The False Center

Protestor, Democratic Convention. Charlotte, 2012.

Sometimes a question provides its own answer. Robert Reich, who is as left-leaning as a mainstream economist could be, and who once served as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, raised just such a question. On November 4, he set everyone straight on his Facebook page.

If you’re a progressive or Democrat, or both, it’s tempting to look at the Republican civil war — the increasingly bitter struggle between the Tea Partiers and the GOP establishment — with some satisfaction. The war is hurting their chances in 2014 and probably even 2016. But at least the Tea Party right is giving establishment Republicans in board rooms and on Wall Street a reason to worry, and offering rank-and-file Republicans a real choice. Establishment Democrats, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the progressive left, which has been so submissive and quiet for so long its concerns are summarily dismissed. What about single-payer or even public option? Resurrect Glass-Steagall and limit size of big banks? Exempt first $15K from Social Security tax and remove cap on income subject to it? A living wage? A carbon tax? Trade agreements with strict labor and environmental standards? Make it easy to form labor unions? Universal child care? Better schools? Free higher education? Paid family and medical leave? A new WPA for the long-term unemployed? Pay for all this by cutting military spending, eliminating corporate welfare, and raising taxes on rich to rate they were before 1981.

Reich gives his own answer when he says he’s “not advocating a civil war in the Democratic Party.” When a necessary change is so fundamental and will encounter such staunch resistance, a prolonged and costly conflict is the only option. Indeed, if Reich thinks this through more carefully, the conclusion, even from his point of view, is inescapable. After all, the ideas he lists are almost all well-rooted in the Democrats’ history at various points. What caused their loss?

In part, the answer lies, ironically, in intelligence and pragmatism. Intellectuals who don’t fall into a radical camp (and even many who do) generally have fallen into the Democratic Party. Often, they sacrifice much of their own ideology, not because they think it is wrong, but because they think it is “unsellable.” This leads, in an electoral context, to a constant pursuit of a center, the mythical undecided voter who must be wooed at all costs, because they are the one who decides the election. After all, if you fail at the polls, how can you put your ideas into action? This is a perfectly logical idea. However, it runs into one significant problem in a two-party system: the center doesn’t remain stagnant. Instead, when one side is pursuing the center and the other is pushing ideologically, the center moves to the right.

The United States’ economy bounces up and down, but the downward trend since the 1970s hit a low in 2008. That was when the Tea Party coalesced as a major political force. Of course, the movement was stimulated by some very deep pockets (most notably, the Koch Brothers), but it would be a mistake to ignore the grassroots believers, many of whom are poor, working people. There was a real outpouring of popular, right-wing rage at the collapse of the American economy.

Of course, the left had its own movement, Occupy, around the same time, and it did some impressive things. But only one of these two groups had an effect in Washington, and on the daily lives of all Americans, whether they agreed with them or not, and it sure wasn’t Occupy. Why not?

Punk Protestors. Democratic National Convention, 1984.
Punk protestors, Democratic National Convention. San Francisco,1984.

There was never a sustained effort to rock the Democrats’ boat, even while the Democratic leadership in Washington poured trillions of dollars into bailouts while millions of Americans lost their homes, their jobs and their health. True, Occupy didn’t have the Koch Brothers to fund them, but this was hardly explanation enough. Plenty of people have some money to give to a good idea, and there are even a few really wealthy ones who would back fundamental change. Not many, and probably not to the radical lengths of the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson and other high rollers of the right, but some. And some is all the left would need.

Political advertisement. Princeton, 1972.
Political advert. Presidential campaign, 1972.

The Tea Party’s grassroots base was willing to overcome its inherent distaste for government in order to push forth their agenda which, ironically, is largely based on destroying the federal government. Their anti-intellectual ethos brought us the comic spectacle of Sarah Palin, but also allowed them to be more easily led and unified. That’s the other site of the left’s problem with intelligence.

A whole bunch of smart people like us elevate our own ideas and, more importantly, our own priorities. Some of us are unwilling to accept any solution where capitalism survives. For others, it is imperialism, or animal rights, or racism, or some combination of these or other causes. But more than anything else, we cannot agree on whether to work within the system or outside of it. The Tea Party, whose leaders were well-equipped to change the system with their money, made the decision for the right. That, thankfully, is not how the left operates.

What we should be able to do is overcome that kind of binary thinking. The United States, and the West more broadly, continues to decline, and not coincidentally, continues to move toward the right. Despite significant gains in some areas (most notably in recent years, in LGBT rights) that rightward trend has been measurably steady for decades. If we hope to reverse that trend we need to use our strengths. One of those is that troublesome intellect, because that is what enables us to, potentially, move along multiple tracks.

There is no reason why working to put the sort of pressure on Democrats that the Tea Party did on Republicans must mean compromising our principles. But we can’t do that without gearing up for a serious political fight. Well-intentioned people like Mr. Reich must be made to understand that you cannot simultaneously hope to change the course of so massive a machine as the Democratic Party and also do so in a nice, friendly manner. It requires a fight and, yes, perhaps a civil war.

The Democrats’ shift rightward followed, as I explained, the shift of the center it pursued. In some sense, it was a natural evolution of a moderate party. Reversing a natural evolution is an inherently unnatural, energy intensive, process, and it doesn’t happen without determined intent. The libertarian right was able to do it. In its own way, and that is a very different way, the radical left must do the same. The alternative is to wallow in insignificance and watch in frustration as the center continues to shift rightwards, leaving the left ever farther behind.


Photographs courtesy of Youth Radio, El Caganer, and cseeman. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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