If there is a silver lining in Donald Trump’s sadistic presidency, we saw it on vivid display on June 26. The victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ben Jealous against establishment candidates confirm what many have been saying since last year, that Trump is one of the greatest recruiting tools the left has ever had. He is, as it were, a personification and distillation of all the evils of neoliberal capitalism, all the decadence, the corruption, the awe-inspiring greed and misanthropy, the savage disregard for humanity and all things living in the cause of a debased and orgiastic self-glorification whose telos is the self-immolation of civilization itself. Combined with the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the barbarity of the Trump administration is inspiring a new generation of leftists.
Let’s just take a moment to revel in and reflect on the victories of June 26. In themselves they might not seem like much, at least in light of the enormity of the crises we’re facing, but it’s clear, at any rate, that Nancy Pelosi is wrong: it isn’t just one or a few districts we’re talking about, it’s a nationwide groundswell of activism against the kind of politics she symbolizes; namely, obedient service to the corporate sector. She and her elderly colleagues at the summit of the centrist power-hierarchy are on their way out, both politically and even existentially.
The ‘age’ factor is of interest and importance. On one side there are the old representatives of business, corrupted from decades at the center of power: Pelosi, 78; Steny Hoyer, 79; Jim Clyburn, 77; Maxine Waters, 79; Diane Feinstein, 85; Chuck Schumer, an impressively young 67; Patrick Leahy, 78; Dick Durbin, 73; Bill Nelson, 75; Richard Blumenthal, 72. You get the point. The 115th Congress is among the oldest in history, with an average age in the House of 58 years and an average age in the Senate of 62. (The Republican House leadership is over two decades younger than the Democratic House leadership. Fascism is a youthful, virile creed.) Given the senescence of the Democrats, the stillborn quality of their leadership is hardly a surprise.
On the other side, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, is relative youth. Ocasio-Cortez is 28; Jealous is 45; Kshama Sawant in Seattle is 44; Keith Ellison is 54; Dana Balter, who defeated the DCCC-supported Juanita Perez Williams in a race in New York, is 42; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left-wing mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, is 35; and in general, a tidal wave of millennials is poised to engulf local and state politics. National organizations have sprung up to help young progressives run and win, and groups like Indivisible and the Democratic Socialists of America are proving effective in their advocacy of candidates. Young women are running in record numbers.
However fatuous it sounds, I can’t help remarking that leaders of past revolutions have tended to be quite young. Robespierre, Danton, Mirabeau, Desmoulins, Saint-Just, Brissot, and their colleagues were between their twenties and (in one case) early forties; so were Jefferson, Madison, the two Adamses, Hancock, Hamilton, and most of the other “Founding Fathers” during the American Revolution. Trotsky and most Bolsheviks were not yet 40 in 1917. Such has always been the pattern, from Thomas Müntzer in the German Peasants’ War to Castro and Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution. America, of course, is nowhere near a revolution—in fact, some such seizure of power is likely hopeless in conditions of advanced capitalism—but with the mass entrance onto the political stage of a younger generation not jaded from a lifetime of disappointment or brainwashed from old propaganda about socialism or the virtues of centrism, U.S. politics may be at the beginning of a long march to the left. Or at least away from the center, to both the semi-fascist right and, on a broader scale among the sane majority, the left.
The Democratic Party’s leadership for the last generation has served its heinous historic function of overseeing, in partnership with Republicans, the shredding of the postwar social contract, the decimation of organized labor, the global triumph of the capitalist mode of production, and the inauguration of a new Gilded Age. That was the service rendered by the likes of the Clintons, Obama, Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, Harry Reid, Tom Daschle, the whole rotten lot of them. It was an almost wholly negative service, except in that—as Marx might see it—the class struggle has been brought to a screaming pitch of intensity and the door to radical change has once again been opened. At the nadir of the neoliberal era, with a buffoonish man-child capitalist-poster-boy at the helm of the ship of state, popular movements are beginning—one hopes—to point the way to a new political economy. Leaders can, it seems, be elected even without funding from the corporate sector, which makes them beholden only to their popular constituency. The worse things get under Trump and afterwards, the more people will be radicalized, and the better things may get in the long run.
Again, it’s worth pausing at this moment of the changing of the guard—a moment that will, of course, last years, as we wait for the old guard to die off or lose elections—to consider just how abject the leadership of the Democratic Party is. Insofar as it was ever even nominally committed to helping the poor, the working class, and minorities, it has failed abysmally. It gave us Bush and it gave us Trump, and it gave us the Bush-lite and the Trump-lite administrations of Bill Clinton and Obama. Obama wanted to be a transformative figure, and in a sense he succeeded: he transformed millions of hopeful idealists into disillusioned cynics.
But in substance the Democrats were never committed to anything like genuine populism, so their “failures” are in reality a reflection of their priorities. By their fruits ye shall know them. (It’s also true, though, that there is a remarkable amount of incompetence at the top of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for instance, was stunningly incompetent.)
Whether the Party can, even on local or state levels, be transformed from an agent of reaction to one of democracy remains to be seen. The strategy of “boring from within” has, historically, yielded disappointment after disappointment, from the Populists of the 1890s to countless attempts by organized labor to push the Party left. On the other hand, one cannot simply extrapolate the future from the past. History is not a science; with changed circumstances can come changed outcomes. In all likelihood, left-wing leaders will emerge in the context both of third parties and of the Democratic Party, which in the long run will itself become more leftist—while at the same time full of internal conflict (much as the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn has been—and the Republican Party, for that matter).
But for now, I think we’re entitled to some savoring of Joe Crowley’s defeat and some cautious optimism about the future. God knows we could use a bit of hope, after decades of defeat.