Where is the American Left?
A Look at What Drove the Left Apart in America
I first became interested in European politics after the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps it was driven by a need to escape the political reality of my own country, or perhaps it was because I had a roommate at the time who was fascinated with the structure of European Parliaments. Either way, the study of that political system made me realize that there is one enormous difference between the United States and Europe: the United States doesn’t have a proper left wing.
In France, during the first round of their presidential election, the radical left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon received nearly 20% of the vote on a platform of nationalizing commodities, raising the minimum wage, and transitioning to 100% renewable energy. Just weeks ago, in the British snap election, famed socialist Jeremy Corbyn stunned pundits by vastly outperforming his polls, running on a platform of scrapping tuition fees, nationalizing the railways and buses, and infusing the National Health Service with cash.
As an American, these all seem like crazy, pie-in-the-sky policies, at least coming from a country that can’t even decide if it wants all of its citizens to have access to healthcare. This naturally leads to the question: why is America so right-wing? One could argue that it’s simply the American ideal of freedom and liberty, but history shows that there’s more to it than that. To provide some context, here is a brief overview of the history of the left-wing in America.
The Social Left
Ironically, the first distinctly left-wing movement was started by a movement of born-again Christians. Throughout the first half of the 1800’s, a group of preachers traveled across the country, converting mass amounts of people to Baptism and Methodism in an event known as the Second Great Awakening (the first was a similar movement that occurred in the 1700's). A disproportionate number of the individuals converted were women and African Americans, who were brought in by the movement’s hostility to many societal ills of the day, most notably slavery.
This led to the start of the abolition movement in the 1830’s (at least, the version of the movement which ended up being successful), and subsequently the women’s suffrage movement in the 1840’s. Abolition proved to be successful in the Civil War, and the suffrage movement later in the 1920’s, but after the Civil War, a new type of economic populism arrived in the United States.
Economic Populism after the Civil War
There were two distinct types of populism in the period after the war. The first was southern populism, which was mainly formed as a response to the Union occupation that occurred during Reconstruction. In 1877, right after Reconstruction had ended, the Readjuster Party was founded in Virginia, creating a coalition of ex-slaves, Republicans, and anti-Reconstruction Democrats to oppose the plantation-based power structure in Virginia. They elected a governor, a senator, and multiple House member throughout the 1880’s, but collapsed in the 1890’s after the Democrats of the state seized power.
In the west, a much more pervasive form of populism developed in the aftermath of the Civil War. This was first seen when the federal government attempted to switch to a gold-backed currency, rather than a government bond backed currency, for financial stability following the war. This became a two-party consensus after a recession in 1873, much to the dismay of a large group of farmers in the west, who believed that gold-backed currency would hurt them in the marketplace. Thus, the Greenback Party was formed, named after the paper currency that was standard at the time.
The Greenbacks were composed of a coalition between farmers and laborers, which is a coalition which would form the left for years to come. They won a good deal of House seats throughout the early 1880’s, though faded in 1888 when they failed to hold a convention. However, a few years later, the People’s Party sprang up, with almost exactly the same base and same platform.
Many of these small parties formed an faded, with the radical wings spinning off into nothingness, and the moderate wings joining the Democratic Party. However, a new wave of progressive energy would come in the 1910’s, this time from the Republican Party.
The Progressive Parties
The first Progressive Party was formed in 1912 by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had resigned from the presidency in 1908 in order to let William Taft run the country. However, Taft was not up to his liking, so he decided to run for president against him. After failing to get on the Republican ticket, Roosevelt decided to form the Progressive Party.
In many ways, the bombastic classic American president Roosevelt outlined the progressive movement as it stands today. The 1912 Progressive Platform called for a national health service, limits on campaign contributions, a higher minimum wage, and stronger labor laws. Whether or not Roosevelt fully believed in this platform, it is what he ran on, and he got second place in that election with 27% of the vote and six states carried. Also in this election was Eugene Debs with 6% of the vote, but we’ll get to him later.
The second Progressive Party was formed in 1924 by Robert La Follette, a popular Wisconsin Republican who had formerly been representative, governor, and senator. La Follette’s coalition was more focused on labor and farmers than Roosevelt’s, and that narrower coalition meant that he only got 16% of the vote and 1 state carried. Abandoned by its leader, the Progressive Party essentially collapsed after the election.
The third Progressive Party was also the least successful. It was founded in 1948 by former vice president Henry Wallace, a popular figure who had been kicked off the ticket in 1944 to keep party bosses happy. Wallace had always been more progressive than the others in the Democratic Party, and he believed that he had a real shot at disrupting Harry Truman’s re-election campaign. However, at this point, anti-communist fever had taken control of American politics, and the occasionally Soviet-friendly Wallace ended up with only 2.4% of the vote. The party collapsed soon after.
