Why The Left Will (Eventually) Triumph: An Interview With Ruy Teixeira

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Ruy Teixeira (pronounced Tush-aira) and I have been friends since the early 1970s when we were members of a socialist group, the New American Movement, that was supposed to perpetuate the saner parts of the new left. (It merged later with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form the Democratic Socialists of America.) I didn’t see him for 15 years or so until we both turned up in Washington, D.C. In 2001, we co-authored “The Emerging Democratic Majority.”  Radio and television producers would sometimes call me to do interviews because, one TV person explained, they wanted someone who could speak English clearly. In fact, Ruy, the son of a Portuguese diplomat, was born and raised in Silver Spring. Ruy has worked with various think tanks in Washington and most recently has been a fellow at the Center for American Progress. His new book is titled “The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century will be Better Than You Think.” It’s a potentially tough subject, but Ruy writes clearly and persuasively, and it’s surprisingly easy to read. As readers will note from this interview, I don’t quite share Ruy’s optimism, but I certainly hope that he is right.

Judis:  In your book, you explain at several points that you are no longer a socialist and instead support a reformed capitalism. When we met many years ago, we were in a socialist organization. When did this transformation occur?

Teixeira:  What happened is that I began to think a lot about how economies actually work. When I was a socialist, I didn’t think very carefully and long about what actually a socialist economy would look like. I had this general idea that the capitalist system was inefficient and prone to crisis and that one should somehow tamp down the profit motive and limit the freedom of action of capitalists. But the more I thought about how economies worked, it was hard to gainsay that the market was absolutely essential for the efficient delivery of goods and services. And  the more I read, the more I realized my viewpoint was closer to social democrats than to socialists. Capitalism needs to be regulated, it needs to be pointed in the right direction, you need to have a big safety net, but you can’t replace it.

Judis: Was there something that happened, a book you read, that changed your mind?

Teixeira: I would say it was an obscure book by Alec Nove called “The Economics of Feasible Socialism.”

Judis: That’s amazing. I was deeply influenced by the same book.

Teixeira: Nove was a historian of the Soviet Union. He came from a Menshevik family, and he basically laid out the way the standard conceptions of socialism that a lot of people on the left had couldn’t work. If you wanted to think rationally about what’s feasible, the way economies and people tend to work, you had to have a market.

The goal as I see it is a mixed economy that works as well as possible, and of course you have not gotten that in the West for the last several decades. The mixed economy just needs improvement and modification.

Judis: And what kind of improvements would that be?

Teixeira;  I favor what economists are calling  a model of equitable growth. It would mean substantial government investment in creating new opportunities for the middle and aspirational classes. It could include a dramatic expansion of the educational system and a Manhattan-style investment in bringing down the price of clean energy and building the infrastructure to match. Granted, these kind of proposals would not get through Congress now, but it is the kind of agenda that I am optimistic that the Democrats will endorse and that the country will eventually embrace.

The Left Prospers in Prosperity

Judis: Your book is titled “The Optimistic Leftist,” but if you look at the terrain of politics today, the center-left or left of center parties are decimated. The Democrats haven’t been in such bad shape nationally and in the states since the 1920s. The Dutch Labor Party got less than 10 percent in the recent election. Jeremy Corbyn and British Labor may be routed in June. The French Socialist candidate came in fifth with 6 percent. Why is this happening? And given that this is happening, what grounds do you have for thinking that the left will suddenly find itself on top?

Teixeira:  The way I look at it we are going through a long transition from an industrial capitalist system to a post-industrial services-based capitalist system. So far this transition has not gone well. It hasn’t had the outcomes that people want. We have slow productivity growth and rising inequality. The central point I’d make is that by and large, poor economic times are not good for the left. They make people reactive, pessimistic, trying to hold onto their own, and not supportive of collective endeavors to help the way society functions. And we’ve seen all that in spades in the last decade.

Really that kind of situation is best for the right, and the left has had a very difficult time figuring out a way forward. The Democrats have their problems, but in Europe, you see the problems crystallized. Europe’s mainstream left was based in the industrial working class and has had a terrible time adjusting to the transition to post-industrial capitalism and figuring out what a new model of capitalism and capitalist growth would look like.

They have thrown in their lot with a much more right-wing approach, beginning with the Third Way in the ’90s. The idea behind it was that capitalism can pretty well function on its own and we just have to let it rip. We’re still coming out of that phase, and I think the mainstream social democrats with their collaboration with austerity in places like France and the Netherlands are reaping the whirlwind.

