Let’s state the obvious: politics is a messy business. Nowhere has this been more true than in the United States of America. The last four years of a racist, narcissistic, casino-bankrupting, billionaire rapist have demonstrated that and opened the eyes of millions of Americans to the craziness that is our political system. We’ve seen one political party manage to control all branches at once, while the other one gained two chambers of Congress two years apart. But what truly is the opposition in this country and how are the two parties really different?
The U.S. political system is divided into two major parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. Ideologically, the parties are often framed as liberals and conservatives, respectively. As they actively embrace right wing extremism, the Republican Party, aided by their official media mouthpiece–Fox News–has been portraying anyone in the Democratic Party, no matter how moderate their politics are, as a radical socialist. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party does everything they can to distance themselves from the socialist label, marginalizing the progressive members and reducing them to the fringes. For instance, Democratic strategist James Carville attacked Bernie Sanders as a communist during the 2020 primaries and criticized his policy proposals allowing convicted felons to vote and student loan debt forgiveness. The right wing control of political discourse in America has reduced the sides of the aisle to liberal Democrats (the left) and conservative Republicans (the right). But the reality of our political spectrum is much deeper.
First, we should clarify one thing: the Democratic Party does not resemble a socialist party at all. In fact, they don’t even qualify as progressive. The Democrats are a center-right capitalist party with a few progressive members. The main distinction from the Republican Party is that they aren’t controlled by religious theocrats and that their politicians send love when it screws you over. The radical right has shaped our politics in such a way that today’s Democrats are ideologically Rockefeller Republicans—Republicans who were moderate on issues such as abortion and LGBT rights but were hawkish on foreign policy. This shift is evidenced by Barack Obama’s own admissions that he would be seen as a moderate Republican in the 1980s and that Richard Nixon’s policies were more liberal than his. What complicates our politics are how the left, right, and center are defined and perceived by the mainstream versus what they truly are.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is often described as socialist by the GOP, by centrist Democrats, and even by progressives themselves. Their ideas like Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college, and taxes on the rich are regularly framed as socialist, radical, and dangerous. This type of exaggeration isn’t a new tactic; President Harry Truman (quite the anti-communist) said in the 1950s that socialism was a “scare word” for “almost anything that helps the people,” referring to programs like Social Security, farm price supports, and public power. Many of these progressive, “unfeasible” policies have already been implemented in other industrialized nations. Setting aside the fact that single payer healthcare and a wealth tax have wide support among American voters, the perception and interpretation of these policies as socialist is the result of misinformation. The record needs to be set straight.
Many Americans seem to think that socialism is when the government nationalizes certain systems and provides public services. Indeed, they seem to believe that any government that provides basic needs is socialist. As previously discussed at the Port City Socialist, socialism comes from workers owning the means of production. But the most important fact to consider is where the resources to build such programs originates. The United States and other western colonial powers maintain their wealth through the exploitation of resources and oppressed people across the globe, particularly in the so-called Global South (i.e. majority nonwhite nations). Therefore, in order to be a socialist, you must be anti-imperialist. Progressives in the U.S. Congress (and many progressive organizations and leaders) have not reached that requirement because the policies that they push are compromised and watered down for establishment approval. The congressional version of the Green New Deal, for instance, deviates from the original ecosocialist version by refusing to address capitalism as the underlying cause of climate change.
Adding to the confusion of the American political spectrum is the idea of the center. Democrats who oppose the aforementioned progressive policies are self-described centrists or moderates. In doing so, they attempt to position themselves as being sane, compassionate, and reasonable. The reality is that the “centrist” worldview is anything but compassionate, and it is dangerous to pretend otherwise. The centrist worldview is based on the idea of slow reform as opposed to true radical change. It gives lip service to the slogans and ideas that grassroots activists have pioneered and pushed without backing any substantive policy to address the systemic ills in our society. The so-called moderates/pragmatists will say that healthcare is a human right, but won’t support Medicare-for-All or any policy that would make that happen. They will talk about climate change being real, but won’t support a Green New Deal to tackle it. To make matters worse, they will act appalled when Republicans champion evil policies such as caging undocumented children or excessive policing toward black people, but will turn a blind eye to or defend Democrats who support those exact same policies. The centrist worldview is built on style over substance, which is why they will idolize such figures as the Clintons, Obama, and Biden as decent and compassionate while they support policies that cause harm to oppressed people both in the United States and across the globe.
The late anthropologist David Graeber summed up so-called moderates as being “the most immoderate people possible” who are more focused on symbolism than an actual vision. Martin Luther King Jr. notably singled out “the white moderates” for being more committed “to order than justice.” Malcolm X used the analogy of the wolf and the fox to describe how conservatives and liberals both uphold the oppressive system, but liberals are more deceitful because they pretend to care about injustice. Liberals have frequently shown throughout history and in the modern era that they will kowtow to right wingers before they even listen to leftists. In 2018, Hillary Clinton argued that Europe should stop allowing refugees to prevent right wing populists, a sentiment echoed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has launched a crackdown on so-called “Islamist radicalism” under the guise of secularism. Cut a liberal and a fascist bleeds.
All of the above raises the question: who are the left and what are their goals? The priority of the left should not merely be providing basic services. Social democracy is a decent start and compromise, but it cannot be the end goal of the left. True leftism must also be standing in solidarity with and ensuring justice for oppressed people across the globe, from black and indigenous people in the United States to victims of western imperialism and sanctions in South America, Africa, and Asia. After all, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. A true left wing movement must explicitly identify capitalism as the underlying cause of racism, war, environmental degradation, and other evils in the world. The leftist vision of the world is all about ensuring that everyone can live their life with access to basic human rights and necessities—without discrimination based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Some might say this vision is too radical or impossible to achieve. But if humanity and justice make one radical, I would say I’m a proud radical. As for feasibility, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”
By Aadit Nerkar, Contributor