Things happen for a reason
It is easy to vilify the left. Effective vilification requires only money, political power, and access to the media. Those presently involved in the current campaign of defaming the left have had access to those three necessary ingredients for such a long time that engaging in the rhetoric of vilification demands very little work. In all practical terms, all that’s demanded from them is to keep in mind Hitler’s instruction: “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Seventy-five years after his death, the German Nazi still seems to have many dedicated disciples in America who are willing, and able, to follow his dictum. The contemporary merchants of delusion and slander are of course the usual suspects:
- Big corporations (money)
- Political institutions in Washington such as Trump’s White House, the Senate, the Judiciary, and political parties working for the interests of Wall Street (political power) and
- Professional incubators of misinformation and slander such as the sycophants of Fox News (the media). To put all this in simpler terms, the triumvirate of economics, politics, and ideological control continue to operate on a daily basis in the U.S.
Nonetheless, at this point in the lethal game of American class-struggle, pointing at the enemy may be important but that identification constitutes no new news. We know who they are, we know how they play this class-game, and we know how to recognize them even after they have changed their names, faces, or the name of their teams. What’s more important to ask ourselves now is, what is making the current avalanche of vilification against the left possible? What trigger has activated the visceral attitudes of the organized forces of the American right in the present political moment? And finally, the perennial question of politics: What’s to be done?
…deception, slander, defamation, and discrediting the individual precede or accompany all forms of political opposition against the left.
Socialism, women, the very young and organized labor
Capitalists do not care much about peace of mind. All they need is to maintain political peace. In other words, they need to preserve a political climate that favors what they consider to be the ‘normal, uninterrupted’ pursuit of their interests i.e. the expansion of profits. If we take a panoramic view of what for decades has been considered the customary political discourse of America, it becomes obvious that the so-called normality of the existing rhetoric of domination is being challenged by new and emergent (or re-emergent) political actors willing to challenge the current social conditions and propose new alternatives.
This article argues that the agents of disturbance prompting the rabid, vitriolic vilification of the left include the following: the advent of socialism as part of the new American political vocabulary and political reality; the growing emergence of young and socially aware women leading and transforming the old American political arena; the comeback of organized labor leaning towards the left; and the participation of youth (from elementary to high school) who are taking a critical position and actively participating in the discussion of how to construct—in the present time, and with a sense of planetary ecological urgency —the foundations for an ecologically responsible society in the future.
The serious potential threat of these four forces combined has not escaped the political radar of the American right, particularly in the context of the upcoming presidential elections. Unable to mount and sustain a serious critique of the overall platform of social justice and ecological responsibility advocated by the left (an inability demonstrated, for instance, by Bernie Sanders’ successful participation in a discussion of health care for all and the Green New Deal on Fox News a few days ago), what is left in the ideological arsenal of the right is the bag of tricks inherited from cold war ideological dinosaurs such as J. Edgar Hoover (FBI) and Allen W. Dulles (CIA). In this bag, deception, slander, defamation, and discrediting the individual precede or accompany all forms of political opposition against the left.
The new agents of disturbance of American capitalism
Bernie Sanders and his movement deserve a prominent mention in any discussion of the reintroduction of socialism to mainstream political discourse. Nonetheless, this achievement does not stand alone; it rests upon the shoulders of a long tradition of revolutionary organizations (Socialists, Communist, Trotskyists, anarchists, etc. ) that goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, and that in a different fashion—sometimes in contradiction with each other—have kept alive the idea that a better world is possible under socialism. While in many instances membership in these revolutionary organizations has been and continues to be small, nevertheless, these organizations, without dismay and in spite of continuous harassment from the repressive organizations of the state, have persevered in their political work among workers, minorities, discriminated against groups, student organizations, and more.
In synch with this revolutionary tradition, the strictly constitutional framing of Sanders’ socialist strategy has challenged the aforementioned triumvirate of power, primarily through electoral and parliamentary gains. In 2016 his movement was able to agglutinate 13 million people and he won 23 primaries throughout the nation. In the 2018 elections, Sanders et al played a key role in barring the Republican majority from the House of Representatives. In a nod to the traditions in which Sanders works, recent surveys of young adults under the age of twenty-nine show that the majority identify themselves more as socialists than as supporters of capitalism.