But if you look at other parts of the left, they are actually doing relatively well. If you look at the Netherlands election, the green left did very well, and if you add up the votes of the Socialist Party (a left-socialist party), the greens, Democrats 66 (a left social-liberal party) and the social democrats, the left hasn’t been totally decimated. What has really been decimated is the Party of Labor, as the social democrats in the Netherlands are called. We are seeing the same thing in France where the Socialist Party (the French social democrats) candidate did terribly, but [independent socialist Jean-Luc] Melenchon did quite well. The left still has strength, but it is divided up among different political tendencies. It is going to have to reorganize itself around an economic program that is going to deliver what people want, which is better growth and better distribution. Until that happens, the left will be in a quagmire.

Judis: I want to look more closely at your argument that the left does better in good times and the right in bad times. Bill Clinton got elected in the wake of a recession in 1992,  Barack Obama might not have won the presidency in 2008 if the financial crash hadn’t happened that September. The Populists came out of the farm crisis in 1880s and early 1890s; the New Deal out of the Great Depression. I am not saying that bad times is better for the left, but only that there isn’t a necessary connection in either case and that you are making too facile an assumption about which times promote which politics.

Teixeira:  Bad times do propel people into motion and produce protest and reaction, but looked at from when you can accomplish the goals of the left of making society better and implementing important reforms, I think it is typically easier when the economy is expanding fairly rapidly and living standards are going up than when the reverse is true. It is not a perfect relationship, but by and large I think it’s true. So yeah, Obama can get elected in a situation where he was aided by an economic downturn, but his ability to put together a progressive coalition that could stick together for a long time and continue to implement reforms was very much undermined by the economic situation.  

Judis: Let’s turn it around and look at the connection between the right and good and bad times. In America, the 1920s were relatively good times, and the Republicans controlled the government the whole decade.

Teixeira: The 1920s were not nearly as good a time people think it was. It was a time of relatively slow per capita income growth. It was very unequally distributed, the industrial working class did somewhat well, but the rural areas did poorly, and there were four recessions between 1918 and 1929. It was not such a great time. It was relatively poor compared to the Progressive Era.

Judis: So the Republicans did well in the 1920s because they were really bad times?

Teixeira: There was a sense of real uncertainty, real economic paranoia.

Judis: I don’t think you could call the 1920s bad times. You could call it uneven times. “Bad times” is stretching it. In addition, you have the real bad times of the Depression staring you in your face which is the time of the greatest advance in terms of a left and social democracy in our history.

Teixeira: Desperate times make for desperate measure sometimes. There is no guarantee they will help the left rather than the right. I think that’s what we saw in the U.S.  Obviously it didn’t work out so well in Europe. When I make the general analysis that the left is better off in a period of economic expansion and rising living standards, it doesn’t correspond exactly to the political outcomes you’ll have in those different periods. I am saying that in a general sense, the left has the easiest time making advances and improving society when things are going well rather than when are going poorly.

Judis: Let’s look at Europe. In some of the countries in Northern Europe that are doing well, the center-right parties are in charge.  

Teixeira:  Yes, but I think you can make the case the center-right parties aren’t exactly in charge in Europe. They also have their problems. The rise of populism in Europe is blowing apart the party system.

Judis: You have got Holland, Denmark, Germany, and Austria. Those are all countries that are doing pretty well compared to the rest of the EU and that have center-right governments.

Teixeira: The Netherlands is not doing that well. It’s all relative. Their recovery has been somewhat better. Their employment level has been high compared to other European countries, but there are a number of cuts in social services, wages haven’t been going up much, there is a lot more insecurity.

Judis: Isn’t Germany doing well?

Teixeira:. Germany is doing relatively well, but it hasn’t been a period of expansive growth for them either. There is a lot of wage stagnation and compression there. I never meant to imply that you can perfectly predict social reform from economic outcomes.  But I think it provides an important lens on when the left does well and when the left does poorly.  By and large when you look at Europe, you see the straitjacket that the Eurozone has created in the economies. People are fearful, they are pessimistic, they are passive. This is very bad for the left. Until you break out of that straitjacket, the left is not going to be able to do that well, and the right is going to continue to do relatively well compared to them, and you’ll see the continued rise in populism because people have no faith in the system. So what I am trying to do is to get the left to focus on getting to a new stage of capitalist growth and being able actually to deliver rising incomes.

There is No Alternative to the Left

Judis: So let’s talk about how this political change will come about. What I took from your book is that we are currently suffering from secular stagnation, and that to get to a new stage of growth, we will have to implement the kind of left program that you describe. I worry that this argument contains a contradiction. On the one hand, the left can’t get its program enacted as long as times are bad. On the other hand, the only way to get out of bad times is for the left to get its program enacted.

