Van Gosse : What Would an American Left Look Like?

Radical reconstruction: root and branch. Image from

Begin the walk:
What would an American Left look like?

I propose that a consequential Left can only proceed as a project for reconstructing American democracy, root and branch.

By Van Gosse | The Rag Blog | July 7, 2013

Begin with what could be, ask what has been, and finish with what should be done now, to move forward.

What could be is relatively simple. The term “an American Left” should mean a convergence of movements and institutions capable of generating permanent change, rather than the current de facto Left, a hodge-podge of defensive, issue-focused groups, focused on immediate problems, with little unity.

What has been is evident. There is ample precedent for revolutionary change in this country. At decisive points, powerful movements generated the institutions that won a “transformative egalitarian order,” in the words of the political scientists Rogers Smith and Desmond King, describing the antislavery movement that birthed the Republican Party.

After decades of defeat, in the 1930s the radicalized labor movement took advantage of the New Deal to organize the industrial working classes, then at the center of our political economy, altering the balance of power in U.S. politics.

Most recently, between the 1930s and the 1970s, what the historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall calls “the long civil rights movement” broke up the South’s white supremacist oligarchy, and ushered in a new democratic order which has spread out to include every caste, ethnicity, sex, or gender formerly denied equal citizenship.

What is to be done? We are not finished with making this country a real democracy. We need to complete the process of Radical Reconstruction that began after the Civil War, and stalled until the Second Reconstruction of the mid-twentieth century. A Third Reconstruction is required to sweep away the power of deeply-entrenched racial and regional minorities, which sharply skews the U.S.’s political system in their favor.

As these references suggest, a strong dose of history is called for, to escape the trap of “presentism,” the fixation with our own time. Since the 1970s, American radicals have been plagued by two tendencies — either despair about the thuggish, backwards nature of this country, or a pollyanna-ish optimism presuming the nation needs only to be returned to its true self — the Popular Front delusion.

Both are versions of romanticism, the opposite of historical consciousness. Instead of these romantic illusions, a real American Left will proceed from a grounded historical understanding that is neither dystopian, as in “this is the worst of all possible countries,” nor subject to the utopian fantasy that American Democracy was always just about to be perfected.

To remove a perennial sticking point, we should dispense with the old debate over parliamentary versus extra-parliamentary strategies. To be viable, an American Left needs a long-term electoral strategy, not occasional gambits focused on charismatic leaders, but a plan to compete at all levels: town and city; county and state; finally, the federal and national.

Whether that option is in or out of the Democratic Party is a secondary question, because the Tea Party’s rise has made it evident that our “parties” are vessels waiting to be filled, and what you put in will determine what you can get out.

But however necessary, electoral power never will be sufficient. We must be inside the state, making “the long march through the institutions,” as Italian communists proposed back in the 1970s, but at the same time, working outside and even against the state.

A permanent Left will consistently mobilize non-electoral pressure, moving back and forth with agility rather than fetishizing particular tactics, whether nonviolent action, mass demonstrations, lobbying, or occupying and “sitting-in.” Keeping one leg outside will avoid the snare of submergence in parliamentarianism, where what matters is holding onto office, although this danger will never go away as long as we are serious about taking and maintaining governance.

A coherent electoral strategy and a multi-pronged swarm of tactics for popular mobilization will be nothing, however, without a long-term project. So what is it? Where to start?

I propose that a consequential Left can only proceed as a project for reconstructing American democracy, root and branch. What we have right now are the seductive shreds of cultural and political democracy, bits and pieces of power without actually threatening the core structures of political and economic authority.

We need to focus on how to turn this vast, polyglot nation-of-sorts into a genuine social, economic, and popular democracy based on majority rule, a free and fair ballot available to every citizen (a profoundly radical move in America’s historical context), and the application of the one-person, one-vote principle at all levels of government.

The latter alone would immediately overturn the main anti-democratic feature of our constitutional order: the composition of the Senate and, in turn, the Electoral College.

Why should democracy be the focus for making revolutionary change, rather than the depredations of corporate capitalism? Because until we deal with the former, we’ll never be able to tackle the latter. Despite the “Rights Revolution” extending from “Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall,” in Obama’s evocative phrase, this is still a halfway-democratic state pockmarked by anti-popular legal structures and anti-majoritarian exceptions and exclusions, many of them dating from the nineteenth century, if not before.

