This is a tough time for the American left. We have seen a series of crushing electoral defeats and gains made by an increasingly bold far right. Recent weeks have seen alarming attacks on women’s rights (in Michigan
and South Dakota
, most notably), continued disarray in the opposition, and, despite the catastrophes in Iraq and on K Street, there is no real sign that the country can be turned around any time soon. Add to this the overwhelming feeling that huge swaths of American public opinion favor the repeal of the 20th Century, and it is easy to sink into defeatism, cynicism and frustration.
Nonetheless, opinion polls continue to point to solid majorities behind progressive reforms, in health care and education, and opinion tracking on gay rights and other social issues are, in general, trending our way. More people vote Democratic than Republican for the House and Senate, and the Republican edge in Presidential elections is miniscule, even if our electoral system makes it decisive. These are things to build on, to utilize as building blocks for a new progressive movement that is broad, multi-faceted, strategic and visionary. How, exactly, do we do this? To paraphrase Michael Harrington, if I knew this I would be President of the United States. I don’t know, and chances are any answers will emerge from trial and error as well as scholarly and popular debate- even blogging.
Below, however, is my attempt to outline a few of the tendencies which exist on the left which are decidedly not helpful: Minimalism, Denial, Sectarianism and Conspiracy Theory. Some of them are, in fact, contradictory impulses which need to be balanced with one another. Others are simply dead-ends. Whatever the Next Left looks like, however, I hope that it is able to keep these mistakes in abeyance. Minimalism
“The least we can do is the best we can do” is a sort of defeatist orientation that one finds throughout the center-left. It is prevalent in the Democratic Party and among local politicians, in the labor movement as well as some environmental activists. For the minimalist, the status quo of public opinion and discourse is immutable, and the purpose of politics is to work within that accepted “consensus”. If America is conservative, then Democrats must be conservative. If the market ultimately dictates the prospects for environmental protection, environmentalists should embrace the market. It is good to recognize the social and ideological realities that we face, but movement conservatism, like movement liberalism before it, proved that political action can help to shape social reality. Strong, well-targeted advocacy can move discourse quite a long way- from the Great Society to Morning in America, from justice to just us. Overarching economic and social trends are important, no doubt, but history is also made by purposeful political action. The right did not miss key opportunities presented to them. The left does just that when it concedes on foundational principles and allows conservatives to sculpt mainstream politics in its own image. Every time Hillary Clinton tries to out-hawk the hawks, we grant one more year to the Republican era.Denial
But framing isn’t everything. Another key mistake that is made, especially by the new progressive activists emboldened by the Howard Dean campaign and weaned on the iMac Gramscianism of George Lakoff, is to think that the only problem facing the left is one of communication. There is no doubt that progressives have serious problems in communicating their ideas- and Lakoff is indispensable in that he has refocused our discussion on how specific policy debates exist in a powerful ideological context. However, his insights are often reduced to a game of grassroots spin-doctoring. Activists ask “how can we fit our policy preferences into frames already set-up by the right?” That gives way to “how can we better sell our product?” And that gives way to “what are the best words to use to describe this policy?”
It is our frames which are in crisis. Worldwide, the left lacks a compelling master narrative, now that government is a universal evil and grand social change is off the table. We are in the minority, not as much as the corporate media or Karl Rove say we are, but our ideas are not as salient as they once were. We have to ask ourselves why. We need to spend time and energy thinking about what we think. The fact that we seem to be completely agnostic about what we call ourselves nowadays is an example of this problem. Are we liberals? Are we progressives? Do those words describe anything? Are our internal disagreements just tactical, or are they ideological? What kind of world do we really want to see? The Dean left could stand to follow some of the discussion in the “radical” or “anti-globalization” left, where some of these questions are being discussed. (the World Social Forum crowd could use a dose of Deanism, as well…)
Denial is also prevalent in the populist-green left as well. Listening to folks like Jim Hightower or arch-denier Ralph Nader, one would think that all the Democrats have to do to win power and glory is to move radically to the left. According to this view, there is a populist progressive silent majority out there to be grabbed. In fact, such a majority must be created.
