With the 2000 election shaping up as a contest between Al Gore and George Bush, The Nation magazine urged Ralph Nader to run for president on the Green Party ticket and eventually co-endorsed him. His presence at the head of the ticket, The Nation argued, gave the Green Party a fighting chance at attracting 5% of the vote and a seat at the 2004 presidential debates.
In a moment of rare political prescience, I wrote to the magazine, objecting. What was to be gained by a Nader candidacy?, I asked. To get the votes of over 3,000,000 people, you had to be more than a consumerist celebrity: You had to present yourself as a credible president, which Nader could not do. A Nader candidacy, I argued, risked great harm for a remote chance of good. If he made a show of getting 5% of the vote and came up significantly short, his candidacy would marginalize progressives. Worse, he could swing the election to the Republicans. The only justification for a Nader vote was if you really believed that there was not a dime's worth of difference between Bush and Gore, and that was a ridiculous proposition.
We all know what happened: The Nader candidacy played a key role in swinging Florida and New Hampshire to Bush. In vain, I waited for a modicum of self-examination from the left, but it never came. Instead, I read that Nader played no role in Bush's victory because Bush cheated and Gore ran a poor campaign. True enough, but all that means is that the Nader candidacy put the outcome in play. (Conveniently glossed over was Nader's paltry overall vote total and its marginalizing effect.)
As the catastrophe of the Bush presidency mounted, though, the left provided a reliable, articulate voice of opposition. Combining fact, compassion, and investigative intrepidness, the left exposed the Bush presidency for what it was: A shabby cabal of grasping autocrats driven by stunted psyches and motivated by greed. It was perhaps the left's finest hour since the Vietnam war.
Then came the last two years, in which the left parlayed a naive disdain for politics and process, a greatly inflated sense of itself, an unexpected ignorance of history, and an obstintately blindered view of the teabaggers into a morally precarious stance from which it could inflict harm but do little good.
To begin with, the teabaggers are not misguided economic populists, as many on the left desperately want to believe. The 'baggers are anti-intellectual racists. Period. They actively agitate in favor of states' rights. Their favorite politician questions the legitimacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Their favorite media darling calls the Affordable Care Act the first step toward reparations. They blame the economic collapse and the mortgage crisis on the minorities who took out loans from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Never mind that the latter is impossible: Government mortgages are secure and the poor hardly have the financial muscle to crater the global economy. But since it's psychologically impossible for the 'baggers to even think that fellow white conservatives could have led us to this pass, they do what they always do: Take out their anger on minorities. Nonetheless, leftist writers, unwilling to awaken from the wet dream that the 'baggers are economically sympatico, continue to insist that common cause can be made with thugs who would just as soon lynch the average contributor to The Nation or Huffington Post as have turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
It's an article of faith among the left that its harsh -- and often brainless and naive -- criticism of President Obama puts it squarely in line with the left wing "insurgencies" (as Katrina Vanden Heuvel wrote) that pushed Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to the great reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society. This might be a fair point if it bore any actual relationship to reality.
One might be forgiven, for example, for wondering exactly what modern-day insurgency Vanden Heuvel refers to. The soldiers of labor and civil rights put thousands of boots on the ground and had commitment in their souls: Men, women, and children were willing to accept injury and death as the price of justice. But today? A few people milling aimlessly around a MoveOn "rally" isn't exactly the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Moreover, where's the leadership? I see no John L. Lewis, no Martin Luther King. The most prominent figure of today's left is Michael Moore, who presents himself as a clown. The "insurgency" is nothing more than a hodgepodge of policy statements and snarky op-ed pieces. Big deal.
Moreover, the Labor and Civil Rights movements helped Roosevelt and Johnson go where they wanted to go anyway. As vice-president, Johnson urged John Kennedy to be more aggressive on civil rights, and he and King liked and respected each other: They were hardly in opposition. Plus, these movements represented votes, the political coin of the realm. Both presidents knew that Lewis and King could turn out numbers that would support them at the polls. Today's left would have trouble convincing a lush to drink a martini.
With the eagerness of a child at Christmas, the left has compared Obama to Bush practically since the day after Obama's election. It constantly berates him for compromising on what they call "Roosevelt moments," as if FDR would have shipped his mother to Auschwitz rather than cut a deal. This ignores the troubling reality that FDR dealt with the devil regularly: Most New Deal programs were either segregated or white-only; Roosevelt had to agree to this in order to retain the necessary support of the segregationists in his own party. One reason for his not pursuing health care reform was an unwillingness to battle the segregationists, who feared integrated hospitals. Following the left's logic, this makes FDR the moral equivalent of Strom Thurmond or Bull Connor.
But real-life politicians don't deal in moral equivalents: They do what they have to do to get as much as they can get under the circumstances. It has always been that way, it will always be that way, and it's childish to pretend otherwise. You cannot expect a president to push for systemic change in the absence of an impetus external to the system. Lewis knew that, King knew that, and so did the leaders of the anti-war movement. On the left, that impetus doesn't exist, unless you call cheap talk an impetus. The pressure comes from the right; the left has failed -- dismally -- to respond.
As for the naivete, I've ranted about that before, so I'll keep it brief here. On health care, of course I'd like a public option. My experience, though, is that any time major legislation passes by the skin of its teeth, any movement to the right or left would sink it. Not one single member of the left has proposed exactly how the hacks and poltroons named Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson could have been persuaded or forced to support a public option. On finance reform, no one on the left explains how major reform would have been possible when a mediocrity like Scott Brown can hold up modest reform over an insignificant matter.
If the left ever quits wallowing in certitude, it should ask itself some questions:
- If we're so right about so many things, why does no one listen?
- Aside from helping George Bush get elected president, why have we been politically irrelevant since the Vietnam War?
- We once organized mass movements, but -- except for immigration reform -- we're all talk. Why can't we can't we get organized?
Recognizing that the system is rotten and then attacking the president for not getting more out of it while sitting on the sidelines carping...well, I don't care to be identified with that. However I see myself, I've shed ideology, said goodbye to all that, and lit out for the territory ahead of the rest. I'm looking for what works, and I don't much care where it comes from.