Liberals Face a Hard Day’s Knight?

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Harper's magazine's March 2014 cover. (Illustration: Tim Bower)

That’s a pretty pathetic knight up there on the cover of the March issue of Harper’s Magazine. Battered and defeated, his shield in pieces, he’s slumped and saddled backwards on a Democratic donkey that has a distinctly woeful — or bored, maybe — countenance. It’s the magazine’s sardonic way of illustrating a powerful throwing down of the gauntlet by political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. He has challenged the nation’s progressives with an article in the magazine provocatively titled “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.”

His thesis flies in the face of a current spate of articles and op-ed columns touting a resurgence of progressive politics within the Democratic Party — often pointing to last year’s elections of Senator Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City as evidence — although at the same time many of the pieces note that the wave is smashing up against a wall of resistance from the corporate wing of the party.

In a story titled, “Democrats will dive left in 2016 to distance themselves from Obama” — a headline designed to roil Republican fervor as well as impugn the opposition — the conservative Washington Times quoted Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee: “Democrats would be smart in the primary and general election to be more populist and stand up for the little guy more on economic issues.”

In November, Harold Meyerson wrote in the progressive magazine, The American Prospect, “The constituencies now swelling the Democrats’ ranks, Latinos and millennials in particular, have created the space — indeed, the necessity — for the party to move to the left.” And Dan Balz and Philip Rucker reported in The Washington Post earlier this month. “By many measures, the party is certainly seen as more liberal than it once was. For the past 40 years, the American National Election Studies surveys have asked people for their perceptions of the two major parties. The 2012 survey found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans describe the Democratic Party as liberal, with 57 percent using that label. Four years earlier, only 48 percent described the Democrats as liberal…

Gallup reported last month that 43 percent of surveyed Democrats identified themselves as liberal, the high water mark for the party on that measurement. In Gallup’s 2000 measures, just 29 percent of Democrats labeled themselves as liberals.”

Nonetheless, Adolph Reed, Jr., who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania and is a long-time student of these things, makes a compelling case that we’re hearing a death rattle more than a trumpeting call to arms.

In his Harper’s piece, Reed argues that Democrats and liberals have become too fixated on election results, kowtowing to the status quo rather than aiming for long term goals that address the issues of economic inequality. “…During the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance,” he writes, “focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide… Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection.”

Reed says that the presidencies of Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too often acquiesced to the demands of Wall Street and the right. Of Clinton’s White House years, he clams, “It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda.” And President Obama “has always been no more than an unexceptional neo-liberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good will from the corporate and financial sectors… his appeal has always been about the persona he projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American politics.”

“The left has no particular place it wants to go,” Reed asserts. “And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other… the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore
always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam…”

He continues, “With the two parties converging in policy, the areas of fundamental disagreement that separate them become too arcane and too remote from most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action. Strategies and allegiances become mercurial and opportunistic, and politics becomes ever more candidate-centered and driven by worshipful exuberance about individuals or, more accurately, the idealized and evanescent personae — the political holograms — their packagers project.”

Reed concludes, “The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless.”

Web Video: Bill Moyers Interviews Adolph Reed Jr. on the Surrender of the Left
Beyond his call for rebuilding the union movement, there’s little solace in Reed’s conclusion. If Hillary Clinton decides not to run, a strong progressive candidate could emerge for 2016, although doomsayers point to the failed candidacies of liberals George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. One hope for Democrats is that, like the old joke about the two curmudgeonly brothers, the other one is worse. When it comes to the presidency at least, Republicans are even more riven and in disarray — a jousting tournament in which all the potential knights-in-chief are riding backwards in the saddle.

You can buy the March issue of Harper’s Magazine with Adolph Reed’s article at your newsstand or via their website. Or you can view Bill Moyers’ conversation with Reed in our Web Extra video.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.
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  • Anonymous

    What exactly is a “liberal” these days? I know what I think it means. But what I think it means seems to be completely unrelated to what someone on the right thinks it means. And now the term “neo-liberal” is being thrown around by both sides, and as far as I can make out, it refers to a libertarian approach to economics that basically says, “Let corporations do anything they want.” Not exactly what I would consider a “liberal” value. When someone can call President Obama a “liberal” or a “socialist” – and keep a straight face – I think maybe the very definitions we use are either breaking down, or are so misunderstood by so many (including, probably, myself) that they have become meaningless.

    A similar observation can be made about the word “conservative,” which seems to have evolved – or devolved – into something far removed from its meaning in days of yore.

    Maybe what we need are new labels, that actually mean something, that aren’t weighed down with the baggage of the past.

