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Margit Mayer, "Die US-Linke und die demokratische Partei: Über die Herausforderungen progressiver Politik in der Biden-Ära" (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2022), 252 pp.:

Margit Mayer, Die US-Linke und die demokratische Partei: Über die Herausforderungen progressiver Politik in der Biden-Ära (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2022), 252 pp.

Coverage of former President Donald Trump’s latest outrageous utterings overshadows news about everything else going on politically in the United States. Since the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the U.S. Congress in 2019, news about progressive political forces have been particularly rare. But the progressives are not dead; they were actually very active in the campaigns for the 2022 midterm elections. It is to Margit Mayer’s credit that she fills this news gap with a comprehensive account of recent developments on the U.S. left in true paperback format (it even fits in your breast pocket). Unfortunately, her critical overview was published in German only; there is currently nothing comparable in the English-speaking world.

Among the “leftists,” Mayer counts the current of (democratic) socialists and other Marxist-oriented groups, the abolitionists (who oppose the repressive justice system), Black Lives Matter as well as Indigenous and other anti-racist movements, feminist and LGBTQ+ groups, and radical parts of the climate and ecology movements, as well as both trade unions and migrant groups that advocate for refugees. Her focus is primarily on the democratic socialist movement and on Black Lives Matter and their relationship to the Democratic Party. But first, she describes the restrictive contexts and structures that have fueled both the strengthening and radicalization of the Republican Party, and the dominance of a neoliberal leadership that targets the urban middle class in the Democratic Party. What makes this chapter also interesting for those familiar with the specifics of the U.S. electoral system is the account of recent measures to make voter turnout more difficult and to curtail the authority of nonpartisan election boards. Equally illuminating is the description of the strategies of neo-reactionary forces, supported in particular by Silicon Valley foundations, to poach the White working class from the Democratic Party. Within the Democratic Party, the leadership aiming at a good relationship with finance and high-tech capital has become more powerful, although, like Bernie Sanders before, some candidates have won in primaries even though they were not supported by the party leadership and big money (for example, John Fetterman). The big problem for both centrists and progressives within the Democratic Party, however, is that their appeal is limited to metropolitan areas. Their campaigns, she argues, are primarily directed at urban and suburban middle classes and do not reach people in rural communities.

In the third chapter, Mayer presents the relevant actors and narratives of the left using the Democratic Socialists (DSA) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements as examples. In doing so, she highlights their differing views of American society, which stem from the differing emphasis on the systems of oppression of class, gender, and race. As a catch-all for Sanders’ supporters, the DSA’s membership grew rapidly, with its primary concern being a strengthening of the working class. However, Mayer argues, this programmatic approach is at odds with the social status of DSA activists. Accordingly, their success in mobilizing workers has been limited. BLM, which has likewise grown rapidly in recent years, would not make it easier to gain access to the working class. And not only because of its emphasis on race over class as a central mechanism of oppression, but also, as Mayer details, because of BLM’s capture by the philanthropic sector and large corporations. As a result, calls for more Black entrepreneurship have come to the fore.

In the fourth chapter, she discusses the domestic policy agenda and central reform projects of the first years of the Biden administration, with an eye toward the conflicts and disputes that erupted over them. The hoped-for changes remained more at the symbolic level, especially in terms of diversity-oriented appointments to cabinet and sub-cabinet positions. Major legislative initiatives to improve social infrastructure and for sustainable energy policies were severely watered down, in no small part due to a few Democratic senators facing a strong fossil fuel and conservative lobby. Ultimately, the money approved would essentially amount to a subsidy for big corporations. But environmental groups also bear responsibility for the very limited results because, Mayer argues, they were too self-absorbed due to disputes over how to deal with gender and race discrimination within their own ranks. Furthermore, readers will learn about the fate of legislative initiatives in the areas of health insurance, migration, abortion, police budgets, labor relations, and research policy.

How the left and progressive movements changed and have changed over the course of the controversies is the subject of the fifth chapter. She identifies a threat to the continued existence of the left in the United States in the move toward the Democratic Party and foundation-sponsored identity politics. In the final chapter, she reiterates her fears that the current stagnation and weakness of the left could fuel the further rise of right-wing populists.

A common thread running through the book is the juxtaposition of class politics with gender, race, ethnic, and queer identity politics. Only such cross-identity class politics could limit the influence of the political right and capital, mitigate economic inequality, and thereby materially benefit the majority of the U.S. population. The identity politics of many groups, supported by the philanthropic sector, however, would contribute decisively to the weakness of progressive forces. This is certainly the case. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that privileged White identity has strongly shaped class-based political projects in the United States to date. My own experience lies a few years back, but White conceit was palpable even among members of the Communist Party (CPUSA). Class-based politics without the hegemony of any particular group will not be possible until the various subtle discriminations within progressive movements are overcome. This is certainly a painful path, but as the real communist experiments have shown, the supposed victory of the working class does overcome other lines of social division.

How to overcome the continuing lines of division and cooptation by capital goes beyond this booklet. Its strength is to call for discussion of this question through an accurate account of the challenges of progressive politics in the Biden era.

Christoph Scherrer (Universität Kassel)

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