Alan Minsky’s Speech to The Party of the European Left
April 3, 2019 Brussels, Belgium
By, Alan Minsky, Executive Director | Progressive Democrats of America
Hello, I’m Alan Minsky, the Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America, also known as PDA.
Contrary to what our name might imply, PDA is not actually a part of the Democratic Party. We are allowed to use the name, so long as we only endorse candidates that are in the Democratic Party or caucus with the Party – and that’s what PDA does because it accepts the reality (for good or bad) that America operates with a two-party system. We realize that not to engage the Democratic Party (the Republican Party being absolutely inaccessible for left progressives) is to completely remove yourself from having any influence over public policy.
So, since PDA’s inception in 2004, we’ve had a strong relationship with the left wing of the party (which was pretty small back then, but is currently growing dramatically). Indeed, the concept that animates PDA is that of an inside-outside strategy, providing a conduit for left-progressive, or radical, social movements into the Democratic Party; where we, in turn, promote left progressive policies and legislation.
As such, PDA’s primary work is advocating for the best (i.e. most left progressive) legislation on every issue on the table in American politics. That is the primary focus for PDA most of the time – and we do so as an organization with active chapters throughout the country. And while pushing for progressive policy is our main focus, we are also in the game of holding elected Democrats accountable (or trying to do so) when they do not support progressive policies; and then, come election time, we only support candidates that are true left progressives – whether incumbents or challengers.
Now, having said that PDA’s primary focus is on policy, I’m going to turn to the most significant intervention that PDA made in recent American politics; which is that we were the sole national organization that worked to draft Bernie Sanders to run for president in 2016, launching our Run Bernie Run campaign in 2013, well before anyone else got on board. At the time, all the other progressive organizations were trying to draft Elizabeth Warren to challenge Hilary Clinton. PDA alone focused on Sanders; and over the next two years drew in a (still small) coalition of organizations into the Run Bernie Run campaign until Bernie acquiesced and announced his candidacy in the spring of 2015.
Now, there were two significant components to PDA’s ‘Run Bernie Run’ campaign from 2013 to 2015. One was simply to get Bernie Sanders to run. He was considering staying on the sidelines because he feared his candidacy would not do well, and would thus damage the causes, like Medicare for All, Living Wages, etc. that he intended to make the centerpiece of his campaign. The second, and perhaps more important component of PDA’s Run Bernie Run campaign, was our insistence that Bernie run inside the Democratic Party. There were people who were calling upon Bernie to run as an independent, since after all Bernie is an Independent Senator and has not been in Congress as a member of the Democratic Party (even though he caucuses with them). Furthermore, many, including Ralph Nader, who famously ran a high-profile campaign as a Green Party candidate in 2000, were arguing that Bernie should run as an Independent or a Green, because they felt that if Bernie ran as a Democrat, he would be quickly defeated by Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his candidacy would be over by February. Whereas if he ran as an independent, while he would have almost no chance of winning the Presidency, he could highlight his progressive policies all through the summer and into the fall of the election year. Fortunately, PDA and the Run Bernie Run campaign proved persuasive, and Bernie chose to run as a Democrat.
Bernie’s 2016 campaign far exceeded all expectations, effectively bringing left progressive politics from the margins into the mainstream of American political discourse; and, in the process, began the transformation of the Democratic Party into an institution now facing an internal battle between the neo-liberal centrists and the social-democratic, even democratic socialist left.
This is a big change.
We now are faced with a politics in the United States in which, in my opinion, there are three competing political tendencies operating inside a two-party electoral system. I’m not going to offer my interpretation as to why America’s first-past-the-post electoral system has always, throughout American history, collapsed into a two-party competition. But that has been the case, and remains so today.
Only now, in the wake of the 2016 Sanders campaign, and the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib to Congress in 2018, both members of the Democratic Socialists of America and members of the Democratic Party; the contemporary Democratic Party has become a prime space of contestation for the broader American Left, something that has not been the case since, at least, the time of Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the mid-80s – and for reasons I will get to momentarily, the situation is much more promising now than it was back then.
But first, I do want to be clear about the significance of the American two-party system for this meeting between us, as an American left contingent; and you as representatives of the European left. Until something dramatic and unprecedented transpires, it is basically futile to anticipate the rise of a powerful third party formation in the United States. And so, for all intents and purposes, the alliance that our visit here represents is between the European Parliamentary Left parties, and, on the one hand, our organizations’ relations with American social movements; and, in the realm of electoral politics and state policy, with our organizations’ relationships with the newly-energized left faction of the Democratic Party – but the Democratic Party nonetheless.
About the Democratic Party in 2019: there’s very simple good news and bad news. The good news: the rank and file membership or the contemporary Democratic Party is, when it comes to policy, aligned with the left progressive faction. The bad news, given the power of money in American politics and the entrenched position of neo-liberal party stalwarts, the large majority of elected Democrats across the country are aligned with the centrist neoliberal faction – and the same is true of official party functionaries.
Now, as I mentioned before, PDA is proud of its role in the newly ascendant American Left, but enough of boasting – the primary player is, of course, history.
American politics just four years ago – and for the previous three and a half decades – was overwhelmingly dominated in both parties by the “centrist” neo-liberal political tendency; however, following the market crash of 2007-8, the Occupy Movement, and then the Bernie Sanders Campaign, and Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, we now have three broad political tendencies: the Trumpian ethno-nationalist, authoritarian far right; the neoliberal status quo, which runs from the “moderate” Romney wing of the Republicans through the Clinton-Obama wing of the Democrats; and the third formation is the social-democratic, democratic socialist tendency personified by Bernie Sanders and AOC.
