The Elegy of the New American Left

Wall Street cannot suppress it’s glee. Harris’s national finance chair, Jon Henes, told Financial Times that the money is flooding in. “You have got the titans of industry that know who she is and believe in her and Joe Biden to get the country back on track.” Clintonite Marc Bennett agrees: “What corporate America is looking for after three-and-a-half years of total chaos and unpredictability and bedlam at the top are steady hands,” he said. “She seems very steady.” Investment banker Blair Efforn, a Harris donor, told the Wall Street Journal that while she has made it clear to corporate leaders that they have “a responsibility to be part of the solution,” she also let it be known that “we will all benefit with shared prosperity.” “She thinks what’s good for business should be and can be good for the country,” Charles Phillips explained. The stock market responded by regaining all the losses since the pandemic began. Traders said that “the market was supported by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s announcement that Kamala Harris would be his running mate.”

The stock market responded enthusiastically.

Silicon Valley has a potential ally in its future with Kamala Harris,” the Journal reckons. The mouth piece of American business goes on to note that she is backed by executives and board members at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Apple, and Uber. Neither her nor Biden have echoed Warren’s call to break up Big Tech. “When pressed on the matter in an interview with the New York Times during her run for president, Ms. Harris deflected and said her first priority in the White House with regard to Big Tech would be to safeguard user privacy, an area Facebook and others have sought to improve.” Heidi Messer, an AI consulting firm executive, put it best. Harris, she said, “wants to learn.”

Make no mistake: the Harris pick is a slap in the face of the New American Left.

For a brief two weeks in February, the New American Left was flying high. Power seemed to be finally within the grasp of the progressive forces. How and why was it outmaneuvered and contained?

The central diagnosis of the progressive campaigns in both 2016 and 2020 was straightforward. What plagued American society was inequality. The fortunes of the working class had to be restored one way or another, and if that required unprecedented state intervention in the economy, so be it. Indeed, what was needed was nothing less than the revival of the New Deal. Moreover, the main obstacle to the progressive agenda was the power of the financial elite. If serious structural change was to happen, what was required, the Sanders campaign reckoned, was nothing less than building “a mass working-class movement to challenge the power of the billionaires.” More precisely, what was required was a powerful progressive-working class alliance. Bernie’s wager was that a powerful progressive-working class alliance could be forged through a discursive strategy of boundary work against the financial elite — railing against the injustices of the “millionaires and billionaires” became the centerpiece of the Sanders campaign in both cycles. The discourse was also adopted by Elizabeth Warren.

While Sanders generated much enthusiasm in the New American Left, and some working-class whites still left in the Democratic fold, the response from the core of the Democrats’ rainbow coalition was decidedly lukewarm. Both professional middle-class whites and African-Americans remained loyal to the Clinton-Obama neoliberal wing. Chastened by the rejection of mostly working-class black communities in 2016, Sanders made a point of reaching out to black Democrats in his second bid. It did not work. What was worse, it turned out that working-class whites who seemed to be enthusiastic about Sanders in 2016 were, in fact, voting against Clinton. In the 2020 cycle, they favored Biden, the lackluster former vice president of Barack Obama. With a broad base of support among centrist professional middle-class whites, African-Americans, and working-class whites, Biden consistently polled ahead of the pack through the early campaign season. It was widely assumed in the progressive faction of the professional middle-class, including much of the media, that Biden was merely keeping the seat warm until a real candidate emerged. But the Biden tendency continued to persist.

When Sanders briefly took the lead in February and seemed within reach of racking up an insurmountable lead, party elders panicked. “If you’re a centrist, you have 10 days,” David Rothkopf, a former Clinton official told Financial Times. “You have from now until Super Tuesday and either a bunch of people drop out and there is some move to unify around somebody. Or it’s going to be a runaway [win] for Sanders.” With days to go before Super Tuesday, party elders cleared out the “centrist lane” in a stunning display of party discipline and elite competence. Pete Buttigieg, an AstroTurf political entrepreneur known for his effortless regurgitation of platitudes, and Amy Klobuchar, a seasoned and highly competent senator from Minnesota, were prevailed upon to drop out and throw their weight behind Joe Biden. The operational maneuver was shockingly effective. Although it would be a while before Sanders would throw in the towel, Biden locked up the Democratic nomination on Super Tuesday.

