Readers and Writers React to “The Surrender of America’s Liberals”

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Web Video: Bill Moyers Interviews Adolph Reed Jr. on the Surrender of the Left
Bill’s conversation with political scientist Adolph Reed about his Harper’s piece, “Nothing Left,” arguing that the American left has retreated as the Democratic Party moved to the right has stirred plenty of discussion and debate. Below, we’ve rounded up some perspectives — yours, and those of some other political writers.

At the Blog for America’s Future, Richard Eskow writes that while he agrees with much of what Reed says about liberals giving Democrats too much slack, he thinks Reed’s too pessimistic:

Just as liberals aren’t unremittingly gullible, things today aren’t unremittingly grim. While neoliberalism may be ascendant, there are also signs of a nascent but potentially vibrant left. A case in point: As Moyers noted in his questioning, grassroots activism for more than 500 organizations threw a monkey wrench into Obama’s plans to “fast track” the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress.

Here’s another: The minimum wage, which had languished in the political process for years, was given renewed energy after fast food workers rose up to demand it. That attracted both institutional and rhetorical support and gave this critical issue new momentum. Local organizing has led to minimum-wage increases in a number of states and to a dramatic $15 minimum wage initiative in SeaTac, Washington.

And here are a few more: Effective organizing around the issue of Social Security has shifted the Beltway dialogue away from a “bipartisan” consensus bent on cutting the program and toward proposals for expanding its benefits. Occupy Wall Street, despite its sudden (and never fully explained) implosion, shifted the national debate in a matter of weeks.

What’s more, despite all the media talk to the contrary, public opinion supports the left on a number of key issues… (read more)

In the comments on Michael Winship’s piece, “Liberals Face a Hard Day’s Knight?,” reader wecandobetter758 wrote that the terms “left” and “right” have become murky:

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.

Ruth C thinks the left is alive and well but its revolution will not be televised:

When anywhere from 40,000 – 75,000 liberals (depending on who’s counting) gather in Raleigh, NC for the Moral March and it barely gets a mention by the national news media… I’m not sure what that says about the death of liberalism. We’re out there, but apparently not newsworthy.

The blogger “Digby” – Heather Parton – reacted to Reed’s comment that he was “not prepared to accept as my metric of the extent of racial justice or victories of the struggles for racial justice, the election of a single individual to high office or appointment of a black individual to be corporate CEO.”

I take his point. And for the rest of us who are never going to be investment bankers or CEOs, there are more important concerns. Like the disappearing middle class. And personal debt. And hunger. And gun violence. And a government run by the rich for the rich. I do think it matters that we have an African American president. It matters a great deal. And it might even matter that we have African American Masters of the Universe. But to declare “mission accomplished” because of that is to leave the job undone.

In the comments on Bill’s interview with Reed, reader Old Liberal saw merit in Reed’s analysis:

I agree with this wholeheartedly, but think that the crux of the problem is that no one is proposing or defending liberal ideas. Why is there no demand for increased regulation, when it is obvious that most of the most serious problems we have had, such as financial disasters, food supply contaminations, and coal ash and chemical spills would all have been prevented by proper regulation. Why is there never anyone to note the causal relationship between these problems and the deregulation, free market policies we have been following? Instead, the news, which is apparently controlled by Conservative interest, treats them all as remarkable, random occurrences.

Why is there no one arguing for a simple, highly progressive tax code? There is no simpler, more effective mechanism to counteract the inequality of wealth distribution that inevitably results from a “free market” economy. The only arguments we have heard for the last 40 years are in support of lower taxes and smaller government. As a result, we have generations that have grown up believing that lower taxes and smaller government is the ultimate good. The Right spends billions on think tanks to develop and disseminate their ideas. The Left seems to expect that eventually the masses will somehow come to their side, and it isn’t happening.

But we_are_toast thought that Reed was letting the right-wing message machine off the hook:

Wrong. The right wing propaganda machine is extremely powerful and the main stream media is a total disgrace. Progressives simply can’t get their message to the public when the Oligarchs are pumping lies through a sophisticated communication network 24 hours a day. And the disgraceful cable and network news programs have completely lost what it means to be a journalist. Reporting controversy trumps reporting facts any day. They simply report both sides of anything no matter how insane one side might be.

Only 29% of the public views Global Warming as a large threat, 40% are creationists, a majority favors the Keystone pipeline, very few know how wealth inequality got so extreme, most think voter fraud is a big problem, and far fewer can name their U.S. Senator or Representative.

The Oligarchs pump $billions into feeding a constant stream of lies and misinformation to the public, while we progressives rely on the good grace of great people like Bill Moyers to try and get the truth to an apathetic public.

