Essay — From the March 2014 issue

Nothing Left

The long, slow surrender of American liberals

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For nearly all the twentieth century there was a dynamic left in the United States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism generated unacceptable social costs. That left crested in influence between 1935 and 1945, when it anchored a coalition centered in the labor movement, most significantly within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). It was a prominent voice in the Democratic Party of the era, and at the federal level its high point may have come in 1944, when FDR propounded what he called “a second Bill of Rights.” Among these rights, Roosevelt proclaimed, were the right to a “useful and remunerative job,” “adequate medical care,” and “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”

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  • masaccio68

    Why would labor even consider joining a leftist movement? Workers are just as enthralled with the capitalist myths as any other group. Besides, as Richard Yeselton and many others have pointed out, the labor movement purged itself of radicals and hitched its wagon to the democratic party in the 40s.

    And why is participation in the system useful? Why bother voting in this next election when the Clintons return in force to run against whichever Republican wins the money primary?

    • Alan Bickley

      Isn’t it more to the point that the leadership of the labor federations and the non-communist unions purged the labor movement of radicals? It was the same leadership that tied organized labor’s fortunes to the wishes of the Democratic Party, lavishly financed the campaigns of politicians who increasingly abandoned the vision of a world in which no one starved or died in the gutter, and demanded nothing – certainly not the repeal of Taft-Hartley – in return.

    • trank

      anyone who doesn’t vote in this election is despicable. all politicians are the same, the democrats are too far right- bullshit. a lot of idiots didn’t vote in 2010 and we lost another 2 years to global warming. thanks a lot. i know one thing, there are a lot of trolls working the forums trying to convince people not to vote and you’re doing the same.

  • Lilian

    My boyfriend got me a subscription of Harpers for Christmas, and I still haven’t gotten a single magazine. WTH, Harpers? All I got was the little postcard, telling me I would one day get a magazine.

  • laustcoz

    Unfortunately labor has assisted in its own demise, just as the middle classes have elected administrations committed to their diminishment.

    • Gustavo Arreola

      Complete elitist bs, labor starts to come apart right after the passage of Taft Hartley, which eliminated Organized Labor’s ability to organize and create real political power. After major Unions backed Eisenhower big D Democrats jumped on the anti labor bandwagon and strengthen the attack against labor.

      Not once since the passage of Taft Hartley have the Democrats even tried to remove portions of Taft Hartley that eliminated labors ability to organize. Big D Democrats from Kennedy on have simply used labor as a bank. Republicans are at least honest in proclaiming their hatred for organized labor and Nixon was the only President to appoint a real live Trade Unionist to a cabin ate level position, Secretary of Labor Brennan.

      The Clinton signaled it was on to openly attack organized labor while Gov of Arkansas and while President with the passage of NAFTA.

      Neither the Republicans or the Democrats are the party of the working class. This is what drives the working class away from the Democratic party. The American political system is broken and now only serves the wealthy. Democrats now belive legislation that only serves the wealthy such as Lillie Leadbetter is progressive. Does anyone actually belive working people care if executives have fairness in pay amongst themselves? The only way working people get a fair deal is with a Union contract.

      • laustcoz

        Nothing elitist about it, unless you mean union leaders.
        Labor itself, along with middle-class voters, bear a certain responsibility for allowing the country to be pushed to the right.

        • lostinbago

          And unions tolerated corrupt and criminal leaders who disgusted the general population turning them away from unions-their only hope against corrupt corporatists and their owned politicians
          .

      • Paul Charles Harrison

        I would only add the 1950 Treaty of Detroit and its 5 year contract, as well as Reuthers inability to make the Big 3 open their books and give the union a say on the work floor and a voice in the direction management decisions took the company that signaled demise of labor power in the U.S.

    • lostinbago

      Let us never forget Reagan’s first act was to bust the Air Controller’s union setting the mood for the past 30 years.

  • Pnaut

    Ressentiment and snark filled = boring. I don’t believe I disagree with the author’s policy goals, but this hectoring tone and implicit self-satisfaction is why the Left speaks to no one right now but itself.

  • Punk Chronology

    I was going to comment here, but wound up writing a long essay in response, if you’re curious! http://petescholtes.tumblr.com/post/77215960951/giving-or-taking-over

    Short version: The old class-not-culture argument ignores how economics and culture entwine, how small radical movements have a ripple effect, how these effects are all around us, and how all-or-nothing defeatism is a vestige of an ideology (also all around us) that Reed should oppose. Cheers!

