Socialism Is Supposed to Be a Working-Class Movement. Why Isn’t It?

Please Help ZNet





I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

Before we begin today, some job creation — we’re looking for a researcher on the show. If this is something you think you’d be great at, that you have some experience in, that you can show us the way you’ve done it before, take a look at the job listing. We have a link in the show description today.

But for today’s episode, go back a decade, and socialist is a dirty word in American politics. Today, it’s a pretty good brand, at least if you’re in a pretty blue district. The bulk of the credit there, of course, goes to Bernie Sanders and his two presidential runs. But some of it goes to “Jacobin,” the socialist journal launched in 2010 by Bhaskar Sunkara that updated both socialist thinking and, I would say, the socialist aesthetic for a new generation of young leftists looking for ideas, for community, and for identity. But for all the progress, Sunkara, who is now both the founding editor of “Jacobin,” and the president of “The Nation” magazine — got a lot of power over lefty journals in America — is nervous.

The left has gotten enough power to drive narrative, but not enough to win many elections. Biden, not Sanders, won in 2020. Eric Adams, not Dianne Morales, won the 2021 primary for mayor among Democrats in New York City. In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, one of the most visible of the progressive lefty DAs — he just got overwhelmingly recalled in the primary. So in a recent edition of “Jacobin,” titled, “The Left in Purgatory,” Sunkara warns against, quote, “The path to political self-satisfaction, a marginality that is just large enough to sustain itself, but that will never be strong enough to move beyond permanent resistance.” And then, he turns his attention and that of his journal to understanding why the left isn’t winning, and whether the kind of highly ideological appeals to the highly educated that form the core of “Jacobin’s” brand may be part of the problem, may actually be preventing them from developing the working-class base that a successful left needs.

So I wanted to have him on the show to talk about where the left is now and where he thinks it needs to go next. As always, my email —

Bhaskar Sunkara, welcome to the show.

bhaskar sunkara

Thanks for having me, Ezra.

ezra klein

So you recently published an issue of “Jacobin,” titled, “The Left in Purgatory.” Tell me about that. How would you describe the state of the left today?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, the state of the left is far better than I could have imagined where it would be 10 years ago, in that we’re actually having a conversation about the state of the left. I feel like for a good chunk of modern American history, at least since the ‘70s, it’s been taken for granted that we were a country without a left, where the furthest left you could go in American politics was not even Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes, but probably Jon Stewart, maybe, Al Gore.

And I think we’re in a much better position than we used to be. So even with some of the recent setbacks for the left, electorally, in the U.S., even with two Bernie Sanders defeats, we’re at a point where we can say that the left is a presence in American life. But the purgatory part comes in, because we are simultaneously too large to be wiped completely off the map by a few setbacks, but we’re also too small and too — I say this as a member of the left, of course — too incompetent in our ability to actually carry out our program, so we’re stuck in the space in between.

ezra klein

You have an interesting way, in the editorial you write in that issue, of describing that space in between. And I want to quote it here. You write, “There is something dangerous about being large enough to be a political presence in parts of the country and a subculture for thousands of activists, but far too disorganized and powerless to carry out your political program.” Why did you use the word, “dangerous“? What is dangerous about that in-between state?

bhaskar sunkara

I think the part that’s dangerous for those of us on the left is the risk of self-satisfaction, or the risk of being able to basically spend the entirety of our lives in the left and around the left. I am a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. I’ve been less active in the past year, but there has been whole stretches where I could wake up on a Saturday and meet up with a friend from the Democratic Socialists of America, go to a canvas for a candidate we cared about, hang out afterwards, maybe in the evening, write something for a DSA-affiliated publication or for a pamphlet or some piece of literature or whatever else.

I could spend a huge chunk of my life in and around the left and actually doing useful things. But at the same time, we get so obsessed about small, little victories and silver linings and the feeling that things are pushing our direction, we ignore the fact that the right in America is organized and actually achieving huge amounts of victories and rollbacks of even rights that many of us took for granted, like Roe v. Wade, for instance, and doing that through their own mechanisms.

And also, you have, just in general, the center of the country, the political spectrum, feeling more threatened by criticisms from the right rather than from the left. And at the same time, it’s dangerous, because I think a lot of voters associate the left with power and blame us for things that we have no control of, and blame us for not being able to carry out our program, and feel, in general, more and more disenchanted from politics as usual.

So we are kind of gone from this outsider insurgent force that in 2016, in Sanders campaign, was actually able to win over some people who were disengaged from the political process and might have not even described themselves as liberals, to being, I guess, just a part of the political scene that is not getting much done for ordinary people.

ezra klein

Give me some examples of things that you feel the left might get blamed for wrongly.

bhaskar sunkara

Well, I think that there are certainly a host of policy ideas that the left has pushed for, that are sometimes wrongheaded. But I think one example — you could look at the discourse and debate around Defund the Police. You can look at the discourse around critical race theory.

You would think that the left had control over policing policies in major cities in America. You would think that the left had control of our nation’s curriculum. You would think that the left had this overarching control of a lot of the things you could put into the bucket of the, quote unquote, culture war in the United States, when I think that the left is largely a weak outsider opposition force that has a few well-known figures.

We have our A.O.C.s, we have our Bernies. But in general, we’ve been locked out of power, and locked out, not just by the establishment in some kind of secret way, but locked out in part because we just don’t have a social base attached to our project.

That’s the reason why I’m saying the word, the left, instead of saying something like, the workers’ movement, like you would in certain other countries of the world where the political left and the broad organization of working-class people were one and the same for decades and decades in the 20th century. You just don’t have that association in the United States today.

ezra klein

I want to put a pin in that question of the social base and who composes it, but I want to ask you one more question about that quote. Because I was thinking about what it might mean and came to a thought similar to, I think, what you just gestured at, which is that there’s maybe an asymmetry in the power the left wields, which is to say that the left that is arisen around Bernie Sanders, around “Jacobin,” has a lot of narrative-setting power, a lot of media power, a lot of power to push ideas out into the ether, but then, as you say, not a lot of power to actually accomplish, execute, improve, modify the lived realities people are in.

