The left has known demoralizing, mind-bending, gut-wrenching times more than once in my lifetime. Within the space of two months in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered, and with them the wild hope, or the impossible dream, that equality could, without much interruption, continue its onward march through the institutions of American life. Within two weeks in the spring of 1970, President Richard M. Nixon announced an invasion of Cambodia; then, when millions took to the streets, National Guardsmen killed four protesters at Kent State University. Ten days later, police opened fire on a dormitory at Jackson State College, killing two students.
History didn’t end, though in 1969, Attorney General John Mitchell did tell a reporter: “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it.” Watergate postponed that agenda. The left could count the postponement as a victory.
Anyone looking for comfort today can note with satisfaction that those grievous days passed. Mitchell’s prophecy was deferred. Backlashes against civil rights, feminism and gay rights did not set us back to square one. But they were crushing — an emotional fact, if nothing else. If you were paying attention, you felt that all bets were off. Anything horrible was possible. Living in such a time takes a toll. Despair was my demon then, and I was not alone in the feeling.
Still, one has to go back almost half a century to find a month like the past one, so devastating to the left and its values. Consider that immigrant children taken from their parents at the border are still penned up. (On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions joked that many critics of this policy live in gated communities and would want intruders arrested and “separated” from their children.) Consider the Supreme Court’s ruling that guts public sector unions. Consider the court’s decisions to uphold gerrymandering and voting rights restrictions , to permit “crisis pregnancy centers” to stand mute about the option of abortion, and to allow whole populations to be banned from our shores. Consider the White House trial balloon that suggested the government could consolidate safety net programs to make them easier to slash.
Then consider the coming replacement of Justice Anthony Kennedy with a more reliably right-wing justice, possibly putting the legal right to an abortion in jeopardy, among other things. Perhaps now the aspiring autocrat in the White House will have a Supreme Court majority to help insulate him from Robert Mueller’s investigation.
One gut punch after another leaves progressives reeling. We search for appropriate language: disaster, catastrophe, calamity, or — to quote recent presidents — a thumping or a shellacking . “This Has Been The Best Week For Trump But The Worst Week For America,” reads a HuffPost headline. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called Kennedy’s retirement “a disaster for everyone who believes in the ‘We the People’ vision of the Constitution.”
The souls of Democrats, particularly older ones, have been tried before. The left has long since known to question any assurance that — in the words of the abolitionist Theodore Parker, as amplified by Martin Luther King Jr. — the arc of the moral universe, however long, bends toward justice. The Depression years were full of stretches when the arc bent the other way, not least during the onslaughts of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. But if you came of age after the Cold War, if you had faith in “change we can believe in,” how confident will you be now in the destination of that arc?
Yet even before the past month, in the face of force majeure, the left was regrouping. Resolutions to organize, not mourn, poured forth. The #Resistance is hot and lively. Energy unleashed by the women’s marches and other national rallies has morphed into strong showings in special elections. Silver linings can be found: It’s good for morale that the left has a new hero in 28-year-old organizer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New York thumped the 10-term incumbent, Rep. Joseph Crowley, an establishment liberal, by 57.5 to 42.5 percent.
Ocasio-Cortez has grabbed the spotlight because she’s not only young and nonwhite, she’s local. Republicans have shown what can be accomplished at the grass roots by quests for power, however tedious, however incremental, however banal. Since 1980, they’ve had their eyes on Washington while legions of ’60s radicals were marching on the English department. Even today, campus activists are thin on the ground in swing election districts. During the 2010 midterms and the elections of 2016, the right reaped enormous rewards from decades of local work. With the benefit of lavish campaign spending by plutocratic front groups, they won statewide power over the decades. Deploying redistricting and voting rights restrictions, they turned that power into an electoral college advantage over the popular-vote majority. Two of the last three presidents, both Republicans, were first elected without winning the popular vote. Their power is structural.
Perhaps the evidence that national politics is rigged for the right reinforces the view that America was foredoomed from the days of the slave trade; that racism and nativism are unwavering, foundational, even insuperable; that Barack Obama’s kind of change cannot, in the end, be believed in; that efforts to win over the moderate are silly; that confrontational moves are the only ones that feel authentic. In an emergency, they will say, incrementalism and politics as usual are irrelevant. Be blunt and direct. Denounce the secretary of homeland security at a Mexican restaurant. Ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. (Predictably, she tweeted about the indignity to win martyrdom points.)
With passions so high, theatrical gestures can feel like shortcuts for reaching and mobilizing the unconvinced. Even so gratifying a result as the election of a Latina democratic-socialist organizer from the Bronx can tempt the unwary to think her model can work anywhere. It would not have prevailed against Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate election.
The challenge for a left that wants to win power is existential as well as strategic and tactical. If you were gobsmacked by Trump’s ascent, the question is whether you can, in the words of the civil rights anthem, “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” The prize is not won by wishing, however vehemently. The center is equally challenged: Can it cohabit with the left under a big tent?
Not surprisingly, the words of the radical labor organizer Joe Hill, about to be executed in 1915 by the state of Utah for murders he did not commit, frequently come to mind: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” Hill’s imperative may look, to a skeptic, like pablum and happy talk. And it’s true, the time is past when optimism can be justified by naive faith. The left once felt — often foolishly — that it owned the future. Now it struggles to own a chunk of the present.
Still, this is not a simple moment dangling in time, severed from the past and the future. It is not the end of days, though it may smell that way.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the recent history of the electoral college. Two of the three past presidents were first elected without winning the popular vote. But the article incorrectly stated that the winner of six of the last seven presidential elections had not won a popular vote majority.