The problem is and always has been federalism, so-called, or “states’ rights,” which is to say, a license for local oligarchies to maintain their control. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a federally-guaranteed uniform right to vote in this country, other than the negative prescriptions of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, and the Nineteenth Amendment exactly 50 years later, which barred the explicit use of race or gender (or previous condition of servitude) to prevent someone from voting.

From the republic’s founding, state legislatures have tinkered with their own state’s voting regulations, and county and township officials have interpreted those regulations as they see fit, ignoring the ones they don’t like, based on which construction of state law will serve partisan interests.

We justly celebrate Brown v. Board of Education, but the Supreme Court’s 1962 Baker v. Carr decision, invalidating imbalanced legislative districting in the states (to minimize the potential black or city vote) and insist on “one-person, one-vote” proportionality of representation was, in its own way, just as radical. Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it’s one of the few instances where the national government has intervened to invalidate the mechanisms used to block the popular democratic will.

A perfect contemporary example of how to trump basic democratic rights is the summary refusal of students’ right to vote where they attend school. Even though the Supreme Court ruled as far back as 1979, in Symm v. United States, that local or state officials could not use student status to deny someone’s right to vote, massive evidence from many states demonstrates that this right is largely dependent on the whim of whichever of the three thousand county boards of elections supervises the local process.

Just as some secretaries of state (the chief elections officials in most states) proclaim, as did Maine’s in 2012, that they did not consider students to be legal residents of their state, others issue new regulations about which forms of identification will be accepted at the polls, or where the polls will be located, or when they will open and close.

A different case in point: this is a twenty-first century nation-state with more technological and material resources than any government in history. It can find and kill with surgical precision anywhere in the world. Yet it still finds it either difficult or unnecessary to count votes quickly and accurately.

President Obama’s victory margin in the popular vote has grown substantially since election night, when it was reckoned at 2.3%, or about three million votes. As of now, it is almost 3.9%, about five million votes. Imagine if the election had been really close, what it would mean to somehow not get around to counting two million ballots: Mitt Romney declared the winner of the popular vote, and based on extremely incomplete returns, of the Electoral College. Does anyone imagine he or any other “conservative” would truly abide by the law, if two million votes were duly counted for their opponent in the weeks after Election Day?

Arizona is even more to the point. Long after Election Day, 600,000 ballots were still being processed in that state, enough to change many local and state races, and only militant mobilization by the state’s Latino citizens got those votes tabulated.

In these instances, as in so many other ways, ours is a deeply, consciously undemocratic system, since the failure to count votes immediately and transparently is the oldest trick in the book of electoral manipulation — “counting them out,” whether in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1890s, or Mexico City in 1988, control of the official tabulation and how it is reported is ultimately decisive.

To get to a true, deep democracy, so that the whole people participate in making a new society together, we need to focus sharply on how state power is articulated in our particular state, with its origins in the late eighteenth century, and its archaic system of gerrymandering in favor of small rural areas and states, so that a citizen residing in North Dakota or Vermont has effectively 50 times the electoral and legislative weight of a Californian.

At every point in our history, the net effect of this arrangement has been to protect various forms of racial and ethnic privilege. The United States was organized as a racial state, and despite the massive changes and the effective democratization of much of that state, it remains one today, because of the bulkheads of white privilege guaranteed by federalism. Until we overcome that problem, everything else we try will be hamstrung, stymied and defeated by the white super-minority using the tools of our antiquated state system.

Embodying the SNCC imperative of “move on over or we will move on over you,” we must confront the federal character of the American state order, and either reform its profoundly undemocratic features, or wall-off and disempower those polities (e.g. the Deep South states) which we cannot control and which, much of the time, rule over us.

Our majorities, when we achieve them, must not be blocked by arbitrary devices. “One-person, one-vote” must be fully extended in all respects, to guarantee equality of power between all citizens. Systematic electoral reform mandating a universal, binding processes, and the banning of the many forms of quasi-legal voter suppression, is an imperative demand.

At the most basic level, to trump the ability of reactionaries to set up roadblocks to democracy, we should start with a constitutional amendment specifying that “the absolute right to vote of all citizens, born or naturalized in the United States, 18 years of age or older on the day of election, shall not be abridged on any grounds, including but not limited to residency, student status, employment, proof of age or identity, or any previous conviction for a crime.”

In addition, a new Voting Rights Act should guarantee early voting procedures and a uniform national voter registration process, incorporating portability.

Moving beyond that premise is the biggest boulder in the road: the Senate. Remember that for the majority of our history, this was an openly undemocratic body, insulated from any form of popular control. Party caucuses made deals with each other in state legislatures, and sent a grab bag of hacks and genuine leaders to Washington, including many who never could have won an actual election.

