The Left doesn't just need better tactics. It needs a return to better ideas.
by David Atkins
Adolph Reed has made a recent splash with his essay in Harper's Magazine and subsequent interview with Bill Moyers. His thesis essentially states that the Left spends too much of its time attempting to elect politicians that we believe will solve our problems, when in fact those politicians often betray us--in part because we have no solid liberal movement to hold them accountable.
That's not a new message, of course, but its blunt restatement is causing some consternation among a certain set of comfortable center-left types who either don't believe that a return to a pre-1980s liberal ethic would be a good thing, or that the intransigence of Republicans and the rightward shift of the country over the last few decades renders anyone to the left of President Obama an irrelevant afterthought in American politics.
It's hard not to sympathize with those working in the trenches against hardline conservative opposition every day, growing frustrated with what they consider to be progressive magical thinking. Those of us working in the everyday knife battle for the next electoral and news cycle know that it's sometimes frustrating to hear people argue for a more robust liberalism when the fight just for a $15 minimum wage looks like a monumental, 10-year struggle.
But that view loses sight of how we got here in the first place. There's a reason the country is in place where a $15 minimum wage seems like a nearly impossible fight, and the Left broadly speaking shares in the blame for our predicament. If we ever want a country that operates on different ideological footing, we won't just need to defeat the conservative opposition. We need to change our own tactics--and our own ideas.
To do that and assess where we need to go, we need a clear understanding of how we got here. After the Great Depression and during the rise of worldwide socialist ideas, it was clear that free market capitalism needed at least a major softening of its social effects. While Communism took hold in the East, a more moderate set of social programs were instituted broadly in the West. This created a widely shared middle-class prosperity in the West for about 30 years from around 1945 to the late 1970s. But that comfortable prosperity was not shared equally: minorities and women were shut out of the trend in upward mobility, particularly in the United States whose history on issues of race was especially troubled. Movements toward broader civil rights and access to the middle-class economy for all groups was made a priority, and the moral arc of the universe seemed secure in its advancement.
But a number of things happened to derail progress. First, a racist and sexist backlash against the civil rights movement created a voting coalition useful to wealthy interests in slashing social economic programs generally (this strain of revanchism was particularly virulent in America, but was present elsewhere as well.) Second, globalization, mechanization, flattening and workforce deskilling put downward pressure on wages and employment--a situation business interests were happy to exploit at the expense of workers. Third, the gigantic failures of state Communism in the East eventually led to its well-deserved downfall--but rather than be replaced with a softer mix of capitalism and socialism, western and plutocratic interests conspired to turn former Communist states into radical free-market and crony capitalist kleptocracies. Fourth, big business realized the threat to its power and decided to become much more aggressive in buying political influence wherever it could, specifically in the hope of destroying the power of labor unions and trade barriers.
The result of all this was a hard turn to the Right on all but social issues that, historically, seems to have been almost inevitable. Free market capitalism had no ideological counterbalance on the world stage, capital was free to hire labor anywhere in the world on the cheap or use machines to replace it entirely, moneyed interests gained greater influence over politicians, unions were crushed underfoot, and a coalition of voters motivated by racial and sexist resentments was newly empowered. To soften the blow of the downward slide of the middle class, policymakers shifted their focus from wage protections to asset inflation, with disastrous economic consequences for all but the wealthiest.
Not surprisingly, the Left responded to this by cozying up to moneyed power and by shifting its focus away from questioning the assumptions of the flawed capitalist pseudo-meritocracy, and toward attempting to expand access to that meritocracy to everyone. That shift allowed the Left to hold together its social coalitions while maintaining access and influence to big money donors. The "era of big government was over." Trade protections for workers, regulations on the financial industry, and taxes on the wealthy were all eliminated by bipartisan consent. The left, meanwhile, became singularly focused on social issues and on making sure that the poorest Americans didn't suffer too badly in the brave new plutocracy.
