Learning To Scream Again: Promoting Leftism for Artists and Writers

Well this is awful.

So what are we going to do about it? We, the people unwillingly called ‘creatives’? What’s an artist or designer to do? What’s a writer to do? What’s typographer to do? Do we just sit here feeling bleak and gutted or do we do something?

How do we confront a fascist rightward tide that is so utterly and immensely grotesque?

First, it wasn’t a tide. Half the country didn’t vote and the popular vote was lost to the tune of 3 million plus. There’s no mandate. This whole nightmare is a horrible fluke. It’s hitting triple 7s on your first quarter while being told the great Aunt you never knew left you a solid gold Cadillac. It’s getting abducted by aliens while being hit by lighting. It’s the culmination of a lot of ugly trends in American society all winning the lottery at the same time to completely poison the well but-You can make an antidote to poison.

Why was turnout so low? Why had previously blue populations flipped? Why was there so much apathy and disinterest?

Some reasons:

  1. The national Democratic Party has moved so far to the right in an attempt to curry favor that it abandoned all of its traditional bases and relied on holding them hostage by exploiting fears of Republican government. This backfired.

2. The GOP had prioritized voter suppression at every level, using every single dirty trick to make voting harder. They know the numbers are against them, so they’re trying to rig the game.

3. The modern National Democratic Party has no compelling narrative but the status quo, which most people who are not millionaires find, at best, uninspiring. The base is no longer satisfied with scraps and stayed home.

Modern Far-Right and Fascist movements were driven by the Right’s collapse into feverish extremism in order to stay relevant to their racist base without losing their big business donors. At the same time, the Left lost ground to market-worshiping neoliberal corporatism hogging all the gains while shallowly appearing to support Leftist social causes in every way except where it mattered.

Both the GOP and the DNC ended up in a race to sell out their bases to people who would gladly privatize breathing air if they could get away with it. This was felt harder on the left as Republicans could always throw racist and Christian-supremacy to their base. The Democrats begrudgingly gave in to some civil rights victories and good photo ops.

Part of the reason the Left lost the ability to argue for itself is because it fell out of practice. Who in their right mind would argue against an 8 hour workday or child labor bans? Who would consider a return to Gilded-Age era Robber Barons without insurance or unemployment or regulation to keep bleach out of milk? Who would let roads and schools rot away just to make a buck replacing them?

Now we know.

We on the Left, the ones who want to keep gains like “no fingers in hamburger meat” and “no owning people like property” alive, have to learn how to fight again. We have to make our vision, our plan for the future, more desirable than anything the Trumps and Betsy DeVoses and Steve Bannons of the world can dream of. We need better narratives.

As artists, we can no more claim to be above politics then claim we are avoiding air. Politics is killing us. It’s the fish denying the existence of water.

How to get people on our side with an idea of a compassionate social order? How do we get people riled up for justice and equality? How do we, as artists and designers and writers, go about spreading our message? I don’t think it’s as hard as it seems, the last election proves it. People are starved for a new deal.

Here it is: You deserve better. We could all have a better life by supporting real, concrete things. The fight for a national 15$ minimum wage. Increasing how many salaried workers get overtime pay. Universal Medicaid. Debt Amnesty. Expanded Food stamps as an agricultural subsidy. Outlawing crazy scheduling that leaves people on call all the time. Stricter regulations on payday loan predators. Abolishing For-Profit schools. Pre-K child care for all. Funding for infrastructure to create jobs in construction and maintenance. Funding for new jobs to create a post-carbon infrastructure. Politics, and political messaging, must be connected to day-to-day life. It should draw together everyone screwed over by the system. Which is, by sheer coincidence, most of us. We’re all in this together, those of not making a million a year. The strongest thing we can do is refuse to eat each other.

Concrete, practical ideas should be the core planks of leftist messaging and of its art in general. “Here is what will make your life better.” We need to borrow the language of the outraged and the personal injury lawyer: THESE PEOPLE ARE STEALING FROM YOU. “We’re helping you fight back.” Less abstract talk of revolution and more BETTER BANG FOR YOUR BUCK. Who doesn’t want more money, more safety, more security and nicer things? Preach a gospel of abundance coming out of your ears, available to everyone. Shouldn’t the richest nation on Earth look like it? Shouldn’t we have a thousand millionaires rather than one billionaire?

Art can translate one mode of experience to another. An abstract policy proposal becomes concrete as an image or a story. The intellectual becomes emotional. A narrative can be told, simply and cleanly. Art can show that we have way more in common with each other than with billionaires.

By these ideas and by Leftism in general I mean a broad big-tent democratic socialist bent. We split ourselves finely but we basically agree 90%. People should be protected from the ravages of the market. Social safety nets are good things. Public institutions can be held accountable in ways private ones can’t. The rich need to pay their taxes and the government should absolutely not be run like a business

Visually, it must look new. The eye easily slides off the old leftist cliches. It’s not 1932 or 1969 anymore, although clean fonts do send a good message. It should be for drama and theatrics and against puritanism. It should look good on the evening news. Hit them in the heart. Make it personal. Go for broke. Lives are at stake here. Signs with crisp typography that can seen from far away. Neon and pussy hats and the lashes and the hair are highly recommended. Learn from BLM and block as much traffic as you can.

I want this as subtle as Snowpiercer. Complexity hasn’t worked. Abolish nuance. Our enemies are not sympathetic. Other art can do other things. I want a leftist art that hits like a brickbat against the evil in the world. I want the greatest marketing minds using real anger to push real concrete policy.. I don’t see why we shouldn’t use the techniques of the greatest advertising culture the world has ever seen. I want signs with crisp designs and bright colors calling for a General strike. I want tech engineers and salaried employees screaming for unions and time and a half.

I don’t think it’s important or even desirable if it’s aesthetically consistent so long as it’s tonally consistent and on message. And that message is of hope, of optimism, and a brighter future within reach. A future that can be achieved without fear, without hate, and without austerity.

I don’t know what a new Leftist art looks like, but I want it to be aspirational. I want it to be better than what we have. I want blue sky. I want big dreams. There’s no reason to compromise anymore. There’s no reason to say that’s Impossible.

I’m against negativity on the whole. I’ve always believed focusing on what we as Leftists could do is better than trashing the current situation. Carrots beat sticks, but don’t let me stop me you if you really want to. But keep the focus on the people in power. By the numbers, most people are potential allies. Being mean to them won’t help, now matter how good dunking on them feels.

Encourage, don’t belittle, and try to keep the whole thing fun. After all, this is a revolution you can dance to.

But above all, we must return to the most basic didactic point: Life is better under leftist government. People are healthier, more secure, and more connected to their community and government. Leftism is good government. Leftism means better things for everyone. Even a flawed, compromised version is preferable to this ravenous nightmare that wants to put all against all, where the winners get to inherit the ashes. No political system relying on misery is a just one. It’s insane to think it, but we have to argue for the basic concept of the State against amoral nihilists who’d be happy if everyone who made less than 60k a year dropped dead. We have morality on our side. We have history on our side.

Tell people plainly and directly. The current system is killing us. A better world is possible. We all deserve better. We know because we’ve fought for it before and won. We know because our narrative is better than their narrative.

It’s time to say that out loud.

Let’s let them have it.

It’s time to start screaming again.

Writer and cartoonist for The Toast, The Awl, and The New Yorker. That guy you met at that party once. More at leavittalone.com

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