By Jim Miller
The debate rages on. Last week after I spent the final part of my column addressing Adolph Reed’s provocative Harper’s piece on the dismaying state of American politics, “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals, the argument just kept going across the national progressive media landscape.
In a sharp rebuttal to Reed in The Nation, Michelle Goldberg attacked what she characterized as “Electoral Nihilism” by essentially dismissing what she called his “left wing disappointment” and reasserting the very strategy that Reed so adeptly critiqued in his article:
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.
Goldberg points out some current signs of hope for progressives nationwide, particularly a wave of progressive new mayors in places like New York and concludes that this makes it a “bizarre moment” for Reed to put forth his argument.
While this is a predictable but fair enough point, in other places Goldberg is intellectually sloppy, chiding Reed for saying that “Bush wasn’t really that bad” and dismissing his support for “quixotic third-party candidates” when he takes neither position in his essay. It would have been much more interesting to see Goldberg challenge Reed’s arguments in a deeper fashion, but, unfortunately, she does not.
In his response to her, Reed underlines this noting that, “For the record, I don’t argue for backing third party candidacies, which as a rule are quixotic by definition, and I agree with Goldberg that in any given election it’s overwhelmingly likely to be true that the only realistic choice is to vote for whichever Dem is running. So her beef on that score is with someone else, not me. I do argue that it’s a serious mistake to exaggerate what we’re doing when we vote for them and that that practice has come back to haunt us since Clinton at least.”
Later on Reed brings the focus back to the central point facing the American left:
The problem, once again, isn’t voting for Democrats; it’s letting a rightward tacking Democratic party set the political horizons and agenda for—exhaust the practical political imagination of—those who see themselves as a left. Once again, as I said in the Harper’s essay, even as in practical terms we have no realistic choice most often than to vote for Democrats as lesser evils, 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.
Game, set, and match for Reed.
Is the Left Lost in Space?
At the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson also engages Reed without the same back-of-the-hand dismissiveness as Goldberg in “The Left, Viewed from Space,” noting instead that “What’s Left” is “written at a stratospheric height, with a sweeping view of history and an equally sweeping inattention to current contingencies and complexities.” More specifically, in Meyerson’s estimation, present day Democrats are less wedded to neoliberalism than Reed’s essay claims.
What does Reed miss? Meyerson tells us:
Reed’s view of the Democrats takes no account of the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base, of the movement of fast-food workers and the spillover effect their campaign has had on efforts to raise the minimum wage. He didn’t get the news that Senate Democrats rejected Obama’s effort to make Larry Summers the chairman of the Fed precisely because of Summers’s role in deregulating finance.
He seems not to have heard of the successes of groups like New York’s Working Families Party, which has built an electoral left in New York, or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has won higher wages, union recognition and environmental victories by uniting labor and enviro groups in L.A. He seems, in short, to have missed the rise of a left that is doing pretty much what Reed says a left should be doing. (Although 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.)
Meyerson does, however, grant that Reed’s critique is more valid when it comes to the soon to be coronated Hillary Clinton because the “content of neo-Clintonomics remains a mystery” and Clinton may still be in the sway of the “Rubins and the Summeres.” Still, he argues that Reed misses the necessity for labor to support even corporate Democrats at all costs because there are “Scott Walkers” around every corner in the Republican Party.
While I take Meyerson’s point about the new populist bent in parts of the Democratic Party and have written about it approvingly myself, his assertion that the power of neoliberalism in the party is waning fails to account for the deeply neoliberal approach Democrats have taken to education policy in particular but also to a wide range of other issues.
Sadly, for every Bill de Blasio, there is a Rahm Emanuel busting unions or an Andrew Cuomo joining hands with Republicans to push back hard against progressive policies like de Blasio’s plan to tax the rich to pay for charter schools. The New York Times put it quite succinctly, “’De Blasio went into this thinking that he and Cuomo were friends,’ a Democratic insider said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concern over retribution, ‘but Andrew Cuomo doesn’t really have friends.’”
As Ari Paul observed inCounterpunchlast week after Cuomo sided with the right against New York’s new populist mayor, Democrats in his mold represent precisely the kind of politics that Adolph Reed bemoans. Indeed, Paul notes this kind of centrism is what’s wrong:
More importantly, this is not just an issue for New Yorkers but for the whole notion of what liberalism stands for. Christie and Cuomo, in a way, have worked in tandem to create an acceptable political middle ground that rids the air of distracting and polarizing social issues and keeps politics focused on business needs. Democrats often bemoan the decline of “Rockefeller Republicans,” the type who hates taxes but doesn’t care about abortion or prayer in school. Well, they got one in Christie, and he was seen as someone who could save the Republican Party from descending into Tea Party quackery.
