This is the third a series of columns looking at Left strategy today. Key to Strategy #1 focused on the first component of Sun Tzu’s dictum that to prevail in battle it is necessary to “know the enemy and know yourself.” Key to Strategy #2 focused on the second component. This final installment looks at the balance of strength among the main contending forces in national politics and its strategic implications.
The danger posed by Trumpism’s “Big Lie” drive for power permeates the US political landscape. To effectively combat the MAGA assault requires the Left to do more than work harder at what we are already doing. We need to attempt new levels of coordination and be willing to take risks.
Our strategizing must be grounded in a hard-nosed assessment of the current balance of strength both between the MAGA and anti-MAGA blocs, and within the diverse coalition arrayed against racist authoritarianism.
When we take inventory as this column tries to do, the complexity of navigating the next three years—including but not only the 2022 and 2024 elections—stands out.
Progressives cannot stop MAGA alone. It will take an alliance of all those who reject authoritarian rule to accomplish that goal. But it will require more imagination and strain than it did in 2020 to galvanize a winning electoral coalition and, if necessary, demonstrate sufficient strength in streets, workplaces, schools, and communities to turn back another attempted election steal. Clear-target Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Rather, there is a Biden administration which has not offered a compelling narrative concerning what it has and has not been able to accomplish and is pursuing a backward and potentially disastrous foreign policy.
Further, increasing the strength of progressives relative to our anti-Trump allies is essential if a post-Trump country is going to yield substantial positive change rather than status quo injustice. But key aspects of building progressive clout are certain to take longer to accomplish than the next three years.
There is no yellow brick road that we can travel to circumvent these realities. The degree of sophistication at “unity and struggle” within a broad coalition that will be required will stretch our current experience and maturity to the limit. We will need a new level of consultation and coordination among different parts of the progressive eco-system to keep our balance and provide mutual support.
Success will require us to stretch, but both the incentives and the necessary groundwork to make these breakthroughs exist.
MAGA has unity, organization, and money
The MAGA bloc is dead set on capturing both houses of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. They are optimistic about their prospects for doing so and entrenching an “America First”/Jim Crow 2.0 regime.
They have taken control of the Republican Party and enjoy support from roughly one-third of the electorate. They have a firm grip on the Supreme Court. MAGA enthusiasts and enablers have enough votes in the Senate to block legislation they don’t like and are less than a dozen seats shy of a majority in the House. The GOP controls both the legislatures and governorships in 23 states and shares control with Democrats in 13 more.
The coffers of MAGA-world organizations are overflowing with cash. White supremacist militias and gun-toting loners ginned up on conspiracy theories have been welcomed into the fold and are deployed to intimidate election workers and teachers. The penetration of various armed agencies of the state (local police, border patrol, the military, etc.) by MAGA supporters is also of great concern.
That’s an impressive arsenal. But two additional factors make MAGA a uniquely potent force in the already-rigged-in-their-favor US political system.
First, MAGA has deep roots in a genuine mass organization, one that tens of millions of people join and participate in, not because they decided they agreed with a political platform but because it fit organically into their conditions of life. This country’s white evangelical churches were not built by Trumpists. But MAGA organizers recognized that these churches were a huge source of identity for millions and, if won to their banner, could give MAGA a deeply committed base. For decades they cultivated church leaders and amplified into political grievance the white racial anxiety that had long been part of white evangelical culture. The result is adherence to MAGA rooted in “reflexive [white] tribal loyalty.” The recent mobilizations of MAGA supporters at local hearings on COVID-19 policy and local school board meetings (part of the campaign to whitewash US history under the guise of opposing CRT) demonstrate just how deep this loyalty runs.
Second, MAGA has a unified command, a single narrative, and a direct link to its supporters through a large-scale right-wing media apparatus. Within hours of any new development in politics, culture, or international affairs, an assessment that fits that development into the MAGA narrative is put forward by MAGA elected officials, pundits, preachers, FOX News, One America News Network, Newsmax, and talk radio.
The US majority rejects MAGA
Most people in the U.S. are opposed to the MAGA platform and approach to governance. The majority registered its verdict clearly in the 2018 and 2020 elections. The 2018 mid-terms were a “blue wave,” with the Democrats beating the GOP in the total popular vote for House seats by nearly 10 million votes and in the total popular vote for Senate seats by close to 18 million votes. In the 2020 presidential contest—the most straightforward referendum on Trump and Trumpism yet —Trump lost by more than seven million votes.
