Is the American left regrowing its backbone?
September 4, 2003 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Is the American left regrowing its backbone? Kurtz: For hard-core libs who are angry about impeachment, Florida, the war, the budget deficit, the tax cuts, the "bring 'em on!" president, the Texas redistricting and the California recall, Dean and Franken, in different ways, provide a welcome sense of relief. Finally, someone out there who feels their pain! Politics as group therapy, maybe.
posted by skallas (30 comments total)
Don't get your hopes up. The Left is dying a slow death and we'll see the end in our lifetimes. Corporations got their hooks set deep early in the 20th century and dissent is becoming more futile. Money controls the courts and it controls elections. What's worse, a growing section of the public has been convinced that the Right is actually working towards their betterment. As someone smarter than me once wrote "As long as you're comfortable, it feels like freedom."

Not to mention that we refuse to compromise with each other, so unfailingly shoot ourselves before the Right even needs to.

As for the article, it's more interesting to make it look like something new might happen.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:41 PM on September 4, 2003

I wouldnt be so sure about that. Dean, Kerry et al are in attack mode, but I wonder if it will all snowball up to a cartharsis regarding the war and unemployment. Joe Sixpack has been watching the news and the more or less cheery take on the right wing facade seems to be failing especially with the US now begging the UN to help them in Iraq after going over their heads in March.

I think there's a certain amount of post 9/11 self-censorship mainly not to say anything can could be used against oneself in politics, but when it comes to the presidential race the kid gloves are simply off. The media is going to resonate with that or at least finally provide some much needed Democratic face time.
posted by skallas at 2:49 PM on September 4, 2003

The efficacy of the American left has declined precisely because of those who have tried to puff it up. Basically, take a look at the major hallmarks of the America left: the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act. Largely, these were not ideological endeavors, but pragmatic ones. Problem solving. Dogmatism has never come naturally to the American left (certainly unlike my friends in Mexico and South America, for whom leftism is ideological on the same scale as the American right), but practical measures always have.

This never manifested any sort of tension until the American right became so dogmatic and unified. The canned response is to say that the left just needs more teeth, that they need a simple, repeatable message like the right. I don't how compelling that really is.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 2:53 PM on September 4, 2003

Mayor Curley, the current situation is not forever. For better or worse, truly revolutionary times in the U.S. in most of our lifetimes can be imagined.

Just because the politico-corporate power structure has successfully constructed the appearance of ongoing consolidation doesn't make it a forever proposition. This power is derived from people either believing in it, or wanting to. As soon as enough formerly fine up-standing citizens are forced out of the mainstream, a powerful leftist movement will be formed out of necessity.
posted by attackthetaxi at 3:14 PM on September 4, 2003

Just because the politico-corporate power structure...

You stole that whole paragraph from Michael Palin's serf character in Holy Grail.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:21 PM on September 4, 2003

My last post is too snarky, because I sincerely hope that you're right, attackthetaxi. Sorry! Don't let my cynicism sap your will to try. I admire your idealism and wish that I hadn't lost mine.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:27 PM on September 4, 2003

Yes, that makes it false.
posted by attackthetaxi at 3:27 PM on September 4, 2003

oop. Anyways, yeah. To me, it's simply a question of how much people who'd define themselves as solidly middle-class are willing to take. There's plenty of room for things to get worse, so I can understand why idealism isn't such a popular concept right now.
posted by attackthetaxi at 3:30 PM on September 4, 2003

Is the American left regrowing its backbone?

The implication, of course, is that the American Left ever actually HAD a backbone. Franken, Maher, etc, seem to love launching verbal attacks and then retreat via "ha-ha it's only comedy, it's not really serious" when they are challenged intellectually or morally. To be fair, Dennis Miller employs this tactic, too, on some levels.
posted by davidmsc at 3:58 PM on September 4, 2003

The author jabs little at the left then punches hard at the right. Then the men that are supported in the article are said not to be the best men but better than what we have, bad is better than worse.