Finally, exactly 100 years ago, progressives in both parties pushed through the Seventeenth Amendment, providing for the direct election of senators. What we need now is an amendment guaranteeing each state representation (one senator) and additional seats on a proportional basis, by expanding the body and dividing up the seats.

For those who say it is impossible to imagine such a constitutional reform achieving sufficient support to pass, consider how far we have come on the question of the Electoral College, once considered sacrosanct. After a series of elections whose results (as in 2000), and process (ever since then) have made a mockery of popular democracy, we are moving steadily towards a consensus that, in one way or another, it must be abolished or reformed into irrelevance, such as by a compact between a majority of the states to instruct their Electors to vote for the candidate who has received the highest number of votes nationally.

What is keeping us from getting there?

Our own ignorance or arrogance, functionally the same thing. What the glum, dystopian liberal intelligentsia and impatiently radical, often anarchistic youth have in common in the Obama era is an impatience with the challenge of understanding their country, the notion that it is too provincial to be worth really studying, coupled to the well-founded sense that as citizens of a profoundly chauvinistic world empire, we have an obligation to learn about the world.

But study the U.S. we must, the way people like Karl Rove have done in their diligent exploitation of its dark side, its fears, if we want to bend it towards the arc of justice.

Never mind loving “America” or feeling patriotic, we had better get a handle on what is effectively not one but five or six nations defined by specific geographies, political economies, and regional cultures, tied together mainly by power and self-interest.

Right now, the level of uninformed distance on the Left from this political and cultural complexity is profound. Few progressives get further than wondering. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” If they are serious, they might read about “America in the King Years,” but that still only addresses the second half of the last century. Anything before that is treated as the dead hand of the past.

That Lincoln is the only real revolutionary to hold power in our history; that the high tide of American radicalism came before the Civil War, not after; that for most of its history, the Democratic Party existed to defend white men’s privilege — this makes no sense to people who think that “the Left” can only be seen through the prism of a European-style Marxist party (or a Third World-style national liberation front).

A big caveat: among people of color, these strictures do not hold, at least not to the same degree. African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans — they can’t afford to live in a fantasy world where history either doesn’t exist or is made up to justify unearned privilege. Adopting the stance of “I’m not really an American, I just live here,” so proudly articulated by white progressives, doesn’t work for peoples who have had to fight every inch of the way to enjoy some of the basic rights of Americans.

Sooner or later, refusing to acknowledge one’s membership in this polity looks like just another species of privilege, the political equivalent of being a tax exile.

Which of these problems are self-inflicted and subject to our agency? What strengths do we have to call upon?

  1. We, as leftists, liberals, and progressives, can educate ourselves politically and historically; we can find a common ground about what’s deeply wrong with the United States, and what is worth building upon, celebrating, or reviving. We lack the will, not the means.
  2. We have, collectively, the active or passive affiliation of tens of millions of people, in local community and environmental organizations, public sector institutions like libraries, hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, unions and cooperatives, and a vast array of issue-based lobbies.
  3. We raise and spend billions of dollars, and have the capacity to raise and spend far more, entirely apart from the multi-billion dollar major donors like George Soros, and their philanthropic apparatuses.
  4. We are the legatees of extraordinary movements, not just for abolition and civil or union rights, but feminism’s second wave that began in the 1960s and continues unabated today, the remarkable movement for gay and lesbian equality which has generated a revolution in gender and sexuality in just the past ten years, and the post-Vietnam campaigns for solidarity and global justice in South Africa, Central America, and now Israel-Palestine.

What are those factors for which we must account but which are out of our control?

  1. We will have no capacity to shape the international political economy for a long time to come; all we can do, for now, is to (like the rest of our fellow citizens) seek to weather its storms, and lobby for the least punitive response globally and at home, and equally shared burdens via sharply progressive taxation policies.
  2. There will be massive demographic changes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, akin in their scope to the suburbanization of the post-1945 era, and later, the transfer of populations, production, and wealth to the Sunbelt. It is impossible to predict what these shifts, premised on increasing multi-racialization of the U.S. population, will mean politically, and it would be optimistic in the extreme to think that a new non-ethnic right, premised on the mystique of “free markets” and entrepreneurialism, was impossible.
  3. Finally, unlike much of Europe, most of Latin America, and parts of Asia, we do not have deeply-rooted traditions of a “statist” provision of public goods, transcending divisions between left and right. So let’s stop pretending that the New Deal and the Great Society, a thirty-year lurch in that direction, is the equivalent of those traditions. What we do have are the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, the egalitarian implications of birthright citizenship and due process built into the Fourteenth Amendment, and the world’s oldest systems of free public schools.