Geoff Kurtz has a somewhat relevant review of some recent books in this vein here
Speaking of Nader, there is a tendency on the left, especially in times of trouble, to retreat into a prophetic and slef-righteous sectarian pose. This impulse drives people to view particular organizations or causes as embodying a singular truth around which political solutions will be shaped. Other movements and populations which do not share a particular strategic orientation can be sacrificed, as they have not yet seen the light. A case and point here is the “hard” wing of the Green Party. Vote-splitting is not a concern for these folks, since the growth and success of the Party becomes an end in itself, no matter the consequences on the ground for our communities and the environment. Sending a clear message will ultimately do more than keeping reactionaries out of office. Sectarian politics is proudly and defiantly minoritarian, and is often skeptical of coalition politics and the attempt to build and maintain majorities. They’d sooner take their toys and go home.
It may be true that it is sometimes better to lose an election than to compromise certain values, but such a tactic should not be entertained lightly. I don’t believe that it is ever a good idea at the State or National level. Instead, we should view elections as only one part of our work- balancing the viability of a given electoral campaign or candidate with a long-term vision for moving the country (and the world) in a progressive direction. Outside of electoral organizing, we should focus on the big picture, on shifting debate and bringing new issues to the fold. This can be done, in part, by political parties, but every election should not be seen as a referendum on our most long-term and big-picture ideals. Elections (as well as union contract fights) are finite things, struggles for power, even if they do have long-term consequences. We should be running candidates who are solidly progressive and who don’t accept conservative frameworks of ideas, but we should also be running candidates to win. Sometimes both are not possible.
Another caveat here is that we do need strong organizations which act in their own self-interest. It is fine to jealously build our institutions, but this should never be done at the expense of a broader left majority.
In my student activist days, I often encountered organizations (often Communist or Anarchist groups) which simply could not “play well with others”, and who viewed all coalition work as primarily an opportunity to build their own group. On a national-electoral level, this describes much of the Green Party’s strategy, while at the local activist level Greens can be found to be working constructively, even indispensably, to create progressive change. Personally, I think this is a core contradiction that the Greens won’t be able to work out without fracturing.
The base problem with sectarianism is that democratic politics has to be about convincing a majority of people that a given electoral program or set of ideas are better for their everyday lives. Especially given our retarded electoral system which rewards minority parties with zero representation, this necessitates compromise. We can have an impact on what people think about their lives and how they relate their experiences to the world, but intervening in that process are key political “moments” in which we need to line up more people than the other team.
Check out "Sectarian Jeopardy"
It seems that every day I meet someone who believes that September 11th was orchestrated by George Bush or the Israeli government, or both. Sometimes this thinking is based on the findings of physicists or chemists who raise questions about the technical details of the towers falling, sometimes it is raw desire to believe that George Bush is not only corrupt, but genocidal.
Conspiracy theory is tempting because it offers simple answers to complicated questions. Why are the American people allowing their government to run rampant? Because they have been tricked!
Why did a network of elite Islamo-fascists murder thousands of innocent Americans, and why was this act supported by many in the Muslim world? They didn’t do it!
What can we do about it? Nothing! They run everything!
The world is, of course, more complicated than that. Evil isn’t manufactured in planning meetings, it is dispersed throughout structures of power and privilege in a system in which most of us are implicated.
Of course, one person’s conspiracy theory is someone else’s muckraking journalistic hunch. The bombing of Cambodia, the Iran-Contra affair, and of course Watergate were all conspiracy theories. There should be no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind that there are those in the U.S. government who are capable, willing and adept at lying to the American people about great crime. However, to believe that September 11th was the Neocon version of the burning of the Reichstag is about more than muckraking- it implies a unanimity of purpose and discipline of action across thousands of political actors, both political parties and at nearly every level of governance. It would require near complete cooperation from the media. This seems to fly in the face of dear old Occam. It also worries me that so many of the Sept. 11th theories boil down, in some fashion, to the organized involvement of “zionists” in the plot. Any time jews are targeted as the culprits of an international or national conspiracy, I reach for my revolver.
Instead of all this, we need a politics of engagement, a politics which is unafraid of meeting people where they are at, which understands that the left is not a majority position, and seeks to be one. I could try to enumerate the principles and strategies of this future left, and one of the reasons I started this blog was to try my hand at just that. However, I find myself unable to articulate it any better than two of my favorite dead white guys. I often turn to Antonio Gramsci, who gave us the immortal line “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. And then there is my old standby Max Weber. I read and re-read the closing lines from Politics as a Vocation, perhaps the most beautifully rendered words about political struggle ever written. I’ll end with that:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth--that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.