  • BullMoose

    I agree–what does “liberal” mean when the term is used to describe Obama or Clinton, two Democrats who cater to big business? I think if the Democrats are going to make headway, they’ve got to champion the people. They need to reveal the flaws of libertarianism and openly stick up for the little guy, and hopefully those “little guys” will head to the poling booths in droves. I call that being Progressive.

  • Anonymous


  • Joan Harris

    Elizabeth Warren comes to mind when I think of a liberal, progressive democrat.

  • Anonymous

    “Reed concludes, “The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United
    States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and
    to begin trying to create one.”

    I would have thought this was obvious ten years ago.

  • Arm of Keaau

    Seems to me that the conservative right has stolen the terminology along with the constitution and the nation. As the rules to the game have changed (thanks to corporations with the aid of state legislatures, congress, and the Supreme Court) and money counts more than individual freedoms, we’re not likely to see anything considered “liberally” fair and equitable. The real “Evil doer’s” have done their job well, and unfortunately we will never be the country again that so many have aspired to with regards to being free and just. (_: FBI

  • Dude

    I believe the failure of the “left” is its inability to outline programs that are economically realistic. Reed talks about free university education, income inequality, failure of the union movement. Well, who is going to pay for the tuition, the redistribution of income and the high union wages? The left always assumes there is someone else out there to pay for it’s demands. Well, what happens once you have gone through everyone else’s money? That is what a lot of people are asking that are not leaning left. The language of the left is out of touch with the average American. Their intent is good, but they offer no realistic solutions.

    The language is always about victimization, rarely about personal responsibility . Never any mention of the excesses of the union movement. All unions are good and all big business is bad. The left is perceived to be stuck in some sort of sixties time warp.

    I am not anti union. I would like everyone to have opportunity in this country, but no one is paying attention to the left because they are simply not offering economically realistic solutions. For that matter, neither is the right.

    People like Bloomberg and Corey Booker offer solutions. They marry idealism and pragmatism. Classic “left” politicians like De Blasio and Elizabeth Warren are going to get nowhere. They offer the same old tired rhetoric about how they are going to give everybody everything they want and pay no attention to the fact that their policies are going to bankrupt the government.

    Believe me, I am no fan of the right, but I am no fan of the hard left either. There is a lot of reasonable middle ground. The goal of the left and right should be to find the reasonable middle ground. There is great success to be obtained in the reasonable , realistic middle.

  • Kristopher Heinekamp

    You can’t see solutions because you’re insisting on using the lens of Capitalism.
    The far left does not advocate for Capitalism. So, when you are “looking” for solutions, you cannot see them. There are no reasonable solutions under Capitalism, and that’s why the far left doesn’t want to operate under it.

    You want an “economically realistic” goal, but you want Capitalism?
    You want to maintain the current power/wealth hierarchy and maintain the large, cumbersome Federal government.

    Capitalism allows for the consolidation of wealth, which leads to the consolidation of power.
    Capitalism is anti-democratic as private businesses are private tyrannies.
    Capitalism aims for short-term gain over long-term sustainability.

    When places of work are democratically run, and the consolidation of profit is eliminated, there is ample wealth to be spread around. With democratic control of the wealth created by labor, there is broader, deeper, real democracy. As the workers take control of their economic future, they can begin to control their lives, and they can begin to create a sustainable future that emphasizes the long-term benefits over the short-term gains.

    The far left isn’t about forcing “solutions” upon others; it’s about
    helping and allowing others to create solutions that work for
    themselves. Today, the far Left is pushing for increasing participation in political democracy, creating economic democracy, and de-centralizing power/wealth in a way that erodes and prevents the formation of hierarchies.
    The far left looks to Chiapas, Bolivia, Ecuador, OWS, and the First Nations for possibilities. I doubt you look to these people for solutions, though…

  • Michael J. Motta

    Bravo! It’s too bad we have to refer to the basic left as the “far left”, but I can understand why you do. I think it’s because American politics has shifted the center of the spectrum so far to the right that what’s center is now often considered the left.

  • Dude

    Kris: You just made my point. Nobody is going to listen to this type of rhetoric in the USA. Yes, it may go over with some people in Venezuela and Ecuador, but that is about it. Oh, and by the way, both those countries are bankrupt economic basket cases.

  • Kristopher Heinekamp

    [sigh] My comment was eaten on account of a single “profane” word….I need to try my best to conform to the speech patterns of old, white, wealthy men…
    So, pardon me if I seem a bit more terse in this one.

