The American Left/The World’s Center

by Abbie Cawser, November 29, 2021

In recent years, America has seen the emergence of “radically left” politicians, who introduce ideas such as universal healthcare and green climate policies. Politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known by her initials as AOC) and Senator Bernie Sanders have been described as “socialist superstars”1 and “Stalin sympathisers,”2 and have been criticised by both moderate Democrats and the Republican Party as being too radical.

Reflecting back on history, it is easy to see why this divide has emerged. America is one of the few countries that was founded on and rooted within capitalism, an economic system that is inherently much more closely aligned with right-wing ideology than with left-wing ideology. Additionally, the Cold War bred the “Red Scare” mentality (an Anti-Communist movement that targeted more liberal figures in the 1950s due to fears of connection between the Soviet Union), and therefore the impact of USSR Chairman Joseph Stalin is long-lasting. Due to this, America has always aligned itself more with the right side of politics than the left, symbolizing a continuing and everlasting form of the Red Scare even today. Therefore, when candidates such as Sanders, who promote left-wing values, start to come into mainstream politics, the outlook and public opinion is that they are too leftist, as history has told modern day Americans to fear left-wing figures. 

The irony of these criticisms is that in the grand, world-wide scheme of politics, Sanders and AOC are far from radical. Progressive candidates in the US push for reforms that strongly resemble the norm within many other countries, and it is only within the US-centric view of politics that they appear radical. While this is a perfectly understandable reason to critique or analyse them within American politics, applying terms such as “radical socialists” is far from correct. Candidates such as Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader in the UK, and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, a French MEP for the Party of European Socialists, are much more characteristic of more extreme left-wing candidates. Corbyn championed nationalisation for a wide range of industries, a huge tax increase for the wealthiest in order to pay for welfare services, and even more of an investment in the scope of the National Health Service. In much the same way, Lienemann fought for Socialist ideals such as freezing the private sector and raising the minimum wages across the public sector. It would be inconceivable for a candidate to run with the outright name of socialist (as Corbyn and Lienemann did) in the US due to the everlasting Red Scare, and even Sanders faced criticism for being a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, an ideology much less extreme and palatable than actual Socialism. Whilst Corbyn’s views are pertinent to similar issues as Sanders’ views, they’re taken to much more extreme measures, whereas Sanders and AOC have to operate within a much more restrictive system. 

One way to illustrate the US’s restriction on leftist ideology expression is through the policies that Sanders and AOC vote for. Sanders lists the following on his website as his key ideas: a move to renewable energy, national health insurance, and more humane and greater tolerance for immigration.3 On AOC’s website, she calls for greener climate reforms, criminal justice reform, and tackling income inequality.4 All of these issues are seen as radically left in the US, but are consistent with almost every major left-wing party outside of the US, and even in many centrist or right-wing parties. For example, the Conservative Party in the UK generally reaches a consensus that their National Health Service is important, highlighting an agreement between the far-left of America and the right-wing of the UK. With this point, it is clear that the ideas of Sanders and AOC are so often dismissed in the US for being too radically left, but they are the consensus between major parties outside of America. Another example is criminal justice reform policies, which aim to grant prisoners the right to vote – a concept that is the norm in many European countries, or at the very least, an issue at the forefront of the attention of major parties. Overall, America’s major left-wing party is more indicative of a centrist party elsewhere, which means that actually traditional left-wing politics are seen as radical-socialism, resembling the political beliefs of Stalin.

A reason for why this disillusion has occurred is because of the general right-wing bias that the US operates under. The consensus of the Democratic Party is one of moderate, even centre-right politics, in the grand scheme and yet is branded as a left-wing party. Democratic Presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would undoubtedly be part of the centrist or right-wing parties in other countries. Their policies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, are similar to those argued for by the UK Conservative party. Biden, along with other Senate Democrats, wouldn’t commit to the Green New Deal, a progressive and expansive Climate aid program, which the European Parliament, a currently centrist/right-leaning body, supported. Additionally, one such argument often made in favour of calling Biden a left-wing politician on a global stage is his opposition to Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU, a typically left-wing policy. However, this is also an issue supported by two Conservative former Prime Ministers: in short, Biden’s more left-leaning ideas are also those supported by right-wing parties elsewhere. Even within Canada, the election of 2020 was seen as an opportunity to decide between “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties.”5 While the Democrats are the left-wing party of the US, it is important to realise that almost all of American politics operates on a right-shifted spectrum, and when translated into global terms, it is very much a case of centrist/right versus far-right, with the “radical” voices merely representing actual left-wing policies. 

