Monday, November 22, 2010

How I Left The Left

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:
  1. If we're so right about so many things, why does no one listen?
  2. Aside from helping George Bush get elected president, why have we been politically irrelevant since the Vietnam War?
  3. 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.


TAO said...

Well said!

I am not all that political but I do agree with the concept of finding things that work and I really don't care where the solutions come from.

The trouble is I don't see a single solution coming from anywhere...

Steven said...

Forget the 'Left'...where is the criticism of the Democratic Party? A Party that seems embarrassed by our President and has lost all unity. The Democratic Party is supposed to be the "left' and it has wandered far from it. If it stood for something, anything at all, we might have a chance for enacting real change.

There may be a gritty reality to politics but if you don't criticize what is will never change. And yes, we need a leader.

Roy said...

Yeah, the Left has definitely deteriorated in the last 2 decades or so. I was a dedicated Socialist in the '60s, but these days they seem no better than the teabaggers, except that the Left is busy arguing within its own ranks and spinning wheels, getting nowhere.

I loved Jon Stewart's line from the speech he gave at his pre-midterm election rally, aimed at both the Left and the Right: "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Ima Wizer said...

I'm disappointed in the left but the right seems at a standstill.....where is the chutzpa? I feel defeated by them all!

Sylvia K said...

You know that agree with you totally. I've frequently been frustrated by politics, but never like I am today! I, too, feel defeated by them all.


Foxessa said...

As we declared yet again at Saturday night's dinner party, the guests of which, other than us, are long time activist progressives who also happen to be very big millions of millionaires -- so far all the left has managed to do was a lame-assed attempt to establish a radio network without knowing fark all about radio (BUYING their air time for a NETWORK from CLEAR CHANNEL y'all!???) and sing ancient protest songs from the 1950's and 1960's.

Nor could they come up with a counter to that.

(This was all executed on both sides with great respect and sincere politeness -- shoot, you're not going to sneer at the people who helped put together the kinds of programs that they did, which are still effective today, etc.)

Love, C.

Taradharma said...

I'm with you - if something works, I want it. I don't care whose idea it is. I want honest-to-goodness journalists who check facts and ask the right questions. I want leadership to help us get there.

I am tired of all this sniping. It gets us nowhere and is breeding contempt on all sides.

K. said...

Thanks, all.

Of course, I'm hardly a fan of the right, whose leadership is disgusting. Dick Armey makes my skin crawl.

I've been researching Consumer-Drive Health Care for one of my classes. CDHC has emerged as the action strategy for privatization of health care. There are actually some good idea there: The isolation of most consumers (not all, by any means) from the costs of treatment is a definite factor in the spread of unnecessary procedures and treatments and the introduction of new, not necessarily proven (but more expensive) procedures.

But the dishonesty and intellectual blinderedness that accompanies it undermines any sense of conviction and leaves one feeling that there's a hidden agenda.

Anyway, it's going to get worse before it gets better. The Republicans will continue to be confrontational and will at some point force a government shutdown.

injaynesworld said...

The Dems are incompetent and the Repubs are just evil. Makes for a helluva choice. I'm just numb that the Dems were in control of both houses and the Presidency and still got sand kicked in their faces. Reid has the backbone of an amoeba. Every single time the GOP threatens to filibuster he should have made their sorry asses stand there talking till they fell down. Maybe they wouldn't have been so quick to do it so many times. And Obama has no stomach for confrontation. We voted for "Mr. Kumbaya" and that's exactly what we got. Why is everyone so surprised? I voted for Hillary because she'd been fighting the right-wing for two decades. She knew exactly what they were capable of and never had and illusions about bipartisanship. And she's never been afraid to get down in the dirt and slug it out.

So we're stuck with the guy who just wants everyone to be friends.

Like you, I just want to see solutions -- from anywhere -- but when the right has already declared that they're not interested, what the hell do you do?

Okay. I'm done now. You were, as usual, much more eloquent at making your point than I. ;)

K. said...

I've wondered about the filibuster many times. Maybe the Dems don't want the tables to be turned when they're in the minority, which to me is the kind of reasoning that will put you in a minority. I say take one of the may innocuous appointments they blocked and force it to a vote. Let the Republicans filibuster it endlessly, if they dare stop the nation's business over something like that.

Really, the Dems accomplished a fair amount under the circumstances, then lost control of the message and wouldn't run on their record. It never helps to have motor pool heroes like the ones I list above as part of your army. Although in fairness, it's hard to run on "things would be worse" and that most impossible of tasks when it comes to the American electorate: "We need your patience."

TAO said...


Not to change the subject...but healthcare has been a project of mine for years...

We went self funded in 1990 and stayed self funded till 2000 when downsizing forced us to switch back to packaged products. 4 years ago we switched to health savings accounts and high deductible insurance...

With our self funded experience we were for a small company pretty knowledgeable about the healthcare system and were able to prepare our employees to take charge of their own healthcare...

Now after four years it blows my mind at how "consumer unfriendly" the system really is. Healthcare providers really cannot comprehend a system where the consumer or patient is in charge...

