Bernie Sanders claimed to have won the war of ideas in his unsuccessful quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination by introducing new concepts like class struggle to our political vocabulary and making universal health care and debt-free higher education subject to mainstream debate. If this is victory, then we have a long road ahead. America will only be where it should have been a generation ago if, by some miracle, a more robust political debate results in these and other humane policies becoming law.
The right is winning because it is guided by bold ideas to resurrect the past. Bernie’s campaign also looked to the past for inspiration, to the unfinished and dimly remembered promises of the New Deal. Bernie’s campaign could have been transformative and perhaps even successful if it had proposed more of a bold leap to the future.
Bernie, of course, is not a dreamer. That was Obama, whose inspiring narrative of hope and change carried him to power but proved to be merely empty rhetoric and disappointing to many who turned to Trump in 2016. Instead, Bernie the bulldog relentlessly harkened back to the glory years of class solidarity and struggle, hoping against hope that a long-vanished movement would arise from the ashes of history.
Progressives have traditionally looked to an inspiring world waiting to be born, a future free from injustice, cruelty, war and inequality. An exception perhaps was the agrarian populist movement that during the Gilded Era yearned for past certainties as they campaigned for more equitable social arrangements. But the central challenge for the left has always been to envision a world that never was and bring it into being.
Utopian visions are not popular today. The terrors unleashed throughout the twentieth century in the name of the working class or a master race have seen to that. The mainstream view now is that terror inevitably follows utopian aspirations. The political theorist Richard Rorty counseled that the best we could hope for was a return to something that reached a benchmark of justice and freedom in the recent past and could reasonably be achieved again. The philosopher John Dewey, father of American pragmatism, similarly warned: don’t try to achieve the unachievable lest an opening is created for the ever-present forces of darkness to emerge.
But the fact remains that without a commanding vision and its deep archetypal power, the left is rudderless and unable to deliver the world we desperately need and desire. The absence of vision does not go unnoticed—90 million eligible voting age Americans didn’t bother casting a ballot in 2016. The resulting void of ideas has been filled by reactionary populism, its progressive DNA replaced by a viral neo-liberalism that endlessly replicates social and economic inequities.
The way forward for the left now is to come up with viable configurations for social change that stitch together the many utopian experiments taking place unnoticed and unappreciated. Great leaders don’t have to dream up a new world, nor should our hopes for the future be blinkered by the past. As Ernst Bloch, the utopian German philosopher, said, “shards of light” are present everywhere serving as pre-illuminations of a better world. The task is first to see what might become possible and then assemble a new political consensus to make it happen.
There is no shortage of inspirational perspectives around which to crystallize a future vision—Michael Lerner’s caring society, Cornel West’s prophetic Marxism, Canada’s Leap Manifesto, the alternative economies arising from Latin America’s ‘hope movements’ and many more. There are also hands-on examples of democratizing the economy through worker co-ops, creating opportunities for workers to serve on the boards of large corporations and fashioning a just and sustainable food system. I raised fruits, vegetables and cut flowers in our backyard for a decade, selling directly to appreciative neighbors and customers at our local farmers market. Such enterprises stand ready to inherit the earth when conditions are ripe.
Pushing past the guardians of uncertainty, radical possibility took hold in Paris in the spring of the 1968. Its motto—“be practical, demand the impossible”— gave voice to a political engagement that remains unfinished and endlessly open to what is “not yet” in Bloch’s imagining. In a world where something is always missing, where humanity is tragically incomplete, utopian striving holds a light against the darkness and conjures hope for a new world and moves toward it.