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Why Institutions Drive Change

HISTORICAL MEMORY is both a powerful and perilous thing. It can inspire you to emulate the great deeds of your forerunners. But it can also offer the balm of false comfort when what you really need is a stiff shot of reality.

U.S. leftists may have a particular weakness for romanticizing our predecessors. After all, most of our political victories have been fleeting and ambiguous, our heroes and heroines either little known (Wendell Phillips, Florence Kelley) or scrubbed of their radical thoughts and ambitions (Martin Luther King, Jr.) by the guardians of civil religion.

In her passionate essay about the rebellion she sees brewing in Appalachia today, Elizabeth Catte declares, “the way forward for the left, in my world, is through the past.” Her historical examples certainly played a pivotal role in the organized uprisings that won a measure of economic and political power for working-class people during the first half of the twentieth century. The unionists who waged bitter, often successful coal strikes in places such as Harlan County, Kentucky, and Mingo County, West Virginia, helped build the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) into a mighty force in what used to be one of the nation’s key industries. In 1946 the union compelled mine owners to f inance a system of health clinics and pensions that were the envy of other industrial workers. UMWA president John L. Lewis also founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations, whose member unions went on to organize the biggest manufacturing firms in the nation—and injected the New Deal and the Democratic Party with a healthy dose of class consciousness.

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“Rural spaces,” writes Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, “are often thought of as places absent of things, from people of color to modern amenities to radical politics. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.” With activists, historians, and political scientists as guides, Left Elsewhere explores the radical politics of rural America—its past, its priorities, and its moral commitments—that mainstream progressives overlook. This volume shows how these communities are fighting, and winning, some of the left’s biggest battles. From novel health care initiatives in the face of the opioid crisis to living wages for teachers, these struggles do not fall neatly into the “puny language,” as Rev. William Barber says, of Democrat or Republican. Instead they help us rethink the rural–urban opposition at the heart of U.S. politics. The future of the left, this collection argues, could be found elsewhere. With contributions from William J. Barber II, Lesly-Marie Buer, Elizabeth Catte, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Nancy Isenberg, Elaine C. Kamarck, Michael Kazin, Toussaint Losier, Robin McDowell, Bob Moser, Hugh Ryan, Matt Stoller, Ruy Teixeira, Makani Themba, and Jessica Wilkerson.