Americans are used to settling. Though other developed countries have guaranteed health care, guaranteed childcare, guaranteed sick leave, weeks and weeks of guaranteed paid vacation, much higher wages, more workplace democracy, free college and trade school, and well-funded mass transit (among other things), we are told by politicians that we simply cannot have these things, that policies like Medicare for All will “never, ever come to pass.”
During the mid-twentieth century, thanks to New Deal policies, high taxes on the wealthy that significantly reduced inequality, and strong union density, day-to-day life for at least some Americans was far more equitable than it is now. But since the 1970s, neoliberal capitalism has unraveled much of the modest social safety net we did have. Democratic politicians joined with Republicans to push policies that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Labor union density plummeted to historic lows. American life increasingly became a gauntlet of stress and sorrow and humiliation for average people.
The American left was supposed to fight against these political trends. But in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, several decades worth of defeat had made much of the Left often bitter, insular, and sectarian, significantly hurting its ability to effect political change. Lacking a real political alternative to the status quo, average Americans instead chose to hold their nose and vote Democrat, take a chance on Republicans, or drop out of political engagement entirely. The overwhelming majority of Americans resigned themselves to an understanding that they could not influence political decisions in their country. What else was there to do?
Throughout this era, there were glimmers of hope suggesting that change was still possible. The anti-WTO protests of 1999 seemed like they might reverse the then-new trend of branded, globalized capitalism. In 2003, record numbers turned out worldwide to protest the Iraq War. In 2008, Barack Obama’s historic election seemed like it might finally make single-payer health care the law of the land. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street seemed like it might be a reckoning for the financial crisis. And Bernie’s surprising success in the 2016 Democratic primary showed that a protest candidate from outside the Democratic establishment might actually have a chance at the nomination.
But the anti-WTO protests were stopped by police, the United States still went to war in Iraq, Obama’s closed-door negotiations with health care companies took single-payer off the table, Mike Bloomberg’s NYPD violently crushed Occupy Wall Street, and the Democratic Party conspired to nominate Hillary Clinton, who then lost to Donald Trump. All the while, more and more Americans continued living in dire poverty, climate change posed more and more of an existential threat to our survival as a species, our military budget kept growing, and the ultrarich now have a godlike power over all life on earth.
All this has added up to a belief — both among the broader American public and among people on the Left — that politics cannot make people’s lives better. As Shawn Gude and Micah Uetricht discussed in a Jacobin Radio episode in February, many people they encountered while canvassing for Bernie in Iowa liked his policy ideas but expressed skepticism that these goals were achievable.
“It’s hard to convince people to turn out to vote when, basically their whole lives, politicians tell them that their lives are going to be better if they vote for this person, and then nothing really changes,” Gude said. “The kind of apathy of the American voter — especially poor and working-class people — it’s pretty justified. So it is a hard pitch to make.”
Because people felt powerless, they couldn’t be bothered to do the political work necessary to make their lives better.
The social psychologist Albert Bandura published a paper in 1977 explaining his theory of self-efficacy. “Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives,” Bandura wrote. “Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave.”
Self-efficacy is one’s belief that their actions can have a real impact on what they’re trying to achieve. A person with high self-efficacy is willing to work hard to achieve a goal because they believe they can achieve it. A person with low self-efficacy doesn’t want to bother doing the work because they believe that they cannot achieve the goal anyway. Why waste time and energy on something bound to fail?
This sounds an awful lot like the mental state of many Americans for the past few decades when it comes to politics. Why should they bother putting in all the work of canvassing, organizing, or even voting when it doesn’t appear that these activities will have any influence over the quality of their lives?
Bandura wrote that the most important way that individuals could improve their self-efficacy was through “mastery experiences.” For example, a therapist might work with a patient to identify a small goal that they could realistically accomplish. A patient who wants to exercise more might start by agreeing to go for a twenty-minute walk twice a week. Once the patient sees that they can achieve this goal, they might try going for a walk three days a week, or going for a jog.
People don’t believe that they are capable until they accomplish things. But once people accomplish things, they feel more capable, and they are therefore more likely to try bigger things.
Amid a pandemic, an economic depression, wildfires, hurricanes, the rise of fascist violence, and an upcoming presidential election offering voters a choice between two conservatives, Americans — especially those on the Left — feel defeated. This is reasonable, given the circumstances and the stakes.
But the Left isn’t doomed. Bernie Sanders lost his bid for the presidency, a heartbreaking experience for many leftists. But the fact that the Left had an opportunity to realistically vie for the most powerful position on the globe, at a time when the Left was marginal in American life, was always a distant long shot.
We have had major legislative wins with candidates like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. Socialists now make up more than 10 percent of Chicago’s city council. Nikil Saval beat incumbent Larry Farnese to become the Democratic nominee for the Pennsylvania State Senate. Sixty-nine percent of voters now support Medicare for All. And the Milwaukee Bucks just went on strike. These wins are mastery experiences for our movement. These experiences are teaching us — leftists and non-leftists alike — that when we put in the work, we can win. People who have been involved in the movement want to get more involved. And people who have never been involved in politics are joining in for the first time.
It’s possible that none of this will matter. Perhaps the forces arrayed against us — from both the Republican and Democratic parties — are simply too strong. The theory of self-efficacy provides no guarantee that an individual or a movement will achieve its goals. But we’ll never win if we don’t try.
So when we win, big or small, we should celebrate. When we lose, we should not see our loss as a definitive verdict on the American left as a whole. As Matt Karp observed in his recent postmortem of the Bernie campaign, this is a movement that may not have overnight victories. When we lose, we see what lessons we can learn, and we try again. We have no other choice.