by Leo Casey.
The immediate and present danger of an authoritarianism of the far right, in the U.S. and internationally, is now widely recognized on the broad left. The fundamentally racist character of this danger is also widely acknowledged.
To focus on making this case is to preach to the converted, pointing out the glaringly obvious. Even on the ultra-left, the general point is not so much disputed as completely ignored, especially in prescriptions for action, as if this paramount danger had no important ramifications for what the left should do politically. Our emphasis should shift to what is to be done in this moment, given the authoritarian danger.
The critical question before us is how to respond to the danger of authoritarianism from the far right: what are the strategic imperatives of this moment, given this danger?
A grounded left strategic approach begins with the reality we face: the nature of the authoritarian threat from the far right, with its drive to institutionalize white supremacy and autocratic minority rule in the state, and the real danger it poses to essential democratic institutions and cultural norms. Even in their increasingly attenuated forms, political democracy and civil liberties in the U.S. are the indispensable foundation for the organization and struggles of working people, people of color, women, LGBTQ folk, immigrants, and religious minorities. Consequently, a serious left strategy prioritizes the defeat of the neo-fascist threat, which in the U.S. takes the form of a MAGA-dominated Republican Party. In this historical conjuncture, the MAGA forces are our immediate and primary enemy, and their defeat is our first and most important objective. Since the U.S. left is manifestly too small, too weak, and too organizationally immature to accomplish the goal of defeating the authoritarian danger posed by the MAGA forces on its own, it is necessary to join in organizing and to participate in a broad center-left coalition to accomplish this goal.[i]
By contrast, those in the thrall of ultra-left dogma operate from fixed and unyielding first principles that always override concrete conditions: nothing in the emergence of a grave neo-fascist danger has caused them to reconsider their absolute prioritization of opposition to the Democratic Party. From their perspective, the liberal and centrist forces in the Democratic Party are ever and always the primary political enemy, as they spread ‘illusions’ about what is required for real social change, and so keep working people from flocking to the banner of working class revolution. Take the recent panel “DSA Adrift?,” featuring various ultra-left currents in and around DSA: the entire focus of the event – every question and every answer, all prepared in advance – was on the ‘corruption’ of the Democratic Party, the ‘opportunism’ of DSA’s elected members in the U.S. Congress, and the need for an ideologically driven vanguard party dedicated to the precepts of ‘revolutionary Marxism.’ In the eyes of the panel’s organizers and participants, the looming danger of neo-fascism did not even merit discussion. This is a politics that brings to mind the refrain of the old Talking Heads song, “same as it ever was”: if a time machine could assemble this panel at various points in the last one hundred years (say 1923, 1935, 1945, 1968, 1984, and 2001), its participants would offer the same political analyses and political prescriptions in all but the most minor details.
The left can and should put forward its own analysis of the danger of authoritarianism from the far right and its program for how to defeat it within this center-left coalition. Contrary to ultra-left doctrine, there is nothing about participation in a broad front that precludes making an intelligent democratic socialist case for how that front can best achieve its objectives. During the 1930s and 1940s, the left did precisely that in many different nations where it participated in a united front against the classical form of fascism; in that context, it grew significantly in size and influence. But other forces in the broad center-left coalition must be treated as allies and partners, not enemies, for the left to get a proper hearing for its analysis and program.
It is insufficient, however, to simply invoke the strategic necessity of a broad left-center front against far-right authoritarianism and the MAGA forces. We must elaborate what it means to build such a coalition in practice – with specifics about the work such a coalition should take up.
There are two primary fronts on which the battle against authoritarianism from the far right and the MAGA forces must be fought – the first on the terrain of the state, and the second on the terrain of civil society.
Engaging in struggle on the terrain of the state: winning elections and defending democratic institutions of government.
Beginning with the 2016 Presidential election, elections have been the most critical political battleground in the battle against the MAGA forces. While the 2020 Presidential election and the 2022 mid-term election by no means vanquished the MAGA forces, who continue to be an existential threat to U.S. democracy, important victories were won by center-left forces. The 2020 defeat of Donald Trump in his re-election bid, the 2022 defeat of ‘election denier’ MAGA Republican candidates who could have controlled the running of elections in key battleground states, the 2022 holding of the Democratic majority in the Senate and 2022 victories in major state governments have all kept the MAGA forces from gaining and consolidating control over key apparatuses of the state. And that has given democratic forces essential breathing space to continue the political struggle against the authoritarianism of the far right. Indeed, it was victory of the center-left coalition in the 2020 presidential election that led the MAGA forces to resort to violent ‘putschism’ in the form of the January 6th insurrection, and to launch frontal attacks on free and fair elections in its wake.