How about reform these current parties. Find few republicans whom support the full ideology. Then wonder why the left is trying to be noticed so hard today, not like they don't have the seats in Congress. Is the left afraid they may lose some democrats because they too have members whom don't fully support the party? Noticing too, the Democrats fueling their fires like Republican old using history to support their views.

I always thought Republicans stood for shrinking the government, but this Wall Street Journal piece suggests otherwise:

There is a war on, our military reservists now being fully active...then the previous administration cut defense spending so this was a flimsy point because republicans will increase it.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:04 PM on September 4, 2003

>ha-ha it's only comedy, it's not really serious" when they are challenged intellectually or morally.

I have said many times that lefties in the media spotlight in the US MUST use comedy as to not be branded as unamerican zealots like the well-researched but humorless Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. John Stewart, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Michael Moore, etc. You can only criticize so much of the status quo without being branded a traitor by the the right-wing bullies and criticism is a very sensitive area with psuedo-patriots. I've written more on this here.

You can get away with a lot more when there's a "ha ha" attached at the end. That doesn't mean what is being expressed is false or wrong.
posted by skallas at 4:14 PM on September 4, 2003

ha it's only comedy, it's not really serious" when they are challenged intellectually or morally.

Who are you quoting? Are you saying, you posted this to troll your writings? Does not look good when you post then post a self link in your comments too skallas.

the Texas redistricting Didn't see this in the article. Skimmed the last 1/3 but still went back to look for it.
posted by thomcatspike at 5:05 PM on September 4, 2003

The issue really is will the Left be perceived as a credible alternative by the middle-of-the-road American? Personally, I think the current groundswell will peter out upon a sustained assault by those in the media (be they media or those covered by the media) and moneyed interests.

If the left (left of Bush can be pretty conservative IMHO) is perceived as a credibe alternative and if people show up at the polls and vote (two really big "ifs" IMO) there will still be a large conservative presence in all sectors of government. There's also a risk of pushing for too much change too soon just like what happened to Carter.

One of the keys is if people feel their vote matters again.

It will be an interesting year.
posted by infowar at 5:06 PM on September 4, 2003

Then there's the demographic side to this argument, if you want to consider a long-term projection:

"In 1969 a prescient Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, predicting the rise of the conservative Republican movement. Now Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic, and Teixeira, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of The Disappearing American Voter, argue that, if current demographic and political trends continue, a new realignment of political power is inevitable, this time sweeping Democrats to power. In support of their thesis they argue that the electorate is becoming increasingly diverse, with growing Asian, Hispanic and African-American populations-all groups that tend to vote Democratic. On the other hand, the number of white Americans, the voting population most likely to favor Republicans, remains static."

- The Emerging Democratic Majority
posted by dgaicun at 5:23 PM on September 4, 2003

Ignatius -- I think Myrna Minkoff would have something to say about your post!
posted by RubberHen at 5:32 PM on September 4, 2003

...well-researched but humorless Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. John Stewart, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Michael Moore, etc.

You've got to be kidding. Michael Moore has repeatedly said "how can comedy be factually inaccurate?" when he's been called on things he's said that are completely and provably untrue.
posted by wrffr at 6:03 PM on September 4, 2003

Criticisms and Suggestions:

The Left will continue to exist in the dichotomy with the Right. People love dichotomies. However, the definition of what "Left" is will (and must) get seriously re-designed.

Old, dead ideas, like Marxist-style socialism, are a cancer that has to be purged. Neo-socialism will last longer, but it must be very rational and reasonable to take hold. Just saying that an idea is better isn't good enough, just "because it sounds better". Prove it. What's the bottom line? Is it sustainable? Exactly how much better is it than the current system? Who profits from it, and how could it be distorted to awful ends? Is it being done for *practical*, NOT *philosophical* reasons? And MOST of all, if somebody already tried it and failed--it's a loser--with no excuses that it just needed more money or support or fairy dust or something. Accept that sometimes a good sounding idea is just bad. Irredeemably bad.

