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  • The Left We Have and the Left We Need
  • Barbara Epstein (bio)

In this short piece I will explore the reasons why the American left failed to foresee and act to avert the rise of the right-wing movement that put Donald Trump in power. I will also make some comments on the related question of why enough people voted for Trump to put him in the White House, though this is an open question and will no doubt remain so for years. Much of the press's analysis has focused on economic deprivation, leaving out the cultural issues and the feelings that I suspect were involved for many of those who supported Trump and that the left needs to take into account. I will discuss the question of how the left could help to build a movement of resistance to Trump and also make some headway in undermining his support, and I will make some comments on the left and the rise of antisemitism.

To put my argument about how the left missed the rise of a right-wing response to neoliberalism starkly, since the end of the movement against the Vietnam War the American left has revolved around a series of movements concerned with identity politics. This is not to question the importance of the civil rights movement and the movements for the rights of groups of color that have followed it, or the women's movement, or the LGBTQ rights movement, or other movements for the rights of vulnerable and disregarded groups. And this is not to argue that these issues should be subsumed by some broader organization of the left. Without particular movements and organizations addressing the concerns of particular racial and other groups, these concerns would likely fade into the background. [End Page 174]

However, there are several problems posed by an overall movement of the left that consists very largely of movements and organizations of particular identity groups. The first is that white men are left out. This sends the message that, to the extent that there is a larger progressive project, white men are not part of it. Every other group is engaged in a project of self-liberation; white men are the problem, the obstacle. Many white men who identify with the left understand the reasons for this and do not take it personally. But on a larger scale it is a problem: it sends the message that leftist or progressive politics is not for white men. It writes off a significant sector of the population. And it is a conception of leftist politics that bases itself on race, gender, and sexuality—but that excludes class.

The second problem posed by a left that revolves around identity-based groups is that it does not provide the basis for a common project beyond a commitment to multiculturalism and opposition to discrimination. A movement of the left requires a critique of capitalism, or at least of the present highly inegalitarian and mean-spirited form of capitalism, a conception of a better, more egalitarian society, and a strategy for moving in that direction, or at least a framework for discussion of such a strategy. A series of identity-based movements and organizations, even if each of them subscribes to a progressive outlook and endorses the efforts of other identity movements, does not provide this.

The third problem posed by a left that consists overwhelmingly of identity-based groups and movements is that it does not provide the basis for challenging neoliberalism. The term neoliberalism is confusing because liberalism, in the context of American politics, evokes the New Deal with its social and welfare programs. But the classical economists of the eighteenth century used the term to mean a relative absence of regulations on economic activity, the operation of the market as far as possible without intervention by the government. In the United States, prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s, the federal government played very little role in the economy beyond encouraging industries such as the railroads, and it played virtually no role in the welfare of ordinary people; unions were discouraged by means of severe legal restrictions. During the Depression, popular struggles, many...


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pp. 174-181
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