Anonymous said...

What oft was thought but ne'er so well exprest. Well thought out and articulated K. I was thinking the other day I am tired of Blitching and reading the blitching of others who get it yet feeling like we are screaming down an abandoned well while the country dances to Charlie Daniels songs at a Hannity rally where the profits don't go where they are supposed to go but nobody really gives a shit about veterans or their kids anyway....If we're so right about things how come nobody listens ? I recall once during the 2000 campaign a talk with my brother in Leadville Co who asked if Al Gore is so smart why is he locked in a dogfight with a total imbecile ? this should not even be close. I think your observation on leftish ignorance of process and especially Rovean process really bit the cause in the ass. And right now the country is in an uproar about Bristle Palin's dancing and getting Frat house groped in the terminal. Heavy stuff man...thanks for the thoughts

Peter Tibbles said...

The voting system here in Australia has a great advantage over yours. We have preferential voting (which I believe you call Instant Runoff or some such) and have had it since about 1920. It works well, you can register a protest vote and give your second preference to someone else. Like my voting for the Greens (as they're the only genuine left wing party left) and then to Labor.

Anonymous said...


I would love to have the Australian system but we have no way, in most states, of having anything other than two parties...

Of course in Nevada you can vote for "None of the above" which baffles me because why would you drag yourself to a polling place to vote for nobody?

I voted for "none of the above" for over 20 years...I just stayed home.

K. said...

Peter, I've heard that voting is required by law in Australia. Is that correct?

Peter Tibbles said...

Yes, that's correct. Well technically, all that's required is to attend a polling booth, there's no requirement to fill out the ballot.

troutsky said...

The first step is coherent theory. I just dropped by but notice the same circular reasoning in the post and all the comments: Politics are broken - the "left" is complicit- nothing can be done- politics are broken.

Try stepping way back everyone.Try questioning some assumptions. What if these aren't politics?

What if Democrats/ progressives/ liberals aren't the Left?

What if this isn't even democracy?

Try starting from there, in other words, the popular will is not expressed through the parliamentary system. What thwarts it? Power relations within an economic system.

What do we call that system?

What REALLY needs to change?

K. said...

Troutsky, you may have misinterpreted my point. I do not believe that the system is unchangeable -- there are too many historic instances of systemic change to think that. I do believe that it is unchangeable in the absence of a mass movement, and that mass movements take years of patience, organization, and physical courage.

I do take issue with members of the left who compare their sniping from the safety of their laptops with the labor and civil rights movements. I have read this self-justification on more than one occasion; when you consider the personal danger that the members of the those movements courted, these knights of the keyboard are simply being offensive. (Thanks to Ted Williams for that metaphor.)

They represent nothing that I recognize as a true movement, which involves organizing and actually doing something. This would be actual, meaningful dissent with a purpose. As it is, what I read is a lot of complaining that the administration hasn't been following their advice.

Moreover, I have yet to read even once -- whether in The Nation, Huffington Post, truthout, Rolling Stone, or anywhere else -- a single concrete proposal about how the administration could go about acquiring the votes needed for more progressive versions of health care or finance reform or an economic stimulus. The attitude right down line is "if Obama just thought bigger." That and $4 might get you a latte, but it won't get you Ben Nelson's vote for a public option. Not when he's a hack beholden to the insurance companies in Omaha and outpolls Obama in Nebraska.

Your questions are all good questions. Bill Moyers argues that we live in a plutocracy, and he has a point. Definitely a point that the MSM doesn't have the capacity to consider.

Incidentally, the United States doesn't have a parliamentary system of government.

K. said...

TAO: I've been thinking about your observation that there are no good solutions being presented. There are all kinds of innovative policy ideas in health care. But what gets ink? A proposal by a Wisconsin economist-congressman that shows no understanding of health care, misses the point, and would make matters worse in just about every way. And here's the kicker: Liberal criticism of Paul Ryan's plan attacks it over the economics, not it's failure to address care reform and insurance reform. The real problem with Ryan's plan is that costs drive coverage and care when the solution to costs is to reform coverage and care.

In other words, the public debate over health care is often conducted on both sides by people who know little about it. That makes it difficult to develop an informed opinion.

Jay Michael Deveraux said...

When it comes to the Tea Party Movement you really have no idea what you are talking about. Every single thing you said is a lie and either you know it to be so or you're too ignorant to be aloud to post anything online. But what can you expect from a progressive elitist from Redmond.

Anonymous said...

"The Nader candidacy played a key role in swinging Florida and New Hampshire to Bush."

That's really not the case. The reality of the situation is well-examined and explained in a documentary about Ralph Nader called An Unreasonable Man. The 2000 election was rife with corruption -- from Pat Buchanan supposedly winning largely Jewish counties to the Supreme Court stopping the recount. From thousands of voters being disenfranchised based on race to hanging chads. And many more legitimate examples of corruption could be cited as well. To place the blame the results of the election on Nader and the desire to create a valid third party was intellectually lazy at the time and is still lazy today.

