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Inverting Inequality: Can America’s New Left Turn the Tide on Inequality?

Julia Pieza

America’s endemic inequality problem is now more acute than ever. We heard it before: the 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 90%, but what does this really mean? To be a part of the 1% a family in America needs a household income of around $450,000; and in 2015 the 1% earned more than 22% of all income. To put this in perspective, the last time the 1% owned so much wealth was just before the Great Depression of 1928.

Today the bottom 90% holds 73% of all debt and young Progressives are bringing the issue of inequality, whether it be social, economic or political, to the forefront of US politics. Cue the 2018 midterms and an influx of Democratic Progressives have shocked the Democratic establishment. Young, socially diverse, and charismatic these Democrats are more likely to call themselves ‘socialists’ than ever before, redefining the historically contentious label. Their vision for a socialist America is a democratic system that works to achieve a more equal society through greater social ownership, whilst rejecting a wholly state planned economy.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat in the House of Representatives for New York’s 14th Congressional District during this November’s midterms, running on a platform of free healthcare, a carbon-free energy system by 2035, and the abolishment of ICE. At the age of just 29, she is the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress. To get this far, she had to beat the epitome of the Democratic establishment: Joe Crowley, Chair of the Democratic Caucus and incumbent since 2013, during the Democratic primaries in June. CNN called his loss “the most significant for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade”. The resurgence of class rhetoric was evident in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign - she asserted that “This race is about people versus money. We've got people, they've got money".

“This race is about people versus money. We've got people, they've got money".

It saw Syriza’s victory in Greece, Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, and the popularity of Podemos in Spain. A clear sign of a surge in support for more radical socialist solutions to economic stagnation. However, fragmented by New Labour and the ‘third way’ approach the Old Left struggles to make itself palatable to voters who no longer identify with a class. Almost a decade of the Eurozone’s lacklustre growth made Europe a fertile ground for a new left-wing populism that has brought today’s anti-establishment left into the mainstream.

In Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left known as SYRIZA came into power during a vacuum; PASOK and New Democracy, the two mainstream parties bore the electoral fallout of the country’s economic disaster in 2010. The party led by students and left-wing intellectuals promised to reverse the unpopular austerity measures. That same year, the UK’s newly elected Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attacked austerity, founding the grassroots movement we know as ‘Momentum’. Yet, if we are to judge these parties by their effectiveness at reducing inequality we won’t find much Although the politics of class has been a traditionally European endeavour, growing inequality in the US has raised today’s generation of candidates, who relate to the struggles of wage insecurity, student debt and inadequate healthcare coverage. The left’s moment in America mirrors that of Europe’s in 2015; a watershed year for European left-wing parties. Success.

Syriza was at its core a populist party, willing to disregard its principles at the first instance by forming a coalition with the far-right Independent Greeks (ANEL). The party’s 2015 referendum on the EU deal for fiscal and structural reforms brought a politically humiliating U-turn forcing the country to accept virtually the same deal months later. It is estimated the Third Memorandum signed by Tsipras in 2015 cost the country €86 billion and forced it to adopt further austerity measures, such as privatisation. In 2018, the economy is beginning to show signs of a slow recovery, yet inequality is rampant due to chronic unemployment, 43% among young people as of March 2018. Meanwhile the centre-right New Democracy shows a 10-point lead in the polls as of September 2018. Syriza’s ineffectiveness is rooted in its fundamentally populist approach: denouncing a corrupt elite and promising radical left-wing reform, which reinvigorated the electorate but offered no real solutions.

Granted Corbyn has not enjoyed the same level of political power, but his leadership of the Labour Party overshadowed by anti-Semitism scandals such as his attendance of a wreath-ceremony for Palestinians associated with the Black September attacks. Politico labelled Corbynism “Britain’s most dangerous export”, citing Corbyn’s reference to ‘NATO belligerence’ as a cause for the annexation of Crimea in 2014, among other reasons. Corbyn shows an increasing affinity to the tactics of individuals such as Trump; his #BuildItInBritain speech eerily echoes Trump’s ‘America First’ approach which glorifies the white American worker.

The American left has also taken cues from the success of Europe’s populist left. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign embraced vague promises of economic nationalism, which, if implemented, wouldn’t have tackled economic inequality where it remains greatest - in the Latin and African-American communities. However, Sanders has since then been outshined by progressive newcomers. Candidates such as Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee who won Minnesota’s 5th district in the 2018 midterms, or Christine Hallquist, the first transgender candidate for Vermont’s Gubernatorial seat who narrowly lost: they represent the future. Their use of anti-establishment rhetoric is a product of frustration over rampant inequality. It is a powerful political tool that has made inequality salient with mainstream voters and this alone doesn’t threaten democracy: populist demagoguery does.

Progressives now entering Congress, following the November midterms, will be a crucial base of support for policies such as Elizabeth Warren’s American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, which tackles the roots of social and economic inequality caused by the discriminatory legacy of zoning laws. More significantly, these candidates will affect local level changes. Julia Salazar, now a New York State Senator, has vowed to pass a state ‘Health Act’ replacing the current multi-payer system for state-wide coverage, reducing overall spending on healthcare by 15%.

However, these candidates of progress continue to face an uphill struggle against the behemoths in the American political system: the super PACs and corporations. Just this September, Cynthia Nixon lost the New York Democratic Gubernatorial primary to incumbent, Andrew Cuomo. Despite this, her impressive campaign had received 2,214 small-dollar donations (less than $200) by March 2018, compared to Cuomo’s just 1,369 since 2011. As a face of the Democratic establishment in New York, Cuomo was endorsed by figures, such as Hillary Clinton, and is one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific corporate fundraisers. With big money on his side and Nixon’s pledge not to accept corporate money at all, her chances of winning were slim. The lack of strong regulations on campaign finance has started to trouble many Democratic Senators, such as Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, who have also pledged to stop accepting corporate money.

America’s left may finally see its opportunity to turn the legal tide against inequality as a new ‘blue wave’ crashes into Congress. Yet, with the Senate remaining Republican and a conservative Supreme Court likely to resist change, today’s progressives have a long way to go. Much like Europe in 2015 there is a sense of hope and change; one can only hope it provides practical, as opposed to populist, solutions.

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