Has the American left ceased to exist as a viable political force by surrendering its power to a corporatized Democratic Party? That’s the argument put forward by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., first in an essay for Harper’s magazine and then in a televised follow-up interview with Bill Moyers.
Reed’s essay, “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals,” has a blunt message which might be summarized as follows: The fault, dear liberals, lies not in our political stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. It’s not necessarily a new thought, but it packs a punch, especially as Reed has organized and expressed it.
“Nothing Left” is an incisive, pointed cri du coeur with the potential to jumpstart some long-overdue conversations. And if there’s one thing the left needs, it’s a serious talk about its future. The alternative is the continued fragmentation of an inchoate movement, accompanied by a never-ending rightward shift in American politics and the continued ascendancy of corporate economic power.
Reed’s analysis, while stated harshly at times, is very much on point. There’s very little “left” left in American politics. But his outlook seems overly pessimistic, and it runs the risk of discouraging the very people who might someday help rebuild an American left. They’re more likely to come together around a concrete agenda built on leftist principles such as job creation, fair wages, and a stronger social safety net. It’s possible to be positive without being Pollyanna-ish.
To be sure, things are bad and getting worse. No argument here. But something is also afoot in the land, and it would be a mistake to dismiss it. The sudden popularity of the Occupy movement showed us that, despite its sudden and mysterious collapse, a “99 percent” agenda resonates. Liberals have scored a few victories lately by stepping outside the party framework. And despite the lack of an organized left, left policies enjoy surprising popular support.
Those policies could provide the framework for a leftist resurgence.
The Way We Were
Reed begins by noting that “for nearly all the 20th century there was a dynamic left in the United States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism generated unacceptable social costs.”
That’s an important observation, especially at a time when leaders of the Democratic Party – the only nominally liberal large-scale entity in the nation – routinely celebrate that mythical entity known as the “free market.”
Reed notes that the labor movement and the ideological left exerted great influence on American politics for many decades (although they sometimes worked at cross-purposes in the 1960s, to their mutual detriment). But the left’s influence unquestionably faded. Why? Reed points to an increasing defensiveness among liberals during the 1980s and early 1990s, and adds that this defensiveness “increasingly came to define left-wing journalistic commentary and criticism.”
This defensiveness became so deeply ingrained among Democratic leaders that it continued to guide their decision-making after the 2008 election, even after voters soundly repudiated conservatism and awarded the party all three branches of government.
Nor was the independent left able to capitalize on that election. Why has it become so weak? Reed points to the “subdued” labor movement and the fact that “social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly.”
The left has moved away from real-world policy objectives, he argues, and has increasingly focused on more symbolic goals like “celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling.”
There is also a lost sense of optimism, which Reed successfully captures by quoting historian Russell Jacoby on the lost vision of a movement which once believed that “the future could fundamentally surpass the present.”
“Instead of championing a radical idea of a new society,” Reed quotes Jacoby, “the (current) left ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the existing society.”
Reed elaborated in his Moyers interview: “If we understand the left to be anchored in the conviction that the society can be made better than it actually is, and (in) a commitment to combating economic inequality is a primary one … (then) as a significant force that’s capable of shaping the terms of debate in American politics, the left is gone and has been gone for a while.”
That rings true.
It’s Their Party
The relationship between the left and the Democratic Party is central to Reed’s argument, which might be summarized as follows:
1. The Democratic Party has shifted dramatically to the right.
2. The left – or what remains of it – has come to identify itself with the success of the Democratic Party.
3. This has led to a rise in social issues and identity politics at the expense of the economic questions which are (or should be) central to any genuinely left-wing movement.
As if to underscore these points, new poll results say that an increasing number of Americans describe themselves as “liberal” while, simultaneously, 80 percent of Democratic voters reportedly want Hillary Clinton to run for president – despite the fact that she has yet to state her position on many critical issues of the day, from regulatory reform to tax policy to education, and despite the fact that she’s closely associated with the regressive economic policies of the first Clinton administration.
These figures suggest that Mr. Reed is onto something.
“We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” says Bill Clinton in a devastating Reed quote. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade, and the bond market. Isn’t that great?” (They were actually to the right of Eisenhower’s Republicans on a number of issues; for example, the 1956 GOP platform celebrated the increases in union workers and Social Security beneficiaries which took place in Eisenhower’s first term. It’s impossible to imagine the Clinton team doing that.)
Mr. Reed is also almost certainly correct when he diagnoses many in the liberal community with “electoralitis,” an over-emphasis on elections (and, by implication, on politicians and their personalities). He writes: “In the absence of goals that require long-term organizing – e.g., single-payer healthcare, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security – the election cycle has come to exhaust the time horizon of political action.”
But Bill Moyers posed one question which seems to have gone unanswered, when he played Barack Obama’s advocate and imagined what Obama might say about the virtues of “pragmatism” and the need for liberals to be patient with a process that will take “a long time.”
Reed’s response was interesting and engaging, but it didn’t address this most fundamental of Democratic counter-arguments. Here’s one response: The real question is, are things improving? The answer, as reflected in most economic indices, is “no.”
Patience isn’t a virtue when you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Among the Believers
Reed is unsparing in his criticism of liberals who identify with Democratic politicians. While this is a valid concern (and one I’ve expressed myself), the harshness of his rhetoric suggests an element of score-settling. He takes special pains to eviscerate any liberal who ever felt enthusiasm for the first Obama campaign.