In postmortems of the Sanders campaign, there was the usual finger-pointing and recriminations. The one thing everyone agreed on was that Democrats cared more about defeating Trump than any other issue. This elevated “electability” to an all-important candidate feature — Let’s choose the guy who can beat Donald Trump! (Why guy? Because electability!) Everyone understood that Democrats’ obsession with “electability,” structurally advantaged ruffle-no-feathers centrists; never mind that they had no solutions to the central challenges of the day; above all, Joe Biden. But why? “Biden won the “electability” argument,” Heideman and Thier wrote on the pages of Jacobin, “because the establishment and their media mouthpieces declared it so, and the electorate believed them.” This is not a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. It is a key component of a full blown theory of the abortive revolution. The American left was outmaneuvered, we are told, by the superior organization of the centrists: “The liberal center won because of its institutions, and it is only with institutions of its own that the Left will be able to beat it.”

Given the stunning effectiveness of the last-moment operational maneuver engineered by the adults, this is a tempting thesis. It harks back to the political scientists’ pet theory discredited in 2016, “The Party Decides.” But we should not be blinded by events. The centrists were only able to pull off their operational maneuver because Sanders failed to generate sufficient enthusiasm among working-class voters in the first place. Sanders lost the “electability” argument to Biden once it became clear that the latter enjoyed greater support in the working-class. In other words, the Sanders campaign failed to forge the progressive-working class alliance — “a mass working-class movement to challenge the power of the billionaires” — that it had itself deemed a prerequisite for the “political revolution.” To place the blame squarely on the superior organization of the enemy is not serious.

Bernie’s wager failed not simply due to the strength of the forces arrayed against it, but because it was based on an implausible premise. The premise was that boundary work against financial elites was an effective strategy for regaining the allegiance of the white working-class. It seemed so utterly obvious to progressive elites that the problem was the overwhelming power and influence of the financial elite; the one percent. If only the working class could be made to see the light — that their real oppressors were the “millionaires and billionaires” — then a new political economy could be forged on the firm basis of a stable alignment of sociopolitical forces.

Yet, the identity of the oppressor is not necessarily so obvious. In traditional agrarian societies, social structure was rather simple. There was no cause for disagreement about the identity of the oppressors — the landlords oppressed the mass of peasants that tilled the land. This made the job of midcentury communist revolutionaries straightforward. The peasants needed little convincing that they were being oppressed by the landlords. All the revolutionaries had to do was promise to deliver on the land question — they could then concentrate on the military strategy of “revolutionary war,” to use the phrase used by the greatest counterinsurgency intellectual at midcentury, Bernard Fall.

In advanced capitalist societies on the other hand, economic specialization was far more advanced, with a large class of professionals and managers besides the holders of capital. The social structure of advanced capitalist societies was thus much more complicated. Even if there was agreement on the fact of oppression of the working class, the identity of the oppressors was obscured by the complexity of social stratification. This simple fact made the task of communist revolutionaries considerably harder in advanced capitalist societies.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the working classes have everywhere been the losers of neoliberal globalization. On the other hand, there are two distinct social classes of winners: the financial elites and the professional middle-classes. The identity of the oppressors in the present-day United States is open to dispute. And disputed it is.

In the thinking of the progressives and the New American Left, it is completely, utterly, totally obvious, that the identity of the oppressors is clear as daylight — it is the “millionaires and billionaires”! Of course, belonging as they do to the professional middle-class itself, one could hardly expect progressives to think of their own class as the class of oppressors. It is simply unthinkable — “Where are our yachts?” Yet, this is not clear to the working-class. In fact, the class-party sorting of the past 30 years has been accompanied by a discourse that, while it explicitly rejects class warfare as a liberal conspiracy theory, is itself a thinly disguised discourse of class war — one that identifies the professional middle-class instead of the financial elite as the class of oppressors. The higher brow end of this discourse goes under the rubric of working class Republicanism.

Part of the reason why Bernie was outmaneuvered twice was because he was running for the nomination of the wrong party. Put another way, the left was outmaneuvered and Bernie’s mass movement failed to obtain, simply because there are fewer and fewer working class Democrats. Despite what they tell themselves, the self-identified working class abandoned the Democrats with the Clinton coalition.

What comes together in the Clinton coalition can be characterized as the Boasian-Hayekian synthesis. The West’s wager on history that maximizing freedom would maximize happiness had two corollaries given the invariants of the new synthesis. These corollaries are best revealed when we pay attention to the disciplinary forces. Consensus on the Hayekian insight and on the supremacy of individual self-interest that triumphed with Reagan and Thatcher implied subjection to the disciplinary force of the market. Consensus on the Boasian insight and on the sacred right of individuals to not be offended implied the subjection of intellectual freedoms to the disciplinary force of Boasian antiracism. Elite attitudes against anything at all that smelled of racism, hardened. Western self-congratulation was thus firmly reanchored in an antiracist discourse celebrating liberal market democracy.