The Socialist and Communist Parties
The Socialist Party was initially formed in 1901, as a combination of the Socialist Labor Party and the Social Democratic Party. It came under the leadership of Eugene V Debs, an ex-Democrat who had become a socialist after the Pullman Strike, a defining event in the labor movement, had been put down violently.
Debs was a charismatic leader, and in its first 17 years, the Socialist Party did quite well. The party won two seats in the US House, and held a variety of local seats in the Midwest, where most of its founders were from. Running for president in 1904, 1908, and 1912, Eugene Debs received a modest portion of the vote each time, despite never holding an office higher than state senator.
However, things changed with the onset of World War I. The Socialist Party, among other groups, took a strong anti-war stance, much to the dismay of the government at the time. In 1917, the Espionage Act was passed by Congress, essentially making opposing the war illegal. Over the next two years, several socialists were arrested, including Eugene Debs and one of the two Socialist congressmen at the time, Victor L Berger.
Adding to the trauma of that, in 1919, the newly empowered Vladimir Lenin called a meeting of the socialists of the world. The Socialist Party was split on whether or not to support the new USSR. The radical wing of the party split off to form the Communist Party, leaving the Socialists weaker. The following year, several elected state representatives were expelled from the New York legislature for their beliefs. When a special election was called to re-fill these positions, all of the incumbents were defeated.
Throughout this time, the national attitude towards the left was becoming more and more hostile, as their support of Lenin and the anti-war effort was seen as unpatriotic. The Socialist Party’s membership collapsed, going from over 100,000 in 1919 to less than 14,000 in 1921. After decades of attempts to revitalize, the party officially dissolved in 1972.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party never achieved any mainstream success. It won a handful of local seats, but was mainly influential in its help of the labor movement in the 20’s and 30’s. The party strongly supported the Stalin regime when it took power, which fatally wounded it when Khrushchev spoke of its atrocities in 1956. This destroyed the membership of the party, and though it still exists today, it has faded into obscurity with only 5000 members.
Since the 1950's
The social left picked up again in the 1960’s with the feminist and civil rights movements achieving great levels of success. The economic left also enjoyed some mainstream success with the Great Society programs of the LBJ administration, which introduced Medicare, Medicaid, and a variety of poverty reduction government programs. The Vietnam war also allowed many on the left to gather in protest.
However, with the start of the Nixon administration, things started to take a turn. Nixon was never a fan of the “blacks” or “hippies”, so he took a series of measures to stop them. His War on Drugs targeted non-violent drug offenders, especially in left-wing communities. Though Nixon was eventually impeached, the drug war continued. In the 1980’s, Reagan’s strong anti-communist tone made left-wing thought almost a taboo. In a response to that, as well as a failed attempt at universal healthcare, the Clinton administration took the Democratic Party to the right, where it has essentially remained for the last several years. There have been a few exceptions, such as the campaigns of Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders.
This all begs the question: what happened to the left-wing in America? As the rest of the world developed universal health care, strengthened unions, and strengthened government protections, the United States did the opposite. Now that I have gone through a brief history of the left, I will offer three reasons that I have come up with.
The first left-wing economic movements were created in the late 1800’s by a coalition of farmers and laborers. The idea of this coalition can still be found in the nooks and crannies of our politics today. Most notably, in Minnesota, the Democratic Party is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, a relic of the efforts of politicians in the 1940’s to combine two of the powerful parties in that state.
As a result of this coalition, the left would always thrive in the Midwest and cities where factories made up a majority of the workforce. This is most prominently seen in 1912 election, where Teddy Roosevelt, running on a progressive platform, won California, Washington, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
This was a great coalition to have in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. At that time, the Industrial Revolution had only started to take off, so a majority of people were either employed on farms or in factories. This started to change in the 1920’s, when a series of droughts known as the Dust Bowl drove families all across the Midwest to move either further west or east to seek professions either than farming. By the time that the Dust Bowl ended, there was no need for more farm workers, as farming had been automated and subsidized to the point where only a small portion of the national workforce was able to produce food for everyone else.
The shift away from factory work happened later in the century. Labor thrived throughout the 40’s and 50’s, as America was the only country left in the world that was able to mass produce after the huge disruption of World War II. This led to a strong middle class driven by strong unions. However, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the rest of the world started to recover, and jobs started to be outsourced. At the same time, automation began to take over factories. So, while labor productivity went through the roof, labor jobs disappeared. Whereas labor and farm jobs used to make up a vast majority of the country’s labor force, they now make up only 10%.
Ten percent of the labor force is not a strong coalition for any political party, even if they were all able to vote in one bloc. However, even that is not possible now, as parties form on cultural, racial, and geographic lines rather than economic ones. Without this coalition, it is much more difficult for a left-wing party to form, explaining at least part of the collapse of the left.