No, the problem isn’t liberals are too fixated on elections, we aren’t fixated enough! We need to be involved long before the primaries. We can’t build a truth machine that can match the right wing propaganda machine, so our hope is to win early at the ballot box so we can have a chance at making a level playing field.

And Ronald Minschwaner thinks the left would be more effective as happy warriors:

The liberals are out there. But we are a lazy bunch. We sit around talking about how screwed up the government is and basically turning off voters with our constant pessimistic outlooks, and whining rejection of politics. Then we wonder why other liberals do not get out to vote. But I will not go so far as many here, We need a leader. A true liberal leader. Not another politician who just wants to ” reset” capitalism so he/she can kick the can down the road for someone else to deal with. Though Obama is no liberal, he has promoted our cause. Our people have been divided. The President has chipped away at the conservative movement (though I doubt he intended to do so ) many former conservatives have seen the republicans for what they are “The Liars Party”. It is important for liberals to get motivated now, we must keep the momentum going left. And Hillary is not the answer. We need leadership, and we need to get liberals voting and running for office. The rest will fall in place.

Scott Lemieux, an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose, takes issue with Reed’s premises at Lawyers Guns and Money:

The core of the argument is the assumption of a “Democratic Party whose center has moved steadily rightward since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” I find the idea that the Democratic Party has moved right since 1980 frankly bizarre.  A party whose leadership consisted of O’Neill, Byrd and Carter is more progressive than Pelosi/Reid/Obama?  On what planet?  The former Democratic Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for 4 years — where’s their progressive achievement comparable to  the ACA or the repeal of DADT?  Right on economics since the (all too anomalous) LBJ era I’ll buy, but I find the nostalgia for the only Democratic president of the last century to govern to the right of (a not very progressive) Congress baffling.

Nor do [I] buy the idea that the left has been “subdued” by the Democratic Party.  Reed asserts that short-term thinking has prevented the left from pursuing goals like single payer.  My question — how many people on the American left, not just radicals but left-liberals, don’t support single-payer (or a similar European health care model?)  His argument seems premised on the idea that it’s impossible to walk and chew gum at the same time, that nobody could see the ACA as a significant achievement and be aware that it remains greatly inferior to the alternatives in other liberal democracies and so should be a beginning, not an end, of reform.  I don’t think this makes sense in theory and I don’t think it’s true in practice…

But at Down With Tyranny, Howie Klein — who organizes support for progressive Democrats — agrees wholeheartedly with Reed’s disdain for business-as-usual Dems:

Whether it’s the neoliberal trade policies, the slide into feudalism, corporate mergers that rape consumers or the Keystone XL Pipeline that Obama will soon be approving… we are royally screwed. Let go of your parochial allegiance to the Democratic or Republican Party. The lesser of two evils is evil. Evil is bad.

If you’re voting for anyone who isn’t an independent operator– whether a Bernie Sanders or Marianne Williamson who are literally independents, or independent-minded Democrats like Alan Grayson and Raúl Grijalva, or even an independent-minded Republican like Justin Amash (ugghhh… I know, I know) — you’re voting for evil, evil that will destroy our democracy, our families, our world… and all to further enrich the already obscenely rich.

I didn’t vote for Obama last year– I broke free. It was the best election ever for me…

On our Facebook page, David Lorenzo Mazzucchi splits the difference:

When it comes to social issues, liberals have done reasonably well: federal action has yielded meaningful results, like the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” policies in the military and the repeal of DOMA. Marijuana legalization is gaining traction in many places, and Eric Holder is on a valiant public crusade against our prison-industrial complex. But in many crucial categories, the growing list of losses is enough to take the wind out of one’s sails. Meaningful financial reform? Liberals in congress seem happy allowing banks to go right back to the tricks that caused the meltdown and take their money to get re-elected, thank you very much. The environment? The EPA and our supposedly left-leaning representatives have told environmentalists to go frack themselves. More generally, we’ve gone from Nixon signing OSHA into law to Obama pushing fast-track for the TPP – a shocking disparity, as noted in your interview with Adolph. That donkey that represents the left in our country is beginning to look a lot like the one from Animal Farm: intelligent and perceptive, yet somehow unable or unwilling to take meaningful action (like posting a long-winded facebook comment instead of taking to the streets).

And Robert Pell-deChame says that he’s heard this tune many times before:

I just read an article about how the Religious Right is dying. Then there is this Harper’s article. And I’ve read countless articles like these, always predicting that either the Right or the Left is dying. If both are happening, then we’re emerging into something new. If neither is happening, as these articles basically cancel each other out, then we’re wasting our time reading them. If one or the other is indeed happening, I’m sure there will arise a response to it.

