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Rescuing Democracy: Lessons from American Progressives

As British politics continue to implode, Anthony Barnett explains how the US is also facing the threat of modern fascism, and the lessons we can learn from their new alliances

Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 6, 2021. (Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Rescuing DemocracyLessons from American Progressives

As British politics continue to implode, Anthony Barnett explores how the US is facing up to the threat of modern fascism, and the new ideas and alliances emerging there

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The future of what little — but for that reason all the more precious — democracy that we have, is undergoing a deep challenge. Its survival may well hinge on whether US progressives in alliance with the liberal centre can prevent Trumpite Republicanism from re-taking the White House in 2024.

In this introduction to three Byline Times profiles of key figures who will help shape that outcome in Washington DC, I want to start by saying why it matters for us in the UK. 

I’m asking that we focus on the future of the Democratic Party in the USA even while the British political system continues to implode. As I write, an influential Tory declares that “incremental government has had its day” and Kemi Badenoch, the hot candidate to replace Johnson, states in politics there is no division between the cultural or economic sphere”.

Both are Jacobin assertions that would make any traditional conservative shudder to his core. Meanwhile, the Labour opposition rejects even incremental change as it commits itself to “make Brexit work”. In such an upside-down country it takes every mental sinew just to stay vertical. So it is understandable for people here to see US politics as somehow remote to our immediate concerns.

Modern fascism is a response by the corrupt, hedge-fund, extractive and rentier segment of capital to a three-fold challenge to the existing order which has hitherto enabled it.

It is not. The future of Britain is not always decided in Washington. But by bringing the catastrophe of Brexit down upon the UK, we English have made ourselves vulnerable to the power of others in a world where the balance of power is shifting unpredictably. In this conjuncture the US is the swing factor — our future will be decided by whether or not Trump or a Trumpite Republican takes the White House in 2024, makes the EU its “foe” (to quote Trump) and reaches out to autocrats elsewhere. And this will be decided by whether or not Democrats can mobilise their supporters to vote. Which in turn will be decided by whether progressives and centre can forge a credible, attractive alliance around a programme as well as a candidate.

My view is that they can. I set out why this is possible in Taking Control!. It has been dismissed as “optimistic” as if for an argument to be respectably left-wing or radical it must be “pessimistic”. I fear this reaction is in effect a complacent rather than wise surrender of hope and the opportunity to think afresh. 

The American ProgressivesJamie Raskin, Lead Investigator of Trump’s Conspiracy

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Also, I don’t feel “optimistic”. The starting point of any assessment of the world today is, as I set out in the book, an imminent threat of modern fascism. This is what Trumpism now represents. It didn’t do so during his first – and I hope only – sojourn in the White House. But January 6 was a calling card for a new order, taken up by the Republican Party as a whole and its voters. Next time, if there is one, no mere rules will prevent Republicans from staying in control, for the heart of their project is to entrench white minority rule. 

This hasn’t happened yet. Nor need it, because those of us who want inclusive democratic freedom and the rule of fair laws, are the majority, not only in the United States but around the world. Not by much, but by enough if we can all get our acts together. Which means we must refuse to accept defeat in advance. The starting point, however, is a grave recognition that normality is no longer on the agenda. Things could get better. If they don’t they will get a lot, lot worse. Which is why asking how progressives can win isn’t “optimism”.

However, how to get our act together poses as yet unsolved problems, practical and strategic. Not least because, while the immediate danger is Trumpism, the old enemy of corporate powers that seek a fatalistic acceptance of market priorities, sit like a toad on our hearts and hopes, filling the air we breathe with its toxic media fumes.  

Where does Modern Fascism Come From?

Here’s the question. Given the strength of corporate vested interests and the political weakness of opposition to them, how come there is a threat of modern fascism? The answer is that modern fascism is a response by the corrupt, hedge-fund, extractive and rentier segment of capital to a three-fold challenge to the existing order which has hitherto enabled it. 

