Levine-Drizin: Ditch centrism, revitalize YDSA presence on campus

Gabriel Levine-Drizin, Op-Ed Contributor

The explanations proposed for why President Donald Trump won the election have been numerous: It was either sexism, racism embodied by the country’s “deplorables,” Bernie Sanders’ unrealistic campaign proposals, “white fright” amidst an increasingly diversifying United States, the abandonment of political centrism or James Comey publicly disclosing that the FBI was reopening Clinton’s email case just days before the election.

Underlying many of these explanations was a lamentation, a grief over the departure of a once virtuous empire. To Trump’s assertion that we “Make America Great Again,” Hillary Clinton, and millions of other Americans responded that “America never stopped being great.” In the election of Trump, however, those who didn’t vote for him begrudgingly conceded that maybe it had. As the world awoke on November 9, 2016, Americans, and the rest of the world, looked elsewhere for leadership. “The leader of the free world” now seemed to reside somewhere else: many pointed to Berlin, where Angela Merkel fought to keep the European Union from chaos as the United Kingdom, in an earlier vote that would eventually mirror the election of Trump, voted to leave the EU.

In the months after Trump’s election, the global spotlight shifted to France, the U.K. and more recently, Germany, where the battle against “populism” took on the aura of a national duty, just as it had in the U.S. In France, it became the job of the smart citizen to avoid the “populists”: Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left were to be avoided in favor of Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent who emerged victorious. When Theresa May, Prime Minister of the U.K., announced a snap election in April 2017, for the sake of stability it was best to avoid the “populist” Jeremy Corbyn — advice that just enough of the population followed to keep May in power. Finally, as Germany took to the polls in September 2017, the onus was on voters to stick to conventional parties and avoid the rising Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party on the far right that mirrored the rhetoric of Le Pen and Trump in promoting nationalism through appeals to racial and economic dissatisfaction.

All three of these elections seem to have shaken political centrism to its core. In France, Macron won the presidency in the face of rising support for the far left and far right. In the U.K., the rise of Corbyn has crippled the Conservatives, leading to a precarious coalition between the center and the right that is doomed to fail. Finally, the Alternative for Germany won 12.6 percent of the vote and is the first “far-right” to “fascist” party to enter parliament in Germany’s postwar history.

Our inability to come to grips with the failure of centrism is rooted in the story we are often told by the political elite: It is the rise of a populist right and left that presents the greatest threat to global democracy. Instead of questioning the inequality and unemployment generated by free-trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the political center perpetuates the narrative that the right’s critiques of globalization instead represent the racial intolerance and sexism that are a product of their supposed cultural backwardness. The left is not immune from these criticisms either: during the election, author Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Sanders for racial intolerance in his attitude toward reparations, even though his proposals regarding universities and health care would have explicitly benefited underserved communities. Sanders was not immune to charges of sexism either. This does not mean that the sexism and outright white nationalism coming from the far right is acceptable. However, the move by the political center to paint the policies of the left and right as solely rooted in racial and economic nationalism shelves the true reasons for disillusionment with centrism in favor of simplistic stereotypes that paint the right as racist and the left as idealistic.

Perhaps it is time to reckon with the failures of centrism to offer a meaningful alternative. This should be an easy task: Lucky for us, Macron is in the process of laying off large numbers of employees in order to increase flexibility for companies and businesses, May is stumbling her way through Brexit negotiations and Merkel is reaching to the center-left for a coalition with the Social Democrats — a party whose recent history makes it perhaps the perfect embodiment of the failure of centrism disguised as faux-progressivism.

When we look to the the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, the lessons of the past year must be more clearly understood: In the face of centrism’s failure, a push to the left by Democrats is necessary. In order to stop being identified as the party of the elites, Democrats must present a positive and more equitable vision for the future just as the Labour Party in Britain gained support due to its manifesto that included “free-pony” proposals like nationalization, taxation, workers’ rights and the abolition of university fees.

But in focusing on the major global elections of the year, it’s essential not to neglect the local context, arguably the most important place to pursue political change. It is with the lessons of this year in mind that I have looked at Loyola University Chicago and University of Chicago for inspiration. Both of these schools have active Young Democratic Socialists of America chapters that are involved in both campus politics and broader coalitions with grassroots movements in the city of Chicago. I, along with a few other Northwestern students, hope to revitalize the YDSA chapter at our school, a nascent chapter that already has University recognition, yet needs motivated students to help.

In my four years on campus, I admittedly have never put myself in the position to reach out to other students, gain support for a cause and start a movement. But in order to learn from this past year, I hope students at NU will show support for this cause, commit to developing the skills and experience that I lack, and are willing to work on creating a voice for “the left” on campus. I eagerly await the day when students more experienced than I can help NU implement the lessons of this election: pursuing ambitious change in the form of policies like Medicare for All, College for All and the Fight for $15 is the only way to stave off the rise of the right, provide for the marginalized and help to create a more equitable future.

Gabriel Levine-Drizin is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.