    Rhetoric is EXACTLY what we need.
    When the middle class wakes up to find their job gone, their future uncertain, and the prospects for their children dwindling, they begin to look for an explanation.
    Because the Left has eschewed their traditional rhetoric, the middle class is flocking in DROVES to the Right because THAT is where the rhetoric is.

    When the working people of America can even BEGIN to think that their situation may be correlated to the excessive wealth surrounding them, that’s going to be an amazing day.

    History is simply a collection of stories of the slow, painful, challenging victories of new ideas and philosophies. Without rhetoric, without philosophy, there is no direction. This is EXACTLY the problem the Left has had; there is no explanation, no narrative, and no hope.

    Oh, and by the way, being bankrupt in a morally bankrupt system isn’t such a bad sign.
    Not to mention that all our currency is fiat currency; i.e. Money = Debt.
    We’re all bankrupt.

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be little to no middle ground in politics, so no wonder millennials and other groups such as Latinos have begun to identify themselves as liberal. To say you’re conservative sounds old, behind-the-times, stuck in the mud, frozen in old ideas and practices.

    Conservatives often relate liberalism to free-spending policies, to people who are eager to spread around the wealth but are stunned when it comes time for them to pick up the tab. Or maybe they expect someone else to pick up the tab for their portion. We’ve all gone out to dinner with these people, on both sides of the fence. There are those forced far left because they see themselves as in step with the times, as champions for the down-trodden and mistreated, and there are those headed far right because they fear the effects of a rapidly changing world that may move them into the down-trodden column.

  • Anonymous

    If McCain and Palin had been elected, there would have been huge negativity about everything they did or said. It’s a polarization those who long to be genuinely independent in our thinking must deal with.

    Our country is far behind in resolving equality issues (as compared to the Netherlands and Scandinavia, for example, which may not be fair comparisons).

    The progressive me has always supported basic human rights, including gay marriage, but the more conservative me always asks, “Who picks up the tab for all the expenditures to “right” these social wrongs? And where does it end? Like your adult child who’s out on his own, but not really, at what point does the government say, no more. What is the game plan for providing Americans the tools and education they need to stand on their own authority?” Romney was verbally beaten with a big stick for his 47% remark in 2012, but no one in the media asked, “So if nearly 50% of people in this country are not paying income taxes – no matter the reason – how is that funding to be made up?” Where does the money continue to come from?

  • Anonymous

    Well said, but good luck to all of us in electing leadership who is mature enough and above the political fray to the point to get us to a middle ground. I can’t think of one politician equipped to do this. I admire Bloomberg, but he is most likely too wealthy and too independent to bridge any gaps. I would like to see our next President come from an area of the country that is not despised and mocked, who has served his or her state in leadership positions, is well-educated but not a graduate from an Ivy, and is strong enough not to be pulled into the D.C. cesspool. An Asian or Hispanic woman might be the best “working model,” but where is this person?

  • Hunter Lucas

    Don’t let the myth of the middle sucker you in. Sometimes, there is no compromise to be had–it’s just one good idea versus one bad one.

  • Hunter Lucas

    Well, it used to come from the top. And yet, despite that, our society flourished. Over the last few decades, the wealthiest have seen their taxes plummet and their profit margins soar. You can look around you and see the result of that. Seems pretty obvious what needs to be done.

  • Hunter Lucas

    While progressives and libertarians argue over who the real boogey-man is–government or corporate interests. Hint: it’s both.

  • Hunter Lucas

    I’ve been saying for a while: you want reform? Start with how political campaigns are financed. Public financing all the way and let the platform speak for itself. But good luck getting that particular genie back in its lamp.

  • Hunter Lucas

    I think there’s a distinction missing here: Mr. Reed is looking from the establishment’s side of things. You’re looking at the consensus among progressives (those not in office). The two really don’t line up anymore (they haven’t for some time, it’s just becoming more apparent now).

  • VoxPopuli

    Amen, you nailed it.

  • VoxPopuli

    Thank you Citizens United. Nothing will change for the better until that profane incest is reversed.

  • Anonymous

    Those stats for the super rich are real, no doubt, but neither party seems to care to tackle tax codes head-on. Politicians apparently believe they have more to lose than to gain by offending the rich, and voters have become lots of nobodies.

    The other thought is that Americans probably spend too much time considering the rich – and envying them – and not enough time making specific goals and plans for their own comfort and security. Bill Gates is one in a billion. There are people who have pathways and networks to walk on the Gates road, but most Americans do not – and will not. There are high-paying jobs going unfilled in technology and in the trades (carpentry, for example). No one has it all, but if most Americans can figure out how they can grasp the opportunities available to them, they can have a share of it.

