Monday, October 28, 2013

Time To End the Left's Long Losing Streak

It's going to take a while and it's going to take a strategy

The shutdown and debt ceiling fight had me thinking hard about exactly where in the wilderness the American Left might be and what the map back to relevance might look like. I blogged about that a bit in "A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy." In the process, I started outlining a blogging/writing challenge for myself that goes something like this: Outline the elements of a comprehensive strategy and make the case for a Left unified around that strategy.

Ridiculous pipe dream, right? Still, I really do think the Left has been wandering through a desert of political irrelevance for almost 40 years now and it is past time for settling down and committing to something different.

Coming up with that strategy and some sort of stirring call to action must cover a range of important considerations. Among them:

Describe the wilderness. What has the Left devoutly wished for these last four decades and failed to accomplish? What has been lost? Who is it, exactly, who has been doing all that wandering? What were the Left's achievements during that period and why weren't they the path to larger political success? Other than its appeal as part of a metaphor, why make 40 years the period of concern?

Compare the Left's decades-long failure to the political success of the extreme right-wing, which never should have achieved the influence it has, given both the cruelty and the lunacy of most extreme-right policy positions.

The list goes on, of course. What are the main causes of the Left's failure? What are the strategic perspectives that ought to shape the development of a new Left strategy? Who should be a part of a newer, bigger Left and why should they bother? What should be the goals and objectives of that strategy? What tools, resources and institutional structures are necessary to support a struggle for political relevance?

There are other important questions, I know. Every time I sit down to think about the whole idea (or get up to wander and noodle the idea), I come up with a different list. But I'm pretty certain that I'm not going to reach any kind of clarity about the project until I start it.

So that's what I'm going to do. And I'm hoping this blog will help me move the project along. This post isn't really the beginning of that discussion--it's more like the introduction, but the discussion, maybe, starts here, if others will weigh in. I don't really care if I end up with any ownership of the idea, what I care about is that all of us who have been wandering in the alleged wilderness come out of it together, more aware of what we need to do and how we must work together to do it.

I'm rereading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland right now. The book focuses on the years 1964-1972, a period bookended at the start by Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater and, at the other end, by Richard Nixon's smashing defeat of George McGovern. Perlstein writes that between 1964 and 1972, "...the battle lines that [currently] define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire."

What struck me most in the early parts of Nixonland is the sense of how close the country came in 1964 and '65 to establishing a policy and politics that would serve the best interests of the vast majority of Americans.

As Perlstein puts it:

"Johnson kept on rolling out his Great Society: preschool for poor children. college prep for poor teenagers, legal services for indigent defendants, economic redevelopment funds for lagging regions, landmark immigration reform, a Department of Housing and Urban Development, national endowments for the humanities and arts--even a whole new category for the liberal agenda, environmentalism: a Highway Beautification Act, a Water Quality Act, a Clean Air Act..."

There was also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, but then Watts burned, and LBJ expanded the war in Vietnam, and the wheels came off the Great Society. It all seemed to run into a wall almost at the moment the ride began. The losses and compromises litter the road since and now, from exile, we watch the Tea Party, the mother-ef'n Tea Party, for gosh sakes, exercise a power that eludes the rest of us. That's why we need a strategy.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy

Not raising the debt ceiling would be like a rather simple-minded declaration of bankruptcy, but the big question is how to turn a Republican setback into a long-term political rout

1. John Boehner is right; the Republicans did fight "the good fight" and they lost it, but the debt ceiling was never a real issue. It was only a viable tactic for Republicans because Democrats had given in before, e.g., the sequester. The Republicans' maneuver was an inspired procedural action, but they won't weaponize it again. Democrats have shown that they have an effective defense against that weapon.

2. It was, in any case, always a dumb idea. Not raising the debt ceiling is like declaring bankruptcy without any legal protections. Imagine a decision to stop paying bills without filing for bankruptcy. One would be entirely at the mercy of creditors free to proceed against you as they wished. It would be like leaving your front door unlocked and posting a sign out front inviting all comers: "Take what you want, I am without hope."

3. Meanwhile, there were an awful lot of people relegated to bystander status or worse during the federal shutdown. Federal employees watched the fight from the sidelines. So did most voters in Blue states, though those who insisted that their elected representatives hold the line on the debt ceiling and shutdown may have helped to strengthen Democratic spines. Working people and poor families across the country had no political options while they suffered through layoffs, lost work time, closure of Head Start programs and food stamp cuts. The list could go on and on, but the point is that working folks in huge numbers found they could do little or nothing that would affect the standoff.

4. The fight was at least a temporary disaster for Republicans. But absent a political strategy to attack the House majority in red-state congressional districts, the Tea Party will live to fight another day and the Republican House will continue to be the tail that wags the dog.

5. In the week or two before the shutdown, plenty of people on the Left were busy celebrating so-called "populist victories" over the elite. A friend of mine, apparently in the full belief that popular resistance to intervention in Syria and opposition to the appointment of Larry Summers as Fed chief were attributable to some long-awaited resurgence of the Left in the United States, declared his belief that we have reached "the end of nearly four decades of rightward drift in the United States." In view of the fact that the Left was another of the groups watching helplessly from the sidelines while the Tea Party celebrated obstruction and shutdown, it's hard to take that claim seriously.

6. But the assertion that we have lived through "... four decades of rightward drift ..." does resonate. Right to work laws, stagnating wages, growing wealth inequality, record levels of incarceration, new and higher barriers to voting, prohibitively high college costs, virtually unregulated campaign spending by corporations and the wealthy, and more are features of the rightward drift that sometimes feels like a stampede.

7. Arguably, the last really sustained and effective progressive movement in this country was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s that resulted in the Civil Rights Act(s) of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The liberalization of national politics that grew out of that movement also helped to assure the creation of Medicare in 1965. That liberalization also created cultural space for feminism and new employment protections for women and minorities.

8. The celebrated anti-war movement of the '60s and early '70s raised important questions about the Vietnam War, U.S. imperialism, in general, and the military-industrial complex, and raised important questions about mainstream politics and media, but petered out with no strategic accomplishments to show for a great deal of political engagement.

9. One of the great strategic actions of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement that followed were that they took political action in the South and the great cities of the North. Those movements empowered people who might otherwise be victims of an oppressive political environment to take action on their own behalf. They also attracted supporters to the fight, often getting those supporters to establish roots for the long-term in places where the struggle was centered.

10. From where I stand, the challenge now is to articulate a political strategy that takes the fight to where success, measured in a variety of ways, will make the most difference:

--to the red states, for example, to engage in sustained electoral action aimed at replacing Republican representatives with Democrats, where possible, and aimed at making uncompetitive state legislative and congressional districts competitive,

--to do this for the long haul, not merely for 2014, or 2016, but through 2020 and the opportunity to redistrict in the red states,

--to build district-based networks capable of maintaining a permanent educational and organizing presence.

There is more to suggest, of course, but the point is that even if the brief bright flare of Occupy, the resistance to intervention in Syria and to the appointment of Larry Summers to the Fed mean more than I think they do, they will mean little without a commitment by the Left to organize electorally and to take that effort to where the fight is. It has been many years since the Left has made any political difference one way or the other in the United States. Even the Tea Party makes more difference than we do. Are we ready to change?