Ryan Grim’s book, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement, begins—as most Lefty exhortations tend to nowadays—with slavery.
More specifically, it’s the North’s response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that Grim argues can provide a better sense of our current political moment’s dynamics and offer insight into what’s needed to meaningfully stem the tide of cultural conservatism. “Moderation and compromise could no longer counter the far Right,” he writes, describing a spirit of progressivism that had taken hold in a segment of white society following the South getting a legal boost to pursue a regional expansion of its slavocracy. “Only a movement bent on the full blown destruction of slavery was capable of meeting the challenge. It was the 19th Century American version of socialism or barbarism.”
As analogies go, it’s imperfect. But the ease with which it’s made is consistent with the U.S. Left’s eagerness to always invoke the specific plight of ADOS when thinking about and insisting on (as We’ve Got People indeed does) a mass movement politics in America that centers a multiracial, multiethnic working class agenda to challenge the spread and entrenchment of corporate interests. Left unsaid however is how the full-spectrum exclusion experienced specifically by ADOS over the course of centuries has rendered them uniquely vulnerable in modern coalition politics. More often than not, these sorts of alliance-based initiatives have co-opted ADOS’s struggle for inclusion as a cosmetic feature rather than earnestly worked to ensure its incorporation and advancement. After all, if, as Grim argues, the black freedom struggle in America first exposed the “cynical lie” that change cannot be effected (a feat he feels should inform today’s Left’s vision of what’s possible with progressive, broad-based coalitions), then it seems important to also bear in mind how—since ADOS provided us with that glimpse of the seemingly impossible (and since the Left has greatly expanded and diversified its electorate)—we’ve nevertheless allowed the group’s condition as the nation’s bottom caste to remain essentially the same.
In this way, ADOS exposes yet another ‘cynical lie’: namely, that when it comes to entering into political relations with their group, there will be meaningful recognition among the constituent parties of the specific debt that they are owed.
Left-wing coalition politics in post-1970s America is as much a story about the coming together of many marginalized identities as it is the erasure of ADOS identity in particular. With that, of course, goes the group’s unique, core grievance that they are due financial restitution from the U.S. government. We’ve Got People seems to reveal this phenomenon more than conceal it. Writing about the wave of progressive candidates vying for office following the 2016 election—among which the Ocasio-Cortez campaign figured as the most prominent—Grim claims that it “had begun with a rock thrown into the water in 1983 in Chicago, with the election of Harold Washington.” Powered by a coalition of “progressive whites, blacks, and Latinos”, Washington’s campaign and eventual victory in becoming the city’s first black mayor was also what, according to Grim, “convinced the black community that electoral politics—beyond marching and movement building—were needed to move the Democratic Party forward.”
It’s difficult to read that analysis and not hear “electoral politics” functioning almost euphemistically, as something like a thinly veiled censure of ADOS acting in self-interest (‘beyond marching and movement building’). And in positing a nebulous idea of Democratic Party progress as the optimal upshot of their political advocacy (rather than, say, a Democratic Party that is responsive to the community’s particular needs), Grim seems to capture the grossest of assumptions among the modern Left; namely, that ADOS should freely volunteer their vote to a party that may or may not reciprocate that support legislatively. ADOS marching and movement building were, moreover, clear expressions of their specific (and unfinished) plight (which, it’s worth recalling, Grim opens his book by citing as the source of such great hope for our own battles). And so it’s real hard not to bristle at his suggestion, just a few pages later, of their apparent limitations in the post-1970s political climate and the implication that the group’s cause is ultimately best served by dialing back the direct-action demonstrations meant to foreground their ongoing struggle. The community should instead work to support candidates in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose campaigns “drew thousands of new people into Democratic politics” and which recognized the urgency of “bring[ing] together poor whites, blacks, Latinos and Native Americans to attack poverty and inequality.”
The reader of We’ve Got People, however, will search in vain to find a similar attitude expressed by the author toward non-ADOS groups when it comes to their respective political fights. Discussing the LGBTQ community’s 2010 campaign to force the hand of the Obama administration in repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, Grim lauds the uncompromising assertions of queer identity that were then on display from “fearless”, “committed”, and “hungry” LGBTQ activists across the nation: “They needed Obama to champion the civil rights movement he had promised,” Grim writes, “and to make that happen, they were—perhaps more than any progressive movement—primed to go to war with the administration and the man most of them helped elect.”
