Where is the left?
Glenn Greenwald notes the rapid, bipartisan erosion of basic civil liberties, which didn’t even hit a speed bump with the transition to the Obama administration:
A bipartisan group from Congress sponsors legislation to strip Americans of their citizenship based on Terrorism accusations. Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind. The Obama administration begins covertly abandoning long-standing Miranda protections for American suspects by vastly expanding what had long been a very narrow “public safety” exception, and now Eric Holder explicitly advocates legislation to codify that erosion. [etc.]
Meanwhile, Brad DeLong notes that the last time unemployment was at 10 percent, in 1983, the country’s political class was running around like its hair was on fire. Today …
… nobody much in DC seems to care. A decade of widening wealth inequality that has created a chattering class of reporters, pundits, and lobbyists who have no connection with mainstream America? The collapse of the union movement and thus of the political voice of America’s sellers of labor power? I don’t know what the cause is. But it does astonish me.
Meanwhile, there was recently an oil spill that may well become the largest environmental disaster in American history. It’s ongoing. It was, it now appears, the result of lax regulation and the coziness of the oil industry with the U.S. government. And this is on the heels of a coal mine explosion that killed dozens in West Virginia. And a whole slew of bizarre weather events, one of which effectively drowned Nashville.
And yet where are the protests? Where are the people in the streets? Where is the popular movement demanding an end to fossil-fuel addiction and promising to eject legislators who stand in its way? I don’t see it. Sure I’ve seen Facebook petitions and the odd cluster of people outside the White House waving signs, but there’s no uprising. No politician feels threatened or fears the consequences of voting against a clean energy bill.
All these observations raise a question that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately: Where’s the left? There is a healthy elite class of politicians, journalists, and thinkers, but where’s the progressive movement? From what I can tell, there just isn’t one. There’s a decent labor lobby, a decent immigration lobby, but nothing larger than the sum of its parts.
One of the most exciting aspects of Obama’s 2008 victory was that it seemed to herald a resurgent progressivism, organized from the ground up, at the community level, and ready to mobilize behind a set of legislative goals. Yet what has the grassroots left achieved under Obama? On what issue has it been able to command the public’s assent and drive real shifts in policy?
Consider: The country was brought to the brink of catastrophe by eight years of Republican misrule, culminating in a huge round of corporate bailouts. Obama spent the first several months of his administration just attempting (successfully) to avoid total meltdown. Has there been a populist progressive uprising? Well, yes. But people aren’t in the streets demanding more progressive taxation, higher wages, stronger unions, and tighter regulations. They’re not, per DeLong, demanding more aggressive monetary and fiscal policy to drive unemployment down. They’re not demanding clean energy.
No, the populist anger is coming entirely from the right, in the form of the Tea Party movement. Think about it: After all that happened in the last decade, just about the only angry people in the streets are white conservatives! It’s a stunning state of affairs.
Where is the left to slow the descent into ever-greater inequality? To slow the inexorable rise of defense spending? To slow the erosion of civil rights? To slow the possibly irreversible degradation of the earth’s climate?
It is true that in the U.S. system of government, the left faces unique challenges. There are few barriers to the extraordinary flow of money into politics — fewer now after Citizens United. There are choke points throughout the legislative process where a small, determined minority can grind things to a halt (the biggest one is called the Senate). America contains far more self-identified conservatives than self-identified liberals. To add to the challenge, Obama has done almost nothing to reach out to or mobilize the left. Indeed he’s let Rahm Emanuel give the base the finger numerous times.
So yeah, the left has plenty of constraints and plenty to complain about. And complain it does. Oh how it complains! Here’s how the right works, from a Politico story on the increasingly open boasting from Republicans that they’ll retake a majority in the House in 2010:
[T]here is a motivational strategy behind the bombast. GOP leaders call it “selling the fight.” This means convincing their colleagues, party leaders, candidates and donors that there is a real path to a Republican majority. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the Republican leadership, has been tapped to head this “selling the fight” program.
“In many ways, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said a senior GOP aide. “If you talk the talk and walk the walk, then members, donors, activists and potential candidates are going to want to join the fight.”
This is more than bombast, it’s just an instinctive understanding of the fact that whatever they may say, people like winners. So no matter what is happening, Republicans act like they’re winning. They rarely get everything they want, but every incremental gain is trumpeted as a triumph. Check out (former Inhofe staff propagandist) Mark Morano’s blog: virtually every other post is about how the tide is turning and victory for climate-change deniers is nigh.
It’s a message to activists and donors that their work is worth something. It’s paying dividends. They are part of something grand, inevitable, and right. That kind of affirmation is energizing and it has tangible results; no matter what befalls it, the conservative movement keeps swimming, like a shark. It’s always fighting, always pressing advantage.
For reasons I’ve never understood, lots of folks on the left fear that celebrating victories might make people apathetic. They might think the problem is solved, and why fight if you’re not losing, right? I once asked a leader of a prominent progressive advocacy group whether he found the constant drumbeat of dissatisfaction and failure depressing and he replied, “I like uphill battles.” They energize him! I wanted to ask: How many beyond the circle of lefty activists feel that way? It’s not really a matter of speculation. Psychological research shows that the “facts” of failure are disempowering unless accompanied by a compelling and plausible alternative vision. If the situation is dire, everyone is corrupt, and nothing available is worth a spit, what is the route to success? Why bother?
Anyway, the sad-sack nature of the left has been on my mind because, to be frank about it, I’ve been hugely disappointed by its performance on climate change. I’m going to spend some time in the coming week arguing that the left should mobilize behind the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill and go all-out to get it passed. For arguing this I will no doubt catch all manner of sh*t. But the fact is, the American Power Act is a result of the balance of power in U.S. politics. The left rejecting the bill won’t change the balance of power. Failure and status quo reinforce it. The left will change the balance of power by getting people out in the streets, writing their legislators, and voting for/against candidates based on their climate vision in sufficient numbers to pose a threat.
There’s no sign that’s happening now, but perhaps it will. Does it make sense to postpone legislation while we wait?