Essay — From the March 2014 issue

Nothing Left

The long, slow surrender of American liberals

Download Pdf
Read Online

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.”

The labor-left alliance remained a meaningful presence in American politics through the 1960s. What have become known as the social movements of the Sixties — civil rights activism, protests against the Vietnam War, and a renewed women’s movement — were vitally linked to that egalitarian left. Those movements drew institutional resources, including organizing talents and committed activists, from that older left and built on both the legislative and the ideological victories it had won. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same time, business interests, in concert with the Republican right and supported by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left had won. As this defensiveness overtook leftist interest groups, institutions, and opinion leaders, it increasingly came to define left-wing journalistic commentary and criticism. New editorial voices — for example, The American Prospect — emerged to articulate the views of an intellectual left that defined itself as liberal rather than radical. To be sure, this shift was not absolute. Such publications as New Labor Forum, New Politics, Science & Society, Monthly Review, and others maintained an oppositional stance, and the Great Recession has encouraged new outlets such as Jacobin and Endnotes. But the American left moved increasingly toward the middle.

Today, the labor movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, 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. Dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to “disparity,” while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.

The sources of this narrowing of social vision are complex. But its most conspicuous expression is subordination to the agenda of a Democratic Party whose center has moved steadily rightward since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Although it is typically defended in a language of political practicality and sophistication, this shift requires, as the historian Russell Jacoby notes, giving up “a belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present,” which traditionally has been an essential foundation of leftist thought and practice. “Instead of championing a radical idea of a new society,” Jacoby observes in The End of Utopia, “the left ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the existing society.”

Illustrations by Tim Bower

Illustrations by Tim Bower

The atrophy of political imagination shows up in approaches to strategy as well. In the absence of goals that require long-term organizing — e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security — the election cycle has come to exhaust the time horizon of political action. Objectives that cannot be met within one or two election cycles seem fanciful, as do any that do not comport with the Democratic agenda. Even those who consider themselves to the Democrats’ left are infected with electoralitis. Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection. For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the “pivotal” Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was the last time.

Why does this tailing behind an increasingly right-of-center Democratic Party persist in the absence of any apparent payoff? There has nearly always been a qualifying excuse: Republicans control the White House; they control Congress; they’re strong enough to block progressive initiatives even if they don’t control either the executive or the legislative branch. Thus have the faithful been able to take comfort in the circular self-evidence of their conviction. Each undesirable act by a Republican administration is eo ipso evidence that if the Democratic candidate had won, things would have been much better. When Democrats have been in office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican bugbear remains a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for suppressing criticism from the left.

Exaggerating the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates, moreover, encourages the retrospective sanitizing of previous Democratic candidates and administrations. If only Al Gore had been inaugurated after the 2000 election, the story goes, we might well not have had the September 11 attacks and certainly would not have had the Iraq War — as if it were unimaginable that the Republican reaction to the attacks could have goaded him into precisely such an act. And considering his bellicose stand on Iraq during the 2000 campaign, he well might not have needed goading.

The stale proclamations of urgency are piled on top of the standard jeremiads about the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade. The “filibuster-proof Senate majority” was the gimmick that spruced up the 2008 election cycle, conveniently suggesting strategic preparation for large policy initiatives while deferring discussion of what precisely those initiatives might be. It was an ideal diversion that gave wonks, would-be wonks, and people who just watch too much cable-television news something to chatter about and a rhetorical basis for feeling “informed.” It was, however, built on the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal.

Most telling, though, is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

Notwithstanding his administration’s Orwellian folderol about “reinventing government,” his commitment to deficit reduction led to, among other things, extending privatization of the federal meat-inspection program, which shifted responsibility to the meat industry — a reinvention that must have pleased his former Arkansas patron, Tyson Foods, and arguably has left its legacy in the sporadic outbreaks and recalls that suggest deeper, endemic problems of food safety in the United States. His approach to health-care reform, like Barack Obama’s, was built around placating the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and its failure only intensified the blitzkrieg of for-profit medicine.