Is that right? And is that part of the dangers? Is there something dangerous about having a lot of power over what people are talking about, but not a lot of power over what they’re actually experiencing?

bhaskar sunkara

I think that’s exactly right, Ezra. And I would say that there’s also a lot of danger in considering yourself just a rhetorical force. Because what do you do when you’re not responsible to a constituency but you have this influence in the cultural sphere?

Well, you end up just maximalizing your rhetoric. If Joe Biden wants $4 trillion of spending, you’ll say you want $10 trillion. There’s a kind of rhetorical maximalism that comes from having a political worldview that, I think, for many people on the left, is too focused on expanding the Overton window — the window of what’s possible through our rhetoric and through our demands, instead of figuring out how to connect with and build a base and move them along to more progressive policies and rhetoric, and eventually, a very different, more humane world.

ezra klein

You wrote something else that relates to that, in this editorial, that I thought was interesting. You wrote, quote, “The question we may have to ask ourselves in the years to come is whether some of our actions could be hastening, rather than reversing, the process of class dealignment.” So beginning with the question of, what is class dealignment, can you unpack that for me?

bhaskar sunkara

Yeah, I think class dealignment is just simply the fact that we used to associate being poor, being working-class, having less in society, with the politics of redistribution, of — these people get the franchise in many countries, the late-19th century, in the U.S., obviously, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, until people got the true franchise.

And the thinking was, OK, the people with less in a capitalist society are going to use this power to demand that the state redistribute wealth from the rich to the not-so-rich. And that redistribution could be in very direct forms. More often than not, it’d be through the creation of a welfare state.

So the left-of-center parties around the world that were advocating for the creation of welfare states and redistribution tended to have the support of people with less — not just less education, but less education, less wealth, less power, more generally. They used their collective power to overcome what they didn’t have as individuals. There was kind of a common sense to that. But all around the world, what you’re seeing now is that a lot of working-class people are either dropping out of the political process entirely. They feel like they can’t get anything from politics, so they’re not bothering.

And some of them are actually voting for the political right, voting for parties that might be trying to reach them through cultural appeals, through enticing, sometimes even populist rhetoric, which fundamentally don’t alter the distribution of resources in a society. And that’s the danger of dealignment.

In the United States, we have had this problem for many, many years on the left. Education is one simple proxy for it. Obviously, it’s a little bit more complex than that, but we could see that voters without college degrees used to be a very, very strong part of the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party.

Now, voters without college degrees, especially white voters, are drifting towards the Republican Party. And as a result, the Democrats are not modulating their appeals to those people.

ezra klein

So I want to key in on something important you said there, which is that this is happening all around the world. And certainly in peer countries — you look at Europe, you look at Canada — Thomas Piketty, who was just on the show, along with coauthors, has done work looking at what they call the rise of a Brahmin left, right, this highly educated left.

Why do you think that is happening? What is behind this shift from a coalition of those who have less cultural and economic capital making up the foundation of the left, to it becoming a coalition of people who have more little capital, but particularly more educational and cultural capital?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, in the 20th century, the types of parties that captivated the attention of working-class people were deeply rooted parties. They were rooted in civil society. They were rooted in trade unions.

They were tied so closely with working-class life, that in some countries, every single tenement building might have had a representative from the labor party, a local resident who would knock on doors and whip the vote, and who would take problems their neighbors would have to their local MP or their local city councilor. So there was this deep connection between working-class people and their politicians.

To some degree, we had this in the United States in certain areas with political machines. And when we hear political machines, we think that it’s an entirely negative thing. And we hear the word, patronage, and we think it’s just a synonym for corruption.

But there was a sense of rootedness in a lot of areas where people felt like the Democratic party, for instance, was close to their needs, close to them, and an avenue that they could use to even up the odds, and navigate bureaucracy, and to figure things out. There was a deep sense of association. A union endorsement actually meant something back then. If your union told you, this is the list of candidates we’re supporting in this election, you’d be more apt to help that. So that’s gone now.

But also, once in power, those politicians were offering a model of growth tied to redistribution. So in the post-war period, up through the ‘70s, not just in the United States, but across Europe, you have Social Democratic parties, and you have the New Deal Democratic Party, overseeing high-growth rates and overseeing expansions of the welfare state going along with those growth rates.

It wasn’t just an ideological quest of convincing people, one by one, that their interest was voting for the left, so they had more things, or they had representatives who, quote unquote, look like them, or spoke like them, or whatever else. It was tied to a real concrete program. And I think since the ‘70s, you’ve had a decline in that kind of either growth liberalism in the United States or social democracy in Europe, and as a result, politics has lost some of its material force.

ezra klein

So I’m always a little skeptical of explanations that track an international trend but that seem like they have a lot of counterexamples. And so the story that left parties, kind of, across the Western world became — to summarize it very quickly — more neoliberal, right? They moved away from that kind of post-New Deal, mid-1950s consensus, common good politics, and towards this more market-oriented somewhat redistributive politics.

It’s true in a bunch of individual cases, but politics, it seems to me, is competitive enough across a multi-country sample, that you’d expect to see — if that was a really bad way of doing politics, there’d be a bunch of countries where left parties didn’t do that, and really thrived.

But what’s so striking to me about the turn of the left in many countries to being a much more highly educated coalition is, it really happens in virtually every country in the samples that I know of.

And that implies to me that it’s reacting to something or building on something that is more common, right? If it was just strategic mistakes by this party or that party, it seems very unlikely they would all be making the same strategic mistake at once, unless there was something that they’re commonly responding to.

So what do you see is the common force? If it’s that they stopped offering the agenda they should have offered, why did they all kind of do that at the same time?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, it wasn’t rooted primarily in politics. I think it was rooted in an economic problem. It was rooted in the fact that the growth rates of the post-war period slowed down. There’s a variety of reasons. Why it slowed down in the ‘70s is up for debate. Part of it was just contingent factors like the OPEC oil shock, and the growth in globalization, which kind of made some of these models less feasible to continue. Some of it was the fact that labor was demanding really high wages and demanding lots of benefits.

And that was great when things were growing, but when things slowed down, it became harder for capitalists to keep up with, and they looked for a way to restore growth and restore profitability. And I think a lot of center-left leaders made a calculation.

