As progressives look with trepidation toward the midterm elections, there is naturally a renewed upsurge of complaints that the Obama administration — like the Clinton administration — has represented at best a series of pyrrhic victories for the left, and at worst a betrayal of the progressive cause. There’s been a tendency among left-leaning thinkers and writers to lump these arguments together and dismiss them as unrealistic or counterproductive. But in fairness, it is worth sorting them out, and also comparing them to similar grousing about the GOP on the right.
The most publicized recent leftist cri de couer was penned by Adolph Reed at Harpers (subscription only!), with the provocative title: “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.” Reed’s basic argument is that the age-old policy objectives of the historic left have been sacrificed on the altar of Democratic electoral prospects, leading to a “neoliberal conservative” consensus hidden by the regular exaggeration of Republican menace and Democratic accomplishments. Reed’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” judgments (reminiscent of the 2000 Nader campaign) on the two parties — particularly during the Obama administration — have been roundly criticized in liberal circles from the moment they appeared (notably by Michelle Goldberg at The Nation and Harold Meyerson at The American Prospect).
But his broader arguments that (1) progressives must view their political engagements from the perspective of actual policy achievements, not just electoral victories, and (2) that progressivism as a social movement must remain independent of and occasionally in conflict with Democratic politics was not really challenged. Meyerson’s judgement that Reed shows it is “possible to get the big picture right when you can see the small pictures at all” appears broadly shared on the Democratic left.
A different argument has been made — actually for years — by Reed’s comrade-in-arms Thomas Frank, author of the famous 2004 book on the success of Republicans in co-opting working-class rage against “elites,” What’s the Matter With Kansas? While Frank shares Reed’s fury towards liberal “surrender” to conservatives on the policy issues that most matter to him (and also shares Reed’s thinly-veiled contempt for the culture-war skirmishes that distract liberals from the economic fights they need to be waging), he places considerable stock in the potential for a left-bent Democratic “populist” message to change the electoral equation and win back the white working class voters who have defected in recent years — if only Democratic “centrists” with their smug demography-is-destiny route to political supremacy can be overthrown.
A third critique-from-the-left is invariably in the background, though not prominent at the moment: the belief that there is a hidden majority for a significantly more progressive message lurking in the ranks of non-voters, who can be mobilized to augment the allegedly more left-bent Democratic party “base” — again, if the Clinton/Obama “centrists” would get out of the way.
It is quite interesting that these three arguments–one arguing against “electoralitis,” and two arguing for a different kind of electoral strategy for the Left–are echoed frequently on the Right, despite the conservative movement’s vastly superior power within the Republican Party.
Much of what is so frequently called — both by progressives and by “Republican establishment” figures — the “nihilism” of the tea party movement is arguably akin to Adolph Reed’s claim that the compromises associated with conventional politics are too high a price to pay. It’s actually the inverse of nihilism, insofar as its proponents are willing to take extraordinary risks in order to achieve their policy goals (whether it’s a single-payer system or “defunding Obamacare”). But there is a dramatic difference between left and right because “constitutional conservatives” are regularly invited into the high councils of the GOP in order to lash its leaders as sell-outs. So these “outsiders” are able to keep extraordinary pressure on Republicans to push the policy envelope to the maximum extent.
There are also many on the right who like Frank reject the “median voter theorem” of constant tacking towards the “center” as electoral gold, and instead argue that a more rigorously ideological message will turn “swing” voters. Interestingly enough, a number of prominent conservatives have argued that it’s Republicans who have the best opportunity to expand their vote among the white working class voters Frank considers the core constituency of the authentic Left — so long as they pursue some version of right-wing populism intensively.
The one argument-from-the-left you don’t hear echoed on the right much any more is the “hidden majority” hypothesis of regular non-voters privately craving greater polarization between the two parties. Whether it’s because young, low-income and Hispanic voters — all heavily Democratic leaning groups — exhibit some of the lowest participation rates (particularly in midterms), or because minority voters tend to be geographically concentrated and thus can be more efficiently discouraged, conservatives are largely willing to concede a significantly larger electorate would not be to their advantage. So they are more likely to support the idea they have a natural majority in a smaller universe of “legitimate” voters (i.e., taxpayers, property-owners, and people whose “dependence on government” is limited to federal retirement benefits). In this respect as in other respects, right-wing rebels exult in the exercise of actual power far more than their counterparts on the left, who mostly await more propitious times.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.
Photo: Shutterstock/Christos Georghiou