The stakes of these electoral struggles are such that there are no margins to indulge ideological posturing, political performativity, and campaigns designed to make this or that propaganda point which provide nothing more than a ‘moral victory.’ If the state is to be kept out of the hands of the neo-fascist MAGA forces intent upon seizing permanent control of it and entrenching white supremacy and minority rule, there is no acceptable substitute to winning these elections and defeating the Republicans. Strategically, this reality demands that we put our resources – especially our volunteer boots-on-the-ground resources – into organizations on the left that can and will mount electoral field campaigns which contribute in a meaningful way to victory. While the most effective organizations working in electoral campaigns will vary according to context and local conditions, the general terrain is clear enough: it includes the major unions; community organizations such as those affiliated with the Center for Popular Democracy; and the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, Indivisible, the Sunrise movement, and Our Revolution. While various civil rights organizations (for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks) and faith communities (especially the Black church) are not built to work for or against particular candidates and parties, they can do vital work such as non-partisan voter registration and get out the vote efforts (‘souls to the polls’).
At this point, we must exclude from this list left organizations that have election campaign capacity and yet – for reasons of political pollution taboos against supporting liberal and centrist Democratic candidates and internal paralysis – fail to engage in this critical political struggle. This is the case with DSA, which has chosen again and again in recent critical national elections (2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022) to avoid even calling for a vote for Democrats to defeat MAGA Republicans, much less participating in actual campaigning to that end. While there is nothing wrong in campaigning to elect small numbers of democratic socialists as part of a broad campaign to defeat the MAGA Republicans, as Bernie Sanders and the Squad have done, the idea that this goal should be pursued to the exclusion of the broader fight against MAGA neo-fascism is a major political error.[ii] It must be said plainly: this sectarian approach to electoral work is a policy of de facto abstention from the most important political terrain of the struggle against neo-fascism and racism in the U.S. As someone who engaged in unsuccessful efforts to convince DSA to join these critical battles in 2016 and 2020, it is now painfully clear to me that this was time and effort that would have been better spent with other left organizations engaged in actual campaigning against MAGA Republicans.
As critical as winning the elections themselves is, it is also crucial to maintain and advance, as much as is possible, the integrity of free and fair elections. The struggle to protect voting rights against voter suppression laws and regulations, to maintain the independent and impartial administration of elections, to roll back extreme gerrymandering in states such as Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Wisconsin and prevent its expansion in other states, and to block state laws which give state legislatures the power to override elections is pivotal. This struggle requires that we involve ourselves in the political terrain of federal and state legislation.
Engaging in struggle on the terrain of civil society: defending unions, public education, free and independent communications media, and oppressed and marginalized communities under attack.
Democratic governance does not stand on its own. It is rooted in democratic society and culture, and it relies upon them for its sustenance and its survival. The neo-fascist offensive of the MAGA forces has not simply attacked democratic government; it has sought to undermine the societal and cultural underpinnings of democracy. The defeat of the authoritarian danger requires that we understand this component of the danger, and that we develop a strategic approach which prioritizes this front of the struggle with meaningful campaigns.
Civil society has the capacity to confound authoritarianism in fundamental ways: it brings working people together in associations and organizations outside of the direct control of the state, making possible democratic collective action from below. For this reason, authoritarian movements and states invariably seek to eviscerate and dominate the independent spaces and institutions of civil society. Perhaps nowhere is this authoritarian impulse more evident than in the attacks on unions, as unions have been at the center of democratic movements and insurgencies across the globe over the last century.
