Published June 17, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Making of a Lefty
Populism Isn’t Only for the Right
Things have changed in American politics over the last hundred years. In 1917, there was a Democratic Party that had embraced the soul of the Progressive Era (started by Republicans), seemingly dedicated to a “Fair Deal” for working men (and some women, mostly in the garment industry). There was a peace between the Democratic Party and capitalism based on capital’s earnest desire for labor. The coming war in Europe would further constrict the supply of labor. Big industrial employers were competing for workers – they were eager to accommodate the Left, at least that part of it that didn’t threaten their survival.
In 2017, however, we are looking at low growth in the short term … greater productivity of workers, for sure, but no labor shortage on the horizon. Both technology and immigration are reducing demand for American workers. And, with these economic changes, the political power of organized labor has dwindled to virtually nil.
Initially, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and its wave effect throughout the industrialized world, struck fear into the hearts of capitalists everywhere. They felt weak and vulnerable, and began to shore up their defenses. In the U.S., they invented an ideology: “The American Way” … it didn’t include any security for most industrial workers, and people of color were still excluded. But, we were “free,” they said. The Frontier, Horatio Alger and self-reliance, were heroic. Generations were indoctrinated accordingly.
The Left took a big hit. The Cold War didn’t help, when it seemed like the world was divided between two giant superpowers facing off – one “Communist” and one “Free.”
There was an interruption to this story in the thirties and forties – capitalism nearly collapsed worldwide. It was saved by two things: rediscovery of that turn-of-the-century “progressivism,” and total mobilization of the state to fight an existential threat from fascism. The Soviet Union beat us at the latter, as their economy had been mobilized by the state since the Revolution.
In the United States, 1945 showed us that “The American Way” had triumphed … but, what really triumphed? Stalin would say the very same thing to people in his half of the world: “socialism” was triumphant. The Cold War seemed to prove both views correct!
The progressivism of FDR’s New Deal became institutionalized in the U.S. throughout the forties, fifties, sixties, even the seventies with Nixon-Ford-Carter. Both American parties subscribed to the same ideology, despite the still unacceptable public association with the Left (progressives became known as “liberals” in the U.S.).
The Socialist International of the nineteenth century became the basis for democratically elected center-left parties throughout western Europe, and Latin America. The term “liberal” was associated with center-right parties. The Soviet Union grew its own economy, along with its new imperial domain in eastern Europe, although at a somewhat slower pace than the West. By the end of the century, that competition finally got the best of the Soviets. They were ultimately outproduced into oblivion, probably due to structural weaknesses of their overly centralized economy.
But, “victory” in the Cold War did NOT come only because of the free market ideology of the Reagan years. Capitalism won because of those many decades of collaboration between industry and the state. It was the progressive left that saved it. Capital remained privately owned (or, publicly, through shareholders), but was subject to regulation by the state, for the common good. Fascism used a similar economic organization, but its “common good” was defined as furtherance of national interests vs. the rest of the world — hence, World War II.
Post-Cold War, Dems Fail
By the beginning of the 21st century, it was becoming increasingly clear that most American working- class people saw less hope in the future than their parents had known in the past century. The Russians hadn’t been their enemy, but powerful forces in their own society were. However, propaganda for the “American Way” intentionally made these forces difficult to identify.
Exceptions to this malaise were now people of color (POC), women, and those fortunate enough to find their way into growing economic sectors (tech), rather than retreating sectors (manufacturing). Everybody else tended to look backward rather than forward – they drifted to the right, politically. The Republican Party seized on this opportunity, since they had a similar group of supporters already (rural and small-town folks). Democrats started losing elections when Republicans portrayed them
as the “powerful forces” keeping people down. As Dems were the leading proponents of the meritocracy of the professional class
, there was some truth to the charge.
Those groups remaining tied to the Democratic Party thought their current favorable status, vis-à-vis the future, was a direct result of Democratic priorities. They won the presidency in 2008 and 2012, but otherwise were localized in the cosmopolitan urban centers of the coasts (and Chicago) … there were many of them, but they WERE the privileged class in America!
I am one of them, but hopefully I can see that I don’t represent the majority.
The majority in America are not people like me. They are people who couldn’t afford college, and weren’t eligible for sufficiently debt-free financial aid. They are younger. They struggle. They won’t have many resources to pass on to their children, either. Their skills may well be in dying occupations. They need relief, and mostly it’s Republican politicians who promise it … by favoring their employers, and their communities.
