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?


  1. Today I am worn down from preaching to the choir while the congregation nods off. But you are right, Jeff, intelligently organized action and education (especially education; thank you PolitiFact!), OVER A LONG TIME, stands the best chance of getting pendulums swung in a less insane direction.

  2. Thanks, Unknown. Sorry you're feeling worn down, but dollars to donuts, you'll get fresh inspiration and resolve a little bit down the road. In the meantime, we have yet to identify the nature and content of that education or how any of it would fit into an electoral strategy for making long-term change in the collective and individual interest of the 99%. Gotta get to work on that.