Grim also observes how it was precisely the hardcore affirmation of LGBTQ identity in the public sphere—at marches and rallies and in the gay rights organizations that had formed following California’s Prop 8 decision—that ultimately effected a number of legislative gains for their group: “[W]hat the White House, Democratic lawmakers, and even gay Beltway advocates never counted on was having the post-Prop 8 rage from the streets arrive at Washington’s doorstep,” he recalls. “Indeed, the relatively small but dedicated group GetEQUAL grew out of the National Equality March [and t]hroughout the rest of Obama’s first term, the group would serve as an inconvenient reminder of what LGBTQ Americans expected after helping elect the strongest democratic majority government in generations….Several times that year, lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans handcuffed themselves to the fence surrounding the White House, using the spectacle to alert the ubiquitous White House Press Corps and the nation that a key Democratic constituency was losing patience.”
Nowhere does We’ve Got People suggest that the LGBTQ community needed to learn the supposed wisdom in going ‘beyond marching and movement building’, or to begin coalizing with other groups to advance their cause. As they rightly understood—having dependably supplied the Democratic Party with their vote—the sole exchange was between their group and the leadership of the Democratic Party. The LGBTQ activists, as Grim observes, had turned their struggle for inclusion into an “electoral weapon” and forced Democrats to “pick sides.”
The question though, then, is why are some direct action initiatives, like those adopted by the LGBTQ community that explicitly aimed to “convince Democratic lawmakers of a bigger electoral price to pay for failing to advance gay issues than for pushing them”, seen as being of a piece with sound political strategy, while—in the context of ADOS—they are a mark of political inexperience and/or divisiveness?
As We’ve Got People’s chapter on how the Democratic Party was ‘moved forward’ for the LGBTQ community makes clear, it was never about mere representation for them, but rather reciprocation regardless of the sexual preferences of whom they’d helped put in office. There is literally no mention throughout the chapter of the need to construct a more socially inclusive coalition of poor whites, Latinx or Native Americans to advance gay rights; instead, LGBTQ gains were, from the beginning, predicated on emphatically asserting who they are as a group and fearlessly “own[ing] their truth”.
This much is apparent when Grim recounts the day the Supreme Court struck down the marriage ban. He alludes to how Obama’s remarks that day, about the “courageous truth tellers” who’d made such an achievement possible, echoed Harvey Milk’s words nearly forty years earlier: “‘Gay brothers and sisters,’ Milk began, addressing a crowd on June 25, 1978, Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco, ‘you must come out. Come out…to your parents…I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. I know it is hard and will upset them, but think of how they will upset you in the voting booth.”
The story of this year’s Democratic Primary is the neoliberal torpedoing of the Left’s progressive ambitions. That defeat is a direct result of how the Party’s progressive element routinely moved to suppress precisely the sort of radical expression of ADOS identity that would have galvanized grassroots activists and in turn promoted a greater focus on their group’s agenda. That, in turn, would have made possible a conversation within the community about how—by voting for the centrist candidate—the older generation would indeed be substantially hurting them in the voting booth. “If Bernie Sanders had come to us with a real black agenda, with reparations as the heartbeat, we would have made it our business…[to] neutralize Clyburn,” Yvette Carnell, co-founder of the #ADOS movement said, referencing the House Majority Whip’s crucial endorsement of Biden ahead of Super Tuesday. “I mean do you really know what ADOS looks like when reparations is on the table as a give? Do you know how we come out when the thing that we’ve been asking for, and the thing that we deserve—when the debt is on the table—do you know what our turnout looks like once I get out there and Tone gets out there and starts explaining what reparations means to everybody in South Carolina, to people with hookworm, and people with all kind of stuff going on. How we are going to raise your wealth level and have protections in place and ownership in place; do you know what turnout looks like…with a real reparations agenda?”
The Left does not know what that mobilization of ADOS looks like. And if 2020 was any indication, it arguably does not particularly care all that much. To which one can only respond by expressing hope that the sheets in the bed of defeat they are making have a high thread count, because as long as they continue to deny the absolute centrality of ADOS to their electoral success, they are going to be laying in it for at least another four years.
