation through three decades of active complicity and pusillanimity. They have sometimes been bystanders and sometimes active co-conspirators and enablers of Republicans and their oligarchic backers. Decades of deregulation, accommodation to banks and insurance companies, corporate trade deals, and harsh criminal justice, immigration, welfare, and other policies were designed by centrist Democrats in partnership with Republicans. The wave of right-wing populist backlash Trump rode to office—and that we are all paying for, and some are dying from now‚ is in part attributable to these colossal strategic and moral failures of the center-left establishment.
Truth #2: Elizabeth Warren’s supporters are right that progressive governance must include carefully thought-out and designed policy proposals undergirded by a class analysis that also deeply incorporates a robust understanding of how gender and race inextricably shape inequality in America. This intersectional approach is not optional. It is necessary to get the analysis, the solutions, and the strategy right, and she’s made a more serious effort to do that than any candidate for president in decades.
Warren has also been serious not just about policy but about power—about building power at the bottom and taming it at the top. She laid out plans to reform specific political structures that get in the way of change (like the filibuster) that are necessary to actually displace the oligarchy. All of this attention to the substance and politics of governance is essential if we are to actually have a chance at breaking from the neoliberal paradigm and forging an alternative set of ideas and policies based on full inclusion and that center human flourishing, dignity, and justice. Though Warren’s candidacy failed, her vision of a pragmatic, principled radicalism concerned with actually achieving concrete changes that alter relations of power in society and people’s lived material circumstances must be preserved.
Truth #3: Joe Biden’s African American supporters are attuned to some profound truths about America and how power operates in this country that progressives must reckon with honestly. These insights are born of deep lived experience and rooted in collective memory. The choice to vote for him was not due to their supposed moderation (though some are indeed moderate) or lack of “wokeness” or “low information” (don’t get us started) or simply about Biden’s proximity to Obama (though this is part of it)—but precisely because they understand some painful truths about white Americans better than white Americans themselves. Even if they might in principle support a bold, transformative agenda of the kind Sanders and Warren proposed, they understand that most middle-income suburban whites are not hankering for (or willing, barring a lot more deep organizing than our side has done) to sign up for revolution. These same whites might, however, join in a coalition to defeat Trump and to make incremental but real progress on variety of issues.
Biden’s African American supporters understand the stakes of losing to Trump correctly, precisely because many have had or have parents who have had the lived experience of living in an authoritarian state and would bear the heaviest burden of his reelection. Jim Crow, rooted in the embers of racialized authoritarian state governments as the old Confederacy’s legacy, was not long ago or far away, and Charlottesville was a portal back to a future we must slam shut. They have to navigate these hard realities of what makes white people comfortable every day, and they know that large swaths of white America have to be soothed and made to feel safe in order to do what’s in their own self-interest. The pandemic has only made this sober calculus about the stakes of the election more prescient and pressing.
This primary season has been agonizing for many of us because all of these three things are true—and because even if we have been fierce partisans of one candidate, we can in our honest moments see the validity in the other points of view. None of these three truths constitutes the whole truth, and we’re going to have to get better at seeing reality through the eyes of others if we have any hope of building a new world.
The Lie: that it’s possible to get to the promised land through any messianic figure or by starting with electoral politics. The Workers Party in Brazil—the country that most resembles the United States in its founding on slavery and genocide and in its extreme economic inequality—started by movement building in unions, women’s organizations, and among Afro-Brazilians and landless workers and then took state power through politics after uniting in a coalition, developing a common program, recruiting, and engaging millions of people and failing many times.
Having experienced or seen the “Obama swoon” over a decade ago, we both hoped that liberals and leftists here would have learned the lesson that the path to big, bold change ultimately manifests in electoral politics but doesn’t begin there. There are not now—and there have never been—any shortcuts to radical social and economic transformation. It takes the persistent work of real, authentic, and often hard conversations with trusted people in our own social networks. And because talk is cheap by itself, it also requires giving people a ladder of engagement to take action with others on their block, in their neighborhood, in their community, online, at their workplace, and, yes, in the voting booth, too. We need mass organizations, rooted in working and middle-class communities, that combine big vision with deep roots. This work of recruitment can be accelerated exponentially in times of crisis when people are open to new ways of looking at the world—but it cannot be skipped or passed over.
The current crisis exposes the bankruptcy of the neoliberal order. It could be a transformational time in which a different world becomes real, one in which public needs take precedence over private profits, we care for each other through mutual aid and support of caregivers, we value human connection and health over consumption, we actually see and value the working-class heroes who make our civilization run every day for their crucial importance, and we dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Pushing bold demands to realize the future we need, in the context of mass recruitment of millions more people who are open now to politicization—bold program combined with mass recruitment—should be the basis for unity in this time of crisis. Let’s focus far less on presidential primary differences and machinations and focus more on bold vision and mass organizing, especially new ways of mass organizing that this crisis demands, similar to the invention of industrial unionism in what grew to become the CIO 85 years ago in a previous deep economic crisis. If we get the fundamentals right, the rest will follow.
So vote for whomever you prefer in the primary (assuming there’s still a choice at that point, one of us will vote for Sanders, the other for Biden)—but do so understanding that getting rid of Trump is the indispensable but not sufficient requirement to achieve transformational change. (Read about the fights between the SPD and the Communists in the Weimar Germany over their narrow conceptions of truth if you want to understand the potential consequences of obsessively fighting with the wrong people about the wrong things at the wrong time.)
Tolerance for ambiguity and an ability to modulate the stridency of our disagreements with people close to us on the political spectrum have not been hallmarks of left politics in recent years. But they will need to be if we’re going to be able to lead in this moment of transformation. The three priorities for this period are unity among liberal and left forces to remove the existential threat to our democracy and now our very lives at the ballot box, commitment to push a bold program for economic and social transformation beyond Election Day, and an enduring commitment to the mass organizing that it will take to win the popular support needed to make big change sustainable and deeply owned. These three imperatives are far more important than your preference of Democratic candidate. We may disagree about Bernie v. Joe, but there should be no doubt that the kind of mass movement building we need will be delayed—perhaps for a generation we cannot spare—if we fail to meet this moment with vision, sobriety, and unity.