Teixeira: I see what you are asking. I think it is going to be two steps forward, one step back. We are sort of slouching toward the next stage of capitalism. I don’t think it’s going to be pretty. Political and economic factors are going to propel us in that direction. Ultimately, people want things to work better, they want their problems to be solved. And the only way we are going to get there is along the road I have described. I think this equitable growth approach that the Democrats united around is the future. The level of growth is going to vary over time, but I think the Democrats are the ones who are going to put us there and I think they are going to be rewarded for it.

Judis:. But how does that happen? Isn’t there a crisis scenario implicit in your account?  At some time, the current Third Way or neoliberal approach results in another Great Recession and at that point people will buy into a left-wing approach, the left-wing approach will create prosperity and at that time we will have an enduring left-wing or Democratic majority. Isn’t a step like this missing from your argument?

Teixeira:. That certainly could be the way it goes down, but it’s not clear we are required to have a recession on the level we did in 2007 and 2008, or whether this sort of rolling crisis we have combined with other political events might do it. I don’t know, it’s hard to predict, but I think the great economist Herbert Stein said, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

Judis: The great socialist Rosa Luxembourg said the choice was socialism or barbarism.  I am not saying we are heading toward barbarism, but I think there is a determinism in your argument. I think you are saying that people will eventually choose a politics that will best help them. Reason will prevail. And I am not sure if that holds up historically.  When you talk about the EU, you say eventually they will consolidate into a fiscal monetary union. I am not sure that is going to happen. It’s also possible that the Eurozone could break up and that there could be a lot of chaos. We have periods in history where things don’t happen in the best of all possible ways.

Teixeira: The trajectory is ultimately going to take us to a different and better place. I think eventually we will adapt and we will get something better than we have because it is the only solution to the ongoing problems. There is no alternative.

Judis:  Countries are sometime structurally unable to do what is in their best interest. In the U.S., we have this strong anti-statist tradition going back to the revolution that seems to get in the way every time we want to do something like what you are proposing. It is possible that contrary to Hegel, the rational won’t turn out to be the real.

Teixeira: Of course it is possible, but if you look at the history of the United States, despite the anti-statist bias and despite all the other political problems, the way the country has evolved over time is toward a larger government that does more and provides more for people. And we obviously have evolved tremendously in the social realm as well. Governments don’t do what is rational in the short term, at least rational in the sense you are describing it,  but political systems evolve over time in a way that is consistent with the values and priorities of the left, and I expect that to continue over time.

The 2016 Election

Judis: Let’s talk about the 2016 election. Why did Clinton lose to such a weak opponent?

Teixeira: The Democrats have an evolving majority that consists of groups like minorities, professionals, young people, single women and what have you, and that’s a true fact. It’s growing over time and it will continue to grow, but it was always mathematically true that if you take the declining group, the white non-college voters, and they move sufficiently in the direction of the other party, that will be enough to undermine your coalition. You won’t win. That’s exactly what happened in 2016. These voters moved rapidly away from the Democrats both in local and state races and in the presidential election.

Judis: Why did they move?

Teixeira: They do not have any faith that the Democrats share their values and are going to deliver a better life for them and their kids, and I think Hillary Clinton was a very efficient bearer of that meme. Whether she wanted to or not, the message she sent to these voters is that you are really not that important and I don’t take your problems seriously, and frankly I don’t have much to offer you. And that’s despite the fact that her economic program and policies would have actually been very good for these people. There was a study of campaign advertising in 2016 that showed Hillary outspent Trump significantly and that almost none of her advertising was about what she would actually do. Almost all of it was about how he was a bad dude.

Voters were fed up with stagnation and with the Democrats and they turned to someone who thought could blow up the system. The way the Democrats and the left could mitigate that problem is to show these voters that they take their problems seriously and have their interests in mind, and could improve their lives. I don’t think there is any way of doing that without a new model of economic growth.

Judis: What did you think of the Sanders campaign?

Teixeira: I think it was significant. It helped move the Democratic Party and its center of gravity to the left and more toward an equitable growth kind of perspective. He raised a lot of issues, Hillary was actually pretty left before Bernie came along, but he pushed her toward a fairly effective economic program.

I think he is symptomatic of the way the Democratic Party is evolving. If you look at the parties in Europe, you see the same kind of energy. The center left neo-liberal consensus is falling apart and the parties are being dragged to the left toward a better and more effective program. Would he have won? I don’t know.

