Are there any liberals left?

March 20, 2014

Is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party at the start of a renaissance? Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, weighs in on the discussion.

SINCE THE latter months of 2013, liberals have been feeling better about themselves and the prospects for progressive change at the ballot box.

Look at the evidence, they say: Objections from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberals kiboshed President Obama's plan to appoint Wall Street's man, ex-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, as chair of the Federal Reserve. Bill de Blasio, running a populist campaign against growing inequality and racist police abuse, won a landslide victory to become mayor of New York City. Even Obama is shifting, we're told--he's at least made talking about income inequality a centerpiece of his administration's message.

The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart provided perhaps the most articulate statement for the case that DeBlasio's election and Summers' defeat represent "an omen of what may become the defining story of America's next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left." To Beinart, these recent political developments are harbingers of "the rise of the new new left," as the Millennial Generation of young adults--the most multiracial and politically liberal age cohort in the U.S. population--comes to dominate the electorate.

President Obama with leading Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid
President Obama with leading Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid

But just as liberals were starting to feel good about their chances again, along comes Adolph Reed Jr. His lengthy cover story for the March issue of Harper's magazine, "Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals," arrived as the proverbial downpour to rain on the liberal parade.

Reed's message to liberals--especially those who invest their hopes in the Democratic Party--is stark.

Since the 1980s, he writes, liberals, activists and social movement organizations (the combination of which Reed labels "the left") have been on the defensive. Instead of determining how to advance a broadly popular and egalitarian vision, this left has narrowed its "social vision" and its time horizon, keying actions to the next election cycle.

"Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection," Reed writes. "For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running." According to Reed, this has increasingly locked the left into a downward spiral, hitching its wagon to a more and more conservative Democratic Party.

To counter the tendency of some liberals today to see the 1990s Clinton administration "as a halcyon time of progressive success," Reed reminds us with a quick recap of his policies that the Clinton record "demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism's victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice."

When he turns to the Obama administration, Reed is even more scathing. He portrays Obama as something of an empty suit, who managed to gull liberals and leftists into supporting him while faithfully carrying forward the neoliberal agenda. While Reed chides Obama for his "reflexive disposition to cater first to his right," he also points out that "Obama could not have sold his signature 'bipartisan' transcendence" to leftists "if Clinton had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism far enough rightward." As he concludes:

[I]f the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right's social vision and agenda, before long, the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred...Because only the right proceeds from a practical utopian vision, "left" has come to mean little more than "not right."

REED'S CRITICISMS of Presidents Clinton and Obama and the brand of neoliberal center-right politics they represent will be very familiar to regular readers of His demolition of the malign influence of liberal practice of supporting the Democrats as "the lesser evil" to Republicans will also ring true.

We may not agree with Reed's proposals for a way out of the liberal cul-de-sac--more on that below--but we should see Reed's contribution as a welcome challenge to the liberal conventional wisdom.

And for that reason, it didn't take long for liberals to fire back. Writing in the Nation, journalist Michelle Goldberg conceded that Reed made some good points, but slammed his stance as "electoral nihilism." According to Goldberg, Reed's "arguments for ignoring electoral realities, for backing some quixotic third-party candidate or imagining that leftists can sway the system through ultimatums, are based on" a fantasy--that some spark will ignite "the People" to rise up.

Goldberg argues that the left has to engage in "the dirty work of electing a president"--and given her disdain for third-party efforts, one can assume she means a Democratic president--so that it can put itself in a position to contend for "power itself." She writes:

The right understands this; it has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up...So yes, for liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. The rest of the time, those who find the current choices intolerable should join in the long, slow groundwork that would allow for better ones.

To start with, it should be noted that Goldberg agrees ("So, yes...") with Reed's characterization of the liberal commitment to Democrats as the "lesser evil." Where Reed's Harper's essay puts a minus sign next to this proposition, Goldberg puts a plus sign next to it.

Reed's reply to Goldberg gave ground, conceding that in most cases--though he defended his vote for the Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader in 2000--he would opt for a Democrat as a "lesser evil" to a Republican. But, Reed added:

The fact that those of us who consider ourselves on the left must confront is that what the electoral options come down to are a choice between a neoliberal party that actively supports diversity and multiculturalism and a neoliberal party that actively opposes diversity and multiculturalism. Between the two, clearly the more open version of neoliberalism the Dems offer is less bad than the other.

Especially from the standpoint of a left, however, the crucial focus of politics must be to struggle to change the terms of debate that leave us with such impoverished choices. It's only in the context of a shriveled political imagination that that stance looks like nihilism.

THE REED-Goldberg exchange throws into sharp relief the questions facing the left as we approach the 2014 midterm elections and 2016 presidential election.

We are in the sixth year of a two-term Democratic Party president who has alienated a large portion of his constituents with a continued commitment to neoliberal policies that have made the rich richer. In that sense, the political moment shares certain similarities with the late 1990s, when similar disappointment with the Clinton administration--but during a time of economic boom--gave rise to the global justice movement and fueled support for Ralph Nader's 2000 Green Party run for president.

Today, there are rumblings of declarations of independence from the Democrats. The victory of socialist Kshama Sawant in her campaign for the Seattle City Council is the most dramatic, but there are others.

