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Despite its title, Rebecca Gilman’s latest play, Swing State, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and is now in previews in Greenwich Village, is not explicitly about politics. It’s about depression, grief, loneliness, traumatic loss, mortality and small-town, Rustbelt despair.

Yet even though the cast consists of just four characters and takes place almost entirely within a farmhouse kitchen, the drama is in its own way political with a small “p.” It’s not simply that the drama is set in MAGA country and its backdrop includes references to climate change, COVID, biodiversity loss, environmental decay, mass incarceration, opioid addiction and police violence. It’s about the psychology of those who have lost a sense of community and purpose, who are experiencing, in their own way, anomie, alienation and pent-up anger.

I’m afraid I agree with those reviewers who found the play a disappointment, “slow moving … with an unsatisfying climax.” One critic got it right, in my opinion, when she concluded that the drama “fails to capture the sky-high political stakes implied by the title or deliver a dramatically satisfying tale of a divided town.”

Creative writing in today’s highly polarized, intensely politicized environment is fraught with challenges. It’s all too easy to lapse into agitprop, descend into caricature or slip into virtue signaling or crude propagandizing. Yet whatever an artist’s, novelist’s or playwright’s intentions, their work is sure to be viewed through a political or ideological lens.

Today, the overwhelming majority of those who work in the creative arts consider themselves to be people on the left. Which brings me to the question I’d like to ponder here: What does it mean to be a leftist in 2023?

Today, the left takes many different forms. There’s the identitarian left, the materialist left, the anarchist left, the populist left, the environmental left, the antiwar left, the progressive left and the cultural left.

To be sure, all of those who occupy the left tend to deploy a common vocabulary with Marxist and postmodernist undertones and a hostility toward mainstream, centrist and reformist liberalism. These individuals also tend to:

  • Favor policies like universal health care, increased minimum wage, wealth taxes and more government intervention in the economy to reduce income inequality.
  • Support women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial and ethnic equality and Black Lives Matter; champion strong environmental regulations; and prioritize the fight against climate change.
  • Criticize military interventions, prefer diplomatic solutions and international cooperation and oppose anything that resembles colonialism or apartheid.
  • Advocate an end to the “war on drugs,” prison reform, defunding or reforming the police, and more rehabilitation-focused approaches to crime and restorative approaches to justice.
  • Favor more open immigration policies, protection of refugees and asylum seekers, and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  • Support stronger labor unions, protection of workers’ rights and fighting against corporate power.

The contemporary left also tends to share a cultural style, a rhetoric and a symbolic language that tends toward the confrontational, combative and radical, that critiques dominant societal norms, celebrates inclusivity and diverse identities, emphasizes solidarity with the oppressed, and deploys a discourse rooted in social justice, equity, rights, democracy and eco-consciousness.

There’s also a tendency to advocate for experimentation, innovation and change; advance critiques of education, law and media, revealing their assumptions, biases, stereotypes and power dynamics; and recognizing identities outside existing binaries. Then there’s a strong focus on identifying, confronting and challenging systemic racism and defending the rights of Indigenous peoples and challenging colonial legacies.

Yet deep divides also exist within the contemporary left, especially between those whose primary concerns are cultural rather than strictly economic or political. There are also divisions over the desirability of growth, attitudes toward technology and the relative value of centralization or decentralization and of top-down versus grassroots, local and bottom-up activism. Then, there’s the fraught relationship between the left and the Democratic Party. Policy differences abound, especially over the war in Ukraine.

I have been especially impressed by two incisive commentators on the American left: Musa al-Gharbi and Fredrik deBoer. I will comment on al-Gharbi’s ideas in a later post, after Princeton releases his new book, We Have Never Been Woke. Here, I’d like to offer some reflections on the writings of deBoer, an essayist, prolific blogger, labor and tenant organizer, and self-described Marxist of the old school, who has written extensively on education, politics, culture and mental health.

DeBoer is best known for his pointed critiques of cancel culture, leftist political strategies and the educational system’s role in reproducing and reinforcing existing class and status hierarchies. He has also written with great sensitivity about his own mental health struggles and the inadequacies of institutional responses to mental illness.

In his first book, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, deBoer argues that this society’s obsession with academic achievement as a primary measure of worth is both flawed and harmful. Instead, he suggests a system that values all individuals, regardless of their academic prowess, and provides them with dignified lives and opportunities.

Although deBoer recognizes the importance of addressing issues related to race, gender and sexuality, he is highly critical of certain manifestations of identity politics. Specifically, he’s concerned that a hyperfocus on identity can sometimes overshadow or dilute broader class-based struggles and can lead to divisiveness within leftist movements. A staunch supporter of free speech, he argues for a more forgiving culture that allows for mistakes, growth and open debate.

In his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, he argues that social justice politics is overly performative and insufficiently political. He finds it telling that Black Lives Matter and Me Too, among the largest mass movements in U.S. history, failed to achieve any meaningful change involving gun control or policing practices or laws regarding sexual harassment and assault.

He blames this failure, in part, on “elite capture”—the title of a 2022 book by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, which refers to the way that highly educated elites (what John and Barbara Ehrenreich call the professional-managerial class) dictate discourse and “use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others.” Too many contemporary activist movements are, in his view, movements “of the elite, by the elite and for the elite”—those he derides as “disaffected liberal art grads” and pious social climbers who are erecting a hierarchy of virtue.

DeBoer also attributes the progressive left’s weaknesses to its failure to appeal to outsiders; tendency to divide potentially progressive constituencies into smaller and smaller subgroups; embrace of abstract academic language, jargon and nominalizations; and downplay the importance of class disparities. As he explained in The New Statesman: “Identity politics is bad politics because, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, ‘winning majorities is not the same as adding up minorities.’”