Judis: . What about Corbyn? He has similar programs similar to what you recommend and it looks like he and Labor are going to get slaughtered.

Teixeira: The UK is a kind of an interesting case because Corbyn is such a bad leader and candidate to be the bearer of these kind of ideas. The Labor party also has this huge faction that is still kind of Third Way. Corbyn is the advance guard of something that is eventually going to transform the Labor Party and put them in a more coalitional stance with other parties on the British left.

Demographics and Identity Politics

Judis: Let’s talk about the future of the Democrats. You rest your optimistic case for elections on demographics. One of the problems I would see is that if you look at the coalition you are describing of minorities, millennials, single women, and professionals, and if you try to figure out what unites them, it’s identity politics and social issues, not economic issues.

Teixeira: Is that really right?  If you look at the Democratic Party today, they are united around social and economic liberalism. The Democratic Party is probably more united around them than it has been for decades. If you look at what Hillary Clinton was running on, you might argue she was a promulgator of identity politics, but she actually ran on a very liberal economic program. That is in fact what she stood for, and obviously Bernie was a little bit to her left. By and large, most Democrats endorse a program that involves considerable government spending, considerable investment, considerable regulation, in short a different model of capitalism that we’ve seen.

Judis: Let me ask you about Colorado. Colorado has become a pretty liberal state. it’s even getting like California. There are a lot of voters that fit your demographics. There are a lot of Hispanics and a lot of college-educated people. They had a single payer initiative in November 2016, Sanders went there to support it, and it lost 80 to 20 percent. What happened there? What I take from that is that even within the Democratic coalition, there is no unified support for a robust economic program. Marijuana passes in a second, so does gay marriage, but when you get to economics there is still a split even in a liberal state like Colorado.

Teixeira: Economic issues are always going to be a little more different and difficult than social issues where there is heavy counter mobilization on the other side with any kind of issue like that. I don’t know the particulars. We do know based on public opinion data, most people do support something like single payer, Medicare for all, and Colorado is a relatively liberal state. I don’t have data on this, my guess would be it got crushed in the state at the same time as most people in the state supported something like it.

Judis:  My view of what happened there, going back to this problem of anti-statism, is that most people do support Medicare for all if you ask them generally, but when it becomes a question of taxing and spending, you get a lot of defections. And the defections occur in the college-educated and in the upper part of the Democratic coalition, and what comes out of it is that the only really unifying things become the non-economic.

Teixeira:. Is that really true in Colorado? Do you have data on this?

Judis:  No data, no exit polls.

Teixeira: I could guarantee you it got crushed among white working-class voters as well.

Judis: OK, let me ask you one more thing about the future of the Democrats. From 1932 to 1968, the Democrats enjoyed an organized base of labor, big city machines, and Southern business, but a lot of that is gone. Republicans, on the other hand, have the churches, the business groups, the local chambers of commerce. I look at the Democratic Party and I don’t see an organized base that can sustain an enduring majority. Where is this base going to come from?  How do you see a party like the Democrats producing any kind of enduring majority if it doesn’t have an organized base?

Teixeira:  I think forms of organization have emerged and are going to continue to emerge. They are just going to be different from what we had before. I don’t think we can realistically expect the union movement to revive itself completely, although there are some interesting ideas on the table about how union organizing should be approached differently, maybe a little bit more like Europe. But leaving that aside, I think that when people want change to happen, institutions and organizations will appear that will help make that happen and people will ultimately organize themselves. The Democratic Party wants to win, and people want to win elections, and it is becoming increasingly clear to people in the party that unless they are able to produce a higher level of organization and mobilization outside of the very deepest blue areas of the country, they are not going to do nearly as well as they should. I don’t know exactly the form the organizing efforts will take, but they will happen when the party realizes they have to happen.

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Notable Replies

  1. You Know I’d really like to believe this but it keeps getting disproved with every election

  2. Unlikely. The south hasn’t changed since the 1850’s and the mid west is essentially brain dead.

    The Dems will win more elections, but the left will have little to do with that.

  3. While I liked this interview,

    They do not have any faith that the Democrats share their values and are going to deliver a better life for them and their kids, and I think Hillary Clinton was a very efficient bearer of that meme.

    what’s irritating me is that as we go further along, Trump supporters beliefs are just a little bit more than economic ones.

  4. The words race, racism, or racist do not appear even once in this “analysis”.

  5. Hillary would never have nominated the mentally ill Gorsuch. That’s enough for me.

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