Next, the Left *must* discard any "America Last" notions. Europe is not the superior model, Asia is not the superior model. America is not all the evil in the world. Just as blindered pro-American jingoism is repugnant, so is the opposite. See Noam Chomsky for the bile-filled anti-American he is, not as the "fair critic" now embraced by some American leftists. The Left will only gain power when it shows America it loves America, not hates it. And none of this "I love America, which is why I constantly complain and carp about America" nonsense. Learn how to write a patriotic song, no matter how saccharine or silly. People love that stuff.

Internationalism cannot be approached naively. The Left has a sorry reputation for *stupid* idealism in international affairs. Like it or not, it *is* a Byzantine and corrupt affair, and must be approached as such. And reading Machiavelli does not take the place of years of training in international affairs and history. Do not learn of other lands and people from those enamored with them. Learn from their critics, the cynical, and their ex-pats.

Class warfare has always been popular, and always will be. However, America must be recognized as a middle-class bourgeois nation. Though the Left's lifeblood is a coalition including unions, and unions are great supporters of the Left, the Left must embrace the up-and-coming groups in the future to the loss of power by the unions. In this it has no choice, it is a purely demographic shift. America is no longer as blue collar as it once was.

Enough criticism. Here are some positive areas the Left could totally revitalize itself around:

1) Turning America's teachers' unions from blue collar organizations to professional organizations. Collectivization of teachers has severely hurt public education--the give and take with niggardly States is awful; but with teachers credentialed not only by universities, but by their professional organization, teachers can write their own situation in public schools. And no teaching without credentials, any more than someone can practice medicine without a license.

2) Destroy the BIA. The Left should bring about the equivalent of a constitutional convention of ALL Native American tribes, for treaty (re)negotiations with the United States. A permanent, representative Native American Congress would thereafter handle all negotiations, royalties, dividends, and government programs--in concert with a permanent treaty committee in the US Senate, with Administration counsel. (And yes, the Hawaiians need to be included.)

3) Bribe Corporate America to fix the environment. For the really BIG ideas in environmental *improvement*, not just slowing down the degradation. For example, offer an up-to-5% tax cut to an entire *industry*, with a three-tiered approach for them to do something BIG and GOOD. For example, if they plant a *forest* of pine, which can be done pretty inexpensively, that can be harvested when mature, they get a 3% tax cut (and a percentage from whoever harvests it.)
If they plant a mixed-growth forest of much less lumber and pulp value when mature, but of greater value as a multiple-use biodiversity area, they get a 4% tax cut.
If they plant a forest of highly-valuable but slow-growing hardwood trees that *someday* will be worth a fortune in fine lumber for furniture, they get the whole 5%.

Another major corporate eco-project, still three-tiered, would be aquaculture. Finding a shallow spot in the deep ocean, far away from any coastline, for fish aquaculture.
Again, if a corporation just produced a vast amount of "whitefish", to make ocean trawling unprofitable by flooding fish markets with cheap fish, it would get a 3% tax cut. If the corporation bred larger, more valuable fish, some for consumption, some for release, it would get 4%. And if they bred rare, endangered and valuable fish for release, 5%.

This type of corporate or industry endeavor, with light supervision by the government, could change much of the planet. Such corporate eco projects wouldn't even need to be limited to the US.

4) Revitalize the space program. Not just by pouring money into it--which is already being done to good effect, but by making it a national cultural prerogative again. The Left profited handsomely politically not from "The Space Race", but "The Space Age". Encourage Hollywood to make space fashionable again, along with science and technology. This is not a government program as much as it is cheerleading, but in this case, cheerleading gets the whole nation thinking about the future.
People aren't really part of it all anymore. It's too much like a closed club.
"Space" at once influenced design, architecture, fashion, entertainment and science. For it to do so again would be a major victory, and not just for the Left.
posted by kablam at 7:04 PM on September 4, 2003

kablam '04!
posted by azimuth at 7:22 PM on September 4, 2003

wrffr: notice the period in that sentence. I was only calling Zinn and Chomsky well-researched.
posted by skallas at 7:28 PM on September 4, 2003

Dogmatism has never come naturally to the American left (certainly unlike my friends in Mexico and South America, for whom leftism is ideological on the same scale as the American right), but practical measures always have.

