How WIll We Ever Know If America Gets A Left Again?
Tuesday I was laughing over a remark by Blue Dog co-chair John Barrow, a cowardly Georgia reactionary. In announcing 3 new Blue Dog recruits for Congress-- corporate shills Jennifer Garrison (OH), Gwen Graham (FL) and James Lee Witt (AR)-- he said, "Now, more than ever, the American people are tired of the gridlock in Washington that has been created by the extremes of the right and left." As I retorted, "many of the extremists on the right are his fellow Georgia congressmen like Paul Broun, Lynn Westmoreland, Tom Price, and Phil Gingrey. But who are the 'extremists on the left' Barrow is deriding? John Lewis?" Basically, there are none, and certainly not in either House of Congress. There are some solid left-of-center Democrats, but "extremist on the left" on a level of Broun or Gingrey (not to mention Bachmann, Gohmert, Stockman or dozens of neo-fascist Republican elected officials? Not a chance!
The video up top is an interview by Bill Moyers with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., whose provocative essay, Nothing Left-- The Long, Slow Surrender Of American Liberals was just published by Harpers. Reed's point is that the American left failed and basically doesn't even exist anymore, primarily because it neglected to build "broadly based, mass movements" that can change the terms of political debate... As any actual progressive will tell you, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are heavily indebted to Wall Street for their careers and are, at best, progressives in name only-- ... "they've done the Wall Street bidding... Wall Street controls the agenda." If "economic issues are the fundamental existential questions," as Moyers asserts, and the left can't even put the issue of economic inequality, back on the table, the left, as Reed asserts, "is no longer a significant force in American politics." Moyers explains, by way of introduction, that Reed "sees the populist, progressive wing of the Democratic Party giving up to the corporate wing putatively embodied in Hillary Clinton sailing forth surrounded by a mighty armada from Wall Street." So a conveniently paranoid callow corporate whore like John Barrow doesn't have much to worry about-- at least not from "extremists on the left"-- not when the House Democrats are being run by the likes of Steny Hoyer, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Crowley and Steve Israel-- basically your father's Republican Party!
BILL MOYERS: Well, what do you mean nothing left?Is there anything we can do about it? Forget Democrats or Republicans. Keep just three things in mind: progressive, integrity and independent-mindedness… like these people and these people. Let's build a team in the Senate around Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and a team in the House around Alan Grayson and his allies.
ADOLPH REED: Well, what I mean basically is that if we understand the left to be anchored to a conviction that the society can be made better than it actually is and a commitment to combating economic inequality as a primary one, the left is just gone.
I mean, there are leftists around, certainly. There's no shortage of them. And there are left organizations, and there are people who publish left ideas and kind of think left thoughts. But as a significant force that's capable of shaping the terms of debate in American politics, you know, the left has gone and has been gone for a while.
I often note that, you know, working people in America got more from Richard Nixon than we got from Clinton or Obama. And it's not because he was our fan, right, it's because, you know, the labor movement and what has since been called the social movement of the '60s were dynamic enough forces in the society that even Nixon, who called himself a Keynesian, felt that there was a need to respond to them.
So that's how we got occupational health and safety, affirmative action like other stuff. So it's not, and, see, this is the key point, I think, right. Because one of the ways that our politics have been hollowed and a source of the collapse of the left is a forgetting, right? A kind of social amnesia about what movement building is and how and what social movements are and how they're constructed.
BILL MOYERS: In this piece you write, "If 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."
ADOLPH REED: Look, I've never wanted to dismiss electoral action. But the problem is that it can only be a defensive engagement for us now. Because the way that the center of gravity in American politics has moved right, we're kind of dealt out of it.
So the only option that there is for us in the electoral realm is going to be finding the less bad candidate.
And what that means is in that there's no possibility of being able to push any of the sort of progressive, egalitarian ideas that would've popped up in FDR's campaign in 1944, right, or even Truman's campaign in 1948.
What we can do is try to have some influence on the least worst, right. But, I would never argue that we shouldn't pay attention to electoral politics. But I think we need to understand that that can't exhaust the scope of our political activity.
And we've sort of fallen into a groove of putting all of our political hopes into electing Democrats and just seem to have a lot of, you know, difficulty just getting off the dime of about trying to build around campaign issues, right.
Like, single payer health care, right, was a moment that's come and gone. I mean I've been pushing off and on over the years for universal free public higher education.
