Moon Over Alabama: Elections and the left

My weekly digest for The Guardian, looking back on Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama with the help of Brecht and Weill, Sheldon Wolin, Matt Bruenig, and Eddie Glaude.

Some excerpts:

Since Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama, when the mild centrist Doug Jones defeated the menacing racist Roy Moore, social media has been spinning two tunes. Politicians tweeted Lynyrd Skyrnyrd’s Sweet Home, Alabama. Historians tweeted the 1934 classic Stars Fell on Alabama.

My mind’s been drifting to The Alabama Song. Not the obvious reference from The Doors/Bowie version – “Oh, show us the way to the next little girl” – but two other lines that recur throughout the song: “We now must say goodbye … I tell you we must die.”

It’s a lyric for the left, which can’t seem to let go of its sense of defeat, even when the right loses.

But the left doesn’t need to convince every last Republican of the error of their ways. It doesn’t need to put all Republican voters in the public square, forcing them to recant their beliefs. It doesn’t need Christian suasion, encouraging rightwingers to apologize and confess their sins.

In an electoral democracy, the way to break your opponents – especially opponents like these – is to demoralize them, to make them feel they are a small and isolated minority, that their cause is a loser.

On election day, the left needs to convince the right – not through voter suppression or intimidation but through rhetoric and speech – that their movement is going nowhere, so they shouldn’t either. That’s exactly what happened in Alabama, where “the biggest reason for the shift” in counties that voted for Trump last November going for Jones this December is that “GOP voters stayed home”, according to MCIMaps.

What black voters, particularly black women, have gotten instead is a lot of thank-yous. From liberals and Democrats, on Twitter and Facebook: thank youblack people, for saving “us” or America or democracy from “ourselves”.

It’s a weird move, with weird overtones. Rather than treating black people as political agents in their own right, acting in their own interest, rather than viewing black people as part of an inclusive movement of the left, the thank-you-note writers treat African Americans as if they were the indispensable helpmates of an addled white upper-middle class, a class that’s too harried, busy, or distracted to deal with the hassle of everyday life, the drudgery of daily upkeep, the housekeeping of democracy.

 Keep reading, there’s a lot more!


  1. gracchibros December 16, 2017 at 12:19 pm | #


    Van Jones has made similar declarations about the importance of the black vote for electing Democrats. But consider then the divides inside the black community itself, as evidenced by the majorities who supported Sec. Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Clinton was saying the economy was pretty good, Sanders the opposite. Criminal justice reforms that attempt to grapple with the type of racism expressed by the tendency of jurors to side with law enforcement in the consideration of wrongful deaths is very difficult ground to capture.

    At least as important to sentencing guidelines in reversing Mass Incarceration is addressing the economic issue facing black citizens, especially the young. We never delivered a “Marshall Plan” for urban America when it needed it the most in the 1980’s and 1990’s; but there was a Marshall plan put on the table for a portion of the working class, age limited and addressed to high school graduates, a guaranteed work program which did not invite any of those on the left who have worked their careers around a jobs guarantee (L. Randall Wray at the Levy Institute has written that a right to a job is a logical outcome of his work on Modern Monetary Theory); that was as at the Center for American Progress’ annual “Ideas Conference” back in the spring of this year. The conference barely grappled with the promoted idea and it has since been dropped in favor of “apprenticeships.”

    I’ve written about these issues in a new essay: “The Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party” here at

    My argument is that the Progressives in the party need a unifying universal – my nominee is FDR’s Second Bill of Right or at least the first three of those rights from 1944, because I don’t see a consensus yet from the different movements that make up the Progressives.

    Some of us who worked very hard door-to-door for the party in 2006 have been through waves of revulsion against the Republican Right before, and this time want to know what we will get when we throw them out of office…as if Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s four terms were not a cautionary enough on that score.

    • James Levy December 18, 2017 at 10:56 am | #

      The issues involved are complex, because we have to break it all down to constituencies to get a clearer picture of why certain people and ideas are dominant. Ideas predominate because they either have big money backing them or they have a core constituency that is large enough and likely to show up at the polls to be electorally decisive under certain circumstances. The Right is better off on both counts. The Democrats’ largest and most likely to show up constituency is drawn from the professional-managerial class, and they are just fine with the Clinton/Obama agenda because it takes care of them nicely. When Clinton prattled on about how “America is already great” and the economy was doing just dandy, these people nodded their heads in approval. When she rallied millions to the Trump cause by denouncing “deplorables” they cheered. And since these people represent both the core votes and the money behind the Democrats in their eastern and western strongholds, their voices predominate and their agenda gets pushed. Until a much, much bigger constituency of angry poor and lower middle class working people comes out to the polls and keeps coming out, nothing substantive will change.

      • gracchibros December 18, 2017 at 12:14 pm | #

        Can’t disagree with what you wrote, James Levy.