Likewise, Cuomo represents the banality of the current Democratic Party: divorced from working class interests and organized labor and in the direct service of those same Rockefeller Republican corporate leaders. These two have in the course of their terms in executive power attempted to reassert northeastern dominance in a country that has handed much of the discourse to the South and the Heartland.
Indeed Meyerson seems to have failed to notice how the Democratic Leadership Council seamlessly morphed into the New Democrat Coalition and still has the party leaning right and/or thinking small on many issues from healthcare to the role of the public sector. If the populists were ascendant and had real power they wouldn’t have had to fight the TPP and be wary of Obama embracing chained CPI for Social Security. So while I share his optimism about some emerging signs of hope, I would temper it with more caution informed by recent history.
Ultimately, however, I think the basic gist of Meyerson’s critique of Reed is off the mark. Our problem is not that we miss the particular and view things from an Olympian height but that we almost never move our gaze away from what is right in front of us to think long term. Indeed, it is only with a more global vision that we can chart a long-term strategy that aims to change the game rather than just win short-term defensive battles.
Is the Left Stronger Without the Democrats?
Finally, over at Slate, in “Why the Left is Stronger Without the Democrats,” David Weigel engages the Reed vs. Goldberg debate and sides with Reed who he says is “sort of right.” Weigel differs with him in that he is more optimistic that some of the work Reed says needs to be done has happened with the building of progressive think tanks and the netroots movement of writers and activists while noting that the Democratic Leadership Council “imploded at the start of the Obama years.” And all this is impressive, Weigel claims, because:
We don’t have a social democratic, labor movement-rooted party in this country, like the U.K. does or like France does or like Germany does or like Brazil does, etc. and etc. The Democratic Party was, for more than a hundred years, a coalition of progressives, immigrants, and conservative Southern whites. Only pretty recently has it become clearly a party of the left, backed by labor but not led by it, adopting positions—gay marriage, immigration reform—after activists force it to. To some extent, Reed is burning a straw man.
Weigel thinks Reed is correct, however, “insofar as anyone [who] actually thinks that ‘the left’ is done when it elects charismatic Democrats . . . should know better.” The answer for the left will never be in a candidate, but in a movement, and “a political movement will always, always be disappointed by the people it elects. It has to make those people respect and fear the movement.”
Bringing It All Back Home
While I think Weigel makes the same mistakes as Meyerson in discounting the role of the New Democrats and the corporate colonization of the Democratic Party, he is right that the interests of any movement for social and economic justice will never be fully aligned with the interests of the Democratic Party. To believe otherwise is folly. Nonetheless, there are moments when for reasons of shared interests or genuinely common values they do.
Thus the role of the progressives in labor, environmental, civil rights, and other social justice movements should be to push the envelope and drive the agenda rather than to wait and follow whoever is put forth by the Democrats and then serve as their loyal ATM and volunteer pool.
The recent battle in Orange County and the state Democratic Party between corporate Democrats and labor progressives is a pretty good example of where the lines are drawn with corporate Democrat and chair of the Orange County Democratic party, Henry Vandermeir, unsuccessfully trying to block Orange County Labor Federation leader Julio Perez from becoming the Vice-Chair of the state Democratic Party’s Labor Caucus for Perez’s insufficient loyalty to candidates who don’t support labor.
Perez’s response to Vandermeir’s effort, as reported in the OC Weekly, says it all:
“At the age of 18 when I first registered to vote, I registered as a Democrat because I felt that the party represented my values,” Perez posted on his Facebook page. “Today, I feel that I am a Democrat because I want to uphold the values of the working class in our party. Our Party is being taken over by major corporations and is moving away from the common person. Our party should be the umbrella of those that want to make this a better place for working class people, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and . . . other communities that have been historically marginalized.”
It’s very good news that Perez won the day and that he is now Vice-Chair of the Labor Caucus.
Here in San Diego, I think progressives need to see things clearly as well. Democrats will disappoint us when they fold on affordable housing and/or support purging public records as they have done recently, but there are other areas where we can do good work together.
The upcoming struggles over the Barrio Logan community plan and the much-anticipated earned sick days and minimum wage referendum are good places to start and there are people inside and outside of the Democratic Party willing to join the fight. It is through these kinds of struggles, win or lose, that we can build what it takes to create a just future.
Perhaps in the rest of the electoral arena we will have to, at times, support corporate Democrats like Scott Peters when they are up against the likes of our local Scott Walker, Carl DeMaio, but we should not fool ourselves that we are doing anything more than playing defense when we do so.
In the meantime, we need to recruit and foster people who will do a lot more to not just stop the worst from happening but to change the narrative. And that will only happen when our view of politics broadens beyond the next election, and we begin to ask questions about what will make our increasingly unequal and environmentally imperiled world better in more than just an incremental fashion. The urgency of the problems we face demands it.
To see Tom Frank’s extensive Salon interview with Reed click here.