What Is Left?

I was not surprised by the substance of Harold Meyerson’s criticisms of my recent Harper’s essay (“Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals,” March 2014). I have known for some time that he and I disagree fundamentally on the reasonable scope of a political left in the United States and, correspondingly, whether one actually exists and/or how to go about building one as an effective social and political force. I was somewhat disappointed, however, at the tired hook to which he tethered his criticism. He characterizes me as viewing the political scene “from space” or a “stratospheric height" which leads me to miss crucial details on the ground. That’s just dismissiveness masquerading as evaluation. I could characterize him as limited by the myopic perspective of the inside-the-Beltway crowd, which renders him incapable of seeing the patterns that those details form and reflect. No doubt, each of us would be to some extent correct about the other, but that doesn’t tell anyone who’s interested in progressive politics anything worth noting. We both probably would prefer to see much the same sort of society. What’s significant about our disagreement is not whether one of us may be a pie-in-the-sky, naïve old-school radical or the other a narrow-minded Democratic apologist. So, assuming that I have some ability to notice details and he has some to see patterns, the significant issue, rather, is the different assumptions about politics that account for our different perspectives and foci. Those differences and their strategic entailments are worth exploring for American Prospect readers.

The core difference between us is that Meyerson has no patience for notions that there can, much less should, be a serious left politics that is not articulated relative to the Democratic Party. I argue the need for building an extra-electoral left that is independent of the Democrats because the party’s dominant political orientation has become less and less responsive to labor and other constituencies concerned with egalitarian economic policies, and more committed to placating the financial interests whose economic priorities intensify inequality and economic insecurity. He does not acknowledge that difference in discussing my article. Instead, he sidesteps it by allowing that, while my contention about neoliberal dominance may have been plausible at some point in the past, it is no longer. In Meyerson’s view, in addition to being in the stratosphere, my perspective is also “frozen in time” and thus misses the party’s important shifts away from Clintonite neoliberalism. 

However, the factoids Meyerson adduces to demonstrate that the Democratic center of gravity has shifted sharply to the left are not as persuasive as he asserts. The “popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base” may or may not translate into any significant change in the national party’s orientation down the road. Paul Wellstone was very popular with the party’s base his entire time in the Senate, most of which was during the Clinton presidency—the years when the Wall Street wing of the party became dominant. We’ll see what sort of modus vivendi de Blasio has to establish with Wall Street interests in New York, and how much and on what issues he has to accommodate it. Pundits have begun already to hype an Elizabeth Warren wing of the party as a progressive alternative to a Hillary Clinton wing. At this point all such talk is empty chatter, and it is a very familiar sort of empty chatter. It falls into a category of evasion I discuss in my article: proclamation of great change on the horizon, based on extrapolation from rudimentary or fragmentary phenomena in the present. We’ve been through this before, many times—including, dare I remind, with Barack Obama. One might as easily speculate, based on experience, that should a groundswell of support for Warren materialize as we approach 2016, the likely outcome would be that Clinton or some similarly connected and heavily funded equivalent will nonetheless secure the nomination and that the insurgents would be exhorted to fall in line behind the Wall Street/Clintonite minion without equivocation in deference to the paramount imperative to protect civilization by defeating the Republican.  

Similarly, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi did, as Meyerson writes, respond to heavy lobbying from the party’s progressive institutional base to stop “Obama’s bid to resurrect fast-track” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That’s certainly a good thing, and it does indicate that progressive tendencies still have some capacity to stop really terrible initiatives within the party. But that’s all it is—stopping some horrible things and occasionally winning incremental moderations of others. The other side still sets the policy agenda. (On this see my response to Michelle Goldberg in The Nation.) In addition, the final verdict is by no means in on the TPP; we also know from experience that the powerful interests backing it aren’t going away and that it won’t be the last such initiative or the last showdown on this one. 

There’s also something mind-boggling about touting Reid’s and Pelosi’s action as evidence of a powerful progressive wing in the party that obviates the need for an independent left. Last I looked, President Obama is a Democrat, and, when we distinguish his actions from his posturing, he and his administration are Democrats very much in the Clintonite mold. Moreover, Obama’s declaration of concern about increasing inequality and declining economic mobility is contradicted by his enthusiasm for the TPP. Failure to notice that contradiction illustrates the extent to which giving priority to corporate and financial-sector interests, and comforting fantasies that doing so is best for us, all have become commonsensical among Democratic Party elites. The administration, through the Department of Education, is also in the forefront of the attack nationally against public K-12 education and, by extension, against teachers’ unions. Whatever the Affordable Care Act’s strengths and limitations, it is politically significant that the administration made clear from the outset that the pharmaceutical and insurance industries had effective veto power on any proposals to be considered. How often have we had to mobilize pressure on the administration and many congressional Democrats to hold firm on protecting Social Security?  

