Friday, April 9, 2010

What Do Progressives Want?

OK, it wasn't the health care bill we got

Marrianne's cousin Kevin sent a link to a piece by blogger Ian Welsh. In his piece, "Kos Calls For Progressive Civil War," Welsh shreds Kos. "It's time for Kos's 15 minutes to end. The man's stupidity, hubris and willingness to be used by a president who is objectively a conservative means he is now doing more damage to the Left than good." Oh, my. We are angry, aren't we.

Admittedly, Kos's call to campaign against Kucinich in a primary seems blockheaded. Whatever the Left's problems may be, a Kucinich in Congress isn't one of them. It ought to be equally clear that Obama isn't standing in the way of a resurgence on the Left, either, but Welsh thinks so: "Those who want to go after Kucinich are acting as Obama's and Rahm's heavies. acting as enforcers for a president who believes in indefinite detention without trial, who has expanded the war in Afghanistan, gutted civil rights and who wants to force every American to buy health insurance from private companies," wrote Welsh.

Maybe I'm dense, but this seems a little hyperbolic. Obama doesn't appear to believe in "indefinite detention without trial," he just seems to be unwilling to take the issue on. Such a stance may be morally weak, but it isn't equivalent to gutting civil rights, either, though Welsh may have more in mind than the way the Obama administration is dragging its feet on Guantanamo and criminal investigation of torture. Certainly there is a critical Left perspective to bring to bear on Obama's strategies regarding health care, Afghanistan and a host of other issues, but that doesn't make Obama a conservative or suggest that Obama considers Kucinich a major obstacle to his agenda, whatever it may be.

Arguably Obama's agenda is a lot clearer than the Left's. We may want universal, single-payer, and, if we were expecting to get it this year, then our failure to achieve it would be bitter, indeed. On the other hand, if our goal was simply the bill that actually passed, there'd be no need for a Left, at all. The problem lies in defining political and legislative goals for the Left that keep progressives in the discussion and push the boundaries of the possible.

Single-payer is, in that regard, an important ultimate goal for progressives and ought to be a defined part of every health care discussion. But we are not defeated just because we don't achieve it. More people will be insured as a result of this legislation. Insurance companies will have more customers, it's true, but being barred from excluding preexisting conditions will cut into profit margins, as well. And state health insurance exchanges offer potential for further government involvement in health care cost control and, even, the direct provision of health care.

Given the political climate in which this was all fought out, a global economic collapse, a vastly expanded federal debt and hysteria on the right, it's hard to see how a better bill could have been passed. Passing the bill last summer, instead of this spring, would have been better, of course, but it didn't happen. Progressives and labor unions might have been able to accomplish it, if there had been a greater willingness to tax "cadillac" health care plans, but too many people couldn't see a way to do that and protect union members, too. In the upshot, a weaker plan passed nine-months later when progressive members of Congress finally decided not to oppose the bill on that basis. Regardless, this bill was always going to be the step before the next bill, which will take more unity on the Left and among Democrats than either Kos or Welsh appear willing to acknowledge.


  1. I agree that primarying Kucinich is probably not the most important task for progressives at the moment, but I don't agree that it would be counterproductive. Kucinich is a terrible chief representative of the hard left, and as long as he's in congress, its hard to imagine anyone else taking up that mantle.

    Why is Kucinich so awful? Because nobody who doesn't already agree with him will ever be convinced to join him, which is kinda the point of politics. The hard left has suffered greatly from not having any compelling national standard bearer, and as a result it hasn't been able to do a good job at its primary responsibility, shifting the debate leftward.

    I'd love to see someone like Anthony Weiner take this on - charismatic, articulate and (from what little I've seen) sufficiently on the left to be a breath of fresh air, but not easily portrayed as some antiquated socialist relic, or as a pure ideologue. But as long as Kucinich is around, that's probably not going to happen.

  2. "Antiquated socialist relic?" To whom are we referring?

    I have somewhat less difficulty with the notion of the "hard left," because I assume you are looking for a term that will distinguish a certain political perspective from the merely liberal, but hard left isn't going to achieve that--there are no such types in Congress. Bernie Sanders, that antiquated socialist relic (?), is probably the most left member of Congress, but you can find harder left types even in the pages of The Nation, which is probably one of the places to look for the most left perspective that retains a chance of being articulated in Congress.

    Weiner is attractive, yes, but he's pretty awful on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a political position that frequently leads one to other foreign policy errors, like voting for the war in Iraq when the principled position was to stand on the House floor and unload a j'accuse at the perpetrators of WMD fraud and other expedient fabrications.

    Historically, various members of the Black and Progressive caucuses have functioned as spokespeople for left perspectives on individual issues; Ron Dellums from Oakland, Lane Evans from downstate Illinois and John Conyers from Detroit come to mind, but Dellums and Evans are gone and Conyers has aged beyond the challenge you outline. No one, including Kucinich seems well-suited for the task.

    But Kucinich is not standing in the way, and at least widens the dialogue. Why anyone would decide he is the problem remains beyond me. Besides, people in his district like him, get what he's about, and it would cost at least $1 million to unseat him.

    More important, I think, is the question of what a left agenda would look like and how to put it before the people. The truth is, it is much harder to function on the left in the U.S. than on the right. Anti-militarism and peace perspectives simply aren't manly enough, and most of the rest is pretty complicated and sometimes, even, counter-intuitive. That means left ideas need more time to articulate and bomb more often when packaged as sound bites.

    This, in any case, is the way one antiquated socialist relic sees the issue.