I took part in a discussion the other week on Thom Hartmann’s show with Bhaskar Sunkara of In These Times on the future of the Left in America. Sunkara, an outspoken socialist had written an excellent piece in The Nation on the need for the Left to become more radical, more organized, and come up with some innovative new ideas to break free from the traditional Left/Right paradigm as defined in the 1960’s. The piece, titled “Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical” took apart liberalism as a philosophy, arguing that it was “practically ineffective and analytically inadequate.” Sunkara stated emphatically that “a jolt from its left is a prerequisite for its resurgence.”
Sunkara’s article highlights the Democrat’s ‘open door’ policy that has allowed the party to be co-opted by socially liberal but fiscally conservative members at the expense of the working class and unions, who were “never structurally connected to or put in the vanguard of reform efforts.” The Democratic party has few ties to organized labor, and self identified working class Americans often do not vote. Liberalism, says Sunkara, is now split into “two main camps” – welfare liberals who believe in government intervention in the market, a social safety net and strong unions, and ‘technocratic’ liberals who are more concerned with, as Ezra Klein states, “how government is run, more than what exactly it does”. The former is hamstrung because of weak unions and a strong center left, while the latter continue to cede philosophical ground to the right.
Sunkara’s solution is to organize the more left wing factions and confront the technocratic wing of the Democratic Party. They must do this, he argues, with new coalitions and causes to rally around. “Socialists must urgently show progressives how alien the technocratic liberal worldview is to the goals of welfare-state liberalism—goals held by the rank and file of the liberal movement,” he writes. “The ground can be softened at the intellectual and cultural levels, but a schism will have to be forced through actual struggle. Broad anti-austerity coalitions, particularly those centered at the state and municipal levels like last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike, point the way toward new coalitions between leftists and liberals committed to defending social goods, especially if that means standing up against pro-corporate members of the Democratic Party like Rahm Emanuel.”
Sunkara’s critique of the current state of liberalism is compelling to say the least. You only need to take a look at the sad state of the Democratic Party and its pitiful record on progressive legislation over the past 30 years. It has crumbled over and over and over again to Republican bullying, allowing the center to pull ever further away to the right. Policy for policy, Barack Obama is further to the right than Richard Nixon.
Sunkara’s piece serves as an excellent tool to help understand what has happened to liberalism in America and how it can be revitalized, but I fear a more basic understanding of America’s descent into free market madness is required if a meaningful opposition is to arise to confront neo liberalism and corporate power in the coming years.
It appears to me that the most important step to revitalizing the left in America is to help the public understand exactly what is happening to them and why meaningful solutions lie far further to the left than the current political paradigm deems acceptable. Having a plan to reorganize the party is great, but to get people interested in signing up to the cause requires a massive education outreach that should be top of the priorities list.
The facts are inescapable and the left should be committed to informing Americans on how devastating right wing economics have been. America is a country with astonishing income disparity, shocking levels of poverty, political corruption and unsustainable levels of debt and financial malfeasance. Federal and state oversight has been receding for decades, and the results are getting worse and worse. Infrastructure is crumbling, the deregulated economy is prone to massive shocks and instability, and the concept of job security is long gone. Yet Republicans argue the solution is to cut more government and continue deregulating the economy. It is the definition of madness to repeat the same action again and again and expect different results, but for right wing economists, this is the underpinning of their philosophy.
The left must ram home that the right is no longer interested in participating in the democratic process for the betterment of the citizenry. It is demonstrably a propaganda department and organizational tool of massive corporate and financial interests, and seeks only to entrench power of the elites. The Republicanism of Jefferson, Lincoln, and even Eisenhower has been long dead, replaced by glossy, faceless actors who take their orders from banks and not their voters.
The philosophy that ‘greed is good’ has done untold damage to America. It has created an era of selfishness and destroyed the notion that we have obligations to our fellow citizens. Worst of all, it has become accepted as the natural order of human existence – a self explanatory, Hobbesian system that exalts strength and despises weakness.
The left needs to articulate critiques of this system to the public in ways it can digest. It could start with awareness campaigns that economic failure has nothing to do with personal failure. It should be common knowledge that the economic system we live under is designed specifically to serve the interests of the rich. Wages have been stagnating because the rich have ensured labor doesn’t have the right to negotiate for more higher wages or employee benefits. They increase their profit margins if labor costs go down, hence the relentless war against unionization. Living paycheck to paycheck is a byproduct of the new economy – job insecurity works brilliantly for the powerful as they keep everyone else in a constant state of fear. You must work longer and harder for less money just to keep your job. While outsourcing labor is perfectly logical for owners, it isn’t so much for workers, who must be brainwashed into thinking they have no right to work and no right to fight for job security. It should be the left’s job to undo the brainwashing and offer tools for critical thinking and imagination. Instead of accepting a society rigged to help the rich keep their money, the left must present an alternative vision based on a more equitable economic system, worker ownership and community empowerment.
These are not particularly radical ideas. Fairness, self determination and equality are very American values, yet the right has done such a remarkable job in convincing the public otherwise that even the term ‘liberal’ is regarded as a dirty word. A question the left could ask might be: “If you believe you have a right to vote in society, why not in your work place?” Americans would not accept a dictatorial government, yet they submit daily to top down authority within private corporations that control increasingly large portions of their lives. It’s a simple concept, yet one few Americans think about. And that’s because no one is asking it.
If action is taken without a deeper understanding of the problems facing America and the intellectual capital required to create a new political paradigm, coalitions will fall apart and too many compromises will be made. There should be much thought that goes into reorganizing the left if it is to win battles in the future and restore government to act meaningfully on behalf of its citizens. But before that, it must explain why that is so important.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.