If nothing else, 2020 invites serious consideration of the inverse of We’ve Got People‘s big claim that the victory of Harold Washington back in ’83 signaled to the ADOS community the necessity of conforming to Leftist orthodoxy going forward. That—if they wanted a version of the party that would be more accommodating to their needs—they would necessarily have to pivot from a style of politics that was univocal in its concern toward one more universal in scope. But maybe that’s backwards. Maybe the progressive defeat in 2020 should help convince the Left that it is they who in fact need to reevaluate their stance on specific policy for ADOS, and that that is what will in turn drive the Party forward.
Maybe with the timely recognition of this there will be a place in future books like We’ve Got People to celebrate the self-interest advocacy that characterizes the #ADOS movement. After all, how dissimilar, really, from the words that Harvey Milk spoke (which embody a spirit that Grim obviously admires) are those that are being spoken by Yvette Carnell today as she recommends the Left understand its progressive destiny as uniquely bound up with the ability of ADOS to organize and advocate for itself: “If you give Generation X and below a reparations agenda…and fold [it] into a Leftist agenda…[#ADOS] would have been able to go make a case to our parents and grandparents, [saying] ‘What are you doing? You’re hurting me, because I need reparations; I need this.'”
What fails to really obtain in the American Left is just how badly they (the Left) need it, too. And they need ADOS to start getting reparations sooner rather than later. Because until they do, the alterity of ADOS—which in the economic is just so particular, and just so totally absolute—will leave the progressive Left incapable of resolving the contradictions inherent in applying universal policy prescriptions to a society that has bottomcasted one specific group. Not prioritizing reparations for ADOS in a Left agenda is, at its core, a categorical denial of those people’s right to participate in American life in even a minimally normal way. It is rubber stamping the status quo, consigning them uniformly to the bottom (again), and clapping for yourself.
Because the basic assertion/appeal at the heart of a minority movement for inclusion in American society is this: we are like you. In We’ve Got People, that point is frequently made explicit. Describing the immigrant rights campaign, Grim writes about how the movement “leaned on an assimilation-heavy strategy that rhymed with the approach taken by the LGBTQ community: there’s nothing scary about us; we’re just like you.” Indeed, as Grim explains, it was precisely because of how the LGBTQ community leveraged their “unique dynamic for a minority in America” (that is, their being “a part of every race, gender, culture, religion, political party, and socio-economic group in the nation”) that allowed for an “outsized impact” (relative to their small demographic) when it came to achieving legislative gains.
But to the extent that increased acceptance of a minority group in America relies significantly on a diverse socioeconomic makeup within the group itself, then ADOS—as a class structureless group—simply does not meet this basic requirement. And this is exactly the point. This is the pill to swallow. For ADOS, the burden of proof to demonstrate how ‘like us’ they are can literally never be on them; instead, it is necessarily up to us to come to terms with the fact that we are us only because we have never let them be like us. And so, so often the discourse of the Left seems to be a project of gag ruling anyone who dares point out that basic fact of American society.
To know ADOS is to know a genealogy of disadvantage that resists absolutely the Left’s facile end run around American history. It is to perceive the insurmountable advantage afforded (and the measure of societal tolerance ceded) any group whose level of poverty was not made to operate on the replicative mechanism of generational exclusion. It is to then perhaps be able to place yourself and your capital-i Ideas about justice in relation to their specific condition and begin to think that if you want to start on down the road of anticapitalism then it might be a sensible first step to begin with the group whose families have been made to serve as that system’s most useful placeholder for failure for the last four-hundred and one years. Which would be, of course, to actually meaningfully invite ADOS to join you in your fight by first demonstrating to them how you actually respect them enough to acknowledge the ways in which their fight is different in nature and that it will thus necessarily require a radically different solution.
But it is here where the Left and it’s vanquisher, Joe Biden, converge. What the Left said to ADOS in 2020 was, in essence, the same thing said forty years earlier by the man who—now addle-brained and smiling—is well on the way to the Democratic nomination: “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay [reparations] for what happened 300 years ago.”
Confronted with the idea of the salience of lineage in America, the Left became refractory. They revealed a level of regressiveness at the core of their political project that is sure to hobble future efforts at electoral success. Because when they failed to take seriously the concerns of ADOS, they willingly forfeited a crucial internecine fight that needed to happen in the ADOS community if Biden was to be blocked. They showed how, despite their pronouncements of radicalism, just how content they are to not take on some of the oldest ideas and the oldest attitudes. They said: we’re not interested in taking actual power there, and power was more than happy to stay exactly where it was, which is to say totally and completely out of their reach.