Anyone looking at either the Democratic Party or Republican Party today is well aware of the idea of factionalism. While today it may be a Bernie-Hillary split, or a Tea Party-Moderate split, a whole variety of splits existed in the history of various left-wing parties.
One of the most notable things you see if you look through the history of populist parties in the late 1800’s (Populists, Greenbacks, etc.) is that they always seemed to become Democrats after they lost power. This was because the Democrats, mainly focused on the needs of the rural south, were able to appeal to the needs of farmers and laborers better than the northern Republicans, who were focused more on the needs of their big business donors.
However, the Democrats did not gain these voters by simply existing. They were simply the last resort of the moderates of these third parties, pushed out by radicals within their own organizations.
The clearest example was the Socialist Party in the early 1900’s. It had been founded by combining the Socialist Labor Party and the Social Democratic Party, under the control of Eugene Debs and Victor Berger. While Debs was more of a radical, Victor Berger began pushing for more Democratic reforms, rather than outright revolutionary Marxism. Berger also wanted a more hands-off approach to support of the burgeoning union movement, while Debs wanted direct involvement. These splits drove the party apart, especially after the 1917 revolution in Russia and the Espionage Act made revolutionary ideology more unacceptable in America. Those who weren’t fully committed to Marxism mainly left the party.
In any left-wing party you will find over the ages, a similar story emerges. An initial period of jubilance and togetherness, followed by a period of turmoil, and then a split when it became more difficult to be a party member.
It is no secret that the government was never a fan of the political left. Whether you believe this was because of a sincere ideological disagreement or a desire to support the needs of big business, the fact that there was hostility is hardly negotiable.
The first small uses of government action against the left were in early labor strikes. Large companies, in an attempt to break up these strikes, would donate large sums of money and weapons to local police departments, who would in turn use force to scare those who were working to keep the strikes going.
The first widespread attempt to reduce the power of the left in America came in 1917 with the passage of the Espionage Act. Its given intent was to prevent interference with the recruitment and deployment of the military. However, this ended up resulting in numerous anti-war activists being jailed. Since one of the key elements of the left was anti-imperialism and anti-war, many socialists and progressives were jailed, most notably Socialist Party leaders Victor Berger and Eugene Debs. Though they were both eventually released, this act was used countless times in the future to stifle anti-war sentiments.
The rise of the Espionage Act also coincided with the start of the first Red Scare. After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, many Americans were worried that a similar event could take place in their country. While this seems ridiculous today, the labor movement was much more prominent than it is today, and the popularity of Roosevelt’s Progressive Platform, as well as the sizable portion of the popular which Debs had taken was still in the minds of many Americans.
On top of this, the fervor of World War I introduced a new level of nationalism never before seen in American history. This caused a mass anti-communist hysteria, affecting multiple parts of life. Strikes were put down more harshly, newspapers warned about the rise of bolshevism in America, and socialist elected representatives were driven from their offices forcefully.
Following the end of the World War I, the hysteria died down briefly, but it was picked up again in the 1950’s with the start of the Cold War. Officials like Joseph McCarthy ranted and raved about how the government was infested with communists, and therefore any action that seemed to be too left-wing was seen as Soviet, and therefore un-American. Ironically, this era also saw the continuation of many of FDR’s New Deal policies, which were notoriously left-wing.
In the 1960’s, the government took even further measures to make sure that left-wing leaders could not come to power. The prominent FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would keep tabs on anyone with a chance of causing disruptions. When a leader such as MLK Jr. would challenge the status quo, Hoover would harass them. It was even later revealed that the US government had a part in MLK’s death.
Since then, much of the bias against left-wing politics has been cultural. Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election promising to take down the Soviet Union, making left-wing economics a bad word. About a decade later, Bill Clinton, after a series of bad losses for the Democrats, introduced the Third Wave ideology to the party, pulling it sharply to the center, where it has remained to some extent ever since.
There are a lot of things going against the left in America. The combination of the aforementioned reasons has created a very hostile climate to even common, Western ideas such as universal healthcare. However, if you’re a leftist, there are some rays coming over the horizon, and if you’re a conservative, there are some things to be worried about.
The millennial generation is now the largest generation in America, and also the first generation to grow up without the Soviet Union and the Cold War looming over them. This lack of a constant struggle against communism has led to a more thorough critique of ideas as firmly established in America as capitalism. A poll done in 2016 showed that only 42% of millennials supported capitalism, while 51% didn’t.
This is starting being reflected in the voting booths. While Hillary Clinton solidly clinched the Democratic nomination in 2016, self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders ended up with over 70% of the 17-29 vote. While millennials are yet to fully exert their power in these elections, the time is not far off. The history of the left in America is very interesting, but it’s future could be infinitely more consequential.