The Left After Charlottesville

The Left can't allow itself to be consumed by debates about antifa. We need a proactive program and patient organizing.

Chokwe Lumumba announces his candidacy for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi in May. Mississippi Link

The events in Charlottesville have remained in the headlines for the last few weeks for a variety of reasons. Surprise at the audacity of a torch-light procession of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan sympathizers, and “alt-rightists” in an American city, coupled with the murder of social justice activist Heather Heyer during a counterdemonstration, fueled the initial coverage. President Trump’s abhorrent response to the tragedy and local struggles against Confederate statues kept it alive. And frequently dimwitted debates about the merits of antifa have supplied yet more conversational oxygen.

But it would be a mistake for the American left to see this as a decisive turning point in history, or mistake torch-wielding fascists for a mass force. On the contrary: getting consumed by debates about supporting antifa in its street clashes with neo-Nazis misses the larger political landscape.

The post-Charlottesville moment does demand antiracist mobilizations, and it’s heartening that left organizations have sprung into action and seen their numbers swell. Standing up to the far right — particularly when done effectively and en masse, like in Boston — can energize people who are otherwise frustrated and disenchanted because of the Trump administration. But that needs to be linked to tangible political organizing that goes beyond the defensive or symbolic.

Discussions about antifa are also important. Interviews with counter-protestors on the ground in Charlottesville made it clear they were more than happy antifa was there to help. In fact, Cornel West credited them with saving his life.

But the debate over antifa cannot be at the center of left political discussion. I am less concerned about being murdered by a neo-Nazi than I am about the lack of access to quality health care. I am more exercised about the suppression of voting rights and the damage it does to democracy in the here and now than the damage simply represented by Confederate statues. This is not to dismiss the efforts to tear down Confederate statutes. What lies in the public commons, after all, needs to represent the kind of country we want the United States to be. But we shouldn’t allow the conflagration to cloud our vision.

In short, the lessons post-Charlottesville are the lessons we should have learned earlier this year. We cannot simply react to Trump or the “alt-right.” Being proactive, advancing a clear program that can mobilize and galvanize a huge swath of the public — this must be the hallmark of the American left. Otherwise, the genuine anger directed at Trump and the GOP will be wasted. And we’ll squander our chance to build the kind of broad-based left that, in the end, is the best bulwark against the far right.

The Politics We Need

Most of the planks of the left platform we need are already out there, waiting to be used to spur genuine debate and action across American society. Two in particular should top any left agenda.

The first is universal health care: Medicare for All. The Republicans’ haphazard bid to scrap the Affordable Care Act showed that even an extremely flawed version of “universal” coverage was still popular enough to scuttle repeal attempts. Now, according to recent polling, public support for single-payer is on the rise. Even centrist Democrats like Kamala Harris are getting on board. After decades of struggle, universal health care is, if not right around the corner, at least on the near horizon.

Crucially, the demand for Medicare for All also offers a means to build the bonds of solidarity. As Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk recently pointed out, Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights activists saw universal health care as a critical component of their struggle for a just and equitable society. The same is true today. Across movements — whether for black lives or a fifteen-dollar minimum wage or immigrant rights — universal health care is a demand that unifies.

There’s another reason to prioritize the push for universal health care. Far-right organizations like the Traditionalist Workers Party have begun making overtures to poor whites in places like Appalachia by talking about jobs and access to quality health care. We can’t allow a pitch for decent health care, or an argument for good jobs, to be used as a gateway to fascism.

Universal voting rights should be the second demand of any immediate left platform. Our political and economic system can’t be changed, radically and in the long-term, through voting. But countless people are being hurt by the system as it exists today, and substantially boosting voter turnout is a prerequisite for winning the reforms that will improve their lives in the short term.

Conservatives understand the importance of voting rights. In recent years, numerous GOP-controlled states have passed laws restricting the franchise, whether through ID requirements or shorter windows for voter registration. They know a smaller, demoralized voting base makes it harder to get left candidates into office.