Interesting point. I have a hunch that this one is going to get some votes: "The American Left: Get Your Job On."
posted by Eamon at 8:34 PM on September 4, 2003

See Noam Chomsky for the bile-filled anti-American he is, not as the "fair critic" now embraced by some American leftists. The Left will only gain power when it shows America it loves America, not hates it.

I haven't read a whole lot of Chomsky's political writings, but, in what I have read, he makes very specific criticisms of very specific policy decisions. If you have any counter examples (other than the usual out-of-context quotations), I'd be curious to read them. That his critics choose to call him anti-american rather than address him on point says more about them than him.
posted by electro at 9:45 PM on September 4, 2003

The basic problem with the American left is that it has no real power base. There's very little left (that's consolidated, anyway) of the New Deal/populist coalition that we associate with FDR, Kennedy and LBJ. The Democratic Party of today is essentially a party of expedience, cobbled together every four years. Women and minorities may consistently vote dem, but there's nothing on the order of the NRA or the religious right that the Democratic Party has consistently been able to use as a support base.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 10:03 PM on September 4, 2003

>hat his critics choose to call him anti-american rather than address him on point says more about them than him.

Which is exactly why he calls himself marginalized. His "critics" (a term I use loosely as a critic usually has to be familiar with the source material) get lots of face time but Chomsky isn't being booked on whatever pundit show is popular.

I also don't like the double standard. Here is a man with no political office, an academic, and frankly not the greatest public speaker. Yet Chomsky attacks are often not even challenged but taken in stride in almost a "Yeah, well, he is pretty vocal" attitude. But a cricisim of Bush results in shouts of "Bushfilter."

Regarding the unified left, I'm starting to see a clear pattern of agenda building from the current crop of Presidential candidates. In no particular order:

1. Sane foreign policy. More a reaction to the neocon nightmare, but definitely something that will reverberate with voters as Iraq has shown us the fallacy of necon thought. Not to mention people want to know WHY we are taking military action as opposed to being told convenient lies. Also, a strong emphasis to work with, not against, the international community.

2. Health Care. This is big and only getting bigger. I probably have the worst insurance of my life and pay more than ever. I'm sure I'm not alone in that regard, not to mention the real epidemic that has been swept under the carpet for far too long: 40-60 MILLION americans without health insurance, most of whom are children.

3. Economy, taxes, etc. Why does it always take a democrat to say "We might have to pay some taxes if, you know, we don't want to bankrupt every service the government provides," when the GOP is the so-called party of fiscal responsibilty?

4. Restoring and protecting civil rights, especially after such wonderful legislation like PATRIOT ACT or the DMCA.

5. Reproductive rights. Oldie but a goodie.

6. Education: no vouchers.


Sure, there's no grand New Deal, nor do we need it. Incremential change is not only practical its also desirable.
posted by skallas at 2:17 AM on September 5, 2003

I agree with you electro. I've not read much of Chomsky myself, but Deterring Democracy reads like prophecy these days. I bought the book sometime in '96 and just couldn't get through it. I read, maybe, a little past the preface back then. I've now read about two chapters. Boring as all get out, but this time I really did read two chapters and then put it down again in boredom. He's not very good at getting your blood boiling as he is at saying "did you see what you just missed?".

I don't know what that says other than Chomsky's seditious commonsense basically foresaw what many who believed it to never be true that it could possibly happen: the radicalism of a government completely controlled by corporate interests.

Chomsky doesn't seem so radical anymore does he? Nor does Orwell.