And thus was born the "New Left" whose organizing principle is that society will be perfected when even a transgendered racial and religious minority can also become a plutocrat or head of state, so long as not too many people are dying on the street without access to food or healthcare. Toward that end, the New Left focused on electing politicians who would in turn appoint judges to help that withered vision become a reality.
As an organizing principle in a world of Rightist economic dominance, it's not completely terrible. But it's a guaranteed loser in the present as well as the near and long-term future.
The middle classes in industrialized countries are collapsing worldwide as the plutonomy grows ever more unequal. Households that already pushed women into the workforce to make up for wage deflation and inflation in housing costs no longer have anywhere to turn, except toward the sorts of multi-generational arrangements usually seen in less developed economies. The cost of both housing and education has skyrocketed to the point that younger generations have been basically squeezed out of the economy entirely even as older generations desperately cling to the remaining assets and social insurance they have. Technological change is causing entire industries to disappear almost overnight, with very few jobs to replace them--a trend that is rapidly accelerating.
The result of all of this negative change is a population that is appropriately scared, desperate, and angry. Both the poor and the middle class feel threatened and increasingly pessimistic. Opinions of elite institutions across the board are at an all time low. Whether on the right or left, few believe anymore that anyone in government, business, or politics is actually looking out for their interests. In a world like this, the move to ensure that every single individual in society has an equal, infinitesimal chance to become obscenely rich loses its moral force. The rhetoric around "making sure that no one is left behind" in starvation and penury is far less compelling when the entire middle class feels like it's being left behind.
By damaging the middle class with economic policies favoring the rich, elite policymakers have created both the angry populist coalition and the credible policy rationale for a different, more muscular Left that makes its goal not simply expansion of the plutocratic meritocracy to all groups and the protection of society's most vulnerable, but that challenges the foundations of the plutonomy entirely. Not in the last forty years has the public been so primed for an optimistic populist uprising. During and after the financial meltdown but also even before it, President Obama tapped into that national feeling to win the White House. But he has seemed unable and even often unwilling to use it to create a different conversation about how our economy should be structured, and on whose behalf it should work. The Tea Party, meanwhile, insofar as it ever did reflect genuine populist sentiment, was quickly overrun by conservative politics-as-usual. But the anger on all sides remains, and for good reason.
Tapping into the backlash will require more than just a focus on winning elections, as voters no longer believe politicians can or even want to solve their problems. It will also require much more than the weak vision of progress that the New Left has been peddling for decades.
It will require an acknowledgement of the trends that continue to destroy the middle class and send the working class into abject poverty, and a commitment to not only protect those falling furthest behind but to reverse the broader trend.
It will require a willingness to propose and try ambitious and novel policy ideas, both at the federal level and through the laboratories of the states. Policies like a Wall Street transaction tax, or state-run banks, or incentives designed to decrease rather than increase the cost of housing, or even a universal basic income. Capital mobility can be a problem, but even that is soluble through international trade treaties that serve to protect the interests of workers rather than plutocrats. These sorts of ideas can and should serve as the template for a re-energized left that promises not just vague and increasingly unrealized "opportunity" to people, but that actually delivers tangible results.
Without such a newly energized, more determined commitment toward broad prosperity, the desiccated vision and goals of the New Left will be rightly abandoned by voters. The Right will eventually pick itself up off the political mat and, as it has done so effectively in the past, use middle-class fears and frustrations to ignite a conservative populist prairie fire that will leave only pain and destruction in its wake.
Those of us in the trenches would do well to abandon our fear and cynicism about big ideas, just because they seem impossible today in the face of elected conservative opposition. Political change, like biological evolution, often happens in punctuated spurts whose opportunities are often as forceful as they are unpredictable.
We have to at some point start the conversation about rebuilding an effective middle class in the 21st century. Politicians like Elizabeth Warren are proving that it can be both popular and effective. The longer we wait, the harder it will be.