Nicco Mele and Bhaskar Sunkara

Bhaskar Sunkara: The Future of the American Left

April 4, 2017—Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine, discussed his views on leftist politics in the United States during a visit to the Shorenstein Center.

Below are some highlights from the conversation. Sunkara also discussed the intersection of race and class, work and automation, the decline of unions, and other topics, available in the audio recording.

Populism on the left and right

We’re in danger of having the only anti-establishment voice be one coming from the populist right.

“You have a lot of people who are alienated and disgruntled with politics as usual, and we’re in danger of having the only anti-establishment voice be one coming from the populist right…Trump doesn’t have a huge mandate yet, he kind of squeaked by in the election. But I’m afraid that if the Democrats continue on their current course, he could develop one over time. And it doesn’t take much. It doesn’t even take Trump and the populist right convincing people that they have a much better alternative, all it takes is a little bit of deficit financing and them being smart enough, and Paul Ryan allowing a big infrastructure and jobs program, something to at least slightly ameliorate the feeling that a lot of people are having.”

“The rhetoric of the Sanders’ campaign—basically saying, you work hard, you sacrifice a lot, you’re trying to do right, and you deserve more, and not only that, but we know the people responsible for you not having enough, and it’s the millionaire and billionaire class—I think broadly that’s the only fighting alternative to the rhetoric we’re having from the populist right.”

“I’m worried that they’re drifting away from this initial idea that the Democrats weren’t doing enough to appeal to workers…They’re concerned that the economic populism of Bernie Sanders will hurt them in more conservative swing states if they adopt it. Have they actually been paying attention to the rhetoric that has been succeeding in these states?”

“Trumpism” as a constant fixture in U.S. politics

“[Trump] is pretty bungling, and he’s made a lot of crucial errors around Trumpcare and the way in which some of his concrete proposals have been laid out, but imagine how dangerous the situation would be if the populist right had someone with more acumen and vision?”

“It seems like he can easily be defeated electorally in 2020, but what about Trumpism? Could we be in a situation where U.S. politics starts to resemble French politics? Where you have a populist right that’s a constant fixture in politics pushing every idea and every measure to the right, and even if they can’t win…they’re still there as a major force.”

A conflict within the Democratic Party

“The Democratic Party has always been a party of capital. I don’t mean that pejoratively, I just mean it’s always represented certain business interests within its tent…If you’re the party that represents popular labor interests and also represents the interest of capital at the same time, it means that when times are going well and there’s a boom, you can actually say that the pie is growing because of business-led growth, and we’re going to make sure that some of the share of this growing pie is going to workers. Now, when the pie is at best staying the same size, or if anything, shrinking, the best the Democratic Party can say from the 1970s onwards to these same workers, is that we’re gonna give you more of the pie than the Republicans could, and also to historically oppressed and marginalized groups, we will make sure that this pie is more equitably split up. So in other words, they can promise social inclusion, but they promise it without any of the economic gains.”

Why Sunkara started Jacobin magazine

I started the magazine because I had some extra spare time, in my sophomore/junior year as an undergrad…I had developed a network on the socialist left, and I knew plenty of smart people, and I had a bit of business acumen, so I figured, why not take these smart people and facilitate a project so we’re not just talking amongst ourselves? For me, the moral and ethical ideas at the core of the socialist project, the idea that we should live in a world without exploitation, without oppression, these are ideas that should have appeal beyond the five or six thousand people in discussion with these ideas.”

On media portrayals of the problems of the poor, and solutions

Often there’s a voyeuristic view of poverty, whether in the African American community or among poor whites, where people make it seem like these are impossible to decipher solutions.

It’s almost like the culture of poverty arguments throughout the 80s and 90s, obviously very racist…but for poor white people… this narrative that there’s something wrong at the roots of the culture of these communities that reinforces poverty. Sure, I think there should be a level of understanding of the situation people live in, but if the thing that you’re diagnosing is that these people should be more flexible and able to adapt to the economy and be willing to move to the cities, and whatever else, I think that’s a wrong sort of conclusion.”

“When I see poverty, I see something very simple. I see people who need money, and I see people who need goods and services. And when I think of the state, I think of the state as the only vehicle large enough to efficiently deliver these goods and services…what I’m proposing in the short term is nothing more than a Scandinavian welfare state, which in a country as wealthy as the U.S. should be common sense.”

“Often there’s a voyeuristic view of poverty, whether in the African American community or among poor whites, where people make it seem like these are impossible to decipher solutions. I see 60,000 homeless people in New York and I think, hey, maybe we should build more high-quality public housing…At the level of policy, this becomes more complicated and nuanced, but at the level of politics I thinks it’s common sense what direction our policies should be driven, and that is in a lot of ways a moral and ethical vision.”

Political disengagement and the limits of media

“People don’t have a lot of time, and they don’t feel like politics is working for them. The same discussion often happens with voter participation. It is often framed in very apolitical terms, of apathy—people don’t care—as opposed to people weighing different needs that they have and a limited amount of time, and deciding not to vote because politicians haven’t been serving them.”

“I think a publication like Jacobin is fundamentally always going to be somewhat niche. I think we’re more meant as a spark to start something broader…the goal is to obviously reach and connect with people, and have them not just be reading or receiving information, but actively participating in political processes.”

“Media generally is almost like a subculture. The New York Times’ circulation is spiking, but I bet if you did a demographic profile of the subscriber base, you would still find it being disproportionately higher income and whatnot, which is completely opposed to the way mass circulation papers used to be…it’s a problem that you can’t solve by media alone. You have to solve it with political organizing.”

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.