Despite a decades-long decline in the size and density of U.S. unions, they continue to be the largest and most significant mass organizations on the broad left, without any meaningful competitors. If U.S. unions had the economic and social power they possessed at their height, when one-third of the workforce was organized, we would be at a quite different political crossroads today. Consider the fact that when white workers are organized in unions and involved in common cause with people of other races, they are much less likely to embrace racist views. If the once great industrial unions were still the potent forces that provided the political muscle for the passage of the New Deal and the Great Society, there would be many fewer white male workers that being drawn into the MAGA base through appeals to white racial resentment. As it is, even in their current form U.S. unions – especially public sector and service sector unions – have put into the field the most substantial campaign operations to defeat the MAGA Republicans in recent elections. This is why the MAGA forces which now control the U.S. House of Representatives will put unions in their cross-hairs, as will MAGA controlled state governments in places such as Florida and Texas. Teacher unions will be a particular target, because they are among the largest and most organizationally substantial of U.S. unions, because they have mounted especially effective electoral campaigns, and because they are at the intersection of another critical front in the MAGA forces offensive against democratic civil society, public education.[iii]
Public education – both preK-12 and higher education – contains the civil society institutions with the greatest capacity to educate young people into the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of democratic citizenship. Public schools can impart to their students the ability to think critically and independently, to reason logically and problem solve, and to question authority, all of which are inimical to authoritarian rule. At their best, public schools can bring together youth from different races and ethnicities, different social and economic backgrounds, different religious faiths, and different sexes, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and teach them how to work with each other in common purpose, toward the achievement of common goods. Even when public education fails to realize its full promise on these counts, which occurs far more than it should in the U.S., the fact that it has this democratic potential makes it a constant threat to authoritarian movement and states. And that has made public education in the U.S. into a target of MAGA forces.
The MAGA offensive against public education is being fought on two fronts. First, there are moves to eviscerate public education institutionally, primarily through the establishment and expansion of voucher systems which would shift government preK-12 funding to private religious schools and home schooling – education delivery systems which are better aligned with the politics of the right. (This is a shift from the prior conservative focus on establishing charter schools.) Second, there are attempts to mire public education in various ‘culture wars’ with attacks on the teaching of complete and accurate U.S. history and civics (the misleading assaults of ‘critical race theory’ and the 1619 Project), attacks on policies that have been used to mitigate transmission of Covid in public schools during the pandemic, and attacks on equity and inclusion programs for students of color and LGBTQ students. On this last front, the attacks on public education have become a major vehicle for inciting moral panics against marginalized communities, with particularly virulent attacks on transgender students and drag queen story hours designed to create interest in books and reading. The objective is to use these moral panics to delegitimize public education: hence, the claim – simultaneously absurd and outrageous – that teachers who make their classrooms welcoming places for LGBTQ students are sexually ‘grooming’ students.[iv]
While many on the left are familiar with some of the different elements of the MAGA offensive against public education, its full scope is not generally appreciated, as it operates primarily on the terrain of the state – rather than federal – governments, and so receives less attention. Perhaps the best illustration of how it operates is found the state of Florida, where through his vigorous pursuit of this offensive, Governor DeSantis has become the champion of those on the right who seek an autocratic ‘Trumpism without Trump.’ Just last week, Florida Republicans unveiledproposed legislation which would institute a universal K-12 voucher program, putting the state’s public education system in jeopardy; two years ago, DeSantis shepherded a major expansion of Florida’s voucher system into law.[v]
This voucher initiative follows closely on a spate of recent legislation and state regulations designed to reshape the instruction of Florida’s schools in fundamental ways – the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the Stop W.O.K.E. act, and a ban on teaching “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project. The common objective of these measures is to restrict how educators can teach the history and the contemporary reality of race, sexuality, and gender identity, as well as how schools can address discrimination which students of color and LGBTQ students face. To maximize their chilling effect on educators, these laws and regulations are general and vague in their proscriptions, and they establish an individual right of action modeled after the Texas anti-abortion law, so that literally anyone who decides that they don’t like what is being taught can sue a school district and seek to have an educator fired. DeSantis and his Department of Education has made it clear that they will pursue the most expansive definitions of these prohibitions: we have now seen state directed ‘trainings’ of school librarians on the many books that must be kept from the shelves of their libraries (Florida ranks second in the nation on book banning); the rejection of almost half of the standard textbooks used to teach K-12 Mathematics in the U.S. on the grounds that they “indoctrinate” because they included references to vaccines, climate change, and socio-emotional learning; and the prohibition of a new Advanced Placement course in African-American Studies, which is being developed through a rigorous peer-reviewed national process, because it “lacks education value” and is “contrary to Florida law.”