In the past, the Populist era of the 1890s came to a crashing halt in part because of Jim Crow laws and new state constitutions across the South that severely limited voting rights for African Americans (and many poor whites as well). On the flip side, the rise of a strong voting base in the urbanized North, which included union members and African Americans, propelled the New Deal forward and gave social democracy in America some of its earliest and most important victories — despite opposition from both conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats.

More recently, results at the local level have testified to the enduring power of a mobilized electorate. Victories by Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi’s mayoral race and khalid kamau in South Fulton, Georgia’s city council election were made possible by left-wing political activism on the ground. That these victories occurred in the Deep South and with heavy political participation from African Americans also belies common perceptions about what the Left looks like and where it can compete.

Both Lumumba and kamau met people where they were at, while also sketching out an expansive vision. Which brings me to another important part of the Left’s post-Charlottesville toolbox: political education.

The debate over monuments and Confederate flags is a perfect opportunity to get Americans thinking not just about the world we live in, but the kind of world we could live in if the Left was given the opportunity to lead. Beyond considering what statues to tear down, we should discuss what statues should replace them. Why not more monuments, across the country, to the United States Colored Troops or Harriet Tubman? But we should not stop with statues and public history, as important as they are to shaping future debates about the country’s fate.

Political education should reach out to a wide range of Americans, both expanding their conception of what’s possible and learning how they see the world. Left education, after all, should be a two-way street. It can take a variety of forms — from setting up a booth at a community event or organizing a teach-in at a union hall to simply making sure socialist organizations are as open to the public as possible.

Examples of political education, as I describe it, already exist. In my adopted home state of South Carolina, the SC Progressive Network offers a yearly “Modjeska Simkins School” to budding activists. Named after one of the state’s greatest human rights advocates, the seminar teaches history as well as protest and activist tactics. It, and other education efforts like it across the nation, are the spiritual grandchildren of the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

Finally, mass protest against white supremacy will continue to be a crucial tactic going forward. The rally in Boston last month, where a handful of neo-Nazis were met with over thirty thousand counter-protesters, was an enormous victory for progressives and the Left. It demonstrated the power of solidarity, viscerally and publicly.

But such actions must also be tied to the sorts of political programs and tactics pitched above — using them as opportunities to not only bring together everyone opposed to white supremacy, but talking to people about the ways in which class warfare from above, gender and racial discrimination, and a revanchist politics hurts virtually everyone every day.

We can’t let facile narratives about “poor whites” drive the discourse on racism in American society. The white supremacists that marched in defense of the Robert E. Lee statue included many well-off, college-educated whites that would have no qualms throwing away the lives of poor white Americans. They would also destroy the lives and aspirations of African Americans, Jews, Latinos, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

By challenging these narratives and linking them to concrete demands for a better future, we can reach out to people who were galvanized by Charlottesville but might not know what can be done next.

Breaking White Supremacy’s Back

These recommendations aren’t politically sexy. They don’t seem the stuff of revolution. But they’re the necessary materials for improving political conditions in the near future — which has to be done before we can work for more transformative change. Political education, for example, will be crucial for resuscitating the labor movement, to avoid more defeats like those suffered in union drives at Boeing’s plant in Charleston, South Carolina or Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi.

A strong left expands the public sphere, offering a broader conception of what’s politically attainable. It offers people a politics not of scapegoating or austerity but universal health care and democratic agency. Historically, it’s been the most potent antidote to the far right.

But we must also remember that victory in street battles does not equal a durable political victory. Nor, on the other hand, is seeing a Democratic House in 2018 or a Democrat in the White House in 2020 the final measure of victory. The problems of Trump’s America are, not surprisingly, much like the problems of Obama’s America. And Bush’s America. And Clinton’s America.

An effective left post-Charlottesville will have to concern itself, as always, with long-term planning and patient organizing. That’s the only way we’ll finally break the back of white identity politics — the only identity politics to ever wield real political power in America.