What, therefore, should be our program?

That is entirely the wrong question to be asking, if a radical reconstruction of American democracy is the task ahead. Yet it’s the question we on the Left keep mistakenly answering, proposing lists of substantive or even revolutionary reforms.

Instead of demanding this or that, we should focus on empowering the great mass of citizens — both the 40 percent who never vote, and the 60 percent who only vote in presidential elections — to think for themselves what this country needs, what they need.

Do we trust the alienated, desperate, disfranchised poor and working-classes of the United States to work out their own revolution? We had better trust them, because their solutions will probably be less orthodox and more radical than any of us can imagine right now.

So rather than invoking any of our genuine radical heroes, whether Dr. King, Ella Baker, Frederick Douglass, Eugene V. Debs, or Dorothy Day, I will conclude by quoting a revolutionary thinker from a different part of America, the Brazilian Paolo Freire, who urged us to “make the road by walking,” by engaging in the struggle itself rather than laying out a plan for revolution.

That is really what we need to do — begin the walk.

[Van Gosse is an Associate Professor of History at Franklin and Marshall College and author of numerous books and articles on U.S. politics. He has been active in antiwar and solidarity politics since 1982. His historical and political writing can be found at his website, He is co-founder of the Post-Capitalist Project, a cooperative, nonsectarian venture of Left journals, popular education centers, and electronic media, and blogs on The Huffington Post.]

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3 Responses to Van Gosse : What Would an American Left Look Like?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Among his points, Van Gosse suggests organizing around reforms that would require constitutional amendments, such as changes in the configuration of the Senate and the Electoral College. I would argue that constitutional amendments are no longer possible. They require passage by 3/4 of the state legislatures after passage by a two thirds majority in both houses of the Congress. It is hard to imagine a substantive amendment that could meet that standard. The last substantive amendment was in in 1971, with the vote extended to those 18 and older. Such efforts as a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision are DOA. In fact, constitutional amendments are “history”.
    Secondly, Gosse leaves “objective conditions” out of his discussion. There will be a strong and unified Left in the US only when the economic conditions of the average citizen compel them to radical action. No amount of organizing or correct political programs will suffice to motivate them otherwise.
    Regardless, thanks to Van for his discussion of the issue.
    David Hamilton

  2. Jay D. Jurie says:

    First, it’s my understanding the term “long march through the institutions” was coined by the late German SDS leader Rudi Dutschke.

    Of greater import, it’s intriguing to see David Hamilton has already responded to this post, and didn’t knock the idea of working “inside” the whole political system as hopeless. I’d agree with David that it will take economic concerns to galvanize relevant sectors of the population into action. Call it traditional leftism if you will, but it will take substantial economic pain to cause large segments of the population to understand the political system doesn’t work for them and will not fix their problems.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The title itself is exclusionary of roughly 50% of the public (or, at least 25% of a differently brainwashed from the brainwashed “left” public)

    I would advance that the times and the speed with which the USG is militarizing its domestic security forces, on top of the establishment’s commitment to cleaving the populace into two “ideological” camps demands that we find shared reasons to broadly confront our common enemy.

    Politically the enemy is “centrism” and bipartisanship, though given the efforts to make the public itself partisan, one would not have guessed it.

    What hurts us – the public – is the work product of centrist compromise. What the centrist political class fears most is not some leftist “uprising,” but a populist one. So, to be successful, we need to first start cobbling together alliances with segments of the right, based on what we are against, since our respective prospective visions are too far apart.

    If we say we want socialism, the question arises, “anarcho or statist?” and while anarcho may be more conducive to see libertarians take their chances with us, statism is taboo, as well as it should be given the historical record of expansive governments, human psychology, the understanding of power, and basic common sense.

    Nothing will scare the status quo more than to see, within the public ranks, a public from opposite camps uniting against the greater danger of an illegitimate, corrupted government.

    Financialized rentier capitalism is nearly as odious to libertarians and many conservatives as capitalism itself is to leftists. The same holds for their and ours disdain for “empire,” and rejection of militarism.

    Let’s first incriminate the present in the mind of public opinion, and then proceed with engaging the public with competing ideas on how to forge ahead.

    Considering issues of sustainability, and of direct democracy, the idea of a Progressive Federalism may help find more common ground and spur grass root change, one state at a time, on merits rather than suspect and complex theories.

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