Attacks on fundamental academic freedoms are taking place in Florida’s public colleges and universities. In recent years, University of Florida political scientists were told by their state university administrators they could not serve as expert witnesses for plaintiffs challenging the state’s voter suppression laws.[vi] In response to a recent DeSantis demand that state colleges and universities provide information on courses and programs that include any mention of “diversity, equity and inclusion” and “critical race theory,” the heads of those institutions immediately caved, issuing a joint statement in which they announced that they would “not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” Just as K-12 teachers in Florida are pulling books from their class libraries out of fear that they will be criminally prosecuted, faculty in Florida’s colleges and universities have also begun to self-censor, dropping courses on race and racism that could conceivably trigger disciplinary action and lead to the loss of their jobs.
With DeSantis’ sponsorship, Florida has become ground zero for a national MAGA effort to overwhelm and capture the democratic governance of public education. Led by the proto-fascist Moms for Liberty, which originated in Brevard County, Florida with DeSantis’ support, chaotic – and on occasion, violent – disruptions of school board meetings were organized across the country. Individual board members were personally targeted for their positions on issues of Covid prevention measures such as masking, and the rights of transgender students and students of color. Much like the far right attacks on those who administer local elections, the point of these efforts was to drive out with vitriolic attacks those who had run for school boards simply to make a positive difference in schools. Insofar as the MAGA forces were also successful in bullying school boards into banning books and undoing educational efforts that addressed questions of race, sexuality and gender identity, it was a bonus – the immediate objective was not so much to change policy, but to capture control of the school boards. It was all a prelude to the 2022 mid-term elections, in which far right poured large amounts of dark money into an all-out campaign to win control of local school boards across the country. Like much of the far right’s efforts in the 2022 mid-term elections, this campaign came up short: Moms for Liberty itself admitted that it lost a majority of the school board races where it had endorsed candidates. But the successes were far too many to see this MAGA offensive to gain control of school boards as anything but an ongoing threat. And in Florida, the efforts of the far right were largely successful: 24 of the 30 candidates endorsed and financed by DeSantis won. No sooner did these candidates take office this month than they begin to fireincumbent school district superintendents.
In Florida’s college and universities, DeSantis has now installed a wide swath of conservative trustees and officials. In a particularly shocking move, these trustees – led by far right provocateur Chris Rufo – have announced their intentions to remake Florida’s New College, a small four year institution with a long tradition of progressive education, into a version of Hillsdale College, an outpost of strident Trumpian ideology in higher education.
At every step, Florida’s teacher union – a merged federation of the two national teacher unions, AFT and NEA – has opposed DeSantis’ educational agenda and opposed him electorally. In retaliation, DeSantis is now sponsoring legislation that would prohibit union members from having their dues automatically deducted from their pay cheques; if passed, this measure would force the union to spend time and resources to solicit dues on a regular basis from every individual member.
Let me conclude by explicitly noting what is absent from this account of the MAGA offensive against public education in Florida and across the country, and of the larger MAGA offensive against civil society – the organized U.S. left. That is because the organized left itself has yet to understand the character of this front in the struggle against authoritarianism from the far right, and is largely absent from the primary battles in it, which have been left to teacher unions and educational progressives to fight on their own. That must change, if the larger battle is to be won.
[i] It is worth pointing out, if only parenthetically, that the most substantial progressive advances in American history, from the Reconstruction to the defeat of Jim Crow, from the New Deal to the Great Society, have relied upon broad center-left coalitions.
[ii] This DSA policy is not even successful on its own terms: there are now more DSA members in Congress who have been elected without the endorsement and support of the organization than those who have been elected with it. As ultra-left and sectarian attacks from within its ranks on DSA’s elected members have grown, and as ever more purity litmus tests have been imposed for endorsement, DSA members who are viable candidates for national office are increasingly choosing to not seek the organization’s endorsement. It is only a matter of time, I would suggest, before they part ways with the organization.
[iii] The recent attack of former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on AFT President Randi Weingarten – calling Weingarten the “most dangerous person in the world,” more dangerous than “Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un” – is a striking example of the MAGA Republican attacks on teacher unions. Pompeo’s characterization came in the midst of a long diatribe of his against “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project.
[iv] DeSantis’ press sectary, Christina Pushaw, would accuse opponents of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law of being sexual “groomers.”
[v] Arizona recently adopted such a system, and the Republican governor of Iowa has also proposed one. Voucher use is currently concentrated in battleground states where MAGA Republicans have control of the state legislature: Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
[vi] Under public pressure, the administrators would eventually withdraw this directive.
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