Democrats look to the Mueller report, not to any social platform
While the demonization of Bernie Sanders originated primarily within the Republican political spectrum, it has also been echoed by the Democratic Party establishment. This Democratic opposition to Sanders has an old history, and it is not limited to previous attacks on his persona at the hands of the Clintons’ vindictive apparatus. A recent article by the New York Times (April 16, 2019), describes the current efforts of some Democrats and their ‘donor class’ supporters to thwart Sanders’ potential nomination at all costs. According to the Times, these efforts have lately assumed the form of an anti-Sanders campaign via “undisclosed Democratic dinners in New York” attended by, among others, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, and the president of the so-called Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden. Let’s be clear. High-ranking Democrats have spent more time waiting for the Mueller Report in order to incriminate Trump than agglutinating popular support behind a social platform that benefits the people and the nation. That’s has been the main difference between them and Bernie Sanders.
Attacking progressive women
The next group being vilified is the one comprised by women like Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and many others. Omar and Tlaib are the first Muslim women elected to Congress, Presley is the first black woman from Massachusetts to serve in Congress, and Ocasio Cortez is the youngest person, not to mention the youngest Democratic Socialist, ever elected to Congress. All these women, particularly Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, are the recipients of a virulent and vicious campaign of vilification aimed at their identity, their religious beliefs, their personalities, and in the case of AOC, her humble origins in the workforce. This degraded form of civil discourse is carried out through innumerable media actions: via newspapers articles, books, TV shows, sermons, Twitter, Facebook ads, government documents, etc. At the moment of this writing, Omar and AOC continue to be vilified for their progressive political stands, and also for challenging, with their actions, the obsolete ideology of American patriarchs. Besides experiencing direct attacks from the Trump administration and its allies, AOC and Omar have also encountered direct hostility and a clear distancing rhetoric seeking to ostracize their progressive positions within the Democratic establishment.
Disparaging union activism
This spring Dissent magazine reported that last year, “more workers took part in strikes than any year since 1986 [and] fully 62 percent of Americans support unions; according to a recent Gallup poll, that number has increased 14 points over the last decade.” Moreover, unions played a significant role in the 2018 elections in terms of electing progressive candidates, particularly in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. The red state teacher strikes and the Los Angeles teachers’ victory a couple of months ago, as well as the airport workers’ struggle, all suggest a potential come–back of labor and a clear turn to the left in spite of a steady campaign to undermine union power. This campaign of vilification has been directed mostly to teachers’ unions, organized and propelled by the chronic unsubstantiated style of the presidential twitters.
Transformation arising from youth activism
Finally, very young students from elementary to high school level have decided to play an oppositional and transformative role in American politics. The source of this political awareness and decision appears to be twofold. First, it’s a survival response to the numerous student massacres taking place in the nation, leading to massive nationwide activism aiming to regulate the relatively free ‘distribution’ of guns in the U.S. The second source has an international origin. It was sparked in Europe by 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg. Her activism and example have found fertile ground within the youth in American schools. This culminated recently in nationwide rallies joining the Global Youth Climate Strike Movement (which is active in more than 1,200 cities in 90-plus countries).
In the words of a young American activist, “If the adults are going to screw-up our entire future, we have to do something about it.” Needless to say, if we look at how deliberately detrimental this administration has been for the environment and at the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Trump’s nomination of Greta as spokesperson for the United States at the UN, while declaring that he would offer automatic citizenship to Swedish minors whose first name begins with G, is nothing other than a desperate publicity act designed to trivialize both Greta and her cause.
What’s to be done?
First, we need to be alert to the mechanisms of vilification, which include deliberate trivializing of serious issues, serious platforms, serious people. Second, we need to recognize that the struggle against the domination of capital and its interests is a long one. As Terry Eagleton writes, we have to maintain hope without optimism. Finally, we need to be alert to and supportive of the use of political rhetoric that transgresses traditional tropes and in so doing, opens up new spaces for reflection and debate. AOC’s new video on The Intercept is a brilliant example.
A way forward with the next generation
In that video, AOC breaks away from tradition. The protagonist of the struggle to address climate change is not a singular actor, but rather a member of one generation seeking to be replaced by members of an even younger generation. The protagonist isn’t driven by her interest in serving as a leader but rather by the suffering inflicted on others through deliberate strategies of vilification and climate denial. The protagonist is merely one person in a long line of people who are committed to doing the right thing for the people and the planet—the axis of history does not run through an individual, but rather the individual places herself in a larger historical tradition. At the same time, the protagonist has a self—she isn’t acting selflessly but rather, she’s acting in the interests of her own and the next generation.
Enrique Quintero is an engaged observer of the current political scene.