In foreign policy, he was no less inclined than Reagan or George H. W. Bush to engage in military interventionism. Indeed, counting his portion of the Somali operation, he conducted nearly as many discrete military interventions as his two predecessors combined, and in four fewer years. Moreover, the Clinton Administration initiated the “extraordinary rendition” policy, under which the United States claims the right to apprehend individuals without charges or public accounting so that they can be imprisoned anywhere in the world (and which the Obama Administration has explicitly refused to repudiate). Clinton also increased American use of “privatized military services” — that is, mercenaries.

The nostalgic mist that obscures this record is perfumed by evocations of the Clinton prosperity. Much of that era’s apparent prosperity, however, was hollow — the effects of first the tech bubble and then the housing bubble. His administration was implicated in both, not least by his signing the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, which had established a firewall between commercial and investment banking in response to the speculative excesses that sparked the Great Depression. And, as is the wont of bubbles, first one and then the other burst, ushering in the worst economic crisis since the depression that had led to the passage of Glass–Steagall in the first place. To be sure, the Clinton Administration was not solely or even principally responsible for those speculative bubbles and their collapse. The Republican administrations that preceded and succeeded him were equally inclined to do the bidding of the looters and sneak thieves of the financial sector. Nevertheless, Clinton and the Wall Street cronies who ran his fiscal and economic policy — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Alan Greenspan — are no less implicated than the Republicans in having brought about the economic crisis that has lingered since 2008.

It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda. Indeed, Clinton made his predilections clear from the outset. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” he declared, albeit exasperatedly, shortly after his 1992 victory. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade, and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

Taking into account the left’s disappearance into Democratic neoliberalism helps explain how and why so many self-proclaimed leftists or progressives — individuals, institutions, organizations, and erstwhile avatars of leftist opinion such as The Nation — came to be swept up in the extravagant rhetoric and expectations that have surrounded the campaign, election, and presidency of Barack Obama.

Obama and his campaign did not dupe or simply co-opt unsuspecting radicals. On the contrary, Obama has been clear all along that he is not a leftist. Throughout his career he has studiously distanced himself from radical politics. In his books and speeches he has frequently drawn on stereotypical images of leftist dogmatism or folly. When not engaging in rhetorically pretentious, jingoist oratory about the superiority of American political and economic institutions, he has often chided the left in gratuitous asides that seem intended mainly to reassure conservative sensibilities of his judiciousness — rather as Booker T. Washington used black chicken-stealing stereotypes to establish his bona fides with segregationist audiences. This inclination to toss off casual references to the left’s “excesses” or socialism’s “failure” has been a defining element of Brand Obama and suggests that he is a new kind of pragmatic progressive who is likely to bridge — or rise above — left and right and appeal across ideological divisions. Assertions that Obama possesses this singular ability contributed to the view that he was electable and, once elected, capable of forging a new, visionary, postpartisan consensus.Illustration by Tim Bower

This feature of Brand Obama even suffused the enthusiasm of those who identify as leftists, many of whom at this point would like to roll up their past proclamations behind them. Here was a nominal progressive who actually could win the presidency, clearing the electoral hurdle that Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and other protest candidates could not. Yet few acknowledged the extent to which Obama’s broad appeal hinged on his disavowals of left “excesses.” What kind of “progressive” pursues a political strategy of distancing himself from the left by rehearsing hackneyed conservative stereotypes? Even granting the never-quite-demonstrated assertion that Obama is, in his heart of hearts, committed to a progressive agenda (a trope familiar from the Clinton Administration, we might recall), how would a coalition built on reassuring conservatives not seriously constrain his administration?

The generalities with which Obama laid out his vision made it easy to avoid such questions. His books are not substantive articulations of a social program but performances in which his biographical narrative and identity stands in for a vaguely transformational politics. Sometimes this projection has been not so subtle. In an interview with the journalist James Traub a year before the election, Obama averred: “I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country. And they’d be right.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is little with which to disagree in those books. They meant to produce precisely that effect. Matt Taibbi characterized Obama’s political persona in early 2007 as

an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing. . . . [H]is strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly.