Since the 1920s we’ve been taught that fascist sentiments are only summoned from the stinking margins they inhabit when there is a systemic threat to capitalism, such as Communism, or powerful socialist trade unions. Today, there are no such threats instead, the need for authoritarian mobilisation has been aroused by internal challenges. 

The Johnson government imported the US playbook to ram through compulsory ID so as to prevent opposition supporters from voting…. It’s a good example of the gravitational influence of the US on the UK. 

The first challenge is the failure of the market era in the USA dating back to Reagan and Thatcher. Often termed neoliberal, in the US it flatlined living standards while inequality ballooned; its lost militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan; and its financial ordered crashed spectacularly in 2008. Meanwhile, China grew at a spectacular rate to challenge America’s once unrivalled economic supremacy. Domestically and globally, US primacy unravelled. This presented the first challenge as the existing order lost its legitimacy. 

Second, neoliberalism was primarily a political strategy that took an economic form (something I argue in Taking Control!). Its function was to convince voters they are powerless to act collectively. Individual consumerism was encouraged while political fatalism was propagated, not citizenship; reinforced by a media that echoed the nostrums that government is the problem and the market is always right and acted as a gatekeeper shutting out alternative views.

For decades it was an amazing success. However, the credibility of ‘capitalist realism’ cratered when Washington bailed out the banks while nearly ten million lost their homes after 2008. This provoked a popular rage against ‘the elite’, expressed by the Tea Party on the right and the Occupy movement on the left. Both defied fatalism and generated the second challenge as the politics of marketisation lost its grip. 

Third, the system failed utterly to measure up to the prevention of climate change and thereby put the viability of human life on earth at risk, creating a third challenge both actual, symbolised today by the flames licking the Sequoia, and political as many raised their voices in calls for action. 

On their own, even this triple challenge would still not have threatened the hegemony of financial and corporate priorities, given the liquidation of Communism and the marginalisation of trade unions.

But the enormous advances in human life since the 1950s have been generating counter-forces to marketisation: feminism, racial equality, human rights, environmental thinking, scientific advances, and the transformation of health and fitness, together initiated a “humanisation of humanity”. An inchoate set of claims began to grow: that we should all be equally able to fulfil ourselves without destructive competition. 

The Humanisation of Humanity

These claims do not yet have effective political expression. But the ultra-wealthy are far more aware of the threat that modern humanisation represents to their interests than those of us feeling our way to a better politics. And so the right struck first.

It reached out to the desire for agency in way that was divisive so that it could rule all the better. By showing he could upturn ‘the elite’, Trump’s great achievement was to make voting count. He exploited the weakness of anaemic neoliberal democracy to terminate fatalism. For the far-right it was – and is – high risk but what they understood is that if they didn’t do it first then the left, under a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, could succeed in the creation of an inclusive democratic populism that would call out and terminate their corruption.

After four years of Trump, a titanic election took place. Enthused by the way he really ‘meant it’, the white-power, gun-toting far-right that had boycotted elections since the sixties rallied to the Ogre. He got 74 million votes, a staggering 4.5 million more than any previous presidential candidate.  Obama’s 69.5 million being the previous highest. However, Trump also so repulsed the majority of his fellow citizens that Joe Biden got an even more astounding 81 million votes. 

The American ProgressivesRo Khanna, Sanders Presidential Campaigner with a Broader Reach

Larry Cohen

The fact that, thanks to the ‘Electoral College’, the outcome turned on 42,000 votes in three states is a measure of how rigged the system is. It means that Democrats will lose with anything less than super-turnout by their supporters. And immediately the result was called, the Republicans – coordinated by right-wing foundations – set about rigging the system even more in the states where they control the legislatures. 

It was noteworthy that the Johnson government imported the US playbook to ram through compulsory ID so as to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Labour opposed but has not pledged to reverse this, apparently fearful of insisting upon democracy. It’s a good example of the gravitational influence of the US on the UK. 

So the question now is whether the Democrats can generate the popular support needed to rescue US democracy. Biden began to show what was possible as he joined forces with the Sanders movement to win in November 2020 and then, at the start of his presidency, delivered popular, progressive policies. His subsequent frustration matters less than his inability to express his anger, the lame way he has summoned the ghosts of a bi-partisan past, and a sense of hopelessness, reinforced by a Supreme Court that has turned itself into an arm of the legislature. 

