Source: Campaign For America's Future
(image by Illustration by Alamy)
Has the American left ceased to exist as a viable political force by surrendering its power to a corporatized Democratic Party? That's the argument put forward by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., first in an essay for Harper's magazine and then in a televised follow-up interview with Bill Moyers.
Reed's essay, "Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals," has a blunt message which might be summarized as follows: The fault, dear liberals, lies not in our political stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. It's not necessarily a new thought, but it packs a punch, especially as Reed has organized and expressed it.
"Nothing Left" is an incisive, pointed cri du coeur with the potential to jumpstart some long-overdue conversations. And if there's one thing the left needs, it's a serious talk about its future. The alternative is the continued fragmentation of an inchoate movement, accompanied by a never-ending rightward shift in American politics and the continued ascendancy of corporate economic power.
Reed's analysis, while stated harshly at times, is very much on point. There's very little "left" left in American politics. But his outlook seems overly pessimistic, and it runs the risk of discouraging the very people who might someday help rebuild an American left. They're more likely to come together around a concrete agenda built on leftist principles such as job creation, fair wages, and a stronger social safety net. It's possible to be positive without being Pollyanna-ish.
To be sure, things are bad and getting worse. No argument here. But something is also afoot in the land, and it would be a mistake to dismiss it. The sudden popularity of the Occupy movement showed us that, despite its sudden and mysterious collapse, a "99 percent" agenda resonates. Liberals have scored a few victories lately by stepping outside the party framework. And despite the lack of an organized left, left policies enjoy surprising popular support.
Those policies could provide the framework for a leftist resurgence.
The Way We Were
Reed begins by noting that "for nearly all the 20th century there was a dynamic left in the United States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism generated unacceptable social costs."
That's an important observation, especially at a time when leaders of the Democratic Party -- the only nominally liberal large-scale entity in the nation -- routinely celebrate that mythical entity known as the "free market."
Reed notes that the labor movement and the ideological left exerted great influence on American politics for many decades (although they sometimes worked at cross-purposes in the 1960s, to their mutual detriment). But the left's influence unquestionably faded. Why? Reed points to an increasing defensiveness among liberals during the 1980s and early 1990s, and adds that this defensiveness "increasingly came to define left-wing journalistic commentary and criticism."
This defensiveness became so deeply ingrained among Democratic leaders that it continued to guide their decision-making after the 2008 election, even after voters soundly repudiated conservatism and awarded the party all three branches of government.
Nor was the independent left able to capitalize on that election. Why has it become so weak? Reed points to the "subdued" labor movement and the fact that "social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly."
The left has moved away from real-world policy objectives, he argues, and has increasingly focused on more symbolic goals like "celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling."
There is also a lost sense of optimism, which Reed successfully captures by quoting historian Russell Jacoby on the lost vision of a movement which once believed that "the future could fundamentally surpass the present."
"Instead of championing a radical idea of a new society," Reed quotes Jacoby, "the (current) left ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the existing society."