  • marcos

    Not only are labor and the nonprofits not going to be of any assistance in contesting neoliberalism, they are going to actively run interference for neoliberalism. The people cannot get a clear shot at the neoliberals without shooting through our nonprofit and labor “allies.” This is intentional, these institutions are put into place to coopt resistance into easily digestible forms. Would that labor and the nonprofits got as exercised at fighting the neoliberals as they do marginalizing the unrealistic radicals who demand old fashioned liberal equity.

    • lostinbago

      Yes and the Military Industrial complex just has to hint at closing down one of the war machine factories and the masses of unemployed scramble to save the jobs that keep the oligarchs in power.

  • Robert

    This article really gets to the heart of how immobilized and uninspired the Left is. In the post-9/11, post-recession culture, people may just feel there is no room for non-conformity. If people are frightened of having no money and no future, how can they be idealistic about cultural change and progressivism?

    • Monica Kaye

      That’s really sad because it seems that the only way you can have money and a future is by embracing non-conformity: working for yourself, leaving the Jones to their own devices and minimizing your expenses, homeschooling your children, voting Green, etc.

  • David_Rogers_Hunt

    If we want an effective choice, we must change the voting paradigm from the broken, one voter, one vote, ‘first past the post’ paradigm, to either (http://rangevoting.org/) and/or (http://www.fairvote.org/instant-runoff-voting#). With the present system, we are all so trapped into stopping the worse evil, over the lesser evil, that there is never an opportunity to vote for what we ACTUALLY WANT! With the alternative voting systems offered, one can vote for what one actually believes in, without sacrificing the opportunity to block the greatest evil that you fear most. Voting for Hope rather than out of fear! Sounds fairly obvious to me.

  • Thom Prentice

    Vichy Liberals. Vanity Liberals. What a Great Country.

    Adolph Reed accurately describes a world of self-obsessed,
    faith-based liberals, progressives and what is left of the left. So self-obsessed are they that some sort of solace and comfort is found by them in naïve and infantile secular faith and belief systems. Worship, not reasoning is what they now do and they are worse than the Republicans who worship Ronald Reagan. What is “hope and change you can believe in” if not a creed and both Clintons and Obama its false prophets?

    I count myself among them, at least until I declared by own independence in August, 2011 after the horrific scourge of austerity in the name of fake crisis deficit reduction coupled with pursuit of an Anti-FDR Democratic “Grand bargain” — massively supported by worshipful “faith and hope and belief” Democrats. Vichy Democrats. Vanity Democrats.

    I also turned off the TV; I couldn’t stomach the various Empiire News Networks including the plutocratic broadcasting system pbs and the national plutocratic radio npr. I couldn’t read the new york times with having to deconstruct everything.

    Thankfully, alternative media abound on the Internet like’ Hrper’s, CounterPunch, Systemic Disorder, The Conversation, AlterNet, TruthOut and TruthDig where courageous authentic journalism still can be found among the Noam Chomskys, Glenn Greenwalds, the Chris Hedges, the Matt Taibbis, the David Sirotas and the Julian Assanges.

    Bill Clinton has a lot to answer for on Glass-Steagall and Welfare Deform and so does Hillary who served as Prime Minister of the US Empire – and secretly
    approved the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Now she wants to be the Empire’s first Empress. A promotion. But to have her as the first woman president would be as meaningless as having the first black president or the first Asian or whatever. Gay Rights and marijuana legalization has become the opiate of the
    left. Population pacified, but Wall Street reigns. Diversity has become meaningless.

    Obama has even more to answer for. Reed is right-on about how that not said is
    important. Christianity calls that the “sin of omission” and boy are there lots of unconfessed sins of omission among the corporate, banker, political and media classes today.

    And hubris.

    What I want to know is why the hell we – at least I – didn’t read/hear that Clinton said he and his apostles and acolytes were “Eisenhower Republicans.” I also want to know why the hell we didn’t hear/read about Obama’s “Popeye’s Chicken” version of Bill’s Sister Souljah act.

    And both Clinton and Obama have much to answer for regarding the continuing destabilization of American public and higher education. The relentless Wall Street-driven juggernaut hasreduced public schools to learning by rote and regurgitation by profitable standardized testing. Oh, and bribes –if not from Bill Gates then from the government. Forget critical thinking. There is no thinking at all.

    Vichy Liberals. Vanity Liberals. What a Great Country.

    • lostinbago

      Thanks for writing my response. There’s a song from the sixties by Phil Ochs called “love me I’m a liberal” you might like if you can find it on utube/I still listen and his songs are just as pertinant today as then.

  • Dan

    I highly recommend Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges to anyone who wants to learn more about this castration of the left.