Anonymous said...

When someone citizen k dislikes is president:

"Combining fact, compassion, and investigative intrepidness, the left"

When someone who citizen k feels warm and fuzzy about is president:

"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,"

Nothing in this blog has anything to do with facts or an honest argument, this is pure soapbox moral BS for the writer to feel good about himself. There is zero difference between citizen k and every republican who stood silently by as Bush trampled over this country. Cowardice and fraud, turning government into a team sport.

"But, but, Obama gives really good speeches! He watches the Wire! I feel really good about myself when he does well!"

White Rose said...

You could also argue that the people who voted for George Bush are the ones who elected him, not those on the left who wouldn't vote for Gore because of the PMRC, or because he nominated a republican for VP. Nader represented everything I believed in, while Gore didn't represent anything that I believed in. So Nader got my vote. That being said, the state that I lived in at the time went for Gore, so blaming me for Bush is wrong.

sherifffruitfly said...

Very good post.

I might suggest a Question 4: Why are you comfortable with a "movement" that is 95%+ white ?

But a very good post. :)

K. said...

White Rose: I don't blame you for Bush. I'm saying that Nader and his enablers bear part of the responsibility for Bush's election and that the way they rationalize their way out of it is unimpressive to say the least.

The otherwise estimable Christopher Hedges is downright whiny in his new book. Nader himself took credit for Maria Cantwell's senate victory of Slade Gorton in Washington state. I happen to live in Ground Zero of Cantwell's victory, and Nader's claim is laughable.

Sheriff: That is a very good question.

Norbrook said...

K, excellent posting.

"Try starting from there, in other words, the popular will is not expressed through the parliamentary system. What thwarts it? Power relations within an economic system."

Apparently you don't understand how the government was designed. For one thing, it's not a democracy, it's a representative republic. It's never been about "popular will," since the beginning. There is a chamber of Congress which is meant to represent "the popular will" to an extent, but there is another which is meant to represent a broader constituency. Adding to that is your inherent assumption that there is such a thing as "popular will." I've had way too many people point to one poll or another (often contradicting each other) to show how their idea is "popular." Fine, now show me that it's popular in every state/district, and show me how you're going to turn that into legislation.

The first step is to recognize that this is a large, diverse country, and each state/area has different concerns. Even within a state, there can be that variation. My area of NY has very little in common with NYC, except that we're in the same state. We have different demographics, we're different economically, we're different culturally. A member of the House from NYC is not "representing" us here. The stances that may make that representative wildly popular with the Left, or within his district may not be (and usually aren't) popular here. The senators from this state recognize that, and act accordingly. At the same time, NY has, as a state, a different set of concerns and priorities from Texas or Arizona. That's the point you have to grasp. Nelson is not beholden to whatever is the popular will of the nation. He's only beholden to the interests and voters of Nebraska. So it doesn't matter what you think is a good thing or will point to a poll to justify your point. You have to point to what's popular in that state.

At the same time, you also have to know "the rules of the game." If you don't know how legislation is introduced and moved through the legislature, you can't credibly expect to influence the process.

That's what the Left of the past knew. The statement from FDR to them to "make me do it" was simply a challenge to them to get out the voters, put the pressure on their representatives, and lobby them through the process to produce a bill that the President would then sign. Today's Left seems to feel that writing long screeds about how the President should "take a stand" or somehow "force" Congress to do something (those pesky rules again) is adequate. That is, someone else should do their work for them.

Horace Boothroyd III said...

Sorry for being so late to the party, but it has been a long and tortuous journey. Do any of you remember the children's book "Gift Bear for the King?"

I find that I too have broken with not The Left but with those lefties who would rather squeal about how awful things are than come together with a strategy to make things better.

On health care reform I found them to be mildly annoying goobers on the subject, but generally good people who I had known and worked with for years.

The break came over Snowden and Greenwald and the NSA. I had been unsettled about the breadth of NSA surveillance for many years but there had never been any interest in the movement in taking on that beast. Then came the document dump, and people freaked out - and not in a good way.

Rather than using the incident as a motivator to get things done, in the sense of "never waste a good crisis," most people were content to screech about how OMG! THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER! and to club the laggards for being insufficiently pure. Any suggestion that we settle down and figure out a strategy was interpreted as a confession of NSA/Obama worship and perhaps a sign of 'paid NSA disruptor troll infiltration.'

Anyway, there has been disappointingly little self reflection by The Left on this matter. The best that I have seen suggests that we are going through a split between the old line Social Democrats, like myself, and the civil rights centered libertarian wing. And I love my civil rights! That's the stupid thing about all, that some people are insisting that I give up my devotion to economic justice for the sake meaningless gestures on the civil rights front.

Anyway, this has all been quite painful and I thank you for your attention.

K. said...

Thanks of your comment, Horace. It's been three years since I wrote this entry. If anything, I've soured even more and have come to believe that much of the left is infected with a subtle racism. It pains me to say it, but I can't get away from the conclusion. Sometimes, it seems as if they believe that their credibility depends on attacking an African-American president.