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For the Many: On the Prospects of a Multiracial Populism

  • Saieh Hall Room 021 5757 S University Ave Chicago, IL 60637 United States (map)

The Left is once again resurgent in American politics.  In Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have become the face of a left challenge to the Democratic Party status quo. In Chicago, movement candidates in races across the city propelled five socialists into aldermanic seats. From the Movement for Black Lives to #NODAPL and a wave of labor strikes, these electoral victories are buoyed by a politics of taking the streets. In each of these contexts, young people of color and women have led the call for a new kind of politics and their demands are already shaping the debates leading up to the 2020 democratic primary. Democratic candidates are touting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and even reparations.  

This moment calls for a reconsideration of how we might build a political program for the many. What would a multiracial class-based populism require? What historical and global lessons might we bring to bear on this question? And how does our specific context both enable and disable movement and electoral politics that centers an anti-racist, feminist and internationalist orientation? This day-long symposium tackles these questions by bringing together scholars, organizers, and political strategists for a discussion whose goal is to achieve clarity on the way forward.

Central to the framing of the symposium are two basic realities that structure the political field. On the one hand, the economic, climate, and democratic crises brought on by the astonishingly plutocratic nature of American politics have become too glaring for even the most rose-tinted glasses to obscure. There is widespread acknowledgement that the American political class as a whole is complicit in, when not actively abetting the oligarchization of American politics. Therefore the political moment is a populist one - that is, one that calls for a polarization of our politics, along broadly class lines, pitting an elite of politicians and plutocrats against a broader popular majority that has been losing out under the regime of the past forty years. At the same time, the dialectic of powerful movements for racial justice and liberation and a resurgent, open politics of white supremacy has forced the brute realities of structural racism into the center of American politics. America’s status as settler colony and imperial hegemon has rendered populism a vexed political project. “The many” have too often and too easily been yoked to “the white.”

The central political challenge for the American left in this moment is to build cross-racial, working class solidarity in a way that is truly emancipatory. It is to build a historic bloc of popular forces. We can call this politics “multiracial populism,” understanding from the outset that we cannot accept a politics of cross-racial working class solidarity where the price of that solidarity is a downplaying of the extent to which ours is a society built on racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and empire. How do we construct a politics that is both majoritarian and emancipatory? This is our challenge, and our topic.