And they said, we’re going to give capital the flexibility to restructure. We’re going to allow them to attack unions. We’re going to allow them to deregulate certain things, to restore growth rates, but then we’re going to continue to tax this unleashed capital to maintain the bedrock of our social programs.

So to some extent, this kind of political shift of center-left parties worked. And of course, as they undermined their social base, their traditional base in the working class, they had to find more and more voters from elsewhere to reach out to. So more of their voting bloc became professionals.

It shifted to certain other segments of capital that might be willing to support them, so they broadened their social base at a time when the old model wasn’t working. And when it seemed like you really couldn’t get far enough in politics with just a working-class base, then that obviously became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you’ve now weakened trade unions. You’ve now weaken some of the most powerful vehicles for actually getting your party into office to begin with.

ezra klein

So let’s go back then to the more recent history of the American left. So Bernie 2016 is a genuine watershed moment. It does, as a campaign, I think, change American politics profoundly.

When you look back from now, post-Bernie 2020, post all that we’ve seen, what were the lessons you think the left learned from that campaign? And for that matter, what lesson do you think Bernie learned from that campaign? And were they the right ones?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, I think the initial lesson the left learned from Bernie 2016 was the fact that there are people out there that are hungry for a message that more or less tells them it’s not their fault, that the day-to-day miseries and the problems that they’re encountering are things that are not the product of not working hard enough, not getting the right certificate or training, but the result of social problems and that social problems demand a collective solution.

And Bernie was able to reach these people through the mass media, through the bully pulpit of a presidential campaign, and just through very simple common-sense rhetoric. You might say it was oversimplified, how he was describing the world. But I think it was a simplification that tapped into and resonated with people, because it was rooted in something real.

They felt that they were working hard, and they felt that millionaires and billionaires were not allowing them their fair share. And that was basically the core of left-wing politics, of egalitarian politics, for decades and decades and decades. And Bernie, I think, just helped us remember some of it.

And even though our trade unions were hollowed out, even though our civic associations in working-class areas were hollowed out, even though the American left was minuscule at the time, Bernie, I think, through this kind of left-wing populist rhetoric, tapped into something really special, and it became associated with just Medicare For All.

And with the same set of slogans, it became just a parody, right? Everyone knew what Bernie was going to say, every single line of his speech, because he just never deviated from his message. I think some of the wrong lessons that were learned from 2016 was that Bernie was too repetitive, that Bernie didn’t incorporate gender and race into his worldview and into his rhetoric.

And I think that ignored the fact that the simplicity and clarity is what attracted people to Bernie Sanders, and that people basically want the same things. Black voters, white voters, Latino voters, Asian voters — our concerns are really not all that different.

How we phrase our concerns, how we order our priorities might be different, but there was a simplicity to Bernie’s universalism that I think, to some extent, he moved away from to try to be more competitive in a Democratic Party primary where identity really does matter more and how you frame things and how you reach voters.

ezra klein

Something I notice around people who like Joe Biden, who think there was a genius to the way he ran the 2020 campaign, but are now frustrated by him — I often notice a view that Biden’s best instincts are older, that he had an advantage for being rooted in an older period of politics, and that gave him some standing, some intuitions, that let him resist some of the trends buffeting Democratic politicians today, particularly very online ones.

But I also detected, in this edition of “Jacobin,” a kind of similar view of Bernie and the left — a view that Bernie was rooted in an older left, Bernie was rooted in other periods of American politics, and that, particularly in 2016, gave him a kind of difference, gave him an aesthetic that was different, gave him a set of concerns that were different — that he lost a bit of that in 2020, and that the people coming after him — there are some pieces in there critical of A.O.C. and others — have really lost it.

And I think it’s interesting that both the moderates and the lefties, or at least some lefties at “Jacobin,” have a kind of nostalgia for what the more veteran politicians know, that they worry the younger politicians don’t. Do you think I’m reading this right, or does that ring falsely to you?

bhaskar sunkara

I think you’re reading this right. But I would say that Bernie’s politics were a learned politics. Yes, when you hear Bernie, it sounds like he’s harkening not to the old left, necessarily, of the 1930s in the U.S., but to the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement, which always aimed at majoritarian support.

Martin Luther King’s last campaign was, of course, a campaign for economic justice. He’s famous for having lines saying, yes, it’s important that we desegregated the lunch counter, but we also need to make sure that everyone could afford to buy hamburger there, too. These are kind of the common-sense rhetoric of people trying to build majorities.

But Sanders came out of a new left that was at times more fringe and more radical in its rhetoric. He spent a lot of the 1970s kind of going back to the land and pursuing kind of minor third-party politics in Vermont up until his election as mayor of Burlington. So I think Bernie found the rhetoric that worked through trial and error. He found the way to reach ordinary people.

And it wasn’t just that he was reading from the same book as older leftists. I think he and a lot of his generation around the new left figured out how to reach people. So I don’t think that A.O.C. is locked into sounding less like a Bernie Sanders-style Democratic Socialist at time and more like a hyper-liberal or a more hyperbolic version of the same liberalism offered by other wings of the party.

But I think that there’s something can be learned. At her best, A.O.C. offers this kind of soaring, really inspiring rhetoric. It’s just about getting to that core and avoiding language that I think the left has borrowed too much from academia, in part because that’s where we existed in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beginning of 2000s. We were really much just cloistered to the universities.


ezra klein

Imagine Biden didn’t get his Super Tuesday surge or that he bobbled it somehow, and Bernie had won the primary, and then had won the presidency. And I think we should expect it kind of would have been a sort of similar-sized win to Joe Biden, given how he performed.

What do you think looks differently today if Bernie Sanders was president, but also had a 50-50 Democratic Senate Majority and a relatively slim House Majority? How does the counterfactual play out?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, governing the United States is extremely hard nowadays. Obviously, you covered a lot of this in your book, but there’s so many choke points. There’s so many veto points in American politics, that it is very hard to govern.

I think the difference is, Sanders had a sense of what mass politics was. He had a sense that in order to break the gridlock, sometimes you had to just tell people, speak to them earnestly, tell them why things are stalled, tell them to go rally and organize and call their neighbors. In other words, try to inject this new force into American politics, so that when Washington was stuck, we were calling upon the outsiders to unstick Washington.