In addition to serving as a fig leaf for the social democrats’ capitulation, Boasian antiracism was repurposed to do class work and experienced as such by the working class. The new disciplinary force generated resistance. The forces of conservative reaction would identify Political Correctness as a discourse of oppression. Working class discourses would associate it with the hated “coastal elites.”

The material consequence of the Clinton betrayal, amidst much self-congratulation about the New Economy, was polarization of the American occupational structure. The labor market increasingly began to resemble an hourglass — with increasing opportunities for highly skilled and deskilled positions, and vanishing opportunities for mid-skilled jobs that formed the backbone of the American working class. The social consequence was the further unraveling of the working class family, even as the middle class family was restabilized. Causally further downstream, the main health consequence of the Clinton betrayal was an unprecedented and unparalleled rise in deaths due to suicide, alcohol poisoning and drug overdose among working class whites. Deaths of despair in turn were the strongest predictor of the Trump swing.

In sum, the New American Left has been contained not because of the superior organization of the enemy but because of a diagnostic error. The diagnostic error arises from the myth of working class racism. There is a blockage that prevents a progressive-working class alliance from obtaining. This blockage is a feature of the elite progressive discourse. Put simply, no progressive-working class alliance can obtain as long as progressive elites think of working class whites as racist bigots.

A part of the agenda of the left, identity-based emancipatory oppositional politics, has been absorbed by the professional class broadly construed. Some would see this as a partial victory. But in reality, the left agenda has been hijacked and defanged by professional antiracists. The slight of hand could not be more obvious: rage against horizontal polarization and silence on vertical polarization. The ease with which the antiracist revolution has been accommodated by power shows how woke capitalism is a seamless upgrade of neoliberal managerialism.

The elegy of the New American Left is most evident in the precipitously falling prestige of Bernie Sanders. In less than six months since his hopes for the presidency were dashed, Bernie has been marginalized to such an extent that he was forced to write in a British newspaper. America’s agenda-setting newspapers, having been conquered by racial reductionists, were uninterested in giving him a platform. We have come a long way since the furor over Senator Cotton’s Op-Ed and the attendant purges. Put simply, Bernie’s message is not welcome. No one wants to hear a word about the working class. We’re only talking about Black emancipation this year.

The Harris pick is a signal, if any was necessary, that a Biden administration will not be sympathetic to the alleged new-found power of the New American Left. This means that the left must again play the long game. It it not time for optimism, as important voices on the left have argued; it is time for introspection. The left must ask itself why Corbyn and Bernie were both outmaneuvered. Even in the midst of almost complete de-legitimization of incumbent elites, especially the political classes, how is it that the left failed so utterly in the instrumental goal of securing power? The golden opportunity of the past few years was bungled. But why? Without grappling with our failures, we cannot hope to surmount them. It really does not help to pretend that things are going dandy for the left. They aren’t.

24 thoughts on “The Elegy of the New American Left

  1. Would a candidate like Bernie (a candidate w his politics, profile, temperament) win the presidency if he managed to win the Republican nomination in 2024?

    1. It honestly doesn’t matter. the party infrastructure on both sides of the isle is set up to stymie any kind of action that would benefit non-billionaires. we’ve been living in a failed state for at least a decade and now, with no chance of fixing anything. It’s just a matter of time until the wheels come off.

      1. Right, I agree.

        I asked the question b/c I was trying NOT to ask merely “is the Hawley/Rubio wing the future of the GOP?” a debate that has been entertained ad nauseum. I ofc agree with Anusar that working-class whites are leaving the Democratic party in droves. & That transition is mostly complete and irreversible short-term. But there remains a massive breach between so-called right populists and even a moderate socdem like Sanders.

        Given the realignment Anusar maps so elegantly, it seems tendentious to suggest that Sanders was “running for the nomination of the wrong party.” Im just trying to gauge how seriously he meant that. Clearly, both parties are quite hostile to even the most tepid left-welfare program (any action benefitting non-billionaires, as you put it). Maybe Anusar has to make this kind of rather overblown claim bc otherwise, the observation that Bernie should not have capitulated to identitarianism (“Boasian antiracism”) is correct but not particularly original.

        1. I am not sure if you’re trolling or serious. I’ll assume it’s the latter. The rotation of the white working class away from the Dems is not irreversible, even in the short run. In 2008, for instance, Obama generated the sort of enthusiasm among working class whites we haven’t seen since the Clinton betrayal.

