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.


  1. Check out Ian Welsh's last few blog entries on the failure of the progressive blogosphere. They don't address the 40 year gap, but talk about the near miss aspects of where progressive blogs failed and the Koch brothers and Tea Party may have had more palpable returns of late:

  2. I like Welsh's we-can-do-better attitude, KP, but I found myself disagreeing with his notion that somehow the progressive blogosphere had assumed the proportions of a movement. Still, he and his correspondents focussed on some important issues--ideas that I hope to investigate further in a future post.