  • Anonymous

    We have become a nation of fools spewing right wing talking points about costs and free lunches and personal responsibility and freedom and independence. It is ALL a bunch of nonsense. You get NOWHERE acting individually versus collectively except a few thousand people with huge yachts and slews of poor people. If ALL you focus on are costs ALL you get is a downward spiral of cost reductions, NOT growth or innovation, just shrinkage. The policies that are bankrupting the nation are tax reductions, the dismantling of public education and organized labor, privatization of public goods, infrastructure erosion, environmental destruction and kowtowing to corporate elites that spend all their waking hours looking for ways to eliminate labor from their ‘cost structure’ and force people to buy from them by lobbying to eliminate competition and sustainability. This uniquely American system of unfettered capitalism has failed in its duty to create a better society for the vast majority of its people. A real liberal will start a revolution that rejects this system with all the pain that will initially cause. All we are doing is throwing bandaids on an infection.

  • Anonymous

    Down votes are an important ‘scorecard’ it seems patronizing to eliminate the count of them from public view.

  • Anonymous

    Until we are able to, or are forced to, talk rationally about things such as collective bargaining, higher marginal tax rates, poverty eradication, infrastructure maintenance, public transportation, sustainability, respect for governance, environmental stewardship, etc. we will make no progress.

  • Activists Diary

    Finally, an article that articulates what I’ve been saying for a few years, and more emphatically now that it looks like Obama will approve KXL… If he approves KXL, he will at the same time, be signaling to many environmentalists – especially the younger Millenials, etc. – that the Democratic Party is prepared to deliver the ultimate betrayal of the trust and support of their base.

    At least the right wing extremists know who their base is. The Democrats do not – they think the majority of the country as well as those who self-identify as Dems – are much further to the right than we are. That has been proven in recent research.

    If Obama approves KXL, I will watch the mass exodus from his party with satisfaction.

  • Anonymous

    The Harper’s piece looked interesting. Alas, it was behind a $34.99 paywall, which means I wasted my time on a crummy commercial, as Ralphie said of his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. How about a little more contemporary media and not just a fixation on the dead tree media? We’re here and we do good work, too.

  • Russell Scott Day

    Where I live I’ve discovered that fashion is still more mistaken for substance than I can hardly bear. The isolation of Anarchy I came to then at least leaves me with personal integrity. When I recognize that means I am a political failure, I’m not too cheery about it. The Democrats have achieved some particularly galling ability to deceive themselves and missile the working classes who will have nothing to do but just do nothing. Truly they become self satisfied elitists deserving face on conflict.

  • Rick

    So polls say that Democrats are more “liberal” than they were in the past. So what? Nixon was more liberal than Obama has been. Actual liberals need to move past the labeling game, which was won by Republicans long ago.

  • Christine DeCarlo

    I couldn’t read the Harper’s article as I’m not a subscriber and I can’t afford it. So it is difficult to have an intelligent discussion about something you haven’t read in its entirety. However I do think this country isn’t ready for the left so I can relate to this line as a truism:

    “Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless.”
    I believe in the people of this country and I have seen more involvement and more self education (meaning not just acceptance of what is told to them) lately. Perhaps over time with concentrated and REAL efforts on their behalf this will change. I hope so. And I haven’t given up on our President. I think it is difficult to judge righteously given the fact that money buys politics, there has been six year jihad against him from the right, and people seeking re-election don’t always have a backbone.

    I firmly believe my life and career were ruined because of my politics but I can’t be a yes man for anyone. I must seek the truth and stand up for what I believe. And I believe in-fighting has ruined this country.

  • Slack

    While the left and the right fight over window dressing, the people who really run things are busy orchestrating the show and in doing so protecting the status quo at any cost. Who really runs things you ask? Well, let’s look at the Walton family for starters. They control as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of the American population. It bears repeating, one family has as much wealth as 40 percent of Americans. Can you say unelected oligarchy? Sure you can.

  • Anonymous

    We need substance, not labels. The label of liberalism is only as good to the degree it is grounded in a strong liberal movement with strong liberal values and strong demands for liberal policies. Liberals have to threaten to leave the Democratic Party entirely if it doesn’t push liberal reform.

  • Dude

    You just made my point yet again.

  • Wolf Braun

    First, all 3 levels of government are no longer operating according to
    their original PURPOSE – the reason why they were created in the first
    place. None of our 3 levels of government are driven by an established
    and agreed upon PURPOSE – why they exist. Established and agreed upon by
    ALL peoples. Instead, they are driven by special interest groups,
    political parties and their kids in short pants, bureaucrats and

    Our elected officials and bureaucrats are NOT using a set of
    established and agreed upon PRINCIPLES when making important decisions
    that impact ALL of us. If you don’t believe this, just check the websites of both political
    parties, including the Tea Party. You’ll be hard pressed to find a
    purpose or a set of principles focused on ALL peoples.