What is important to recognise, however, is that the goal of pointing this out is not to suggest that Sanders and AOC are not hugely influential, or to criticise their politics. They are politicians who are actually left-wing, and this is hard to come across within the US political platform. Their emergence in Congress, and the effect they are having on political debates are a positive thing. The US is an inherently right-wing country, so any movement to the left, no matter how minimal on the global stage, is progress for the left-wing voters. By shifting some of the debate to left-wing issues and by challenging those in the centre to take a stance on issues they have previously stayed silent on, the nature of American politics is revealed, and it is evident that elected officials have limited scope. If enough support is gathered for the progressive branches of the Democratic party, such as Sanders and AOC, perhaps a clear left-wing alliance may arise, and the consensus will shift to one many other countries have: an “actual” left-wing, and an “actual” right-wing, instead of continuing with one party having the label of left, and the other having the label of right, but continuing to vote on centrist and far-right policies respectively.


  1. Don McIntosh, “Talking Socialism: Catching up with AOC,” March 19, 2021, https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/aoc/.
  2. David Brooks, “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever,” The New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/opinion/bernie-sanders.html.
  3. “Issues,” Bernie Sanders Official Website, accessed November 1, 2021, https://berniesanders.com/issues/.
  4. “Issues,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Official Campaign Website, accessed November 1, 2021, https://www.ocasiocortez.com/issues.
  5. Donald Cuccioletta, “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties,” Canadian Dimension, October 31, 2020, https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/republican-and-democrat-the-choice-between-two-right-wing-parties.

Bibliography

Brooks, David. “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever.” The New York Times. February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/opinion/bernie-sanders.html.

Cuccioletta, Donald. “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties.” Canadian Dimension. October 31, 2020. https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/republican-and-democrat-the-choice-between-two-right-wing-parties.

“Issues.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Official Campaign Website. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://www.ocasiocortez.com/issues.

“Issues.” Bernie Sanders Official Website. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://www.ocasiocortez.com/issues.https://berniesanders.com/issues/.

McIntosh, Don. “Talking Socialism: Catching up with AOC.” Last modified March 19, 2021. https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/aoc/.

Not A Gimmick: The Lack of Diversity in Theatres

by Abbie Cawser, September 24, 2021

Cameron Mackintosh is a well-known name in the UK, but this is less true in the US. While you may be unfamiliar with his name, his work is much more recognisable – Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton. He is a producer for some of the most famous and longest-running West End and Broadway shows in the history of theatre. With his reputation of featuring progressive themes of inclusion, revolution, and community in these shows, one would think that he’d be a proponent for the advancement of theatre into the 21st century, but recent comments have led him to face backlash throughout the theatre community. 

Recently, when asked about the potential for transgender actors in theatre shows, he responded, “you can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character… to do that, it becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”4 This exclusionary mindset separates trans actors from the rest of the theatre community, suggesting that an artist who happens to be trans would not be able to play a role as effectively or convincingly as a cisgender artist.

Unsurprisingly, this faced a significant amount of backlash from a community largely based on acceptance and tolerance. Alexandra Billings, a transgender actress currently starring in Wicked on Broadway, asserted that

“I am an actor…I am these stories because I am part of the human fabric and no one has the right to take any this away from me.… I am an actor, Mr. Mackintosh, not a gimmick…. We have been playing these musical roles in the theater for centuries. The only difference is, now we are becoming visible. And that’s frightening. That’s upsetting. This is about you and your fear and the fear of many others, but it is not about the trans community.”

– Alexandra Billings

She was far from alone in this: countless actors from Mackintosh’s own shows, as well as the entire cast of a recent production of Rent (a show that features multiple trans/non-binary actors) stood up against his words, demanding an apology and highlighting the work that trans actors have done within the Broadway community.4

On September 6th 2021, there was a Trans March on Broadway, protesting Mackintosh’s comments and claiming that it should be transgender artists who lead the conversation, not Mackintosh.5 There are also plans for a concert entitled You Gotta Have A Gimmick, the goal of which is to put the spotlight on trans artists and allow them to share their talents separately from the discriminatory comments.

