United States: Crack lines in the Democratic Party — The battle at Columbia University as a mirror of the battle among Democrats

Palestinian flags at the encampment at Columbia University. (Pamela Drew)

First published at Left Notes.

The Columbia student encampment in solidarity with Gaza burst into the news almost three weeks ago. Since then, students all over the US have run with the tactic, the state and the trustees of universities have cracked down with full force in many cases, and focus on the Palestine question has been redoubled. 

It’s too soon to draw up a full balance sheet, but the students’ encampments clearly put new wind behind the sails of the Gaza solidarity campaign. One part of the story is clear though: the fault lines in the Democratic Party’s coalition are growing bigger.

A party rift in miniature

Columbia University, the origin point for the current protest wave, offers a nice microcosm of the rift.

At the head of the university stands the Board of Trustees. In their ranks we have the university president, Baroness Minouche Shafik of Camden and Alexandria, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (her full title is too good not to be shared). Shafik formerly worked at the Bank of England, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. A cochair and a vice chair of the board are a former Goldman Sachs banker and a major real estate developer respectively. They are, unsurprisingly, both major donors to the Democratic Party. Other trustees include the cofounder of an investment firm that is “deploying capital to accelerate the global transition to a low-carbon economy,” a director at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a successful journalist and player in the media world (whose partner is Barack Obama’s former White House press secretary).

The board, in short, is a representative collection of the kinds of people who dominate the Democratic Party at its higher end. Green capitalists, liberal Wall Street bankers, health care industry leaders, real estate developers, important leaders in international finance and media. Faced with a student rebellion, they called in the cops rather than negotiate — and then advised us afterward, in the words of Columbia’s baroness/president, “It is going to take time to heal.”

Arrayed against the board were student demonstrators, many of whom are the future doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, managers, and “creatives” who have formed the activist middle layer of the Democratic Party for decades. To them, the politics and actions of the Board of Trustees are abhorrent. The board stands on the side of “Genocide Joe,” the state of Israel, corporate America, and the NYPD.

That rift is clear. What’s more interesting is the two final groups who complete the picture. Columbia works because its workers do. Organized labor at Columbia is the secret third force who could really disrupt the university, in a way that even its most ardent student activists never could. If the university’s worker activists move into action, its trustees are in real trouble. The United Auto Workers, the union that represents many of Columbia’s workers, supports the students and has organized solidarity rallies in the city. It hasn’t brought its full force to bear on the issue yet, but if it does, it could be a gamechanger.

Finally, there’s everyone on the sidelines. Columbia University is a major workplace, with tens of thousands of students and workers moving in and out of it every day. Only a small fraction of that number participated in the April events.

If politics were only a fight between the “powers that be,” the activists, and organized workers, the long-term prospects for the left might look quite promising. But politics is really about constructing majorities, and for that the “vast majority” on the sidelines at the start of any fight must be engaged and organized. That’s the challenge not only for the student organizers who want to push Columbia to divest, but also for the Board of Trustees that wants to nip this rebellion in the bud.

Taking an Ivy League university as a mirror of anything in the United States might seem a little absurd, but as a mirror of the national Democratic Party I think the claim holds up. A party dominated by the “enlightened” liberal wing of the ruling class, based on support from layers of middle-class activists, many of them moving to the left, plus organized workers and the ranks of the disengaged. The challenge posed to the student activists at Columbia — of organizing and growing their ranks beyond the already mobilized — is also the challenge posed to the left in national politics: how to exploit the crack lines in the Democratic Party to break out of the left’s historic marginalization and build something that is really powerful and popular (both in the sense of being rooted in the people and of having widespread support).

1960s redux?

This wouldn’t be the first time that this kind of mass campus-based mobilizations acts as an early indicator of a reshuffling of party politics. The campus revolts of the 1960s, in particular, preceded, marked, and helped trigger political change in the following decades.

Here, for example, is Hal Draper’s particularly vivid account of the meaning of UC Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement:

This story of the “free speech” uprising on the Berkeley campus of the University of California was begun in the conviction that an extraordinary event, in an historical sense, had taken place before our startled citizenry…

“Historical”? This episode did not change history, but it did reflect an aspect of current history which is easily overlooked, and will continue to be overlooked until further explosions impel retrospective glances. This aspect is the molecular — “underground” — crystallization of currents of discontent, dissent, and disaffection among a people which in its large majority is one of the most politically apathetic in the world (even after we take into account the “great exception” in America, the Negroes’ fight for freedom now)...

Fault lines now run through many sections of our tranquilized society. There is, for instance, in many places an “underground” labor movement dual to the official one, unacknowledged by any of the bureaucracies and unknown to the Ph. D. theses in industrial relations. The disparate social forces frozen in the Johnsonian consensus are marked with fine crack-lines like old pots.

The challenge for both the student activists and the left today is how to channel the energy and passion of their ’60s ancestors, but to do so in a way that avoids the marginalization, sectarianism, and defeat that beset much of what became the New Left.

If there’s reason for hope, it’s to be found in a close reading of what is different between the situation Draper and colleagues found themselves in in the 1960s and where we find ourselves today.

First, today’s left-wing labor movement is no longer “underground” and sitting awkwardly to the side of the “official one.” Today’s left-wing labor movement is still small but it’s also very much the dynamic force, beating heart, and leading edge of organized labor. (And to give sections of the New Left their due, that is in no small part thanks to the work of thousands of rank-and-file workers who grew up in the atmosphere of the ’60s and ’70s, plus the expression of their politics in projects like Labor Notes and the reform caucuses around it — something I wrote about recently in the Call.)

Second, today’s left is very much oriented toward the need to build an electoral expression for its movements; of knitting together the unions, the solidarity movement with Palestine, the fights for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal and an end to mass incarceration, into a political party that can 1) make the argument that all these movements can come together and serve the common good of the vast majority and 2) move these fights into a fight for state power. Here the left’s strategy and tactics today need further development — and a full assessment of the meaning of the last few months’ events and the rifts in the Democratic Party for the left’s dominant strategy of working inside the party is very much needed. But the current left’s basic commitment to “party building” (in a nonsectarian sense) and constructing popular majorities is a major advantage and cause for hope.