In Loraine County, Ohio, a labor-backed ticket recently swept local elections, defeating pro-corporate Democrats. Vermont's independent Sen. Bernie Sanders--a self-described socialist, though he caucuses with the Democrats--has sent up trial balloons about running an independent presidential campaign to stand up for working people against the two neoliberal parties. Meanwhile, liberals like Beinart and Goldberg point to the victory of De Blasio and other liberal candidates in overwhelmingly Democratic cities as evidence of a shift leftward inside the Democratic Party.

It's too early to make predictions about the 2014 midterm elections, but mainstream pundits are expecting the Democrats to have a rough go of it. Chiefly because of the disastrous rollout of the Obama health care law, wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "Democrats in Congress are looking over at the White House and realizing that the president is not only incapable of saving them, but he looks like a big anchor tied around their necks."

If the media's professional prognosticators are right, the already certain pressure for "the left" to get behind Hillary Clinton--or whatever other Democrat can be portrayed as saving us from full Republican rule--in 2016 will ratchet upward enormously.

So the debate about how the left should approach the upcoming elections--and more importantly, how it should rebuild itself over the coming years--will take on a sharper focus.

Reed has provided a lot of good ammunition for that discussion, and socialists should agree in broad terms with his call 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."

But there are many hard questions ahead. I'll take up just two: What is the relationship between different movements against oppression and exploitation and a broader political vision? And should the left aim to build for such a vision within the Democratic Party or through a political alternative existing outside it?

TO THE first of these questions, Reed appears almost dismissive of the different elements and movements that would constitute the left, broadly defined. To him, "the left careens from this oppressed group or morally pristine constituency or source of political another...Its reflex is to 'send messages' to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed." To this "dilettantish politics," as he calls it, Reed counterposes a long-term effort, with labor at its center, to build organizations and institutions embodying a new left.

Reed, a long-time proponent of the social democratic politics embodied in building a labor party, proposes a strategy consistent with his vision. It's similar to the analysis advanced by Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin magazine, who has argued that "lack of agency and of a solid institutional foundation for combating the excesses of capitalism eventually undermined liberal programs to build a more expansive welfare state."

But where Reed seems to deprecate the left's involvement in different movements, Sunkara tries to articulate a way in which social movements--like the immigrant rights and environmental movements, for example--can be brought into a broader left institutional framework.

The left is certainly correct to be discussing what kind of institutions and parties it should be building, but it doesn't do much good to compare our efforts to those of the "grassroots right" and its impact in "taking over" or pressuring the Republican Party--which accepts some of the right's mythology about the bottom-up character of the Tea Party and the politicians who claim to speak for it.

Interestingly, Reed, Goldberg and Sunkara all converge, in different ways, on this invocation of the right as a model for the left. Leaving aside the accuracy of the right's portrayal, one problem with the analogy is whether left's goal should be to "take over" the Democratic Party, rather than build an alternative to it.

A second reason the analogy doesn't hold is this: You can't really compare, except on the most superficial level, the right and the left in this way.

The right's politics are anti-majoritarian and linked to capitalist big money. For the right, the need to mobilize a popular base is a secondary consideration. Even the biggest mobilizations during the 2009-10 high tide of the Tea Party were smaller by an order of magnitude to the mass demonstrations for immigrant rights in 2006 or the movement against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

But conservatism still dominates American politics--not because the "grassroots right" pulls the strings in the Republican Party, but because big business interests that control both major parties make sure that both carry out a conservative agenda.

The left, on the other hand, has only its ability to mobilize and organize its broad popular constituencies to rely on.

The reason the Democrats ignore workers' interests isn't because organized labor is a non-factor inside the party. The Democrats wouldn't win elections in many parts of the country if not for the efforts of organized labor, especially in getting out the vote.

But a labor movement that can't win victories in its confrontations with bosses won't have the ability to set the national agenda on workers' issues. For that reason alone, building a labor-based political alternative can't be counterposed to rebuilding a movement that can fight for workers' rights in the workplace and community.

THIS BRINGS us to the second question posed in this debate: Should we build something inside the Democratic Party or outside it?

On this question, and despite his concessions to Goldberg, Reed has provided us with just about every reason as to why the left should break with the Democrats. Except one: The recognition of the Democrat Party as one of the two big business parties that run the American government.

While Reed argues that there's very little difference between the Republicans and Democrats today, he, like many of the writers for Jacobin (and no doubt most for The Nation, too) accepts the idea that the Democrats once stood for workers and the poor. In many of these accounts, writers contrast today's neoliberal Democrats with the New Deal/Great Society Democratic Party's heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s.

From the vantage point of the Obama era, it's easy to remember this Democratic Party as the party of Social Security, Medicare and the National Labor Relations Act. But it was also equally the party of Jim Crow, Japanese internment and the Vietnam War. Even at a time of Democratic ascendancy, the seeds for organized labor's defeats in the postwar era were sown with the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.

The Democrats were never a party for "our side," and they won't be won over to our side in the future. The big business interests that control it will assure that--regardless of how "social democratic" the aspirations of its "base" are.

That's why it's important for those who do want to see an alternative to the conservative domination of American politics to face reality. We have to build something politically and organizationally independent of the Democrats.

If we don't set this as the goal--and be willing to accept the challenges and consequences that come with that goal--the Democrats will always be able to pose as a "lesser evil" to some Neanderthal Republican, and win the votes of liberals and the left.

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