Again, the fact that it has been possible often enough for progressives to hold off the worst initiatives is hardly a recommendation for subordinating left political strategy entirely to the Democratic Party and its coalitional processes. Meyerson provides one reason that is so, albeit parenthetically. He notes that the activist groups and undertakings that he imagines I’ve not noticed are constrained by the fact that “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.” That sounds reasonable enough on its face, but much lies in the details. What if backing the corporate Democrats imposes longer-term costs that limit or even undermine the “fundamental advance”? This is the sort of assessment that requires having the larger strategic vision that Meyerson dismisses. It also calls for an approach that goes beyond the issue silos that such small-scale, localist initiatives typically operate within, no matter how impressive and significant they can be for improving groups of people’s lives. Of course, I agree that the fast-food organizing and campaigns to increase local and state minimum-wage levels are to be applauded and are potentially hopeful signs of a progressive stirring. But for Meyerson to imply that those small, incipient efforts have supplanted, or even rival, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which has directed the party’s social, economic, and foreign policies since the Clinton years, is to say the least hyperbolic. And are we really to believe that, because Larry Summers was blocked for appointment as chair of the Federal Reserve, the financial sector’s death-grip on Democratic economic policy has been broken? Who floated his name in the first place? 

Additionally, while Democrats have stood against Republican attacks on public sector unions, states where Democrats hold power have been little less likely than those controlled by Republicans to shrink the pubic sector and threaten public pensions. Like a latter-day Enclosure movement, the thrust of the neoliberal policy regime, nationally and internationally, is to render more and more workers increasingly less able to resist taking work on whatever terms employers choose to offer it. From this perspective, the Obama administration’s willingness to trounce on the sovereignty of legitimately elected left-wing governments in our own hemisphere—support for a successful coup in Honduras, an aborted coup in Ecuador, as well as its ongoing campaign to destabilize the democratically elected government of Venezuela — shows that the corporate wing of the party is certainly alive and well. The administration’s penchant for trade agreements that strengthen the power of corporate and financial interests over workers here and abroad underscore that fact. That is the burden of the rising inequality and declining economic mobility President Obama bemoaned, and that burden cannot be addressed meaningfully by ancillary interventions like human-capital engineering, raising the minimum wage, and extending unemployment benefits, important as those things are.

Despite Meyerson’s objections, breadth of programmatic political vision is crucial to a left politics, if the notion is to have any meaning at all. Otherwise, we risk constantly defining our aspirations downward in line with what a rightward-tacking political center of gravity seems to allow. Although the left has never completely set the national political agenda, it has at some moments had enough political strength and social traction to influence the terms of political debate. An imperative of a serious left should be trying to build the social movement power that would once again enable us to be cue-givers rather than cue-takers in national politics.  

The difference between Meyerson’s viewpoint and mine may be linked to different notions of how movements are built. He seems to embrace a view that they grow through simple accretion of local initiatives. That view is what undergirds initiatives like the Working Families Party, which Meyerson also touts. Many serious, decent, and committed people in New York support the Working Families Party, and it has won significant incremental victories. On the other hand, the WFP can feed illusions that voting for ordinary Democrats means more than it does and is open to criticism as a vehicle for corralling insurgent political tendencies for the mainstream party. It is worth recalling in this regard that the WFP was born in New York with opportunistic endorsements of Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign and neoliberal hack Peter Vallone for governor.  

Beneath it all, though, I suspect that something else animates Meyerson’s response to my take on the left: Meyerson’s vision for an egalitarian American society is limited, in my view counterproductively, by his insistence that progressive political aspirations must be shaped entirely within, if not subordinated to the Democratic Party and its electoral and interest-group processes. That’s fine, of course, but he should just say so. The giveaway in his response comes near the end, when he associates me with a claim I do not make about the labor movement’s heavy concentration of political action in supporting Democratic candidates. I do not contend that the labor movement should downgrade their electoral work, as he implies. What I argue is that, in addition to doing what they have to do in the electoral realm, it would be wise to consider putting some resources into the longer-term project of developing and cultivating a broader constituency, in unions and outside, for a clearly working-class based political agenda that is anchored in the labor movement. But are we really to believe that out of the scores of millions of dollars the labor movement spent in the 2012 election, for example, it would have been unthinkable to consider dedicating a small fraction to non-electoral campaigns of political education and mobilization around issues that speak to working people’s concerns—whether or not Democrats support them or find them practical? For Meyerson it apparently is

But what I propose is hardly a novel notion; it was arguably the most important element of CIO activism. More recently, it was the cornerstone of the organizing approach advocated by Tony Mazzocchi and others involved in the effort to build an independent party of labor in the 1990s and early 2000s. That effort was in retrospect premature, and the circumstances that encouraged it then do not pertain now. So I do not at all intend to suggest that experience as a model. However, what remains necessary, even if the strategic objective is to assert a more potent voice within the Democratic Party, is to determine what we want to fight for programmatically as a left and to mobilize around those issues. Once we develop social power, the question of how to relate to the Democratic Party will become rather a different matter altogether.

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