The Carrot and the Stick

It may be too early to tell for sure, but signs point to the Democratic Party moving in a more populist direction for 2018. If so, this would be a very good decision. Of course, any such movement will be in fits and starts, an endless process of triangulation that takes two steps backward for every three steps in the right direction. The party is infested with blinkered neoliberals that cling to their discredited ideology with the fervor of a drowning man. Some will need to be primaried, others will be defeated by actual Republicans when the voters tire of their pretension. Still others will retire. Slowly but surely, we will take over the party, but the country cannot wait that long for left policy. It is left to us to work with imperfect tools, to push the national conversation as far to the left as we can.

The Left has been shut out of power for such a long time in this country that they have adopted a default position of external critic. When nothing you say can spur the ostensibly left-wing party to actually adopt any left-wing positions, all that remains to you is to criticize them. And so we have done, relentlessly, sometimes in desperate pleas and sometimes with mockery. None of it has worked. They thought they didn’t need us, and they were able to keep up that lie until the whole thing came crashing down around their ears.

Now, we find ourselves in disequilibrium. The old rules have been thrown out. The current moment is fragile, liable to collapse one way or the other, but it represents the first opportunity in generation to inject old-school leftism into the political conversation. We actually have a chance to influence the calcified old ghouls of the Democratic party and to start a leftward push that will only pick up steam as the new generation takes it place.

This opportunity has led to incredible momentum on the left, exemplified in the shocking ascendance of Jeremy Corbyn (Britain’s next Prime Minister!). People are energized. They feel that they can actually win. Organizations are building. The DSA’s membership has exploded. Throughout all this, though, it is important to remember that we still do not hold any institutional power. The Left is growing but it has not yet flowered. We cannot wait to inherit power. We must push today: the issues our movement seeks to address are issues of the greatest moral and political urgency. They cannot wait. Therefore, we must use the tools we have access to now. We cannot wait for better ones to come along.

The Democratic Party is moribund, ossified, and filled with our ideological foes. It is still the best vessel for change that exists today. We must make our peace with the fact that our partners are people who we often don’t agree with very much, and who we will someday be forced to oppose on many of our key issues. In order to get these people to do what we need them to, we must adopt a two-pronged strategy. Criticizing them is easy; we’ve been doing it for decades. Pointing out their flaws is easy. These things are necessary. We can’t let them slide anymore on issues like Palestine or universal health care or police violence. But we also need to offer them something. Carrot and stick, that’s how it works. When they move to the left, we should reward them with our support. Not unconditional — never unconditional, but freely given when deserved.

When they stray, whack ’em with the stick. When they correct themselves, let them know, and feed them the carrot. This is as much an alliance of convenience for them as for us. If they think we have something to offer — and we do — they will take steps to earn it. They want to survive, after all. We have a great positive power. We have money, and votes, and can give of our labor, our sweat and our breath. Labor power is what the Left is all about, after all. We have resources, and we can offer them in exchange for policy concessions on the issues we care about.

Politics is transactional. Government is a deal between the people and their elected representatives. We bring something to the table, and that gives us the power to make demands. We shouldn’t be shy about those demands — but when they’re met, we should hold up our end of the bargain. This is important — only when they’re willing to actually deliver us something concrete should we reward them. We cannot celebrate every minute turn to the left with unrestrained jubilation. The quality and quantity of our support should be directly correlated with the impact of their policy change.

Doing this, we can continue to drag the Democrats to the left. Doing this, we can enact a policy that actually helps people, that saves lives and empowers human flourishing. We should continue to punish Democrats who slip back into their bad old ways, but when they embrace us, we should be open to it. Otherwise, this moment will slip away from us. They will write us off as un-gettable and go back to chasing the mythical center. The window will close, and we will be back in the wilderness.

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