Movement Visions for a Renewed Left Legalism

Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson –

In this moment of crisis for the rule of law, a number of thinkers on the left have prescribed new strategies for progressives to shift reigning ideas about constitutionalism and the law. Jedediah Purdy, for example, has argued that part of the answer is to “reclaim the Constitution” by articulating visions of how constitutional rules can promote true democracy. In Purdy’s view, strengthening voting rights and the rights of non-citizens, promoting economic citizenship, and reforming the criminal legal system should be central to a left vision of the Constitution. He argues these substantive ideas pose a challenge to the status quo distribution of power, resources, and life chances. Eyeing a different branch of government, Samuel Moyn has urged progressives to resist the “juristocracy” and to shift our vision for change away from the courts and towards legislators at all levels. Moyn bases his analysis on the idea that in the short term, legislatures will be more likely than Trump-appointed judges to enact laws that reduce inequality.

Purdy and Moyn generate important insights for left lawyers and social justice activists. But neither identifies where we should look for the substance of left legalist vision, or the process by which we should derive one. How is it that we, as progressives, should generate and evaluate the desired ends of constitutional doctrine or legislative change? Addressing this question is essential for a renewed left legalism of the sort this blog and its community hope to provoke.

As we suggested in our prior piece, we believe a left political agenda must be grounded in solidarities with social movement and left organizations, largely outside of formal legal and elite academic spaces. (Willie Forbath, too, recently gestured on this blog at the relationship between social movements, labor, and left legalism.) The prevailing underlying presumption of much legal discourse is that the formulation and interpretation of legal doctrine requires specialized expertise. Past waves of left legalist critique, such as Critical Legal Studies, reflected this traditionally elitist approach to law by remaining confined within elite institutions and purveyed by law professors, sometimes in impenetrable language. Like Purdy and Moyn, we care deeply about democratic engagement, but we believe that the institutional choice between courts and legislatures misses the bigger picture: that a new left legalism should be derived from social movements fighting for justice on the ground.

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Movement Visions for a Renewed Left Politics

Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson – 

sunriseWhen members of the Sunrise Movement confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein ten days ago, they demonstrated the renewed vitality of an old force in democratic politics: organized young people bringing bold new visions to complex social problems. In the video, we see the power of movement participants to transform how we think and dream. In times of peril and possibility, radical visions—where the scale of the vision matches the scale of the problems we face—can capture our imagination and change what we think is possible.  In this way, social movements galvanize a different kind of force in politics, one of hope and collective action rather than cynicism and alienation.  

Left social movements are both a fount of creative law-making and a means by which to hold politicians to account. From the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Panther Party’s and Young Lord Party’s Ten and Thirteen Point Programs, activists have a long history of altering our sense of what is possible, as Aziz Rana recently laid out on this blog. When we pay attention to collective forms of struggle, as Kate Andrias argues, we see how power-shifting and law-making happen from the ground up.

As Bob Hockett recently explained, the Green New Deal is the product of the Sunrise Movement’s recognition that economic injustice and environmental disaster are existential threats to our well-being. By linking issues that are typically seen in policy-making spaces as distinct, the Green New Deal reckons with the clash between human needs and capitalism’s rapacious hunger for land, labor, and resources. Rather than shrink in the face of an immense set of challenges, the Green New Deal rises. It places the transformation of our social, economic, and political order into the realm of possibility.

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