And I think that’s something that Bernie — I’m cautious saying this — but Bernie had in common with Donald Trump, in that Trump was not a very successful politician, as far as instituting new policies for his cause — and for that, I’m grateful — but he did try to mobilize his supporters to do things. He did try to have mass rallies.

He was constantly in the media talking to the American people. Thankfully, in my mind, he did not convince too many of them to support his causes. But I do think Bernie would have tried similar tactics to reach ordinary people, try to talk to them, try to tell them, you’re an agent and policies.

There’s a joke about Biden, but I think it’s really true — that sometimes when you hear him complaining about things wrong in the country, you kind of just feel like he’s the leader of Canada or something. He’s just looking at the United States and being like, who’s in charge of this thing? You know? So many things are not working. It’s a disaster. And I feel like with Bernie, at least there would have been this attempt to repoliticize American politics.

ezra klein

Oh, it’s really funny, that last point, because I almost see it exactly differently. And it gets to the piece in that issue by Natalie Shure, on “The End of the A.O.C. Honeymoon.” So it always seems to me that because the US is so difficult to govern, and because even when you win, you win so little power, compared to what it would mean if you won in Canada or you won in the U.K., a very central problem for politicians is, how do you explain what you can’t do?

How do you lead a government that you don’t actually control, particularly if, say, Republicans have the House or the Senate, or I guess if you’re Donald Trump, if Democrats have the House or the Senate. And I think a problem for many liberals — for Joe Biden, for Barack Obama — is that they often kind of own the failures of government, right?

It’s their government, their party, and they try to convince you that what’s happening is still pretty good, even though it’s not what they promised and maybe not what you wanted.

I think something Donald Trump was always very good at was, even though he didn’t get much done, he never really acted to his own side like the guy in charge. To the extent that running against deep state had a kind of genius to it, the genius was that it severed Trump for some responsibility for what wasn’t happening.

He was trying to fight the government he ran. You couldn’t really hold him fully responsible for what it did. I think Bernie has always been actually quite good, as somebody who has worked very coalitionally with the Democratic Party and has been involved in passing a lot of bills that from the Bernie Sanders perspective are very compromised.

I think Sanders has always been very good at saying, hey, look, that was progress, but it is still unacceptable progress. Like, it isn’t something we should really be proud of. It’s just a step on the path. He always seems still pretty mad about how government works.

And that A.O.C. piece is interesting to me, because it talks about A.O.C. having to navigate some of these exact same tensions, now being part of a House Majority at the moment that cannot do everything she wants it to do, that cannot do everything it wants to do — and some of the left becoming alienated from her as she tries to operate more pragmatically in that context, rather than symbolically.

But this always seems to me to be the very deep problem. And I think also it would have been very difficult for Sanders if he’d become president, that — what do you do when you’re the person in charge, you’re in power, but you can’t wield nearly as much power as the people who put you there thought you would or hoped you could?

bhaskar sunkara

The left has always been thinking about what we can do with the balance of forces on the ground, what we are going to be able to accomplish or not. I think when you’re in Congress, a lot of your mentality is going to be more coalitional, because you’re in — you’re one piece of a much larger body, and you’re trying not to get locked out.

And I think A.O.C. has made the strategic choice to be, one, a registered Democrat, unlike Bernie, because that makes her more competitive in a deep blue district. And also, she made a decision that she was going to try to get onto committees and to play ball with the Democratic Party leadership on certain key issues than pick her spots otherwise.

I think that’s a rational choice. But then, the question is, what is distinct about what you’re offering? Like, what’s the difference between an A.O.C. and a, let’s say, Nancy Pelosi? Well, I certainly think that there’s a difference, and I support A.O.C., and I’m very critical of Nancy Pelosi.

But is it just that Nancy Pelosi wants to go 50 percent towards a goal, and A.O.C. wants to go 70 percent or 80 percent towards the goal? Or is there a qualitative difference between Democratic Socialist politicians and liberal politicians? So I think there should be a qualitative difference in terms of our rhetoric, our worldview and the type of even welfare state we’re trying to construct.

So I think that’s really what the critique of A.O.C. should be about. It shouldn’t be, oh, she wasn’t intense enough about pushing through this. She wasn’t disruptive enough when she was in power. It’s more just like, is there something actually different in the worldviews that separates the squad from the rest of the Democratic party, or are they just a part of a Democratic party continuum that always has existed?

ezra klein

I think that brings us back to the question of the left social base. Because how different the politicians are is also going to reflect what constituencies they are responsive to, where the support comes from, who they’re listening to, who they’re around.

And “Jacobin” commissioned and wrote up in this issue a pretty interesting survey of working-class voters and their political preferences, both substantively and aesthetically, in a bunch of key states. So can you tell me a bit about that survey’s findings? What you learned from it?

bhaskar sunkara

I think what we learned from that survey was that working-class voters are attracted to a bread-and-butter economic messaging, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore issues of race and racism. We could even use words like “structural racism,” but it does make sense to foreground material, economic concerns, and that also, there is a certain type of Democratic party rhetoric, I think, that has written off whole swaths of the country as being deep red states, Trump country, in which there’s a lot of voters in these areas that I think can be won over to the party if it seems like the party is actually offering them something.

And I think part of the goal is to say that there’s multiple roads to building a welfare state, and the one that is probably the easiest one comes from actually building a base across all races and backgrounds of working-class people. That doesn’t mean that you don’t want any votes in the suburbs, or you’re just going to ignore every single electoral calculus.

It’s just, if you’re going to say, like Chuck Schumer did infamously a few years ago, that for every vote you lose in Pittsburgh or in the rust belt, you’re going to pick up a couple of votes in the suburbs of Philadelphia, from more middle-class voters — I think that’s an extremely defeatist way to go about politics. So I think a lot of what we’re looking for is proof that working-class voters have a distinct profile and are very much open to redistributionist candidates.

ezra klein

I thought the survey, at least as I read it, posed some real challenges to the way a lot of left politics has evolved. And so I saw three. So one, as you say, working-class voters are very responsive to bread-and-butter issues, to economic messaging.

