Thinking Small

There's a discussion starting to bubble up in some corners, one that will grow in intensity as we approach 2016, asking where the left should go as Barack Obama heads for the exits a couple of years hence. In the latest issue of Harper's, Adolph Reed offers a critique from the left of not just Obama but the liberals who support him. Our own Harold Meyerson offered a typically thoughtful criticism, to which Reed responded, but I'll just add briefly that one of the many things I didn't like about Reed's piece was the way he poses a dichotomy for liberals between investing too much in winning presidential elections even if the Democrat is imperfect (not a complete waste of time, but close) and building a movement (much better), but doesn't say what, specifically, this movement-building should consist of.

That's a common problem. Movements are great, but creating and sustaining them is hard work, work most of us would rather not do. It also takes skill, timing, and bit of luck. Most of us would agree that the decline of labor unions has been disastrous for the country in many ways, and I sometimes hear people say that what the left needs is a revival of the labor movement. That'd be great! If you have any ideas about how to do it, we'd all like to know.

Eight years ago I wrote a manifesto for liberals, and though not very many people read it, whenever I would speak to an audience about it, someone would always ask, "So what should we do? This isn't an easy question to answer, but since the theme of the book was that liberals should learn from what conservatives had done right over the prior couple of decades, my best answer was to think nationally and act locally, in the same way conservatives do. Get a couple of friends together and stage a coup of your local Democratic committee. Run for school board, or dog catcher, or whatever office you think you can win. If you want to push the Democratic party to the left, trying to get Bernie Sanders to run for president isn't going to do it. (Remember what a profound and lasting impact Kucinich for President had? Yeah.)

Reed would object that that sees activism only in relation to the Democratic party, which is true. It's not the only kind of movement-building, but it's a kind that works. Think about it this way: Mitch McConnell isn't scared of the National Right To Life Committee; he knows that if they think he isn't doing enough to outlaw abortion, there isn't much they're going to do about it. But over the last five years, he and every other national Republican have been absolutely terrified of the Tea Party. Why? Because the Tea Party has actually gotten Republican scalps.

Now the Tea Party is a unique case in the speed with which it accumulated power. But the principle of starting electorally at a low level still holds. The trouble is, the state rep race just isn't as glamorous as the presidential race. Andrew Sabl gives an excellent account of why that is. He was responding to Markos Moulitsas's argument that since Hillary Clinton is all but unbeatable, there's no point in getting behind some kind of challenge to her from the left, and instead liberals should accept that Clinton is going to be the 2016 presidential nominee and focus on getting strong progressives elected in down-ballot races. I've weighed in on the presidential primary question (short version: HRC might be beaten by somebody, but not by an ideological crusade), but Sabl hits the nail on the head:

… the larger problem, not unique to progressives, lies in the incentives and capabilities of presidential campaigns, in their systematic, structural (and rational) attempts to obscure the above lessons in the service of driving donations and turnout. National campaigns, through the best technology and psychology money can buy, persuade us that giving them our money and time means becoming part of something important. (True! But it’s a small part.) They portray the consequences of every election as more epic and final than they are likely to be. They encourage the Hollywood fantasy that the presidential speeches that inspire partisans have the potential to sway huge numbers of moderate, and inattentive, voters. They crowd out our background awareness of how much policy that really matters—regarding taxes, roads, public transportation, schools, colleges, policing and public safety, public health, Medicaid coverage, and now health exchanges—is set by states, counties, and cities, not primarily by the President, nor by Congress. And the media, desperate to attract mass readers and viewers whose attention is drawn to the excitement and pageantry of national campaigns, have an interest in reinforcing these distorted impressions.

Indeed. And like Sabl, I'll admit that I'm part of the problem—in 2016, I'm going to spend a lot more time writing about the presidential race than I will about anything else. But if you really want your activism to have impact, you have to set your sights lower, and be in it for the long haul. There's a not-very-old saying that Republicans fear their base, while Democrats hate theirs. If you're a liberal and you want to change that, the answer is to make high-ranking Democrats fear you. The reason they don't isn't that there haven't been enough left-wing populist presidential campaigns. It's that, unlike the right, the left hasn't taken over the grass roots and started climbing up the tree, hurling off those who displease them along the way until the people at the top look down and conclude they have no choice but to give the base at least part of what they want.


>>>If you have any ideas about how to do it, we'd all like to know.<<<


... as instituted by post WWII continental industrialists (presumably very right wing) to stave off a European labor race-to-the-top so more money could be diverted to rebuilding.

MAGIC: requiring all employees doing similar work in the same geographic locale to negotiate one common contract with all employers wards off the race-to-the-bottom just a surely. Used for 60+ years around the world (from Europe to French Canada to Argentina to Indonesia -- think we could close the "bargaining gap" with Indonesia?).

I will pay anyone on this blog who can prescribe any other labor setup that might reform BOTH the course of labor AND politics in this country 64 thousand (Martian) dollars — it doesn’t have to be better than centralized bargaining; it just has to work some way at all. Bet nobody collects.

The Teamsters have something like this in their National Master Agreement.

Anybody got a better idea? Never mind better; any other idea at all to reform both?

WHERE TO START: supermarket workers and airline employees (especially regional airline employees whose pilots are earning less than what the minimum wage should be) would KILL for centralized bargaining. At least get the conversation started.

Anybody listening? Can anybody suggest any alternative labor market setup that can inherently stop the race-to-the-bottom -- and reform our politics all in one scoop? Anybody want to start the national conversation ofn centralized bargaining? Anybody at all? ???

Actually, Democrats and liberals have completely alienated a large chunk of their former base by becoming elitist, representing only those with incomes roughly $50k (middle class). Occupy tells the story in a nutshell. What began as an extraordinary people's movement was rapidly redefined (by the media marketed to libs) as a Middle Class Only movement. The rest of us walked away, and Occupy fizzled out. Today's Dems/libs have embraced the right wing corporate agenda, agreeing that our hyper-capitalist system is so perfect that everyone is able to work, and there are jobs available to all who need one. The rest of us have to deal with reality.

"...Markos Moulitsas's argument that since Hillary Clinton is all but unbeatable..." Seriously? Most who will be voting Dem will vote for VP Joe Biden. Please think. Clinton/Gore targeted the poor, giving us 8 years of Bush. (The poor simply withheld their votes, and the middle class elected and re-elected Bush.) H. Clinton has a solid record of promoting anti-poor/working class policies. She was a leading "architect" of our unusually brutal policies against the poor and disabled. They won't vote for her. She has consistently, openly, been in service to the corporate state. She was a powerful lobbyist for NAFTA, the cause of the tremendous loss of our working class jobs, so the working class won't vote for her. Few Republicans will vote for her, as a matter of principle. There is no way that she can win an election, no matter how much the Dem elites adore her. We already know that voting will be very low in the upcoming elections, regardless of who runs. 89 Dems voted (most recent budget) to slash desperately-needed food aid to the elderly, disabled and poor. Again. We already know that the next president will be a Republican, in large part because Democrats and lib media have continued to embrace class elitism, alienating those who are not as well off as middle class, which makes the discussion about H. Clinton irrelevant.

Take a cue from Vermont, which is heading for single-payer right now. I project a divided government for AT LEAST the next five years. How do we solve problems between now and January, 2019? I don't know HOW but I do know WHERE--at my state capitol, not DC.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)