When Democrats attempt the same, they are generally bargaining with capitalism from weakness. In high growth sectors (like tech), they’ve sometimes managed to work with entrepreneurs. But, entrepreneurship tends to breed reaction … from the established money, their competitors in the market. Entrepreneurship is so twenty-five years ago, not so much now. The Citizens United decision of 2010 sealed the fate of any attempts to influence elections with “grass roots” support alone.
Democrats are now left competing for the same big donors that Republicans use. This requires them to cater to capitalist-centric interests, and remain silent on opposing interests – like things that benefit workers. Only the most cynical (or courageous) donors would take a chance on a politician who travels around campaigning on any kind of restrictions, much less any outright attack, on them. Instead, Dems will usually be content to emphasize positions which support their established base, and have no economic consequences for their big donors. They are never allowed to grow that base, they are always on the defensive.
The 2016 election did something profound. It etched in clear relief who was on which side. That traditional blue-collar workforce (both male and female, but white) voted overwhelmingly for the candidate of the right: Donald Trump. Other parts of the Democratic coalition held, but turnout was lower than for Obama’s two elections. In the end, the “band of deplorables,” as Clinton memorably named them, won.
The Left needs to get them back. As “deplorable” as they seem, it seems to me that an economic message about capitalism may be just the ticket to get their attention in the 21stcentury. If enough people can be convinced that they have something in common with the other cultural groups that remain in the Democratic coalition, Dems can start winning again. Since they are in no danger of losing any more of their base, the time is ripe to think about expansion. And, the most promising avenue for this strategy is to “go left.” Here’s why …
1. Only old people who remember the Cold War have any negative association with socialism (maybe some “Gen X” libertarians, too … but, they can either vote for a third party, or Republicans, they’re not needed for a left coalition).
2. Given a few more election cycles, the old folks will die out.
3. White racism, sexism, social conservatism are all expressions of frustration about not knowing how to deal with “the other” … social engineering (via advertising, social media, and entertainment) can easily remedy that, helping people cope with others. Millennials already have this covered. People in large urban areas are better equipped than those in rural areas and small towns – and, they’re more numerous!
4. The main thing that keeps people from participating in the democratic process is lack of trust in candidates for elected office – there’s a stench of corruption around the whole thing that keeps many from even voting. Openness about financing would go a long way to help this.
The formula for a winning “lefty” candidate, then, would be one who could marshal the hearts and minds of young people struggling economically, but who have never learned to hate any groups competing with them for the crumbs at the bottom of the food chain. The final ingredient would be willingness of the candidate to fully disclose where their money comes from, and why they’re proud to represent those interests! Yes, some big money IS from socially responsible organizations, or individuals. It should not be a handicap to get large donations from George Soros or Donald Sussman.
Barack Obama managed to marshal those young hearts and minds, but faltered on the openness requirement – even though it dogged his party more than him.
So, what’s stopping the Democratic Party from fielding candidates like this? They sometimes do, but a primary challenge of incumbents, or their designated successors, may be required (as in Virginia this month). Primaries can be just as brutal as general elections against Republicans, if not handled adroitly. The incumbents have lots of resources, and loyal networks of people they have helped (or, who think they’ve been helped).
What Is To Be Done?
Message to idealistic young people who want to push “lefty” candidates for office: keep trying, always resist attempts to divide voters along cultural lines (don’t talk about “deplorables”), your political foe is a competitor, not an enemy. And, think about the larger community your candidate seeks to serve – it may be an opportunity to build a new network. Remember, you’re probably luckier than most people in the community – don’t forget that privilege. Share your talents, don’t use them as weapons.
Be like Vera Pavlovna, the main character in the 1863 Chernyshevsky novel, Chto delat’.
Once you’ve committed yourself to social justice (to “the revolution”), and become a genuine “lefty” like me, you need to appreciate that change is a big job … indeed, it will likely take many election cycles, uninterrupted by reaction, with many people working toward the same goals.
Your goals are to reduce wealth inequality, and to be sensitive to various emotional and cultural predispositions in your community. Your tools are organizing, contributing, and steadfastness in your dedication to justice.
Whatever you do, it won’t be enough – even if your candidate prevails, they need to be re-elected to complete their mission. If they fail, another candidate will need to take their place. The candidates themselves are only means to an end.
And, others will be needed to take your place, as well – they will be there when you lose your resolve.