But they’re not wildly more redistributive, certainly, than the more highly educated voters. And I think actually, in a lot of respects, we see evidence that they’re somewhat less so. And then, the non-voters are somewhat less liberal even still. The view that non-voters are this unbelievably left mass that simply needs to be mobilized by a sufficiently socialist or radical message — that doesn’t really come out.

And then, third — and I think this is a really genuinely interesting thing you all did in the survey as you began testing different ways of phrasing the same appeal — that there is very much a preference for what you might call a more working-class aesthetic, a preference for less academic language, a preference for candidates who talk and present in a certain way, that I think is kind of not the way a lot of left candidates, particularly when they come out of the more educated segments of the movement, do. Do you want to talk through how you understood those pieces of the survey?

bhaskar sunkara

Yeah, I think that the real challenge to the Bernie worldview is that there was a massive bloc of non-voters willing to just come out, and all you needed was an outsider candidate, and you would re-engage these people. And I think that Bernie’s strategy did not really bring a new voting block to fore in the last election cycle.

And I think this survey kind of confirms that it’s really complicated to get people who are out of the political process into the political process. And having a candidate say the right things isn’t a magic solution to it. I think the real way in which you get people into the political process is through a lot of organizing, a lot of really expensive, time-consuming organizing. It’s not a rhetorical trick.

The working-class aesthetic thing is kind of common sense — to me, at least. But it makes sense that people want their candidates to be teachers. They want their candidates to speak in a way that’s familiar with them. They want their candidates to be postal workers.

They want their candidates to be people that seem far more relatable than someone with an academic background or someone with a perfectly credentialized background, like a lawyer. You know, we’ve had many, many generations of lawyers as politicians in the United States.

I think it really should remind us that there is an audience out there that just cares about, more or less, the same things. They care about having good health care. They care about jobs.

They care about security in their neighborhoods. They want to see candidates that are speaking to them in common-sense rhetoric.

And there’s kind of a populist baseline in the United States, to our voting bloc, that it would be a grievous error to ignore.

So I think that when it comes to middle-class voters in suburbs, it’s not that you don’t want these people to vote for you. It’s, are you going to tailor your rhetoric to their concerns, or are you going to talk vaguely about democracy? Are you going to foreground certain social issues, or are you just going to have one rhetoric for all people, then hope that those people in the suburbs go with you, because of how far right the Republican Party has moved on social and cultural and economic issues, too?

ezra klein

It gets to a problem, I think, both for the left, and then more broadly for the Democratic party, as both have become more educationally polarized, and both have become more concentrated among, sort of, high-education voters, particularly among their activists and very influential classes, which is — I do think it is a well-understood fact among the whole left-of-center in American politics that representational politics is important.

But that’s usually thought of in terms of race and gender — to some degree, in terms of sexuality. It’s not nearly as often thought of in terms of class. And there’s a lot of evidence — the political scientist Nick Carnes, has done a lot of work on this — about how white-collar elected officials have gotten over the however many decades.

And you know, you’re going to source your candidates from the people who are in your party or the people who are in your movement. And to the extent you want to build a more working-class movement, you actually do need working-class representation. I think that’s one of the lessons of that survey.

But I think you see it in a lot of places. I think it’s one reason that if you looked at polling in 2019, a lot of Bernie Sanders voters had Joe Biden as their second choice, and a lot of Joe Biden voters had Bernie Sanders as their second choice. Because the two candidates read aesthetically sort of similarly.

I mean, they were kind of cranky older white guys with a somewhat more working-class aesthetic than, I think, where the Democratic party’s gone, if you compare them to, say, an Elizabeth Warren, say. And that just gets harder to find those candidates as your party depolarizes around education.

And there’s not nearly as much of a push, like, a frustration in the party, when working-class candidates are less represented than there would be if other kinds of experiences or groups were less represented. And I think that’s probably a mistake.

bhaskar sunkara

Beyond that, too, when you have weak parties, like a weak party structure, you need candidates that can self-finance their own campaigns and have easy access to money. So it becomes a lot easier in a primary, if you’re a corporate lawyer and you have access to a bunch of other friends with money, and former clients with money, and you’re from that world, to think about running a campaign than if you’re an insurgent who’s well-liked in your local community but don’t have access to those networks.

So a lot of this is, how are you giving these candidates money to support them? What networks are they drawing on? Are they able to get not just endorsements, but funds from unions?

Are groups like the Democratic Socialists of America able to assemble the funds to help some of these upstarts? And in certain areas like New York City, they have been, but that’s not the case in most places.

ezra klein

But it’s interesting, because that doesn’t seem to me to be, at any level, an insoluble problem if somebody really wanted to solve it. I mean, when you think about the money sloshing around politics — including the left of politics, because there are funders from celebrities, to the guy who runs the Dr. Bronner’s soap company, to lefty rich people who get into this.

I mean, I’ve always thought it’s very interesting that A.O.C.‘s first chief of staff and one of the core people who helped recruit her was a very early employee of the tech finance firm, Stripe. So I don’t think it’s the case that there is no money.

You could really imagine $10, $20, $50 million being put into a group that is simply doing working-class candidate recruitment, and funding super PACs, given the way our system actually works now, that helps those candidates out in their elections.

And you know, there are a lot of House elections in this country that are not that expensive — certainly, a lot of state legislature and Senate and mayoral, and so on, elections that aren’t that expensive. You guys have a piece in this issue about a socialist candidate in Buffalo who ends up losing. And the take on that is that the establishment drops a bunch of money against her.

But it also just wasn’t that much money, you know. You could have imagined, certainly, as much or more money coming from other areas. So I wonder why you think those organizations haven’t really been built.

bhaskar sunkara

Well, I think some of them are being built. Like I said, in New York State, we have several socialist members of the assembly. We have state senators that have backgrounds as teachers and nurses and so on, that have gotten funds through the Democratic Socialists of America and a host of other forces like the Working Families Party.

And beyond those funds, they’re able to have access to huge amounts of volunteers to do canvassing. They tend to get a lot of media buzz, such as Democratic Socialism still kind of had this luster post-Bernie about it, and they were able to get out there in the media.

