The Left After Charlottesville


The Left can't allow itself to be consumed by debates about antifa. We need a proactive program and patient organizing.

The events in Charlottesville have remained in the headlines for the last few weeks for a variety of reasons. Surprise at the audacity of a torch-light procession of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan sympathizers, and “alt-rightists” in an American city, coupled with the murder of social justice activist Heather Heyer during a counterdemonstration, fueled the initial coverage. President Trump’s abhorrent response to the tragedy and local struggles against Confederate statues kept it alive. And frequently dimwitted debates about the merits of antifa have supplied yet more conversational oxygen.

But it would be a mistake for the American left to see this as a decisive turning point in history, or mistake torch-wielding fascists for a mass force. On the contrary: getting consumed by debates about supporting antifa in its street clashes with neo-Nazis misses the larger political landscape.

The post-Charlottesville moment does demand antiracist mobilizations, and it’s heartening that left organizations have sprung into action and seen their numbers swell. Standing up to the far right — particularly when done effectively and en masse, like in Boston — can energize people who are otherwise frustrated and disenchanted because of the Trump administration. But that needs to be linked to tangible political organizing that goes beyond the defensive or symbolic.

Discussions about antifa are also important. Interviews with counter-protestors on the ground in Charlottesville made it clear they were more than happy antifa was there to help. In fact, Cornel West credited them with saving his life.

But the debate over antifa cannot be at the center of left political discussion. I am less concerned about being murdered by a neo-Nazi than I am about the lack of access to quality health care. I am more exercised about the suppression of voting rights and the damage it does to democracy in the here and now than the damage simply represented by Confederate statues. This is not to dismiss the efforts to tear down Confederate statutes. What lies in the public commons, after all, needs to represent the kind of country we want the United States to be. But we shouldn’t allow the conflagration to cloud our vision.

In short, the lessons post-Charlottesville are the lessons we should have learned earlier this year. We cannot simply react to Trump or the “alt-right.” Being proactive, advancing a clear program that can mobilize and galvanize a huge swath of the public — this must be the hallmark of the American left. Otherwise, the genuine anger directed at Trump and the GOP will be wasted. And we’ll squander our chance to build the kind of broad-based left that, in the end, is the best bulwark against the far right.

The Politics We Need

Most of the planks of the left platform we need are already out there, waiting to be used to spur genuine debate and action across American society. Two in particular should top any left agenda.

The first is universal health care: Medicare for All. The Republicans’ haphazard bid to scrap the Affordable Care Act showed that even an extremely flawed version of “universal” coverage was still popular enough to scuttle repeal attempts. Now, according to recent polling, public support for single-payer is on the rise. Even centrist Democrats like Kamala Harris are getting on board. After decades of struggle, universal health care is, if not right around the corner, at least on the near horizon.

Crucially, the demand for Medicare for All also offers a means to build the bonds of solidarity. As Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk recently pointed out, Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights activists saw universal health care as a critical component of their struggle for a just and equitable society. The same is true today. Across movements — whether for black lives or a fifteen-dollar minimum wage or immigrant rights — universal health care is a demand that unifies.

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