But the anti-MAGA majority does not function with the coherence the Trumpists do. It is far more diverse sociologically and politically. Its component parts do not all oppose MAGA for the same reasons, and there is a wide range of opinion among them concerning an alternative vision for the country. The closest thing it has to a common narrative is strictly defensive in nature—”we are defending US democracy against the MAGA assault on it”—and there is disagreement on the character of the democracy the anti-MAGA bloc is defending.
Because of this, the forces arrayed against Trumpism do not have anything resembling a unified leadership holding political and moral authority. Taken together these forces command financial resources comparable to MAGA, but they are not deployed with the same degree of focus. They have nothing comparable to the right’s media machine in either scale or “message discipline.” The mainstream media does tilt anti-Trumpist, but its approach to “balance” added to its longstanding anti-Left and anti-working-class bias means it lacks the capacity to unify and rally the opposition.
The labor movement and the Black church
An especially big problem preventing the pro-democracy majority from functioning politically as more than the sum of its parts is the fragmentation of its base. The organizational forms which historically have served to bind together individuals in the constituencies most likely to be mainstays of democracy have weakened in the last few decades. The labor movement and the Black church no longer outdo—or even match—the way white evangelical churches create a powerful sense of community and common interest among tens of millions.
Unions bring workers together based on common location in the socio-economic structure, not because individuals decide they agree with a certain political view. Yet, by bringing workers of all backgrounds together they provide favorable conditions for encouraging their members to think in terms of “an injury to one is an injury to all” and to break down racial and gender stereotypes and prejudices. Unions are organizations of the exploited, and even politically or organizationally weak ones have functioned in most times and places as defenders of democracy when it is under attack.
There are signs of new union and individual worker militancy, and a committed cohort of young radicals are dedicating themselves to revitalizing the unions from the bottom up. Making progress on this front is an urgent day-in and day-out priority. But even anticipating periodic leaps forward, getting labor to something like its 1954 density (35%) and uniting the union movement on a progressive agenda is a long-term project. In 2021, union density fell from 10.8% to 10.3% of the workforce the previous year; in the private sector density is down to 6.1%, the lowest figure since data became available in 1900. Labor’s decline not only diminishes the numbers that can be galvanized to oppose the authoritarian right, it weakens the influence of working-class politics within the anti-MAGA front.
The Black church’s clout, meanwhile, is affected by a widening generation gap in the African American community over religion, institutional affiliation and politics. There are initiatives underway to once again position church-based projects at the forefront of emancipatory activism (The Poor Peoples Campaign – A National Call for Moral Revival stands out in this regard). There are efforts to build bridges between church-based activism and the new organizations fighting for Black Liberation that have been formed by younger activists. But the Black community does not yet have a level of galvanized and interlocking mass organizations, religious and/or otherwise, comparable to the white evangelical churches.
This too means a smaller turnout against the Trumpists and weakens the urgently needed racial justice pole within the anti-MAGA coalition.
The anti-MAGA majority that made its weight felt in 2018 and 2020 still exists. But it faces new hurdles due to MAGA-sponsored voter suppression laws in many states. And the inability of the Biden administration to deliver big positive changes in people’s lives—even though largely due to GOP obstructionism and the depth of the problems it inherited on coming into office—means it will be harder to motivate that majority to organize, vote, and mobilize to protect the vote in the upcoming contests.
Anti-MAGA’s component parts
The different political forces arrayed against MAGA bring different strengths to the battlefield.
“Never Trumpers”—Republican and former Republican conservatives who oppose Trump—are the smallest in size of anti-MAGA forces. Though anchored by numerous former GOP elected officials and well-known intellectuals, their base is estimated at just a sliver of the electorate. But their much-publicized presence, and especially the roles of Congressmembers Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger on the committee investigating January 6, is a counterweight to the misleading frame that what is going on in US politics is a partisan fight between Democrats and Republicans. Replacing that fiction with an accurate narrative—this is a fight between opponents of democracy who have captured the GOP and defenders of democracy of all political persuasions—is a key part of winning the battle for public opinion.