I actually do think — and I would agree it’s possible. It’s about, at the national level, actually making sure that there are unions, and there are groups willing to put the money into candidate recruitment, and finding these people, and running them, when sometimes they’re going against establishment candidates willing to play ball with the left.

You know, why does Chuck Schumer not have a credible challenge from the left coming? Well, that’s probably because we have a lot of unions in New York State that are very powerful, and Chuck Schumer is willing to go along with them.

It’s pretty risky to spend money on these long-shot campaigns. Obviously, once in a while, you find a candidate like Fetterman in Pennsylvania. You find someone who has both a working-class aesthetic and has progressive policies, but beyond Fetterman, it’s hard to say who at the national level there is, after Bernie, that has that kind of mass appeal, that you could imagine running in a presidential election, and having that kind of platform like Bernie had the last two cycles.


ezra klein

So then, I want to move from this question of how the left is composed, to if it is able to win power, what it’s able to deliver, or even what the Democratic Party as currently composed is able to deliver. Because we’ve been talking about your issue on the left in political purgatory, but the issue that just came out is, as I say, very, very relevant to my interests, which is, you guys have a — you call it the infrastructure issue.

And I’ve been doing these pieces about the difficulties that liberalism has building and supply side progressivism.

And I see this issue as very much trying to think about, how do you create a socialism that builds? How do you how do you deal with the question that when the federal government spends money on the kinds of infrastructure projects the left supports and wants to see a lot more of, it isn’t getting as much for that money.

It isn’t getting things done as quickly, as well, on budget, as other countries, other rich countries with more unions than we have and bigger percentage of G.D.P. governments than we have are. So tell me a bit about this. What do you see as the problem to building infrastructure in America?

bhaskar sunkara

I think part of the problem — and just to give some numbers behind what you’re saying, we have an article in that issue, by Elizabeth Henderson and Jared Abbott, that noted that the cost-per-mile of rail and recent projects in Madrid is around $140 million per mile. In L.A., it’s something like a half-billion dollars per mile.

The root of the problem, I think, is in part in American federalism. We have a ton of competing stakeholders. We have agencies. We also have just different rules at federal, state, and local levels.

We tend to institute things. Like, in 1970, we instituted the National Environmental Policy Act. But instead of just having that environmental review whenever we do new construction, being enforced through experts and civil society, we’ve let it be enforced through civilian lawsuits.

So you end up with this weird situation where you don’t have just a transit agency empowered to make construction with a review process, with a limited period of civilian discussion, and with a limited period for potential litigation. You just have this very protracted, prolonged period with a lot of discussion and a lot of extra costs. And as a result, we just kind of don’t have the expertise at quickly building transit, because it’s a muscle we haven’t used in a while.

And it’s all a far cry from what we used to do. You know, the original Tennessee Valley Authority, the New Deal program, cost just $75 million at the time. And today, that’s around $1.6 billion today. That program, still, to this day, the T.V.A. employs around 10,000 people directly, indirectly employs tens of thousands more, generates power for 10 million people.

It’s still the largest publicly owned energy provider in the country. And that was done by $1.6 billion. You know, you could imagine the scale of what even the infrastructure bill we passed would be if we were able to actually push direct state planning and investment, and cut through some of this bureaucracy.

ezra klein

One thing I think is interesting here, at least as I’ve been trying to follow the threads of this among liberals and try to understand how we went from being able to build as much as we did in the mid-20th century to as little as we’re able to now, is confronting or realizing that there is a divided soul on the left, inside liberalism, however you want to draw that circle. And so on the one hand, I think the stereotype is that this side of the political spectrum believes in big government, wants to give government a lot of power, wants government to build things, and it’s the right that fears government doing things.

But there is a real strain inside liberalism inside the left that fears government, that fears government being captured, that remembers and thinks about Robert Moses building these highways through Black communities, Rachel Carson and thinking about how much construction in that era was done without any real thinking about the environmental consequences — and so built a lot of structures, laws that are, in fact, about hobbling government, about forcing it to hear the complaints of groups, making it possible for people to sort of throw themselves in front of the government with a lawsuit and actually get it to stop until their concerns are heard out in a court of law.

How do you think about those ideological tensions? Because I do think they’re real. Like, how do you think about the question of the left that is afraid of government power, not the one that is confident in it?

bhaskar sunkara

I think it’s easy to focus on what government action gets wrong and mistakes made in the past through government action, but we often don’t think about the cost of inaction. 45 percent of Americans don’t have access to public transit at all. These are people who are disproportionately poor.

They’re in rural areas. They’re really suffering, and there’s no real political power that they’re wielding about this issue. Built environments in those areas are built towards needing car ownership at a time the cars are really expensive and car and gas prices are really expensive. And it’s just a hidden cost, a hidden burden on American workers that we don’t really think about.

So I think that’s one thing — foregrounding the cost of inaction, not just the cost of actions. But I think all of this is due to a mismatch we have in the United States between having not really mass membership democracy in the sense of — in Spain, when they’re constructing something in Madrid, yes, there’s a very limited period, compared to the U.S., for public discussion of issues.

But there is a period. There can be discussion. There can be review. There’s just more trust the environmental reviews have been done by the state, so there’s trust in the material brought to them, which I think that, as part of funding and healing our civil service in the U.S., we have very much the expertise to do the same sort of reviews through our experts.

But also, people are connected with political parties in more intense ways that might be advocating for these changes. They’re connected with mass membership unions that have been consulted in the construction process. And all these parties at a mass level are stakeholders, but stakeholders without the same veto power as we have in the U.S., where we have kind of small-scale democracy.

We have do-it-yourself democracy. We have civic groups. We have lawsuits. We have all sorts of community groups that wield power, and these are just a handful of people who are the most engaged and most active. And often through a lawsuit, they’re able to slow down a process.

ezra klein

One way I’ve heard you frame this, which I thought was interesting, was that America, compared to peer countries, has a very thick civic democracy and a thin associational democracy. You want to talk about that for a minute?

bhaskar sunkara

So yeah, this goes back to what I was saying before, which is that in the United States, people don’t feel they don’t get a party membership card. They don’t feel like it means something to be a Democrat. They don’t feel like they can knock on the door of their representative or city councilor or feel like they have some sort of say in the program of their party.