  • trank

    the left’s mistake has been to ignore the right’s best weapon- 1200 think tank coordinated and scripted radio stations and their 450 or so lying blowhards- all repeating the same talking points. one blowhard with a big megaphone can easily undo the work and donations of thousands of concerned citizens.

    the left’s second mistake is in giving any credence to analysis from people who are too busy reading and watching and therefore have no idea what is being blasted from those 1200 radio stations. so they analyze AFTER the subjects, ideals, issues, and objects of their analysis have been severely massaged and distorted by an invisible political 2×4 wielded by a few rovian PR pros. and whenever someone credits fox for being anything other than a little brother to the rw radio propaganda monopoly they should lose credibility.

    • lostinbago

      Money Talks and the working man walks. Guess who the politician listens to?

      • trank

        money alone is not enough to buy most politicians, even a few republicans. they need to be able to point to some evidence that they have support in their constituencies. that’s what rw radio does- creates made-to-order constituencies the politicians can point to enable their corruption. that’s how the republicans work now- they don’t need popular support, they have 450 think tank scripted blowhards blasting the country to make it look that way.

  • metroeco

    Democrats tell us that, though politics is a sewer, our only choice is to float along. Greens insist that an escape route must be built, toward a future where communities and nature are more powerful than corporations. I’m the Green Party candidate for governor of Pennsylvania: http://www.facebook.com/glover4governor

  • jobardu

    Finally a liberal gets what is going on. Reed is, at long last, objecting to the trashing of the Western enlightenment traditions. He and Thomas Frank finally realized that today’s lefties will do to liberalism what the Soviet Union did to Communism -namely turn it into a pile of necrotic ectoplasm clogging the gutters of history. Today’s lefties have ruined everything they touched, from education, to national unity, to the rule of law, to foreign policy, to national self image, to young men, to the military and to the health care system, for starters. Continuing down this path will mark the decline and fall of American culture and probably Western culture.

    Obama and the lefties are, by dictionary definition, sociopaths. The lefties in the media, academia and political circles are by no means liberal. I’m a liberal and studied the subject in college. Liberalism was tolerant, sought out and reveled in conflicting views in the marketplace of ideas as a way to improve the accuracy of our world view. Liberalism was about forgive and forget and about working together, even with people you disagreed with, to better yourself and others. The people who call themselves liberal have none of these characteristics.

    The people who call themselves liberal use liberalism the way the Inquisition used Christianity. They are in fact left wing, or lefties. They use liberalism as a club and a shield for when they commit hurtful and abusive acts. They throw up liberalism when you object to what they do in order to shift the debate to the abstract principles of liberalism instead of their sociopathic behavior. It is similar to the way the US lefty media through up the Koran rather than discuss the sociopathic murderous behavior of Islamists. They debate the Koran instead of the behavior in a genocidal dance of holocaust and death.

    An example is this Sunday’s lead editorial in the Washington Post. They strongly criticized the Maryland Governor and his staff for not allowing a State University to endorse a boycott of Israel. The same university never suggests boycotting anyone else. A visitor from Mars would conclude that Israelis building apartments in Jerusalem is a more serious moral crime than gassing and killing hundreds of thousands of people or oppressing academic freedom and freedom of the press all over the world. It takes a hateful and pathological mind for the editor of one of the main newspapers in the US to come up with that formulation. I wrote a letter to the Post editor suggesting he change the name of the paper to Washington pig. Don’t look for it to get published.

  • christopher mahoney

    A brilliant piece, which sums up the challenges facing the Left. The author correctly observes that identity politics–as opposed to class consciousness–is evidence of the ideological bankruptcy of the Democrats. However, the author’s proposed solution–to recapture the proletariat–is impossible. In 1938 every white working man was a Democrat, and a member of the Popular Front. Today, the white working class is virulently Republican, as in Confederate battle flag Republican. It is hopeless to suggest that the left can replace class-consciousness with race-consciousness, when its avatar is a golf-playing Ivy League liberal from Honolulu and Hyde Park. Take a look at the latest WaPo/ABC poll and drill down to non college whites. You will discover that they oppose Obama overwhelmingly. The Left has no way to communicate with these people anymore. You have nothing to offer them besides EBT cards that they don’t want.

    • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee

      Well said. Can we not have a middle of the road 3rd party that pulls both Democrats and Republicans equally?

      • Veri1138

        No. Because it will become a target for subversion and taken over by one or the other. When the divisions are too great, such a party will destroy itself. Unless both sides agree to limit the focus to issues they agree on, which will never happen in the long run. Short term, yes. Long term, inviable.

