March 23, 2014
What’s Left for a Leftist to Do?

Today the local Democratic Socialists meeting was held in my town. After the typical business of a volunteer organization, we began a discussion of Adolph Reed’s article Nothing Left – The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals (behind a firewall unfortunately) in the March issue of Harper’s. Far be it from me to attempt a synopsis of this article, but quoting Reed’s closing statements may suffice.

We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races.

It is long past time for us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision. Obama and his top aides punctuated that fact by making brutally apparent during the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left would have a place in this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not be clearer.

This is a bitter pill for long-time leftists to swallow – admitting impotence is not easy for any of us. The discussion went in a few different directions, but ultimately we all came to realize that in electoral politics, leftists have no alternative – either support the Democrat or take the risk that the usually far worse Republican will win.

Every two years, leftists who know that the Democratic candidate does not share their views nevertheless turn out to campaign for that candidate. Most around the table admitted to voting for Obama in 2008, although most of us knew at the time that he was going to serve the interests of Wall Street, not Main Street. A majority voted for Jill Stein in 2012, but only after doing the math and ascertaining that Romney had no chance of winning our state. But what’s a leftist to do?

My own position is that leftists have failed to convince a significant number of working Americans that the interests of the wealthy do not and will never be the same as the interests of workers – elementary Marxist class analysis. Without that essential bit of political understanding, workers will be easily swayed by the enormous advertising campaigns for and against the two major party candidates and will vote for one of them, thus sealing their fate for another two to four years. Left organizations, including even the American Communist Party, covered their web sites in 2012 with pictures of President Obama and urged their followers to support him, not because they believed he was a leftist, but because there was no alternative.

It strikes me that unless the left spends as much of their limited time, money and resources on creating an alternative, they will continue to face the choice between two corporate parties that are anti-labor, pro-war, and eager to bail out the next failing bank. Continuing to hold rallies, send petitions, or hold placards in front of Congressional offices about this or the other righteous cause will have the same effect it has had for the last 40 years – things will keep going in the opposite direction.

We were lucky to have a political science professor in our midst who said this reminded her of the situation in Chile. Chile had a multi-party democracy, but the post-Pinochet era has been dominated by two parties, both of whom espouse neoliberal policies. However in recent years, the students and the indigenous population have formed splinter parties that are truly socialist and although the recent election has returned Michelle Bachelet to power, she is far more likely to pursue real socialist policies rather than the more centrist policies of her 2006-2010 presidency. It is those new parties and their popular support that push her in that direction.

Can we move in that direction here in the United States? I think it is possible, but difficult. Students, and recent ex-students, are a natural constituency for a party that has a platform to eliminate student debt and provide free higher education. Recent immigrants and their communities might support a party that calls for easy naturalization for those whose only crime is entering the country without proper documentation. Unorganized labor, such as those in the service industry, might support a party that supports a $15/hour minimum wage indexed to inflation. Lots of thinking people might support a party that is calling for a repeal of the Bush and Reagan tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans and Medicare for all. It will take a lot of work to convince people to support a third party, but failing to do so traps us in a duopoly that gives us only a choice to make our lives worse quickly or more slowly.


Posted by Charles Dunaway at March 23, 2014 04:32 PM
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I agree, but only in part. What we had in the 1950s through 1970s was tightly controlled capitalism, and it worked out well, or at least well enough, for the vast majority of Americans.

We don't need to destroy our increasingly perverted system. What we need to do is destroy the perversions of the system. These range from increasingly less graduated tax rates to the gaping hole left when Steagall-Glass was repealed.

But for openers, next time a too-big-to-fail bank fails, the answer should not be to bail it out. But on the other hand, we can't let the depositors - millions of average Americans - go under with the bank.

What would be needed is a bailout that also breaks the bank into 50 pieces – one for each state. Each piece becomes a separate bank so that they will be small enough to fail.

I could go on, perhaps for a month, but I think you get the idea.

Simply restoring the Steagall-Glass act that built a wall between commercial and investment banking would be a major step forward. So would restoring the inheritance tax on estates of over a couple of million bucks, and a restoration of higher tax brackets.

(So would guillotines in Times Square, but that ain't gonna happen.)

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank

Posted by: The New York Crank on March 24, 2014 11:37 AM

Mr. Crank, I don't necessarily disagree with your prescriptions as far as they go, but the thrust of my article is the question "How do we get there?".

There is no possibility that the Democratic Party would support restoration of Glass-Steagal or breaking up the big banks. There are possibly a few Democrats in Congress that might say they support that, but they are a minority of a minority and if the time comes to vote, their arms are twisted, and they invariably equivocate.

Posted by: Charles D on March 24, 2014 11:42 AM

Wrong. Subtract the anomalous white neo-confederate demographic 'bump in the python' (which window is presently shrinking,thank DOG, at last) following LBJs civil rights bills then even with the built-in bias towards the rural vote in our system the so-called reagan revolution would have been less harmful. Switch out the southern white vote 20 years down the road based on current trends. Or just as a helpful mental exercize simply correct Southern WHITE voting to bring it more in line with nationwide averages and you'll see the problem is as it's been for 200 and more years- a geographic rump of throwbacks (again, as a proportion of the total population on the wane). Hence the liberal soul searching/rending of garments is based on a fundamental misapprehension. Small consolation- damage is done.

Posted by: on March 27, 2014 7:46 AM
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