the left

Why Can’t the Left Take the W?

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn

I have suggested — here and elsewhere — that leftists are gifted losers. Reared on a diet of defeat, we easily metabolize each loss into renewed expressions of resolve. When we are vanquished, we rise again. We are talented in the art of self-soothing. Our enemies’ power is always further evidence of their perfidy; our weakness, a sign of our untainted virtue. We lose; we mourn; we organize. Rinse and repeat.

Winning, by contrast, is not a core competency. When it happens, we don’t know quite what to do with ourselves. Our joints creak as we shift from a defensive crouch to a triumphant stand. This confusion is compounded when the victory is — as most of them are — a product of compromise: a half or quarter measure, necessary but insufficient for the world we want, not good enough but better than nothing. In such cases, we are haunted by a strong temptation to forego the ambivalence of claiming lukewarm victory for the colder, clearer comfort of conceding righteous defeat.

The month of August saw two historic but partial victories for the American left.

First, President Biden signed into law the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history. The bill, passed under the midterm-friendly moniker “Inflation Reduction Act” and packaged with new ACA subsidies and Medicare prescription-drug benefits, includes $369 billion to scale up the renewable energy sector, tens of billions of dollars dedicated to frontline communities, and projected emissions reductions of 40 percent by 2030. And yet, the IRA contains no measures to meaningfully fetter the fossil-fuel industry and several dirty-energy measures — including new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and a gas pipeline through West Virginia — to sweeten the deal for Joe Manchin. The impact of these compromises, several climate-justice organizations warned, would fall disproportionately on poor, Black, and Indigenous communities.

A week later, Biden announced $10,000 in student debt relief for low- and middle-income borrowers — and up to $20,000 for Pell grantees. The historic decision will wipe out loan balances for as many as 20 million people (including, uh, me). But for the most severely burdened borrowers — a disproportionate number of whom are Black — $10,000 is a drop in the bucket. As the NAACP tweeted, “Canceling $10,000 of student debt after ‘considering’ it for more than a year and a half is like waiting on hold for 6 hours only to get a 5% refund.”

Neither of these two wins was possible without many years of activist organizing. And both fell far short of the left’s highest aims. As a result, they were greeted by leftists with a febrile mix of dejection and relief. “This should be, this must be, the worst climate bill that has ever passed … in terms of comparing it to future climate bills,” said David Sirota, a former Bernie Sanders campaign senior advisor. “Because if it’s not. If this is the best it gets, we are really, truly, ecologically screwed.”

It can be difficult, in times like this, to walk the line between cynicism and naïveté. Can we claim our partial victories without generating complacency? Can we lament their (sometimes insulting) insufficiencies without indulging in despair?

I spoke to two people who think we can and must: Daniel Sherrell, a longtime climate-movement organizer who helped push the IRA across the finish line, and Astra Taylor, co-founder of the Debt Collective, whose members engaged in an unrelenting ten-year campaign, including several successful debt strikes, to force Biden’s hand on student-debt relief.

“You have to do both, unabashedly,” said Sherrell. “On the celebration front, it makes sense to be like, Fuck yeah. This is a huge, historic thing that wouldn’t have happened without decades of climate movement organizing.” The bloodless, technocratic language of emissions reduction, Sherrell told me, elides the millions of lives that will be saved by these measures. But at the same time, he said, “we can and should be just as unabashed in condemning the atrocious pieces that the oligarchy forced in.”

Sherrell doesn’t buy the idea that celebrating the victory implies “skating over the shortcomings.” Rather, he said, “we need to be able to hold both of those strong emotions and be like, These are not incompatible; this is just the inevitable result of a political system in which we have not built enough power to dictate climate policy entirely on our own terms, which is just the truth.” The narrative, he said, “could be like, Great, we destroyed one horcrux, onto the next.”

What’s more, if activists refuse to acknowledge anything good about the measure — for fear of promoting complacency on the part of their political targets — then they also don’t get to claim any credit for forcing them to act. This, then, has the effect of allowing politicians to claim exclusive credit for the bill and present themselves as having acted out of the goodness of their hearts, thereby generating the self-satisfaction and complacency the left was trying to avoid.

In that case, said Sherrell, “you’re letting Chuck Schumer and Biden claim that this was all the result of their foresight and sagacity. When, in reality, the climate movement fought tooth and nail to get this to the center of their agenda and keep it there.”

Taylor’s organization has done a brilliant job simultaneously celebrating its victory and pointing to the inadequacy of Biden’s actions. As she wrote in The New Republic, “For millions of others, including most members of the Debt Collective … $10,000 or even $20,000 doesn’t begin to chip away at the interest that has capitalized on their balance sheets, and it won’t reduce their monthly payments.” Still she isn’t shy about claiming the move as “a landmark victory for student debtors.”

And she isn’t sweating the haters. “The fact that so many people were disappointed with $10,000 or $20,000 is itself a huge victory for us,” she said. “Because five years ago, most people felt entitled to zero.” Social movements fought to politicize debt; now we have a language with which to criticize this inadequate policy. Instead of a burden of shame, people feel entitled to relief, which is exactly what the ruling class fears and Debt Collective has been fighting for. “I feel like all those griping people on the internet are a victory, you know?” she said.

One of the odd things about movement organizing is that if you’re successful at shifting the horizon of the possible, then demands that once seemed radical will seem utterly banal by the time you win them. “And you want them to seem banal,” said Taylor. “You want to shift common sense. You want a new consensus.” But the effect of this achievement can be that many people lose sight of the work it took to change history.

It’s important people know how it happened, to know that collective action works — that you can really take an issue like student debt, politicize it, build a movement, and win billions of dollars of relief in the course of a decade. “Nothing would’ve happened without people fucking busting their asses,” said Taylor. “Biden’s track record is that of a man who has served the creditor class. He made his name serving the financial industry. He did not want to do this.

The climate movement finds itself riven by familiar tensions over the IRA. Many young people and the leaders of groups representing marginalized communities have expressed the most trepidation, while older and whiter environmentalists have been its most ardent champions. But Sherrell believes it would be a huge mistake to fail to celebrate this qualified win, even if it leaves too much of the unjust status quo in place. “Saying to people, ‘We did this. And it’s only the beginning. Join us.’ That is a powerful message,” he said.

Failing to take credit would mean foregoing the opportunity to politicize the beneficiaries of the law’s investments. What is more, celebrating our wins is important for creating a sustainable movement — one that people want to join and be a part of. “Say you’re building a house from scratch, and you’re working with a crew of friends,” said Sherrell. “It would be weird if once you finish some big milestone — like you built the foundation, you built the porch — you didn’t buy everybody a beer and just take a moment to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. The house isn’t done, of course, there’s a ton of work left to do, but you’re looking back at what used to be an empty lot and suddenly there’s the foundation, the beginning of something you are going to make beautiful.”

“You want to associate that feeling of enjoyment with participation in the project,” he said. “A movement that never allows itself moments of revelry and enjoyment and pride, people are just not going to feel good in that movement. And people who are outside the movement aren’t going to want to join it.”

It may be a sense of desperation, deprivation, and anger that gets people through the door of a political project, but it requires moments of jubilation — of seeing one’s tireless work pay off — to sustain it. If, by contrast, the only thing holding us together is “a sort of commiserative cynicism,” said Sherrell, “that is a recipe for a small un-powerful movement.”

Why Can’t the Left Take the W?