        The “old” universals, class and “worker” – what I have called “old labor” in my writings, have been eclipsed in power by: feminists, black citizens and enviros, (listed in order of my perception of current power with the party and the progressive “movements) hispanics, LGBTQs, and each name a different most pressing problem and solution. The hoped for “intersectionality” is an abstraction on paper mostly, the People’s Platform being the closest we have to a unifying statement, and I think it is weakest on labor issues/FDR Second Bill of Rights…you saw how the DNC would not accept the Platform when Nina Turner delivered it at the end of July; wouldn’t accept 115,000 sigs for it or let her in the door. She responded that we didn’t need Schumer’s “Better Deal,” but rather a new New Deal. Very few feminists I know, esp. the Hillary committed ones, understand what that might mean today. And very few black activists, who place four or five other issues ahead of that. Black Lives matter got to some of the 2nd Bill of Rights universals, but they have included quite a few other daring but divisive planks as well, harkening back to the Oceanville-Brownsville issues from decades ago. And reparations, which, however morally justified, is just what Steve Bannon hoped for…

        The party, following Schumer’s analysis, was counting on picking up alienated suburban R’s, esp. women, which they felt would more than compensate for the loss of white working class voters. The Autopsy report, and the many white working class essays at the American Prospect, explain why, convincingly, to me at least, that didn’t happen.

        And as Paul Jay of the Real News Network fine tuned for us, the corporate ties of the new DNC appointees are startling…

        In one sense, Corey, sorry, I’ve danced the Clinton-Obama two-step too many times not to worry about where the DNC is and what it will fight for when times get really tough; unless you believe
        Janet Yellen that we won’t see another financial crisis “in our lifetimes.” I think she is wrong; if and when it happens, then what the party believes about the political economy will be crucial, not peripheral as it is now, and kept that way by corporate Dems, Wall St and Silicon Valley power. So in the meantime, I’m curbing my enthusiasm.

        • b. January 31, 2018 at 5:24 pm | #

          “Janet Yellen that we won’t see another financial crisis ‘in our lifetimes.’”

          Yellen is to the next Great Recession as Bernanke was to the last one.

          John Hussman, who predicted both the 2000 and 2008 cycles, does not think it will take more than the completion of the current market cycle, the timing dependent on investor confidence but not fundamentals.

          To quote: “The 2000-2002 collapse wiped out the entire total return of the S&P 500 – in excess of T-bill returns – all the way back to May 1996. The 2007-2009 collapse wiped out the entire excess total return of the S&P 500 all the way back to June 1995. [..] I expect that the completion of the current cycle will wipe out the entire excess total return of the S&P 500 all the way back to roughly October 1997.”

  2. Adam December 17, 2017 at 4:07 am | #

    Speaking of the Alabama Song and the left, the original lyrics were translated from a German poem by Bertolt Brecht.

  3. Roquentin December 20, 2017 at 5:48 pm | #

    You make some good points, but I don’t know if this can be considered much of a victory. I am loathe to make any predictions, but my guess is that the post-Trump political order will consist of a center-right coalition of disaffected Republicans and the right wing of the Democratic party who will now make themselves look good by comparison. This would lend credence to that theory. It’s the New Democrats all over again, and the endgame is the whole Overton Window moves right, the same as it has for almost 50 years. I mean, now the bar is so low that all the Democrats need to do is not be overtly racist in a crude way or have sex with 14 year old girls to come out ahead.

    The Dems and the GOP are the good cop, bad cop of the ruling class. Once bad cop Trump is done with four years of rough treatment and tough talk, it’ll be to for the good Dem cop to come in and cool out the mark (aka the American voter).

  4. gracchibros December 21, 2017 at 3:44 pm | #

    Yes, that’s a pretty good read Roquentin, on what’s been happening with the purge of Bernie supporters inside the DNC, and that’s the way I read Congressman John Delaney’s presidential bid – he’s my Congressman. My sense of his calculation – he’s head of the moderate Dem. caucus, could be seen as the heir of the DLC – is that by the end of Trump’s time – whatever that will be, the nation will be ready for a non-charismatic Democratic multi-millionaire, you get the idea.

    However, the left has strengthened as well thanks in good part to Sanders, so this drift to center-right is not a foregone conclusion, by any means.

  5. Nqabutho December 21, 2017 at 7:52 pm | #

    One thing the left, and every non-Trumpist media voice, should do is to hammer hard the idea that Fox news is a propaganda arm of the plutocracy (a term that should be specified precisely) and very clearly not a friend of, or the voice of, the people. The Trump phenomenon has made clear the divide between elite plutocratic interests, pushed by congressional Republicans and Trump cabinet, and on the other hand the plutocratic tool of fear-mongering regarding ethnic identity and cultural concerns that are eternal and constant undercurrents in popular conventional mentality. It’s clear that the people who watch Fox news will as usual get no lasting tangible benefits from this latest and degenerate iteration of the Republican impulse. What Fox news does should be clearly described in objective terms, the mixture of expressing support for objectively hurtful policies (tax cuts for plutocracy at the expense of benefits for people, removal of regulations making possible the solving of the opioid crisis, health care, etc.) with the whipping up of fear and hatred for non-whites, tolerance for misogyny, and so forth. “The Republican Party does not have your best interests at heart” should be the message. The Trump voters fell for the con and made a big mistake, but if they’re not satisfied with simply indulging their fears, hatreds and resentments, then rejection of the Republican party could become the conventional meme. The expressions by the Republican sycophants of care and concern for “the American people” at the post-corruption-enabling tax bill assemblage already must ring pretty hollow. I used to think that the solution to the problem of race was the key to solving the problem of creeping plutocracy; now I think solving the problem of curbing plutocratic tendencies is the key to solving the problem of racial and other ethnic divisions. (See the development of Cornel West’s thinking on these matters.)

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