    Democracy belongs to the people. Not government. Not corporations. Not
    special interest groups. It’s up to us to decide and agree on what
    purpose and principles we want for each level of government. Only then
    can we expect more from our governments.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps it’s true that most people are not going to go that far, but you get enough people to start talking in that manner and the center of discussion will shift. When you are negotiating over a price, you don’t make the price you want to get your first offer, you go lower. Likewise, if you want to renegotiate how society is set up, you start with a more extreme position. The only reason the New Deal was able to be enacted was because there were people out there whose views were much more extreme, and so the New Deal became the consensus position.

  • Anonymous

    As an average american, Here is my message to any wealthy person who thinks I envy them:

    Get over yourself

    I don’t need millions of dollars to live a happy and fulfilled life, especially not if that money comes from treating fellow human beings as things to be manipulated for my own profit. I just wish to be fairly compensated for my labor, and when the workforce of the largest employer in the country needs foodstamps to get by while the CEOs who drove our economy into a wall get bonuses, I have lost all faith that our current system is fairly distributing wealth.

    As for Bill Gates, I do not resent the fact that he is worth billions of dollars, I resent the fact that he lobbies for increased H1-b visas while educated americans cannot find jobs.
    A 2012 IEEE announcement of a conference on STEM education funding and job markets stated “only about half of those with under-graduate STEM degrees actually work in the STEM-related fields after college, and after 10 years, only some 8% still do”.

    There is no worker shortage, just a shortage of employers willing to pay fair wages.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you, for the most part, but rich people don’t care what we think. They will continue to do what they do – make money.

    We elected people to go to Washington to serve us, and they have been seduced by wealth and power. They are indifferent to us. Those are the people – both parties – we should be upset about. They have knelt to corporate greed. The moment Obama brought Tim Geithner into his administration, the act signaled to Wall Street that they would not have to suffer any serious consequences for their actions. They have not, especially the wealthiest titans.

    There is a gigantic shortage of people in D.C. who give a damn about the average American worker. Maybe you should contact your Senators and Congress people and rip into them. You can also email or leave messages to Mr. Obama, Boehner, Reid, etc. The best way to speak is your vote. I am seriously looking at new, fresh faces in the primaries in my state, and I am looking for reasons to vote for them. I don’t care about the party. I am looking for quality in the candidate.

  • Anonymous

    In response to 57% of Americans labeling Democrats “liberal” I’d say “compared to what?” the Republicans? the comparisons most of these esteemed writers are making don’t frame the populace properly: the people are actually way Left of the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party has moved way Right since the 80s. If the election of 2 Democrats and the passage of ACA mean that the Democrats are Liberal, we have a problem here. The Democrats in Congress (almost all, but not all) are not enacting legislation that reflects the vast majority of real Americans. The Third Way isn’t the way at all of the people. It has the attention of corporatist congressmen and women, though. We want a Congress that soundly and loudly supports workers, tariffs on imported goods, adverse consequences for offshoring corporate charters and billionaires’ billions, taxation fairness, stemming the tide of environmental devastation, the list is long…

  • scott

    I would like to ask why do liberals have no agenda, no goals, only a policy of holding the right wing to a slower pace at killing “America”? Do they feel so confident that America will always be here because we are the last supper power and thus we will live on forever? Even after corperate “America” has let all the money go to CEO bonuses and “Wall street” we fail to find a direction to help the working poor. We stand by when they tell us “America” can not afford to help the poor, the poor are lazy and it is their own fault. The occupy movment did not make the changes needed to give any of the gains made by corperate america to the working poor!!! Are we so busy with self interests that we are willing to let the “conservatives” dictate a slow death to us after they have given every last morsel to the vultures at the top? Are we waiting for the “fall of Rome” because we belive that what rises from the ashes will somhow be better? We need to start pushing terms like “living wage” and have a tax system that promotes this so we can stop their taking more from the low wage workers than they can afford. Why is it that no one thinks that we could use tax policy to bring back some justice to the working “American” ?? We let them sell us the line that taxing the last dollar that the “millionare” makes is punishing sucess but we accept the fact that we have to work overtime to keep the wolf from the door and we pay taxes on every last dollar. Give the poor a break by introducing the term “living wage” to at least give us a meaningfull term to use as the standard to set a goal to work toward.