In these grave circumstances, with a growing sense that the future is in jeopardy, and just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I went to Washington to talk with politicians and activists who I had been writing about from across the Atlantic.

Can the US Rescue Democracy?

I wanted to put my assessment to the test. Three leading progressive Democrats in the House agreed to be interviewed and it was an eye opener. You can see them for yourself in a short openDemocracy film ‘US Progressives on a knife edge’. Here, in Byline Times, their singular roles and contributions have been sketched by fellow progressives who have witnessed them at work. 

Jamie Raskin, Representative from Maryland was profiled last month by Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation. A law professor by training, Raskin led the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. If you want a concise, eight-minute description of Trump and Bannon’s strategy to flip the election on January 6th listen to him here

Ro Khanna, Representative from California, whose district includes Silicon Valley, is profiled by Larry Cohen, the chair of ‘Our Revolution’. One of the co-chairs of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 election campaign, Khanna proposes a far-sighted ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ and he is developing an articulate, strategic vision. 

Pramila Jayapal, Representative from Seattle in Washington State, is profiled by Robert Borosage. She chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, now just short of a hundred strong. An experienced organiser who seeks to reach out to the larger movement of activists, she is a new kind of politician. You can see how impressed I was with her combination of radicalism and practicality.    

British readers who keep abreast of current affairs are unlikely to have heard of Raskin, Khanna and Jayapal. Generationally, all are between high-profile Senators like Sanders and Warren, who are now in their seventies, and brilliant, media-savvy millennials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

The American ProgressivesPramila Jayapal, ‘Rising Star’ of the Democratic Caucus

Robert Borosage

Each in different ways is dedicated to broad, alliance building.

Raskin positions himself as being at “the moral centre” of US politics. He seeks to save actually existing US democracy from the right and at the same time expand it, to end its gerrymandering and exclusions. Khanna, drawing on Amartya Sen’s arguments about human capacity, calls for a progressive, responsible capitalism that enables everyone. Both Raskin and Khanna have written serious, accessible books that set out their view of America and its possible future. Jayapal, a superb organiser, has turned what was a social network of progressives in Congress into an influential base, a unique achievement in a jealous, power-obsessed city.

The dominant media narrative about progressives in the US and even more in the UK is that they frighten voters and damage the electoral prospects of the Democrats and Labour respectively. There are indeed left-wing egoists who shock to demonstrate their self-righteousness. Doubtless, some of the divisiveness they cause is funded by foundations and agencies. Here in Britain, the Starmer machine deploys such stereotypes to further its efforts to extract radical influence from Labour’s ranks, in a shallow, inappropriate imitation of Blairism, shorn of the energetic, alternative narrative that gave New Labour its initial success.

Many US journalists and centrist Democrats who operate “under the dome” of Congress want the Biden White House to similarly purge the influence of the left. But the underlying tide of humanisation in America ensures this will lead to political suicide while overwhelmingly US progressives are not head-bangers.  

On the contrary, each of the three US progressive leaders profiled in Byline Times demonstrates a deep commitment to constructing alliances, developing a politics that appeals as widely as possible, and building a stable, corruption-free democracy.

Furthermore, the core policies they support are massively popular, from child care to ending the influence of money on politicians.

A critical example is the ‘right to choose’ struck down by an openly right-wing Supreme Court but desired by every two women in three. ‘The Right to Choose’ is also a different kind of demand from welfare rights, because it entails empowerment. Perhaps this can help open the way to a democratic politics that also validates agency and builds a more powerful response to Trumpism.

In England too, some on the left are developing a high-energy strategy, as the recent Sheffield and Progressive Economics conferences demonstrate. But here a progressive citizens strategy is emerging outside the Labour Party and faces a long struggle to gain influence in parliament. Whereas in Washington DC progressives are engaged in the heart of the battle that could decide the future of the world. So read the profiles of Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Jamie Raskin, with this in mind.

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