The Democratic Party mainstream led by Biden, Schumer and Pelosi currently holds sway within the anti-Trump front. All but three of the 50 Democratic senators follow their lead (Bernie Sanders to their left, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to their right). About half of the Democratic Party House delegation are loyal followers, and the party leadership has various levels of influence on the rest. This tendency has comparable strength at the state and local levels. Based on the results of the 2020 presidential primary, somewhere between 55% and 60% of Democratic voters currently back their candidates.
Most Democratic Party large-donor funding goes to the Biden-Schumer-Pelosi camp. Most established pollsters and campaign consultants take their lead. Network television and the most influential newspapers in the country usually have their back. Many (too many!) in labor’s top leadership and the Black political establishment are in the fold. But what was once a large network of active party clubs has been hollowed out in many states, loosening this tendency’s roots among voters.
Biden administration domestic initiatives have differed markedly from the neo-liberal offerings of the Clinton and Obama years. They contain numerous provisions that are very popular among Democrats, independents and even many Republicans. But the combination of a legislative strategy that counted too much on no-longer-existing “bi-partisanship,” poor messaging that did not make clear what the administration was advocating, and failure to pass key initiatives in face of Republican and Manchin-Sinema opposition, has crashed Biden’s approval ratings.
The progressive camp
The progressive current in US politics has come a long way since 2015. Bernie Sanders and the Squad (now expanded from four to six, all people of color) are the broad Left’s most popular figures and constitute the closest thing progressives have to a leadership with political authority. The Congressional Progressive Caucus now has close to 100 members and for the first time has agreed to function with a measure of political discipline. Numerous specific issues central to the progressive agenda have majority support among Democrats (and sometimes even in the overall population). But the percent of Democrats who will consistently support progressive candidates over Biden-Schumer-Pelosi favorites is likely 25-35%.
At the level of activists and the base, progressives are fragmented into a host of different organizations. There is differentiation into various sector-based and issue-based formations. An array of state-based power building groups, national organizing networks, and election-oriented forms that operate inside and outside the Democratic Party nationwide have grown substantially in sophistication and reach in the last five years.
But coordination and synergy between electoral and crucial non-electoral organizing is not where it needs to be. In contrast to the 1980s when the bulk of progressive groups, whether their focus was on electoral or non-electoral efforts, joined the Jesse Jackson-led Rainbow Coalition, no single coalition or standing network grew out of Bernie Sanders’ campaigns or the 2020 uprising to defend Black lives, or has come together via some other route.
A major plus for the progressive current is that the strength it showed in 2020 has forced a shift in the dynamics and policy agenda of the Democratic Party. In the 2020 primary season the main fight was between progressives backing Bernie (and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Warren) and “moderates” who eventually coalesced behind Biden. Now the main intra-Party contention has Bernie and Biden on the same side against Manchin, Sinema and the small group of their counterparts in the House. The Biden-Bernie cooperation was not enough to push through Build Back Better or crucial voting rights legislation. But it can be built on to improve the effectiveness of the 2022 anti-MAGA effort to maintain Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
Urgent to fight militarism and war
Differences between progressives and the Biden camp remain on a host of issues, of course. And one looms ever-larger over all others: the Biden administration’s embrace of Cold War-style policies toward China and Russia and its general bent toward militarism, bullying, and intervention. The Democratic mainstream has chucked the neoliberal model, but they are wedded as ever to exercising US global hegemony. If those militarist impulses can’t be checked, we may see a 21st-century repeat of the Lyndon Johnson presidency. Some of the most forward-looking legislation in US history (the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, the end of racist immigration quotas) passed under LBJ, but the imperial and racist war in Vietnam undermined the whole progressive enterprise.
A repeat of that experience today would spell global catastrophe. It is urgent to build mass opposition to this administration’s moves toward war even as we strain every nerve to keep MAGA out of power.
It is also urgent to invest in work that has less immediate payoff but is crucial for building progressive power for the long haul. That means devoting resources to the patient, day-in and day-out organizing aimed at embedding radicals in organizations—some existing and some yet to be built—rooted in the multiracial working class and in people of color communities on a scale of millions.
No single group or circle on the Left currently has a sufficient combination of strategic acuity, organizational strength, mass influence, and welcoming political culture to lead us all through this minefield. To succeed we will need to sort through our differences, build on our unities, and pool our strengths.