Every morning, standing behind our desks, our heads held high and our little hands resting on our hearts, my classmates and I chanted “one nation, under God, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all”. In rooms with pictures of presidents hanging on the walls, we learned the great stories of American history and praised the pioneers, like Washington, Lincoln, Parks and King, who carried our country forward. We talked about the great Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Rock, the virtuous people who helped the Underground Railroad run, the determined women who won the right to vote, and the tough leaders who stood up for civil rights.
Our class stood at the end of history — the battle between good and evil was over, and we stood on the shoulders of the greats who fought there. Good had won, democracy had prevailed, fairness had triumphed and all that remained was to enjoy the wonderful society that our ancestors had helped to build.
But the image of history I received from elementary school was shattered when I entered high school, when Donald Trump was elected and Black Lives Matter gained national attention. My original narrative of linear progress in the United States has been marred by stories of police brutality, intense economic inequality, and governmental failure. In its place, I learned of the extreme backlash that accompanied those great American success stories—Jim Crow after Reconstruction, corporate deregulation after redistributive activism of the civil rights era, Trump after Obama. It became clear how deeply flawed America was, and it was no longer obvious that we were going to keep moving forward — the former president himself seemed to represent several steps backwards.
Knowing this, I began to wish for massive change in America. But, in the midst of an abysmal presidential tenure, that desire for change has turned into frustration with American institutions and pessimism about those institutions’ ability to improve. And in left-wing political circles, I’ve seen pessimism turn into a rejection of American ideals — liberalism, Democratic-Republican governance, and capitalism — rooted in the belief that those ideals are incompatible with the fairness and justice.
While I agree with many left-wing criticisms of America, I also realize that these criticisms have become fodder for the right-wing campaign to portray the left as destructive and out of touch. The success of this framing, for me, highlighted an acute failure of leftist politics in elite spaces –– the failure to clearly articulate a practical positive view of American society. The left-wing elite has over-emphasized abstract critiques of American institutions and the theoretical formations of new societies, often to the detriment of efforts to concretely build a better country.
Yale, with its elite leftist student body, is not immune to the problem. Many campus organizations emphasize critique of existing systems of power and oppression. But when the topic of creating new institutions comes up, the conversation becomes noticeably vaguer. When a vision is articulated, it tends to include ideas that cannot be realized in our lifetime or ideas that reek of positional privilege. They are dreams of socialist utopias or paternalistic and condescending proposals that ignore the needs of the communities they claim to help. These ideas, while important in the larger discourse of what our country should look like in the future, do little to address the realities of those struggling now.
In the absence of a meaningful, community-informed and hopeful vision, it is easy to see how the left can be seen as a group of disgruntled and unpatriotic elites.
It’s time for the left-wing elite to create a new vision for America – a cohesive, cohesive vision informed by the desires of the members of the communities it wishes to help, a vision that recognizes the country’s flaws while emphasizing its potential for growth and redemption, which celebrates our nation’s ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, while complementing them with ideas of positive freedom, equity, and care.
The left elite needs a plan for America that is more than a theory.