It is, I suppose, theoretically possible to get the big picture right even when you can’t see the small pictures at all. That seems to be the achievement of political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. in his cover story in the March issue of Harper’s.
As Reed sees it, both political parties have been captured by neo-liberalism, by Wall Street, by the cult of laissez-faire. The Democrats have succumbed while maintaining, or even increasing, their liberalism on social and cultural issues, even as the Republicans have moved rightward on those same social issues. More troublingly, as Reed sees it, the American left has acquiesced in the Democrats’ rightward movement, backing a passel of candidates and two presidents—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—who adhered to the economics of Robert Rubin and his protégés. The Left, says Reed, has always had an excuse: If the Republicans are elected, the world will lurch to the right. Backing Clinton and Obama and the Democrats is a defensive exercise, and a kneejerk defensive exercise at that.
It’s not that Reed dismisses electoral politics as unimportant, or even counsels the Left to refrain from voting for lesser-evil Democrats. His article is long, but nowhere does he pause to advocate the establishment of a third party or even individual election-day abstention. He understands that given the American electoral system, third parties almost never amount to anything, and that social change in America has come from the pressure of social movements, not parties—and from the labor movement in particular. His primary lament is that the left over-invests, emotionally and otherwise, in Democratic candidates, inasmuch as those candidates don’t deliver much if and when they’re elected. In so doing—and in its absorption into single-issue politics—the Left largely neglects its most important mission, building a long-term movement for economic equity that challenges the direction of American capitalism.
There’s much here that’s right and much here’s that wrong. Reed’s characterization of the Democrats as neo-liberal NAFTA-ites seems frozen in time, that time being the 1990s. As Bill Moyers pointed out to Reed when he hosted him on his show in February, both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have ruled out any support for Obama’s bid to resurrect fast-track—in essence, killing any chance for passing the latest iteration of corporate-backed trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Reed’s view of the Democrats takes no account of the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base, of the movement of fast-food workers and the spillover effect their campaign has had on efforts to raise the minimum wage. He didn’t get the news that Senate Democrats rejected Obama’s effort to make Larry Summers the chairman of the Fed precisely because of Summers’s role in deregulating finance. He seems not to have heard of the successes of groups like New York’s Working Families Party, which has built an electoral left in New York, or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has won higher wages, union recognition and environmental victories by uniting labor and enviro groups in L.A. He seems, in short, to have missed the rise of a left that is doing pretty much what Reed says a left should be doing. (Although to win their victories, these local lefts have to strike a balance between overthrowing corporate Democrats and backing them when their support is required to make a fundamental advance.)
Reed is on to something, however, in his discussion of Democratic presidential politics—particularly because of the challenge that a Hillary Clinton campaign will pose to both liberals and the left. While his accusation that most Democratic elected officials remain in the sway of the Rubins and the Summerses is clearly dated, it’s by no means clear that it doesn’t still apply to Hillary Clinton. The Clinton coronation may be a given, but the content of neo-Clintonomics remains a mystery.
Perhaps the biggest hole in Reed’s argument is that concerning labor and politics. Reed acknowledges that building a serious left requires a labor movement. But with the Republican Party fairly brimming with Scott Walkers and Bob Corkers—with politicos whose very mission is to stamp out what’s left of the labor movement—the unions lack the luxury of downgrading their electoral work. Wherever they can, labor, liberals, and the left should favor candidates and campaigns devoted to working people’s interests and power. But if the choice is between a Scott Walker Republican and a Democrat of limited virtues who nonetheless will support unions’ right to exist, labor, liberals and the left still have to mobilize for that Democrat.
Harper’s has long favored sweeping essays written at a stratospheric height, with a sweeping view of history and an equally sweeping inattention to current contingencies and complexities. Such essays are not without their virtues, and Reed’s surely falls in that category. The light in which he sees the left, however, has been traveling from such a great distance that the many of the images he describes no longer exist as he depicts them. Moyers’ discussion with Reed, by contrast, highlighted both the near and the far, the epoch and the moment. The complexities and contingencies, Moyers understands, are part of the big picture, too.