Here’s a sample sentence: “Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. We were urged to marvel at and take our cues from the already indulged upper-middle-class Children of the Corn and their faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance.”
But they were not as foolish as he makes them sound. Although Obama frequently espoused corporate views, he also took markedly left-ish positions on issues that ranged from negotiations with Iran to a tax on higher-cost health care plans (which he opposed in his campaigns but later insisted on including in the Affordable Care Act).
Candidate Obama may have been a hologram, in which what you saw depended in large part on where you stood. But he did not openly express a corporatist, Clintonian agenda. In fact, he carefully positioned himself to Hillary Clinton’s left, probably because he more accurately sensed the mood of the electorate. And he did so often enough to make several campaign promises, which were conspicuously broken once he was in office.
That renders Reed’s contemptuous dismissal of his supporters – and Sen. Clinton’s, for that matter – overly harsh and caricaturish. Identification with political candidates is a form of idealism. It seems wiser to try channeling that idealism than it does to mock it.
Signs of Life
Just as liberals aren’t unremittingly gullible, things today aren’t unremittingly grim. While neoliberalism may be ascendant, there are also signs of a nascent but potentially vibrant left. A case in point: As Moyers noted in his questioning, grassroots activism for more than 500 organizations threw a monkey wrench into Obama’s plans to “fast track” the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress.
Here’s another: The minimum wage, which had languished in the political process for years, was given renewed energy after fast food workers rose up to demand it. That attracted both institutional and rhetorical support and gave this critical issue new momentum. Local organizing has led to minimum-wage increases in a number of states and to a dramatic $15 minimum wage initiative in SeaTac, Washington.
And here are a few more: Effective organizing around the issue of Social Security has shifted the Beltway dialogue away from a “bipartisan” consensus bent on cutting the program and toward proposals for expanding its benefits. Occupy Wall Street, despite its sudden (and never fully explained) implosion, shifted the national debate in a matter of weeks.
What’s more, despite all the media talk to the contrary, public opinion supports the left on a number of key issues: Most Americans support higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations. 69 percent believe the government has a role to play in reducing the gap between the rich and everybody else. Nearly three out of four supports a significant increase to the minimum wage. Seventy-seven percent support hiring people to make urgently needed infrastructure repairs. In many ways we live in a surprisingly populist country. (See PopulistMajority.org for more.)
Continued populist dissatisfaction is shifting the political debate, despite our elected officials’ best attempts to insulate themselves from public opinion. Even Republican Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.), who issued a tax proposal this week, was forced to pretend that he had proposed a surtax on wealthy individuals. (It was really a tax cut, of course, but it’s telling that he felt he needed to leave a different impression.)
It will be argued that this is only rhetoric, while the policy remains unchanged. That’s true. But it suggests a change in the zeitgeist – one that comes from the left. Rather than speak of “impotence,” as Reed does, it might be more effective to speak of untapped power.
The American left has already won the debate on a surprising number of issues. Imagine what it might accomplish if it actually existed.
The Future Left
The differences described here are generally those of emphasis, nuance, and interpretation, not of fundamental disagreement. That holds true when it comes to prescriptions, too. “Nothing Left” devotes less space to potential solutions than it does to analysis, but it touches on several important approaches. Institutional structures must be built, and Reed is undoubtedly right that this will require “grounding in a vibrant labor movement.”
Other alliances may not be as integral, but are still worth pursuing. The left historically allied itself with corporations, especially in the postwar era. A future left can team with business, too, especially the smaller businesses who have suffered from the consequences of globalization, growing poverty, and the disappearance of the middle class.
The future left can also win the support of groups and individuals who are not always traditionally leftist but share the movement’s views on certain issues – homeowners on mortgage relief, seniors on Medicare and Social Security, and young people on debt relief and universal access to education.
In classic Alinsky fashion, the left can also organize itself around issues which might have (or already have) broad public support: Jobs. Wages. Expanding Social Security and Medicare programs. Higher taxes on ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations. Free education for all. Publicly funded health care. Affordable or free public transportation.
It seems clear that a vibrant American left must view the Democratic Party, not as its home or its leadership, but as one of many tools it can use to build a more equitable and just society. That may require a psychological transformation on the part of its participants, who must no longer invest their emotional energy in personality politics – or personality politicians.
An independent left must never plead with Democratic leaders to be heard, as too many liberals have been wont to do. That way lies continued irrelevance – and continued contempt from the likes of Rahm Emmanuel, who reportedly once slung profanities at an assembled group of liberal presidential supporters when he was White House chief of staff. The future left must be willing to say “no” to these kinds of Democrats, with all that the word “no” implies.
Reed says that the left’s acceptance of its own “absolute impotence” would be “politically liberating.” But there’s evidence that, at a minimum, the word “absolute” is misplaced. And “impotence” usually leads to discouragement, not to faith in one’s own ability. With all its other problems, the last thing the left needs right now is performance anxiety.
But that “politically liberating” point is an important one, one which mustn’t be lost in our day-to-day discussions about the “art of the possible.” The leftist educator Paolo Freire used the term “internalizing the oppressor consciousness” to describe what happens when people identify so deeply with their rulers that they deny themselves the permission to work toward, or even to dream about, a better future for themselves.
For too long, the American left has done exactly that. It needs to remove those self-imposed limitations William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles” so that it can unleash its own imagination and courage. It must broaden its vision of what is possible so that it can break the bonds of impossibility. If Mr. Reed’s essay provokes a discussion which helps achieve that, he will have performed an invaluable service.