We’ve arrived at this point because following the market crash, the endemic inability of the post-Cold War neo-liberal Washington Consensus to generate widespread prosperity has been exposed. Increasingly, a significant majority of the American public, represented both by the left and unfortunately by the Trumpian right as well, are aware and openly acknowledge that the current social-economic order is failing them and that it only serves the interests of a tiny elite. Of course, sadly, the working class is fragmented, with a large segment of the white working class supporting Trump and the Republicans.
While one can debate the degree to which white supremacy and ethno-nationalism is the prime driving force of this political tendency, there is no doubt that it is central to it. After all, the regional base of the contemporary Republican Party has for many decades now been the Southeast; in which it is an open secret, understood by everyone, that whites are voting to support the Confederacy and/or Jim Crow. And an analogue of this ideology has spread into the de-industrialized Midwest where it has an anti-immigrant, anti-global trade component. Whatever variation, it is with these misguided politics that the American far right finds affinity with the European far right.
Still, per their relation to the neo-liberal order: what is true for almost all “middle class,” working class, and poor Americans, who of course make up the vast majority of the population, is their acute awareness of living in a society in decline. Also, there can be no doubt that the Trumpian project will fail at reversing this reality. While Trump the candidate made feints about challenging some of the pillars of the neo-liberal order, his presidency has, not surprisingly, accelerated inequality and neo-liberal entrenchment on the plane of policy – a presidency distinguished almost exclusively by his abrasive rhetoric and authoritarian tendencies.
This means there is an even greater opening for the Left, as the only one of the three political tendencies that will sincerely attempt to rectify the social, economic, and environmental crises endemic to American society.
Equally obvious, however, is that the neoliberal “center” will fight, with all of its power, against the social democratic and/or democratic socialist transformations required to actually improve the lives of Americans. Having designed all levels of public policy for the past four decades, this faction has stacked the deck in its favor – though, it is unclear if they have any strategy for winning elections other than fear-mongering, per Trump – and, even worse, no plans to alter policy in order to address the ills that plague the country and the planet,
Bernie Sanders is indeed a tremendously skilled politician and analyst of the current American condition; even proving capable at gaining support amongst heretofore bete noir sectors of the white working class, whose votes he recognizes he may need in order to defeat the ideology of what he calls the “billionaire class.” Of course, Bernie makes this appeal while also calling out the history of white supremacy, hoping to break this ancient wedge that has divided the American working class.
Indeed, if the Sanders/AOC political tendency were to maintain its ascendancy, and even win control of the federal government, and build a prosperous, just & equitable America, one that will soon be majority people of color, the most diverse society the world has ever seen – that United States would certain represent a powerful rebuke to the hideous ethno-nationalist ideology that is in ascendency across Europe & much of the globe.
So, yes, there is great reason to be hopeful, given the arrival on the stage of history of a newly revitalized American left, there is even a flowery utopian vision to hold on to in the United States; but I would be a fool to end on that note.
Every step of the way down that path, will be a struggle; and most particularly around the question of how a social democratic or democratic socialist government in the United States, or in the UK per Jeremy Corbyn, or anywhere on the European Continent could deliver the prosperous society that the working class aspires to see, given the stranglehold on economic resources plus the de-regulatory, austerian and privitizing logic sewn into society’s fabric over the past 40 years – and the strident resistance of capital to any alteration of the current order. (plus, I should mention, in relation to the flowery vision offered a moment ago, the legacy of 400+ years of racism, which persists throughout American society in the form of deeply entrenched institutional racism).
Indeed, I mentioned at the top that PDA’s primary work is advocating for left progressive policies and legislation. So I can tell you that at the Federal level, as well the state and local level – even though Bernie Sanders and AOC are now national icons – other than a few local wage ordinances and a smidgen here and there, Nothing Has Changed.
The regime of deregulation, privatization, austerity, the systemic weakening of labor, and massive wealth concentration continues as ever before – fully entrenched in the operation of American society and, across the world, per the neo-liberal “Washington consensus” …and carbon emissions are still going up.
Exactly what political policy template can achieve a more prosperous, equitable, and green society, transformed out of the neo-liberal present is an unknown. Broadly speaking, both the Sanders and Corbyn templates call for a muscular reintroduction of left Keynesian and social democratic policies. Not overt socialism, per say, but still a frontal challenge to the contemporary order. In other words, a challenge to the way that capitalists understand, and thus insist, that things must be to achieve profitability or, more importantly, to the continued growth of their wealth, power, and investment portfolios.
So, yes the re-introduction of progressive Keynesian, social democratic measures are a challenge to the status quo. In hindsight, we can say those strategies operated well in the post WWII context; but it is unknown whether they would produce anything like those positive results coming out of our current situation – with its distinctive crisis of contemporary capitalism, plus the climate emergency, plus the still-maintained dominance and entrenchment of neo-liberalism, combined with an emerging far right that on balance protects and maintains the neo-liberal economic order – all of which defines the global political and economic landscape two decades into the 21st century.
Having said that, I know of no better template than a Sanders/Corbyn-like agenda as to how to proceed in the present – and even if I could conceive of one, this agenda is the ascendant left progressive project at hand – so it is PDA’s task to gain as much support for this project as possible as we dive in and challenge the logic of neoliberalism.
As such, to finish where I began, let me be clear – PDA is backing Bernie again in 2020. His is a transformational mission – fully distinct from his rivals – to build a movement of fully engaged, well-informed citizens, aware of the task at hand, the barriers they face, and the goal of a significantly altered, and vastly improved social, environmental, and economic order.
It is my sincere hope that as the Left continues to gain momentum in the US, we will be joined by an equally-strengthening left emerging across the world, which in the European Union will authored by you, our European comrades.