Saturday, August 06, 2011

How the Left Was Lost
I'm surprised to find out that it evidently was John F. Kennedy, rather than Thucydides or someone like that, who said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Taking his turn on the historical stage in a time when it was all but taken for granted that liberalism was the mainstream political philosophy of the United States, that Democrats were the country's national governing party, and that Democrats were reliably liberal, I doubt JFK would have an easier time making sense of what's happened in our country these last three years than I do. But I think even he would conclude that all of us who call ourselves liberals own a piece of the latest defeat.

This past week, the United States narrowly avoided an unprecedented default on our national debt, when a Democratic President and Democratic-majority Senate acceded to almost every demand of a Republican-majority House of Representatives, which had put the national credit at risk to win a political fight. The Republicans took a hostage they probably weren't really willing to kill, and were lavishly rewarded for it: at best, the deal that was struck gives Democrats a partial and provisional chance to win the portion of the fight that was deferred.

It's a shocking, almost unimaginable turnaround for a party that took unified control of the federal government just two and a half years ago, on the strength of consecutive huge victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The credit rating agency Standard and Poor's added a final, bitter punch line Friday night when they downgraded the country's credit even though default was averted, mostly because "we see ... America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy."

Both the spending to be taken out of the budget as a result of the agreement and the possible higher costs that will ensue from the credit rating downgrade will further hurt the economy, which increases the odds that a Republican will win the presidency in 2012. Again, it would be difficult to imagine how things could have played out better for Republicans.

How did this happen?

Observers seem to split along two lines of explanation: the Democrats are either false--in other words, not at all unhappy with a set of outcomes that seem utterly dismal for liberalism, the view held by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi--or inept, as mainstream voices on the left seem to be arguing. (There's a third camp, which features Andrew Sullivan: he thinks Obama's playing rope-a-dope with the Right. I'd love to believe that, but I don't.)

Ultimately, though, Obama's reasoning or motivations, and those of the Democrats in the Senate, don't matter. What I think is more to the point is that even the greatest general can't lead an army that doesn't exist. There's no longer any effective Left to speak of in American public life.

This feels a strange complaint for me to make, as I'm probably an almost perfect example of a Left-disdaining moderate liberal Democrat: in other words, a stereotypical Obama voter. But what I'm realizing is that when you have a strong, active, determined Right, the absence of a countervailing Left means that the center will drift to starboard. Hence the dreary repeated pattern we're seeing of Obama compromising himself, and us, into virtual capitulation: unlike FDR and the question of whether or not to desegregate defense industries, nobody is "making him do it." (The link here, which I'd never read before to my recollection, is almost heartbreakingly prescient.)

I don't know how we turn this around. Ralph Nader--who has to be the absolute last fucking person I want to hear from on this particular question--thinks it's inevitable that Obama will face a primary challenge. I have to admit that the idea occurred to me last week, and not in a bad way. But all that's likely to accomplish is to push the president's re-election odds from about 50-50 to maybe 15-20 percent; incumbent presidents who face serious primary challenges simply don't win, because they take fire from their own co-partisans and have to expend badly needed time and resources simply winning renomination. (I'm not sure Nader's right. Any potential challenger will have to face an unprecedented deluge of money, and the complete and utter end of any further ambitions they might have for a role in public life.) Worse, we really can't afford another Republican presidency, with its likelihood of further tax and "discretionary spending" cuts and another war or two.

So what's to be done? It's not like there haven't been efforts made to build an activist infrastructure on the Left--but they only seem to work in certain even-numbered years (almost sufficing to beat Bush in 2004, then helping the Democrats to their big wins in 2006 and 2008). I found groups like increasingly annoying and ineffectual after an initial burst of enthusiasm for them in 2002-4, and thus tuned out... but my sense is that the Obama campaign pretty much ate them all in 2008. Again, that's not a good vehicle for obvious reasons.

Maybe, though, politics as such isn't the answer at all. Direct action, in ways that are fun for participants and attention-grabbing for press, could be one answer; another that I keep thinking about is if, say, ten million middle- and upper-class liberals announced they would tax themselves at the 15 percent rate applied to hedge fund managers rather than the higher rates they actually pay. That would both sting the government and highlight the crying need for tax reform. There have to be hundreds of other, similar ideas that could put meat to the bone of liberal thought and engage the public in a newly direct and powerful way.

Back in a day or two, hopefully, with thoughts on the centrality of government and how the narcissistic impulse might help explain why the un- and under-employed have been so quiet in their desperation.

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