The Left After Charlottesville

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.

There’s another reason to prioritize the push for universal health care. Far-right organizations like the Traditionalist Workers Party have begun making overtures to poor whites in places like Appalachia by talking about jobs and access to quality health care. We can’t allow a pitch for decent health care, or an argument for good jobs, to be used as a gateway to fascism.

Universal voting rights should be the second demand of any immediate left platform. Our political and economic system can’t be changed, radically and in the long-term, through voting. But countless people are being hurt by the system as it exists today, and substantially boosting voter turnout is a prerequisite for winning the reforms that will improve their lives in the short term.

Conservatives understand the importance of voting rights. In recent years, numerous GOP-controlled states have passed laws restricting the franchise, whether through ID requirements or shorter windows for voter registration. They know a smaller, demoralized voting base makes it harder to get left candidates into office.

In the past, the Populist era of the 1890s came to a crashing halt in part because of Jim Crow laws and new state constitutions across the South that severely limited voting rights for African Americans (and many poor whites as well). On the flip side, the rise of a strong voting base in the urbanized North, which included union members and African Americans, propelled the New Deal forward and gave social democracy in America some of its earliest and most important victories — despite opposition from both conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats.

More recently, results at the local level have testified to the enduring power of a mobilized electorate. Victories by Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi’s mayoral race and khalid kamau in South Fulton, Georgia’s city council election were made possible by left-wing political activism on the ground. That these victories occurred in the Deep South and with heavy political participation from African Americans also belies common perceptions about what the Left looks like and where it can compete.

Both Lumumba and kamau met people where they were at, while also sketching out an expansive vision. Which brings me to another important part of the Left’s post-Charlottesville toolbox: political education.

The debate over monuments and Confederate flags is a perfect opportunity to get Americans thinking not just about the world we live in, but the kind of world we could live in if the Left was given the opportunity to lead. Beyond considering what statues to tear down, we should discuss what statues should replace them. Why not more monuments, across the country, to the United States Colored Troops or Harriet Tubman? But we should not stop with statues and public history, as important as they are to shaping future debates about the country’s fate.

Political education should reach out to a wide range of Americans, both expanding their conception of what’s possible and learning how they see the world. Left education, after all, should be a two-way street. It can take a variety of forms — from setting up a booth at a community event or organizing a teach-in at a union hall to simply making sure socialist organizations are as open to the public as possible.

Examples of political education, as I describe it, already exist. In my adopted home state of South Carolina, the SC Progressive Network offers a yearly “Modjeska Simkins School” to budding activists. Named after one of the state’s greatest human rights advocates, the seminar teaches history as well as protest and activist tactics. It, and other education efforts like it across the nation, are the spiritual grandchildren of the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

Finally, mass protest against white supremacy will continue to be a crucial tactic going forward. The rally in Boston last month, where a handful of neo-Nazis were met with over thirty thousand counter-protesters, was an enormous victory for progressives and the Left. It demonstrated the power of solidarity, viscerally and publicly.

But such actions must also be tied to the sorts of political programs and tactics pitched above — using them as opportunities to not only bring together everyone opposed to white supremacy, but talking to people about the ways in which class warfare from above, gender and racial discrimination, and a revanchist politics hurts virtually everyone every day.

We can’t let facile narratives about “poor whites” drive the discourse on racism in American society. The white supremacists that marched in defense of the Robert E. Lee statue included many well-off, college-educated whites that would have no qualms throwing away the lives of poor white Americans. They would also destroy the lives and aspirations of African Americans, Jews, Latinos, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

By challenging these narratives and linking them to concrete demands for a better future, we can reach out to people who were galvanized by Charlottesville but might not know what can be done next.