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Building a New Left?

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Harold Meyerson asks whether Bernie Sanders’ “historic” campaign can build a new New Left?

The shorter answer is no. The longer answer though I think is necessary. First, Meyerson’s framing seems to not recognize that we are actually in a period of an upsurge in activism. Starting with Occupy (or maybe the Obama 08 campaign), going through Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and the campus protests of the last 2 weeks, this is a period where a lot of people are fed up with poverty and racism and are standing up against it. The Sanders campaign isn’t creating that. It’s simply tapping into it, or at least a certain sector of it that is primarily white and well-educated. Of course, in that sense it’s no different from the previous New Left.

I also think we need to stop burdening every little political or social movement with the giants of the 1960s and 1970s. Those movements weren’t nearly as well-organized then as they are in our memory today. By comparing every movement to the past, we, whether accidentally or intentionally, view them as coming up short. It’s unfair to those working on these movements today. Is something the new Civil Rights Movement, new mass-organizing labor movement, new Women’s Liberation movement, etc., is a useless question. These movements are what they are and they are shifting and morphing daily.

In addition, I don’t think Sanders’ run is “historic” in any meaningful way. Bernie Sanders is basically a liberal lion senator of the past 40 years who likes to call himself a socialist. That’s cool and is a useful addition to our political debates. He’s pulled Hillary Clinton to the left and marginalized the Mark Penn-types from her campaign. That’s great. But it’s not some great social movement he’s developing here. It’s another manifestation of the broader dissatisfaction with inequality that is causing all sorts of change, one of which includes supporting Bernie Sanders.

As for the creation of an active Left that Meyerson rightfully says we need, we are actually seeing that I think to some extent, but that left is going to include a huge number of people of color, groups in which Sanders has almost no play. That’s another reason he’s not going to be the creator of this movement.

Finally, and I will be expanding on this point in a piece at another publication soon, I don’t actually think the difference between a Bernie Sanders presidency and a Hillary Clinton presidency is all that great, not with the structures of American politics limiting what presidents can do. This is why I have really not written about the Democratic primary much at all. I also think it’s a fallacy to look at presidential candidates as saviors and think that if we just elect the right person, our problems will be fixed. It doesn’t happen that way. We’ll never elect “the right person.” We will influence politics by organizing, as is happening right now in the 2016 election on both race and class-based inequality.

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