Want to join the discussion? Here’s Bill’s interview with Reed, Michael Winship’s piece and our Facebook post.

Update: Other writers weighed in on Reed’s thesis after this post was published. Here are some additional views…

At The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson writes that it’s “theoretically possible to get the big picture right even when you can’t see the small pictures at all. That seems to be the achievement of political scientist Adolph Reed Jr.”

Reed’s characterization of the Democrats as neo-liberal NAFTA-ites seems frozen in time, that time being the 1990s. As Bill Moyers pointed out to Reed when he hosted him on his show inFebruary, both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have ruled out any support for Obama’s bid to resurrect fast-track—in essence, killing any chance for passing the latest iteration of corporate-backed trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Reed’s view of the Democrats takes no account of the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base, of the movement of fast-food workers and the spillover effect their campaign has had on efforts to raise the minimum wage. He didn’t get the news that Senate Democrats rejected Obama’s effort to make Larry Summers the chairman of the Fed precisely because of Summers’s role in deregulating finance. He seems not to have heard of the successes of groups like New York’s Working Families Party, which has built an electoral left in New York, or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has won higher wages, union recognition and environmental victories by uniting labor and enviro groups in L.A. He seems, in short, to have missed the rise of a left that is doing pretty much what Reed says a left should be doing. (Although to win their victories, these local lefts have to strike a balance between overthrowing corporate Democrats and backing them when their support is required to make a fundamental advance.)

Reed is on to something, however, in his discussion of Democratic presidential politics—particularly because of the challenge that a Hillary Clinton campaign will pose to both liberals and the left. While his accusation that most Democratic elected officials remain in the sway of the Rubins and the Summerses is clearly dated, it’s by no means clear that it doesn’t still apply to Hillary Clinton. The Clinton coronation may be a given, but the content of neo-Clintonomics remains a mystery.

Salon’s Joan Walsh takes issue with Reed’s characterization of today’s feminist movement:

 There’s essentially one throwaway line: “goals have shifted from practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling.” Somebody’s really not paying attention here. What’s in fact striking about recent organizing among women is the extent to which a populist economic agenda now animates groups that once worked more narrowly on issues of, say, electing women to higher office or protecting their reproductive rights. Late last year Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, SEIU and the Center for American Progress teamed up with House Democratic women behind the “Fair Shot” campaign, to push an agenda of paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, greater rights for home health workers and other reforms that would particularly help low-wage workers – including “comparable worth” (now known as pay equity) and universal child care.

At The Nation, Michelle Goldberg notes that Reed has made similar arguments in the past, and that they’re part of a long tradition of what she calls, “electoral nihilism.”

Reed argues, persuasively, that a vibrant left can only be grounded in a rebuilt labor movement: “Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless…. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass.”

But here’s the thing: arguments for ignoring electoral realities, for backing some quixotic third-party candidate or imagining that leftists can sway the system through ultimatums, are based on precisely this fantasy. Movements lead politicians, not the other way around, and simply deciding that the politicians we have aren’t good enough won’t will a movement into being. A left that absented itself from the dirty work of electing a president would be indulging in the very reflex Reed decries: trying to send a message to those in power rather than contending for power itself.

The right understands this; it has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up, built a huge network of interlocking intellectual, legal and political institutions and mobilized every four years to try to elect a Republican president.

And Slate’s Dave Weigel argues that progressives have made progress emulating those tactics.

Compare the Democratic Party that won in 2008 and 2012 with the one that lost in 2000. The party in 2000 had just undone Glass-Steagall and nominated a candidate who backed the first Gulf War. Its big idea on health care: prescription coverage as part of Medicare. Eight years later, no candidate who dreamed that small or was that uncritical of the banks could win a nomination.

What happened? A new left infrastructure had been built, including a think tank modeled on the right’s AEI and Heritage Foundation (the Center for American Progress) and an aggressive “netroots” movement of writers and activists. You can track the development of the Democratic Party by tracking Al Gore, who started criticizing intervention in Iraq and backing single-payer within two years of losing the presidency. The Democratic Leadership Council, invented to move the party right, imploded at the start of the Obama years.

That’s actually pretty impressive when you consider what the Democratic Party is. We don’t have a social democratic, labor movement-rooted party in this country, like the U.K. does or like France does or like Germany does or like Brazil does, etc. and etc. The Democratic Party was, for more than a hundred years, a coalition of progressives, immigrants, and conservative Southern whites. Only pretty recently has it become clearly a party of the left, backed by labor but not led by it, adopting positions—gay marriage, immigration reform—after activists force it to. To some extent, Reed is burning a straw man.

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