America’s Asabiyyah: The Left’s Daunting Challenge
Biologists and ecologists spend hours and hours analyzing the predator-prey relationship: the fluctuations in relative populations as the small are eaten, the large die out, the small rebound, and the cycle starts again and again and again. This is a vital structure to understanding the natural systems of our planet, which historians, social scientists, and politicians might disregard as irrelevant to the functioning of modern society.
It couldn’t be more relevant.
In the 1300s, an Islamic scholar from North Africa by the name of Ibn Khaldun coined the term “asabiyyah.” The word is part of a model developed by Khaldun, based on the Muslim Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, which applied the predator-prey relationship to human groups. Asabiyyah, solidarity among a cluster of people in the face of danger and need, helps a small group rise up, spark change, and govern. That group eventually loses touch with the population, asabiyyah develops somewhere else, and the cycle begins anew. Yanis Varoufakis, the prominent Greek anti-austerity politician, applied this concept to the industrial economy. I’ll be applying it to American politics, particularly the situation faced by the left in the buildup to the 2020 election.
It is chillingly clear that Donald Trump unwittingly mastered the art of harnessing asabiyyah through his 2016 election campaign. He harnessed frustration against a seemingly aloof Democratic Party, hatred of Hillary Clinton, veiled racism and xenophobia, and a wave of conspiracy theories to muster a base which carried the electoral college. He consolidated that base by fabricating an asabiyyah of his own- a twisted narrative where Trump and his supporters were under constant attack, from Democrats, the media, socialists, immigrants, and the shadowy “Deep State.” No matter how many lies, attacks, angry tweets, blatant mistakes, and desperate political ploys were mixed into the mortar of this toxic solidarity, no one can deny it was effective. He rode and continues to ride a wave of white supremacy and ignorance disguised as a noble effort to preserve “American values.”
Now, Khaldun would tell us that the natural cycle would grip the system, the left would unite and drive Trumpism from Washington, and everything could reset. This has not been the case. The “Blue Wave” of the 2018 midterms was an example of the potential the left has to win back the political arena. But those were local elections, where candidates could cater to a narrower pool of voters and sweep away opponents. A presidential election is a much larger beast, and it would seem that asabiyyah has yet to grip the American left.
Yes, Biden beats Trump in most national polls, and the swing states which flipped red in 2016 are leaning towards Joe. Yet there is little cohesion. Allegations by Tara Reade have given some liberals pause. Disenchanted Bernie supporters, many of them young, label Biden a moderate at a time when the paradigm is moving left. Gaffes and blunders by the aging nominee threaten to undermine his messages. Howie Hawkins, a Green Party upstart, promises a more leftist alternative.
Trump and his cronies have doubled down on efforts to reinforce the vicious mindset of his base, where enemies on all sides encroach on their freedom, and Trump bravely fights onward through a storm of lying, cheating opponents. The genuine unity and solidarity, the true asabiyyah in the face of the very real damage done by Trump, has yet to be found by his opponents. The cycle cannot continue because a racist orange wrench has been thrown into the gears.
Now, the path to victory in 2020 seems murky, but there is hope. Trump’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 crisis has cost 100,000+ lives, and the economy continues to sink. It’s a poor reflection on the United States that it took this much death and suffering to finally put some real cracks in the president’s mask. Aging populations are finally turning against him, drawn from the clutches of his manufactured asabiyyah by the real impacts of inept leadership. Yet a new asabiyyah is forming, independent of Democrats and Republicans. The youth of America, trending farther and farther left, emboldened by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are developing an identity opposed to that of moderate politicians on both sides of the aisle. Should Biden win in 2020, the resulting cycle of asabiyyah will carry on not to the conservatives, but farther left, as young people like myself keep fighting to push Biden to take stronger action on issues like climate change and racial justice.
But this moment is where the left faces its largest challenge- to intentionally foster and build solidarity now. Four more years of Trump could cripple America, and indeed the rest of the world, permanently. True asabiyyah knows that there are no points for ideological stubbornness. Now is the time to realize that progress sometimes means extending a hand to the center in order to drag it to the left. Yet the alienated left must realize that Biden is not the new normal- he is a transition between the extremes of hostility and nativism and the real, dramatic progress we need. We must have faith in our actions and our solidarity- and it starts with removing Trump in November. This is not a question of compromise between the “lesser of two evils.” This is a question of saving our country and our future from the clutches of a genuinely dangerous individual and his equally dangerous base and beginning a transition that should have started a long time ago.