The Unfolding Failure of the U.S. Left

I know that headline could have been written at many times and equally applied to many countries.  I’m also conscious of being a guest who’s in danger of abusing their hospitality.  But what’s unfolding here is a potentially catastrophic failure of the left that could have lasting consequences here and beyond. 

As I’ve written before – and with all necessary caveats in place – what’s being proposed under the so-called “Build Back Better” package is of generational significance.  It’s not just the size of the investment in a range of social and public services, but its potential to change the direction of travel away from neoliberalism and in the process, begin to deliver some real quality of life improvements for working class Americans. 

The political haggling over this 3.5 trillion dollar “human infrastructure” budget and another one for physical infrastructure has been well chronicled.  It’s tedious: what they call here “Inside the Beltway” stuff [1].  The TV news programmes are full of pundits speculating about what deal may be done by who, with whom, for what and when.  There’s clearly a high-stakes game of brinkmanship going on, sometimes involving some pretty disgusting politicians and lobbyists.

But all of that’s to be expected, particularly when part of what’s in the offing is increasing taxes for big corporations and the rich.  The hugely frustrating thing is that the US left is allowing itself to be a spectator, while the future of the nation is negotiated behind closed doors.  I am unaware of any significant intervention, beyond rhetoric, by the much-vaunted Progressive elected politicians, the trade unions, or the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to move this critical debate away from Capitol Hill. 

This was confirmed for me at last night’s virtual Town Hall meeting with my local Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who was joined online by another member of the Progressive Democratic Caucus at DC, Jared Huffman from California).  Both eloquently described why Build Back Better is so important, but beyond platitudes, had little to say about what their constituents could do to support their efforts inside the Congress, with pressure outside it.   As Representative Huffman put it “We’re depending on the White House to get this done”.  He was also at pains to say that the amount of money in the Bill, or when it’s agreed, don’t matter, which I interpreted as preparing the ground for a climbdown.  There are already clear signs that spending on housing, combating climate change (as a sop to Senator Manchin and his fossil fuel paymasters) and reducing the profits of big pharma (which the other blocking Democrat, Senator Sinema, has ties to), could be cut from a final, compromise deal.   

AOC was a bit better, closing the meeting saying “mass mobilization works”, but giving no indication that she’s about to lead it, or do much to encourage it.  There’s a saying that politicians reverse the laws of physics: the closer you get to them, the smaller they become.  I’m sorry to say, that’s been my experience of AOC.    

It’s a shame Ms Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t seem to have confidence in the kind of popular movement that get her to where she is.  It’s even more dispiriting that the DSA, which helped propel that movement, is choosing this time to sit on the political sidelines, presumably partly in fear of further antagonising the Democratic Party establishment.  I still see individual DSA members doing great things at local level, but as a national organisation, it’s nowhere.  Meanwhile, there is a definite increase in labour disputes, which could be harnessed to link industrial demands to political ones.  But again, the national union leadership is silent. 

Comparisons have, rightly, been made between the intent of the Build Back Better agenda and the 1930s New Deal.  But the sweeping reforms championed by President Roosevelt (albeit with bigger electoral majorities than President Biden), happened against the background of pressure from huge, militant, grassroots movements.  Something similar is needed now to avoid squandering an opportunity that may not come again for many years. 

The consequences of that could be dire.  For most of the time I’ve been here, former President Trump has been a has-been.  Polling indicated that his star had waned, his rallies were being poorly attended and his claims about the 2020 election being stolen were roundly ridiculed.  Literally within the last 10 days or so, that’s begun to change.  There is now a rising sense that he could return as the Republican presidential candidate in 2024, which seemed very unlikely four months ago.  There are several elections this November and the mid-terms a year later, that will give a much clearer indication of the extent to which disillusionment with the Biden administration has set-in, but polling suggests his support is draining away by the day. 

I sometimes chat with a local Bronxite, John, who’s lived here all his life: white, working class, bit of a sad back story, pro-nation and military, but in favour of spending on public services like healthcare, but utterly cynical about the ability of the political establishment to deliver it.  When I ask him about Trump, he replies “He’s an arse-hole, but he got stuff done”.  However false, that is a widely held perspective, but one the liberals and Progressives appear to have completely failed to recognise – again. 

Unless something changes quickly, history could be about to repeat itself as tragedy.   But if that’s the case, the fault won’t only lie with the moderates, but also the left.  The feeling of a nation sleep-walking towards a recurring nightmare, that could affect us all, is very disturbing. 

AOC Town Hall comes to my front-room (probably shouldn’t read too much into her her snap-shot expression, but…?)

[1] A reference to the ring-road that runs around Washington DC.

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