…President Obama in the speech he gave a couple weeks ago, the ballyhooed speech where he mentioned the word "inequality" a couple times.
He leaves the podium in effect and goes straight to try to, you know, strong arm his own party to support Fast Track for trans pacific partnership.
So, I mean, what we've got is, like, a bipartisan neoliberalism, right, that's at the center of gravity of the American government. And to be clear, what I mean by neoliberalism is that, it’s two things.
It's a free market, utopian ideology. And it's a concrete program for intensified upward redistribution. And when the two objectives conflict, I mean, guess which one gets put-- on the shelf? But both parties are fundamentally committed to this. And at this point, and I think we've seen this much more clearly since the 2008 election, the principal difference between Democrats and Republicans.
Is the choice between a neoliberal party that is progressive on multicultural and diversity issues, and a neoliberal party that's reactionary and horrible on those same issues.
But where the vast majority of Americans live our lives and feel our anxieties about present and future and insecurity is not about the multicultural issues over which there's so there's so much fight. In the very realm of the neoliberal economic issues to which both parties are, in fact, committed.
BILL MOYERS: So, I hear you saying, Adolph, that while social and cultural factors are important to us, economic issues are the fundamental existential questions. And that the neo-liberal parties, both of them, devoted to promoting the interests of multinational companies and capitalism don't care what you think about cultural and social issues, as long as they control the process by which nothing interferes with markets.
ADOLPH REED: I think that's quite succinct.
BILL MOYERS: When Obama spoke about inequality and then a little bit later championed fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Aren't… Don't you take some encouragement from the fact that soon after Obama spoke, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, minority leader of the House and majority leader of the Senate both said, no deal. We’re not for fast track.
ADOLPH REED: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: You know why they did, apparently? Because 550 organizations in this country essentially representing the base of the Democratic Party said, no, Mr. President, we're not going with you. And so Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi responded. You must take some encouragement from that.
ADOLPH REED: Oh, absolutely. Totally.
BILL MOYERS: So it's not dead out there. It's not a cemetery.
ADOLPH REED: Well, it's not quite. But, I mean, the lesson I take from it, too, is that it's the organization that sort of brings them to where we'd like for them to be, right? It's a pressure from underneath. And, you know, and that's what largely hollowed out, right? I mean, except for you know, I mean, some issues.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
ADOLPH REED: Because Wall Street controls the agenda. I mean, I go back again to the primaries in '92. And I was calling friends of mine that I had, you know, long connections with, you know, again in the South, early on. And the word that came back was that Clinton's people had come through and had said from the outset, look, our guy's going to be the nominee. Don't ask for anything. If you don't get onboard, then you won't have any access later, after we win.
So access, which is a kind of crack cocaine, has become part of the problem.
…BILL MOYERS: And how do you change it?
ADOLPH REED: I'd say the first step has to be a focus on changing the terms of political debate. Because we've got to be able to put that issue back on the table, right? I mean, the issue of economic inequality, back on the table. I mean, even you know, the Democrats who raise it tentatively and back away as soon as they do.
Gore, with his odd little populist flirtation that he offered in the spring or the summer of you know, 2000, which provoked this torrent of outrage from the right wing. Saying that he's fanning the flames of class warfare, and that's not what we do in America, right? The same things happen, you know, with Obama. I can't even recall enough about the Kerry campaign, you know, to recall if he even made a gesture.
BILL MOYERS: You remind us of how leftist, progressive, liberals, a lot of everyday folks were swept up in the rhetoric and expectations surrounding Obama's campaign, his election, and his presidency. I'll bet you remember election night in Grant Park in 2008.
ADOLPH REED: Yeah, I do.
BILL MOYERS: Here it is.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace, to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one. That while we breathe, we hope.
And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes we can. Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.
ADOLPH REED: The clip is interesting, right? Because you think about the clip and his utterances, right, were a collection of evocative statements. But there was no real content there, right? I mean, he didn't say, I'm going to fight for X, and I have--
BILL MOYERS: Against inequality or for equality--
ADOLPH REED: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: --or for wages, or--
ADOLPH REED: Right, right. So it was as he said himself in one or both of his books, his move is to encourage people to imagine a better world and a better future and a better life for themselves through identification with him.
BILL MOYERS: And you say in your article that his content, essentially, is his identity.
ADOLPH REED: Correct.