They don’t feel like they’re really tied into their union, if they are members of a union at all. They, in other words, feel like the way in which they could exercise agency when they are involved is through lawsuits. It’s through being members of a small-scale civil association or environmental association that is going to just stop a project, freeze everything, until they could fully understand what’s going on.

So there is democracy. There are avenues for them to stop things, but it’s at a fragmented, local scale, instead of a mass scale. And part of this is rooted in just, at times, historically, a rooted distrust in the state, distrust in state actors, distrust that these experts conducting environmental reviews might be bought and captured by some corporation or some special interest, that they aren’t truly giving dispassionate information.

I think in other countries, there’s a lot more trust there. Now, what we can’t really fix in the short term is the fact that we’re going to have different regulations at the federal level, at the state level, sometimes at the local level. And companies bidding on these projects are going to have a more complicated time navigating that.

So it becomes harder sometimes to take a scheme that’s used to build one set of rail in one state and apply it to another process and system in another. And that’s kind of a problem of American federalism that plagues us as a country.

ezra klein

I’ll ground this in an example that I’ve just been poking around over the past couple of days. So in 2019, New York passed congestion pricing in New York City, so that money will go to mass transit improvements. This has been a long multi-multi-multi-year fight that had been defeated a bunch of times.

But in 2019, Cuomo agrees on it. De Blasio agrees on it. The New York legislature agrees on it. Then, it turns out that because some of the roads in New York City were financed in part by the federal government, and you can’t just build a toll on a road financed by the federal government without their agreement, exemptions, et cetera, so now, you need the federal government to sign off.

So Trump hates Cuomo. They drag their feet. Nothing happens for a year or two. Then, Biden is elected. Pete Buttigieg becomes Secretary of Transportation.

You know, they say, of course we’ll work with you on this. New York is a blue state. It’s full of their allies. Congestion pricing is good for the climate. It’s good for mass transit. It’s worked in Stockholm and London.

So they start going forward, and they give New York an exemption from the normal environmental impact review, and they can just do the lighter environmental assessment, which — the deal they strike includes 20 meetings and extensive consultation with Jersey and Connecticut. And so the timeline on that is 16 months.

And then, the Federal Highway Administration looking over the assessment sends back 430 technical questions and comments, slowing everything down. And I’m sure a lot of these comments and questions are reasonable, right? The Federal Highway Administration is full of capable, smart people.

And at the same time, this thing is going to open up, maybe at the end of 2023, maybe later, maybe never. You know, the government promised to do something, and it’s still not doing it. The mass transit improvements it would have been able to build are going to be that much later, if they ever happen. So how do you understand that story, from the left perspective? What do you think should go differently in it, if anything?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, I think in my mind, democracy elections should have consequences, and policies should have consequences, too. So it’s a problem in part of too many different stakeholders and too much mediation getting in away from elected governments being able to pursue policies that are going to, of course, have some consequences.

And if they turn out to be mistakes, people can get together and vote for a new set of electeds that can pursue a new policies to reverse course. But instead, we just have stagnation. And you have not just agencies. I think different levels of agencies having different concerns and having to mediate it happens in a lot of different democracies, but in the U.S., on top of it, you also have very powerful N.G.O.s, you have civil society groups.

So mixed together, you have competing stakeholders in a way that I don’t think you have elsewhere. Now, what I would want to build in the United States isn’t just more liberalism, more money spent on more things. What we want to do, I think, is push the type of state-led planning that shifts investment decisions, that thinks about the economy as a whole.

So in other words, take the example of Nordic democracy. You had a system that tried to shape investment priorities, largely through the mechanism of centralized wage bargaining. So if you want to build a high-productivity society, they said, well, we’re going to make sure that in certain sectors, we are pushing up the level of wages to encourage capitalists to invest in more labor-saving technology.

And you do that through the mechanisms not necessarily of the state, but of unions. But then, when certain firms go out of business, the less efficient firms, well, then you have the state scoop in through active labor market policies and retrain those people, some of them, and other of them will join expanding firms at the top of the market, the most efficient firms.

In other words, in that case, what they were able to build was not just a system that said, well, we want to just spend a whole lot more money and deliver more of the same, somewhat uneven social services we currently have. They said, well, we want to create a new system that will create a higher-wage, more productive society. Then, we want to tax the hell out of everyone to build a welfare state on that basis.

You could agree with it, or you could not agree with the model. But they had a kind of vision and a plan. And right now, I wonder whether even my favorite politician in the world, you know, Bernie Sanders, even people I greatly respect, like A.O.C. and Ilhan Omar — whether they have a real vision of the type of welfare state they want to construct and how to construct it, or whether their vision is simply taking existing programs and spending more money on it.

ezra klein

Well, I do think this gets to this very core tension. You had drawn on this distinction between civic and associational democracy. One way I’ve been thinking about this issue is between centralized and decentralized ways of wielding and checking power.

And on the left, particularly, I think there’s a very deep tension between a preference for centralized ways of wielding power and decentralized ways, particularly, of checking power. And towards the end of that key infrastructure piece in the issue of “Jacobin,” you guys quote Ethan Elkind, who’s a climate expert at U.C. Berkeley, saying, I think it’s about making sure transit agencies have more sovereignty over the decision-making authority and process.

So I’ve heard this from a lot of transit experts, that this is an argument for more centralization, more autonomy, and check the results, as you said earlier, through elections. And on the other hand, the left is very committed to small-d democracy, believes very deeply in this kind of organizing and hearing from people, in a lot of meetings, in a lot of opportunities to participate, in a lot of opportunities for groups to come into a City Council meeting or a board of supervisors’ meeting, and register that you don’t understand how this project is going to affect us.

And I think you see that in all these campaigns you talked about and inside the souls of all these politicians you talked about. I think if you listen to the rhetoric of a Sanders or an A.O.C. or an Ilhan Omar, it’ll kind of shift between this need for bigger government and this need for much more representation, consultation, community involvement. And so I’m curious how you think about managing that collision of values. Because I think people often don’t want to think that there is a tension there, right? We should be able to have — like, wouldn’t making government more participatory make it better? But if you believe, as I think sometimes this issue implies you do, that you need more centralisation, more decision-making that just can happen, then I think you’re suggesting it may not be that easy.

bhaskar sunkara

Yeah, I think there’s long been a tension between reconciling at least expertise and democracy. And I think the way you square the circle is by saying, there should be democracy in the form of people feeling like they can influence elections. So that’s one form of democracy, and obviously, these bureaucrats aren’t unaccountable.