        There is always someone or some clique who thinks they know better, in such organizations. Often excacerbating the problems. Leading to ultimate failure and even sharper divisions.

        Something to do with egos and ideology.

        • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee

          Third parties are generally single-issue parties. And after they accomplish their goal, they get absorbed back into one of the two mainstream parties. Allow me to propose a few issues that would have broad scale support: – getting money out of politics
          - Bill of Rights
          - public media
          - independent court system
          - proportional representation and instant run-off voting, end electoral college – end the empire

          • Veri1138

            These are issues people agree on. It is the issues they don’t agree on that makes third-party left-center-right parties inviable in the long run.

            Abortion, gay marriage, death penalty, Capitalism vs. Socialism, health care… these are the issues that people also care about also, that divide. If a left-center-right coalition party can not compromise on these issues… that party is doomed.

            Any successful party becomes susceptible to subversion and perversion by outside groups. Corruption seeks power where power is found.

            Ideology and accomplishing that ideology is what defines a party.

          • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee

            Push all those issues to the states. Focus the 3rd party on strengthening democracy and getting rid of corruption. Everybody wins.

          • Veri1138

            Well, yes. That would be the idea.

            Actually… it is more effective to build an organization from the ground up. The Federal Government is actually built on a foundation laid down at the state level.

            Third party should start local and build from there. Establishing a powerbase is essential. Start in progressive states. Do it quietly.

            Leave the Conservative states for later.

          • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee

            I agree with starting local with 3rd parties. The West Virginia Mountain Party is affiliated with the Green Party. I certainly think Red and Blue states should have different third parties. I think the trick for third parties at the local and state level is to devise a way not to be corrupted by moneyed interests. That would be a huge improvement right there.

          • http://mosquitocloud.net/ aprescoup

            That ought to do it!

          • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee

            Well, it’s what we’ve been talking about for some time…

          • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee
          • Pizza the Hutt

            I am willing to bet common sense liberals and common sense conservatives if they band together can make changes.

          • http://www.byebyedemocracy.org/ kokanee

            You would think. But if it were easy, it would already have been done.

  • I.m. McBee

    well, liberals have systematically marginalized the left wing of this country, in the labor movement, in the streets. the establishment right wing has given far more space to it’s un-tethered right wing. when not pushing progressive caucuses from labor coalitions, disowning their “radical actions” (but turning to these same people at election time, to beg for votes, and boots on the ground- to work out for sell out centrists), the establishment left papers over any sort of inspiring (and thus radical) impulses in favor of electoral pragmatism. and when it does get involved in actual grass root struggles, it seeks to channel them into it’s own institutional interests. remember Obama’s “ground game” in 08? what if that mobilization had been maintained, supported, and developed into a fighting force? i bet the tea party could have been stomped in it’s crib by thousands of mobilized people. i know, my sister stayed in the network, and watched it starve and collapse. even ngos like ACORN spent as much time fighting their actual workers as the bosses. The PIRGs bust unions on the regular, even nice respectable unions, not, say, ones like the IWW (yes, thousands of members total, branches in nearly every State).

    if liberals want to whine, do so in front of the mirror.

  • C Ronk

    Reed’s account of the current ossification of the American left is accurate, but he has crucially omitted the sordid tale of how that same left was also systematically undermined by the U.S. government, with far-reaching effects.

    The recent death of Pete Seeger, and the outing of the burglars who in 1971 stole a cache of documents from the FBI’s offices in Media, Pennsylvania, have odiously recalled the twin historical abominations of the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the FBI’s so-called COINTELPRO “program”, just two of the bludgeons with which the U.S. government and its law enforcement myrmidons relentlessly assaulted the American left in their obsessive mission to annihilate communism, which during the Cold War became synonymous with the slightest suggestion of any kind of redistributive politics. This sabotage, I am sorry to say, was effective, despite its temporary cessation in the 1970s at the time of the Church Committee investigations, and Reed, although I am certain that he knows this history, has not paid sufficient attention to it.

    The psychological effect of such untrammeled government misconduct has been to outlaw in the minds of leftists, or would-be leftists, any comprehensive idea of redistribution, such as economic rights, if it entails questioning the major premises of capitalism, for fear of being marginalized as legatees of communism. The left now needs to be uncompromising, and unafraid of epithets, and it must consider that, if any left-leaning movement again becomes the least bit effective, the unconstitutional repression of yore is almost certain to recur (the National Lawyers Guild noted in 2004, in a report entitled, “The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly, and Dissent” that it was already recurring), and as yet unknown preparations will need to be made accordingly.

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