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The New Leaders of the Left
Palestine has ended the Bernie Era.
Being a politician of “The Left” is infinitely more demanding than just being a politician. Whereas being a normal politician is a full identity in itself, a politician who represents The Left finds that their identity as a politician is subservient to their more important status as a moral leader. We expect normal politicians to wheel-and-deal, and make devastating compromises, and act in their own self-interest. Normal politicians can do what they want as long as they satisfy enough of their own constituents and donors to remain in power. But the always-small group of elected leaders rooted in the Left represent more than their district or their state. They represent the entire idea that social justice movements can win electorally; they are the vanguards of the movements themselves; they carry the weight of the entire project of changing the world for the better, the heart of progressivism, on their shoulders. We expect them to be different from normal politicians and that is the deal that they accept by rising out of and aligning themselves with the Left. They have to first believe in stuff and then worry about getting power, rather than vice versa. They will always be judged by higher moral standards because, unlike most of their colleagues, at the heart of their identity lies their acceptance of the obligation to always fight for the powerless, to fight against injustice, to fight for the principles of righteousness.
There has always been a Left in America and its political influence has waxed and waned along with the events of history. Sometimes Debs was running for president and the Left felt giddy and strong, and sometimes McCarthyism was hounding everyone and the Left felt cowed and nervous, but it’s always been there, either licking its wounds and planning for the next moment of opportunity, or desperately trying to seize that moment of opportunity before the pendulum swings back toward God and Country. Movements—the labor movement, the civil rights movement, all varieties of economic and social justice movements—persist throughout many swings of the pendulum, but only sometimes is the Left able to burst out of its normal corner and spread widely through society as a whole. Beginning in 2016, Bernie Sanders helped lead the Left to a higher plane of prominence than it had been on in many years. (Movements are full of leaders, but I’m talking about political leaders here.) Millions of people, particularly younger people, were drawn in by the Bernie campaigns and subsequently found their political awakenings, and the filtering of all of those people through the worlds of politics and academia and organized labor and activism has had the effect of drawing huge swaths of society, and in particular the Democratic Party, to the left. Most of the good stuff that Joe Biden—not a man of the Left!—has done during his presidency is downstream of this shift. The Left pulled the whole landscape its way, and the establishment was reset in a slightly more righteous place than it was before.
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Bernie has effectively been the leader of the Left for the past eight years. That is not a judgment of who the purest purist in America is. It’s just a basic reading of the facts of the world. But now, I think, that time is over. What is happening in Palestine has killed it. History is a long procession of moral tests, and not everyone passed this one. And this one is too important to overlook. After the immediate intensity of this issue recedes, the Left is going to be different. The leaders who could not bring themselves to call for a ceasefire when justice demanded it are not going to be the leaders any more. This is one of those times when a dividing line rushes up from the ground, and the Left gets to clarify who really understood what the point of all this was.
I have loved Bernie for years, and I am not writing this to relitigate anyone’s legacy, or to pose as some sort of moral arbiter. (I also know from long experience that there is nothing more foolish than purporting to Speak For The Left; I am only speaking for my own thoughts.) I am just making, I guess, a prediction, but even that would be overstating it. I’m just making an observation, of something that is already happening but maybe has not been fully digested yet. The Bernie Era of the American Left is over. I don’t know if another single most prominent hero will rise up behind him, or whether we’ll just have a period of many different people doing different things, but I am sure that the leaders who failed to find the moral clarity or courage to be in the right place on the issue of Gaza’s decimation have lost their credibility to a degree that will make it impossible for them to maintain their status as leaders on the Left.
They can still be allies. The Left always needs allies. Coalitions, built with allies, are the only way to win. But allies are a distinct category. They are people who we only expect to be right on a particular issue, rather than on fundamental values. Not being able to see what is happening in Gaza for the atrocity that it is indicates that we do not share all the values we thought we did.
Here is how I think about it, for myself. I believe in the labor movement. I believe, in fact, that building the labor movement is the key to fixing inequality, the most central problem in American society. I place a lot of weight on whether or not a politician is a friend or a foe of labor. But if you come to me and say: “I will support the labor movement, at the price of killing four thousand children,” is that a deal that I want to take? Of course not. That is sick. I don’t want to purchase good labor policy—or good environmental policy, or tax policy, or education policy—at the cost of blowing the arms and legs off a bunch of innocent people. That is not the type of horse trading I’m interested in. Some things are beyond the pale. Some things, we expect those who are moral leaders to stand against no matter the political pressure of the moment. This is one of those things.
When I look at the picture at the top of this post, I see the group of people who will be the new political leaders of the Left. These are the elected leaders who found it within themselves to be in the right place, even though it has been difficult. This is not about some cutesy little rebranding moment— “The New Squad,” or some bullshit about hot new young leaders. I see Barbara Lee in that picture. She is 77 years old. But she has a moral compass, and she is brave enough and wise enough to follow it. That is what the Left is about, and that is what we demand.
It is impossible not to notice that everyone in that picture is a person of color, and most of them are women of color, even though both of those categories are distinct minorities in the United States Congress. Is it possible that the experience of living through oppression personally helps to imbue people with the moral character necessary to recognize the oppression of others and stand up against it? I don’t know. What the fuck do I know about oppression? Not much. But there it is. Something to think about.
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the war in Vietnam, over the objections of many of his allies. They told him that he was getting sidetracked; that getting involved in this issue would be unpopular; that he must remain focused on civil rights here in America; that he should keep his eyes on the prize. He gave a famous speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4 of that year, explaining why he did not take that advice. “This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions,” he said. “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
We should always avoid cults of personality, in politics and in movements. They can cause misjudgments, and lead us astray. There is a saying in AA: “Principles before personalities.” People, all of us, are flawed, and if you give us long enough, somehow, somewhere, we will fail. It’s okay. The important thing is to keep our eyes on the principles, and follow them. That’s what the Left represents to me. If some of our leaders fall off the path, it doesn’t really matter. Just keep on going. We’ll get to that better world eventually.
This site is a good one-stop shop to help you take actions in support of a ceasefire. Check it out.
I wrote a book about the labor movement and how it can become the thing that we all need it to become. It’s called “The Hammer,” and it comes out in February. You can preorder it here. I am currently in the process of setting up my book tour. If you want me to come to your city and talk about it, email me: Hamilton.Nolan@gmail.com.
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