They’re accountable to elected officials, and these officials have a party affiliation. They are connected to their base. If they pursue unpopular policies, that can’t exist.

And also, I think it’s a matter of trusting the experts, in the sense of — this is actually where I’m well known as an anti-identitarian leftist, but I think this is where representation actually does matter. Having experts who might come from working-class backgrounds, might be Black or Brown, might have some sort of connection with the communities in which they’re making decisions might lead them to think not just in terms of the macrorationality of the U.S. economy as a whole, but being able to weigh the particular interest of areas affected by construction projects.

So if the Major Deegan is going to make it a lot easier to commute from Westchester to Manhattan, but it’s also going to destroy some really important working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx and leave a huge legacy, you know, I think that decision doesn’t mean that the model of having an empowered bureaucracy is wrong. It means that the bureaucracy was not conducting the right sort of reviews, and the politicians that empowered them were not held to account.

So I think that there is a delicate balancing act. But right now, we have a system that is actively hurting people through inaction. So again, I think that there’s a little bit too much focus on the after-effects of construction and new projects.

And I think that that’s less benefiting poor and working-class people, so much as benefiting N.G.O.s and other groups and individuals in society that make livings off lawsuits and off blocking things from being constructed. I don’t actually see this as a core working-class demand, nor do I think that the type of democracy that you get at a community meeting about environmental impact is particularly the most rich type of democracy.

I think a lot of this could be solved by having better trained, more empowered experts accountable in other ways. And of course, in places like Spain, as Jared and Elizabeth Henderson point out in that article, they do have review processes and community involvement. They’re just more tightly time-delineated.

ezra klein

Let me end by asking you a question, too, about your work and your role. So you founded “Jacobin,” which I think has been central in creating some of the resurgence on the left. You’re not Bernie Sanders, but in terms of the intellectual effort, I think it’s been a pretty important piece of it.

You’ve recently also taken over as president of “The Nation,” which is one of the more venerable left journals in the country or magazines in the country. And at the same time, I hear in you a frustration that the left has become a little bit too much a space of educated folks who like talking about lefty ideas, as opposed to more of a working-class movement with a more diverse social base.

So how do you think about that tension in your own work, or how do you think about the vehicles you have a hand in being part of that work? Like, how, as a member of the educated scribbler class, do you work on making the left less beholden to the educated scribbler class?

bhaskar sunkara

Well, I guess I’m pleased with the role I have, because I think that I view the existing base as a left as a conduit or a route to a mass base for this politics. I think the ideas of Democratic socialism belong not just to the people who hold them today but belong to, in the future, to millions of people, who I hope will hold them.

You know, I think the idea of building a world without forms of exploitation and oppression, a world where people can live in at least some material comfort and feel like they’re real stakeholders in a society in a real way — this is something that I think that should be mainstream politics. And as long as there’s inequality in society, I think a politics that calls for more equality and calls for a more even distribution of power and resources should be mainstream.

So I think publications like “Jacobin,” publications like “The Nation,” have a role popularizing left-wing ideas. And I think that they have a role calling for a type of politics and a rhetoric that can, in the future, captivate millions of people like Bernie Sanders was able to captivate in his campaign. So I would not be very satisfied if this was it, not just because of an aesthetic preference, because I feel like we shouldn’t be just talking to ourselves in little salons, but because I think that the modern left arose in conjunction with the mass working class in the 19th century for a reason.

Because there’s actually a group of people out there who have not only the material interest, but actually have the power to change the world. I don’t think that a handful of people writing or speaking truth to power have that power. So I would love to see a left that continues to follow the lessons of the Sanders campaigns, and continues to evolve from them, and actually wins.

But it’s a very complicated question, in part because we have such a hollowed-out civil society. We don’t really have the avenues of popular politics that we used to, and we’re stuck, basically, just with election campaigns. And it’s a tricky thing to try to regenerate civil society when it doesn’t really exist anywhere.

It’s not just a problem of the left. It’s a problem of the entire political spectrum. It’s particularly bad for the left, because we actually need to mobilize a lot of people to get things done, whereas if you’re on the right, you could find a way to elect a few of the right people, get the few of the right court appointments, and you could probably carry out a lot of your program without having millions of people actively behind you.

ezra klein

I think that’s a good place to end. So always a final question — what are three books you would recommend to the audience?

bhaskar sunkara

I think that everyone in the audience — this is very on-brand, too, but I think everyone should read Michael Harrington. Harrington, for most of the mid-century, was the most prominent American socialist. His adversary, William F. Buckley, actually once introduced him that way.

Then, he very quickly added that that’s like being the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas. But I recommend you read his last book that he wrote when he had cancer, “Socialism: Past & Future.”

I also think that at least what drew me to the left was reading history and having a sense of the long arc of history, which I’m not so certain nowadays bends towards justice, but I think it always helps. Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Age of Extremes,” but his whole set of four books on modern history, I would highly recommend. I think that would be a great, great starting place.

Then, for the third book, you know, I really think everyone should read my book, “The Socialist Manifesto.” Because I haven’t plugged that in a long time —

ezra klein

Oh, you can’t do your own books as one of the three. Not allowed.

bhaskar sunkara

I’m just kidding. No, I think for the third book, I would really recommend that people read Adolph Reed’s recent political memoir. I’m not sure if he who would like it described as a memoir, but it’s called “The South.” It just came out from Verso Books, and I just finished reading it.

It’s a really excellent discussion about contemporary politics, about also his past growing up in the Jim Crow South, and how it informs his current political worldview. So it’s by the political scientist Adolph Reed, and it’s called, “The South.”

ezra klein

Bhaskar Sunkara, thank you very much.

bhaskar sunkara

Thanks for having me, Ezra.

ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Roge Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Kate Sinclair; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing and engineering by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.

Leave a comment