“Épater la bourgeoisie”—scandalize the respectable middle class—may offer an appealing stance, he argues, but it confuses matters of style for substance and spectacle for practical results. Among the graphic examples that deBoer cites: a 2017 essay entitled “White Gay Men Are Hindering Our Progress as a Queer Community.” A 2011 New York Times article on Occupy Wall Street: “Protesters Debate What Demands, if Any, to Make.” A 2020 piece in The Nation entitled “In Defense of Destroying Property.”

DeBoer’s book makes many arguments that progressive activists should take to heart.

  • The left needs to adopt a class-focused but not class-reductionist politics, recognizing the uniquely pernicious injustices involving racism, sexism, homophobia and other intersectional biases, while remaining true to its roots as a movement of the working class and others at the bottom of the socioeconomic distributions, and focus, first and foremost, on issues of economic inequality and insecurity.
  • Without leadership, left-wing movements are directionless, unfocused and unaccountable, and without specific, carefully considered goals, tactics and strategic ends, actions are likely to be inconsequential.
  • When government subcontracts essential public responsibilities to nonprofit organizations, a loss of transparency and accountability results and the public sector loses the opportunity to build internal capacity.
  • Leftists should never oppose the liberal emphasis on free speech or a legalistic emphasis on evidence and equal treatment, due process, fairness, impartiality, rules and consistency in outcomes.
  • The left should acknowledge Richard V. Reeve’s central argument: that this nation’s inequality problem is not the product solely of the top 1 percent but encompasses the top 20 percent.
  • An obsession with language and symbolism should not trump people’s material needs and awareness of intersectional differences should not outweigh the importance of “solidarity, the most basic means and ends of left politics.”

I have no doubt that deBoer’s book will provoke many denunciations. For example, he argues that contemporary progressives have played an important role in atomizing society along lines of race, gender, religion and education. He speaks out forcefully (and in my view persuasively) against those who denounce pointless, meaningless, soul-crushing, dead-end BS jobs and instead emphasizes the dignity and human significance of labor. In his words,

“Valorizing work, dignifying it, investing it with value, insisting that the man at the bottom who sweats in the heat of a foundry is nobler than the man in a suit that sits on top of the heap and counts the money—this has been the lifeblood of left movements for centuries.”

Given his staunch opposition to the censorious politics of virtue and his rejection of cant, it’s not surprising that deBoer’s “anti-tribal style has earned him admiration from political thinkers of all quadrants,” including among some conservative columnists.

I’m old enough to have lived through several moments when the left’s utopian dreams fizzled: when 1960s peace and love flights of fancy evaporated, when Eastern European Communism imploded and neoliberal ideas triumphed, when Occupy Wall Street seemed to disappear, and, more recently, when the pandemic-fueled reckoning with systemic inequality and structural racism faded.

It’s easy, in their wake, to dismiss the earlier radical visions as pipe dreams, as little more than castles in the sky—or worse, as potentially oppressive, tyrannical and totalitarian.

Yet I’ve also learned that utopian and communitarian ideals never completely disappear, that, phoenix-like, these visions inevitably emerge anew and that it’s these ideas that drive activism, innovation and experimentation.

In a stirring 1960 essay in The American Scholar, Kenneth Keniston, later a prominent Yale and MIT social psychologist, wrote that human beings “will happily tolerate great discomfort, discontent and frustration if—and only if—they are working for some toward some end, which they consider wise, true, exciting and meaningful.” In other words, people need a utopian vision, or what Keniston called a positive myth: tangible, actionable possibilities that they might set out collectively to realize.

Keniston, who had just turned 30, wrote those words just before the first sit-ins, freedom rides, the Port Huron Statement and The Feminine Mystique. He worried in 1960 that utopian visions of hope had given way to “vistas of despair,” like 1984, Brave New World and Walden II. These dystopias were warnings, not beacons, cautionary tales unequivocally associated with words like “crackpot,” “hare-brained,” “naïve” and “unrealistic.”

Then, suddenly, a positive myth—that through “participatory democracy” it was indeed possible to create a more just, equitable society—inspired thousands of women and men of all races, ethnicities and religions, “who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

In a 1983 essay published in The New Republic on the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the arch defender of the “vital center” of establishment liberalism, wrote words that deserve to be recalled:

“Our politics … flows in cycles. We have tides of action, passion, idealism and reform that continue until the country is worn out. Then the tide goes out and we enter into seasons of drift, quiescence, hedonism and cynicism, until our problems accumulate, our batteries recharge and we are ready for a new surge ahead.”

In this country, it has been visionaries, advocates, demonstrators and militants on the left who have driven those tides of activism.

As Schlesinger sagely observed, “periods of irresponsibility do not last forever.” Today, at a moment when the political left has entered into the establishment and exercises a surprising degree of influence over environmental, energy, educational, criminal justice and immigration policy within the Biden White House, we ought to remember a series of lessons from the history of the American left.

Here are several:

  1. That contrary to what many think, the history of the American left is not a history of failure. Rather, it has had many successes, even if it has also experienced many setbacks that have left its aspirations unfulfilled.
  2. That factionalism and schism over abstract doctrines and terminology have historically been the American left’s Achilles’ heel.
  3. That in a democratic society like the United States, transformational change is less a product of a radical vanguard than of coalition building and forging a cultural consensus.
  4. That without accountable leadership, the left inevitably squanders its resources and energies.
  5. That opportunities for far-reaching change are inevitably short-lived; revolutionary time is always perishable.

The history of the American left can serve as both inspiration and guidance. A new generation of leftists can draw strength from that history and should certainly pay tribute to those who sacrificed for their causes. But it is also essential to learn from earlier mistakes and not repeat them. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, if the left lets opportunity slip through its fingers, history will not forgive them.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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