Strange how many of us (possibly) clue in once it's too late to do much of anything to change it.
posted by crasspastor at 2:52 AM on September 5, 2003

I know this is anecdotal and not representative of any larger movement, but I'm happy to report there were (at least) 400 people crammed into a bookstore last night to hear Al Franken. People were shouting, cheering, totally hyped and positive. It was great!

(Now, if only they would all go and vote...)
posted by JoanArkham at 5:31 AM on September 5, 2003

Fiscal Responsibility
Sane Foreign Policy
Rejecting Corporatism
Reform Health Care

Sounds like a platform I can support!

The "Left" characterization often doesn't fit many who vote on these issues. Such groupings are convenient only for those who would demonize and group together persons with diverse opinions. The only fair and honest thing one could say about the "Left" is that they do not suffer groupthink and don't know how to goosestep to a Dear Leader. A herd of cats. :-)
posted by nofundy at 6:39 AM on September 5, 2003

GO! kablam '04!Go!
posted by thomcatspike at 2:00 PM on September 5, 2003

On Chomsky:
I actually came to his political stuff while studying linguistics, and I thought "hey, this guy's smart, I should check it out."

It's worth noting that you never see debunking of his sources or logic trail. The controversy generated by his writing could be mitigated, however, if he would back away from using such inflamatory rhetoric. Personally, the specific language that someone uses is less important to me than their actual point, but that doesn't change the fact that Chomsky could better get his point across in a more measured tone.

So, while I am disappointed that such an important intellectual can be so ubiquitously poo-pooed, one can't help but hold old Noam himself a little responsible. That being said, the "Propaganda Model" which forms the methodological core of "Manufacturing Consent" is a fantastic tool for instant personal media criticism.

I was not alive in the 60's, and am generally full of shit, but it seems to me that Michel Foucault was extremely well-treated and even revered in France before his death, even by the government and power apparatus of which he was so critical. They saw him as a sort of national treasure. But the only thing that Americans hate more than intellectuals is lawyers.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 4:25 PM on September 5, 2003

Franken doesn't hide behind his jokes or back down. He's kidding on the square.
posted by xian at 12:34 AM on September 6, 2003

skallas: the problem with your suggestions, incremental, as you admit, is that we've heard of them before. Timidity in concept does not get you into office. However, "The Big Emergency" has also failed the democrats, because the public just became fatigued by it. You can't cry wolf for everything.

What remains is thinking out of the box. (Now, granted, this thread is old, so you might never see this.) So what is the *radical* new idea? The idea that *doesn't* already have some self-appointed "leader" sucking on it like a vampire for his own ends?

Take health care, for example. As a "radical" new idea, start at the beginning, maybe even just the opposite of what you might eventually want. Let's assume that you totally strip government out of the health care system.

No medicare, no medicaid, no subsidies, no controls, a totally laissez-faire chaos. Doctors are on their own, as are hospitals, pharmaceutical and medical supply companies, and medical insurance corporations. Everything utterly market oriented. NOW DON'T DISMISS THE IDEA OUT OF HAND, instead, examine it.

What exactly IS it? Does any of it work? What co-dependencies develop? What are its points of diminishing return? Spend the great majority of your time evaluating its GOOD points, before addressing any of its BAD points.
(The bad points are easy--but you learn much from the good points.)

Why? Not because you *want* that as a system, but so that you might come up with a new angle, a new concept, something "out of the box", that was missed in the evolution of health care the first time around.

My point is that the democrats will lose if they say they want health care "like the Canadians", because their critics can easily find the flaws in the Canadian system--and magnify and glorify those flaws to make it sound stupid.

But if they come up with *another way*, that is NOT how the Canadians do it, then it is a lot harder to shoot down as an idea. Even if it has the same eventual result as something the Canadians are doing.

Incrementalism implies doggedly pursuing a goal, come hell or high water. But that is just arrogance and ignorance at work. No goal worth pursuing is set in concrete--otherwise the eventual result is a goal where "one size fits none."
posted by kablam at 4:53 PM on September 7, 2003

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