          It is not tendentious but accurate, if shocking, to suggest that Bernie was trying to get the nomination of the wrong party. Democrats just haven’t digested how much they have become a coalition of college-educated whites and African-Americans. The majority of working class Americans are now Republicans. They just don’t happen to support what you consider pro-working class policies. That’s the greatest explanandum of contemporary American political economy. Thomas Frank put it best: «The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”»

          I have a lot of claims in this essay and others that are particularly original. Bernie’s capitulation to identitarianism isn’t one of them. In fact, a large part of the reason why Bernie has been marginalized so thoroughly is that he has refused to do so. See his Guardian piece. The word race does not even appear once. That’s why the prestige papers in America refused to publish it.

          I think Bernie would’ve had a better shot than Clinton against Trump. But my critique of Bernie’s and the New American Left’s strategy goes deeper. I am convinced that the blockage that prevents a progressive-working class alliance from obtaining is that progressives, and the professional class in general, really believe that the white working class is racist. Until that changes, and changes visibly, no such alliance can obtain.

          1. I agree, though I think the point is moot. It’s been years since anyone elected to DC from either party has talked to a real person and absolutely no one is ready for the cascading collapse they have made inevitable by refusing to extend unemployment and foreclosure prevention. I’ll honestly be shocked if we still have a country by November.

          2. Even if Bernie were to have won the Team D nomination in 2020 (or 2016), Team D would do everything it could within the bounds of public decency to make sure that he lost the general.

            Even if Bernie were to win the general election, Team D would do everything it could to make sure that he was unable to enact any of his agenda, and if possible, revisit the fate of one Jimmy Carter.

  2. Why Bernie lost in one phrase: “Donald Trump is a racist, a sexist, a religious bigot and a xenophobe” That was new to the 2020 campaign and it signaled a lot to the  working class support he lost.

  3. Interesting theory, I hope this gets discussed more!

    Firstly- Republican party leading up to 2016 didn’t want a populist candidate either, they were dragged into it. Trump was able to take over partly because to some he was considered less harmful than Ted Cruz and his group. Point being that Republican politics made a big shift in rhetoric, against the wishes of its leaders and sponsors. I think a common belief aming Sanders supporters is that the same is possible within the Democratic party too. Per your observations, it would necessarily involve a head-on confrontation with the upper-middle class voters. Working class democrats and independents were probably more aware of this than your typical young college educated Bernie supporter. However, must this be insurmountable? To pitching something to working class voters, why should they invest in a longshot uphill battle against Democrats who don’t really want them… hard but not impossible.

    Secondly, It’s interesting that you say Bernie should have run as a Republican. Most would say third party.

    Few these days refuse to admit that the two parties function as a duopoly, often cooperating to maintain the status quo on economic inequality. From this, it would follow that third party is better. Except the procedural problem, at least for the presidency – that if neither party gets 50% of electoral votes, the election goes to the House, representatives grouped into state delegations. This 1-vote-per-state arrangement in the event of a non-majority means the presence of a third party threatens to give the election to the party of small-states, i.e. Repub. Very nearly kills off the viability of any left-populist third party in the US — unless there were to be a sortof cultural inversion between big-states and small-states! That would be quite a project.

    But selling a left-populist like Bernie to the party of Church and Flag and Thin-Blue-Line and all that kind of thing? An even bigger project, if you ask me.

    1. Trump won the Team R nomination in 2016 for two reasons:

      1. The Team R brass were unable to unite behind a single non-Trump candidate. Is it Kasich? Is it Rubio? Is it Cruz? Is it Jeb!? Trump was able to win a lot of states because his opponents were divided.

      2. Team R tried to rig the outcome of the 2016 primaries, but it could not count on the national media to carry its water.

  4. Another thought, sorry to be comment-bombing your article.

    Bernie lost in the Democratic primary, not the general election. So if working class largely departed the Dem party, then Bernie’s failure to win tells us about his appeal to registered Dems, i.e. middle class, and doesn’t tell us much about about his appeal to working class. In this logic, the problem would be at the level of how to win a primary, rather than the problem of general election viability.

  5. Piketty in “Capital and Ideology” charts the change in voting patterns whereby the Democrats have shifted from a party of labour to a party of the wealthy and well educated.

    Presumably this process has narrowed the path to Democratic nomination for any prospective candidate who openly proposes working class interests.

    I also thought that one of the premises of Bernie’s candidacy was to engage the large number of Americans who don’t vote. Whether or not such a strategy is viable in a general election appears to remain untested — in a Democratic nomination contest, it appears to have been a failure in the face of “elite discipline” within the DNC.

    1. Piketty is picking up on the class-partisan realignment. Although he doesn’t have the explanation down. It’s not simply a strategic decision by the Dems. It has to do with the breakdown of elite-mass relations.

      There is reason to believe that Bernie would’ve been MORE successful in the general than he has been in the Dem primaries. The reason is that most of the working class, his natural constituency, is now in the Republican party.

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