Following the backlash, Mackintosh posted another statement, apologising for his comments. He claimed that his words were misinterpreted and that it wasn’t transgender artists he was against, but simply their presence in classical shows; instead, he suggested, new shows should be written focused exclusively on trans issues. The problem with this suggestion, aside from the fact that it still gatekeeps classical roles from transgender actors and limits the subject matter that he sees as suitable for them to partake in, is that the creation of new musicals is not such a straightforward solution. Plays and shows have already been written with specifically transgender roles in mind, such as Jagged Little Pill, and Breakfast on Pluto.3,2

The issue? These roles are still being played by cis actors. 

By claiming that classical roles are not suitable for trans actors, whilst also casting cis actors in trans roles with the claim that fiction should be open to anyone, producers create a hypocritical paradox that only serves to exclude transgender actors. Additionally, certain new shows such as Tootsie (a show in which a male character adopts a female persona in the hope that this advances his career) create storylines that “profit from transgender stereotypes while casting cisgender performers, to share their experiences in the business.”2

The expectation that progress will come through new shows is an excuse that has allowed for the lack of diversity within classical theatre for decades. The majority of casting in older, more renowned shows is predominantly White, with the expectation that newer shows will create roles more “suitable” for actors of colour, actors with disabilities, and trans and non-binary actors. This lack of representation is far from limited to just sexuality and gender identity – race is also massively underrepresented. 

While the issue of needing more diverse actors is a frequently occurring one, an important discussion that is often overlooked is one of writers. In the last 3 theatre seasons, over 80% of plays and musicals on Broadway were written by White creatives, as outlined in “The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on NYC Stages,” which was published by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.1 Given that diversity is supposedly meant to be enhanced through new art (which has occurred to a certain extent, with shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown casting much more diverse artists, but has still not come close to resolving the imbalance), it seems unlikely that this will be possible in an industry where even new art is staggeringly under-representative. In 2019, a study done on gender representation within Broadway revealed that there were only 4 artists who openly identified as non-binary, with non-gender specific roles making up just 7.1% of all characters on Broadway.6 When this study was released, actor Shakina Nayfack wrote that she “just want[ed] to be playing good roles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with transness.” In short – roles don’t need to be written specifically for trans actors because they should be able to occupy any space and role they choose on Broadway.

While diversity is starting to emerge within shows, without the hiring of actors in classical shows – given these shows’ reputations of prestige and their security as a symbol of Broadway, especially amongst older audiences – progress will be slow, as these actors will still believe theatre isn’t a place for them. The responsibility shouldn’t be on young actors and writers to create roles for themselves when existing roles should be open to them.

(Dates and artists for You Gotta Have A Gimmick have not yet been announced, but follow @youcancallmesis on Twitter for updates)


References

  1. Asian American Performers Action Coalition, Racial Representation on New York City Stages 2018-2019’, American Theatre Wing, 2019 (http://www.aapacnyc.org/uploads/1/3/5/7/135720209/aapac_report_2018-2019_final.pdf
  1. Annie Lord, ‘Actor felt forced to quit musical after man was cast in trans woman role’, The Independent, March 2020 (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/trans-actor-breakfast-pluto-cillian-murphy-kate-odonnell-a9396421.html
  1. Christian Lewis, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Broadway’s Jagged Little Journey Toward Nonbinary Inclusion’, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2021(https://brooklynrail.org/2021/04/theater/One-Step-Forward-Two-Steps-Back-Broadways-Jagged-Little-Journey-Toward-Nonbinary-Inclusion
  1. Greg Evans, ‘Trans Actor Alexandra Billings Blasts Producer Cameron Mackintosh: “I Am An Actor, Not A Gimmick”’, Deadline, Aug 2021(https://deadline.com/2021/08/alexandra-billings-cameron-mackintosh-trans-casting-not-a-gimmick-1234824340/
  1. Michael Appler, ‘Transgender March on Broadway Protests Cameron Mackintosh Casting Comments, Calls For Greater Representation’, Variety, Sept 2021 (https://variety.com/2021/theater/news/transgender-march-on-broadway-cameron-mackintosh-1235057686/ 
  1. Sammy Gibbons, ‘Trans, nonbinary musical theater pros make ‘a place’ for their work that Broadway hasn’t’, Rockland/Westchester Journal News, Lohud, July 2021 (https://www.lohud.com/story/life/2021/07/12/transgender-nonbinary-theater-pros-fill-broadway-gaps/7811342002/