Taibbi described Obama’s political vision as “an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle.” Taibbi is by no means alone in this view; others have been more sharply critical in drawing out its implications, even during the heady moment of the 2008 campaign.Illustration by Tim Bower

Nearer the liberal mainstream, Paul Krugman repeatedly demonstrated that many of candidate Obama’s positions and political inclinations were not only inconsistent with the hyperbolic rhetoric that surrounded the campaign but were moreover not even especially liberal. When in a June 2008 issue of The Nation Naomi Klein expressed concern about Obama’s profession of love for the free market and his selection of very conventionally neoliberal economic advisers, Krugman responded rather waspishly, “Look, Obama didn’t pose as a Nation-type progressive, then turn on his allies after the race was won. Throughout the campaign he was slightly less progressive than Hillary Clinton on domestic issues — and more than slightly on health care. If people like Ms. Klein are shocked, shocked that he isn’t the candidate of their fantasies, they have nobody but themselves to blame.” As early as 2006, Ken Silverstein noted in these pages that the rising star’s extensive corporate and financial-sector connections suggested that his progressive supporters should rein in their hopes. Larissa MacFarquhar, in a 2007 New Yorker profile, also gave reason for restraint to those projecting “transformative” expectations onto Obama. “In his view of history,” she reports, “in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. . . . Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says ‘I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem.’ ”

These and other critics, skeptics, and voices of caution were largely drowned out in the din of the faithful’s righteous fervor. Some in the flock who purported to represent the campaign’s left flank, such as the former SDS stalwart Carl Davidson and the professional white antiracist Tim Wise, denounced Obama’s critics as out-of-touch, pie-in-the-sky radicals who were missing the train of history because they preferred instead to wallow in marginalization. This response is a generic mantra of political opportunists. Some who called for climbing on the bandwagon insisted that Obama was a secret progressive who would reveal his true politics once elected. Others relied on the familiar claim that actively supporting the campaign — as distinct from choosing to vote for him as yet another lesser evil — would put progressives in a position to exert leftward pressure on his administration.

Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. We were urged to marvel at and take our cues from the already indulged upper-middle-class Children of the Corn and their faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance. And it was easy to understand why so many of them found Obama to be absolutely new under the sun. To them he was. A twenty-five-year-old on November 4, 2008, was a nine-year-old when Bill Clinton was first elected, ten when he pushed NAFTA through Congress, thirteen when he signed welfare “reform,” and sixteen when he signed the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which repealed Glass–Steagall.

Obama’s miraculous ability to inspire and engage the young replaced specific content in his patter of Hope and Change. In the same way that he and his supporters presented his life story as the embodiment of a politics otherwise not clearly defined, the projection of inspired youth substituted a narrative of identity — and a vague and ephemeral one at that — for argument. Those in Obama’s thrall viewed his politics as qualitatively different from Bill Clinton’s, even though the political niche Obama had crafted for himself only deepened Clintonism. Of course, perception of Obama’s difference from the Clintons and other Democratic contenders past and present was bound up in his becoming the first black president, the symbolic significance of which far outweighed the candidate’s actual politics. Thus, for instance, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, usually not a faddish enthusiast, proclaimed just after the 2008 presidential election that

Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. . . . Whatever our doubts, for that moment [of his election] each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity. . . . Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. A sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements.

Nevertheless, Obama could not have sold his signature “bipartisan” transcendence so successfully to those who identify as leftists if Clinton had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism far enough rightward. Obama’s posture of judiciousness depends partly on the ritual validation of bromides about “big government,” which he typically evokes through resonant phrases rather than through affirmative argument that might ring too dissonantly with his leftist constituents. He can finesse the tension with allusions because Clinton, in his supposed “New Covenant” from a “New Democrat,” had already severed the link between Democratic liberalism and vigorous, principled commitment to the public sector.

* In a 2008 speech to a mostly African-American audience in the city of Beaumont, Texas, Obama scolded his listeners about feeding junk food to children: “Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y’all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why y’all laughing. . . . You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.”

Obama also relies on nasty, victim-blaming stereotypes about black poor people to convey tough-minded honesty about race and poverty. Clinton’s division of the poor into those who “play by the rules” and those who presumably do not, his recasting of the destruction of publicly provided low-income housing and the forced displacement of poor people as “Moving to Opportunity” and “HOPE,” and most of all his debacle of “welfare reform” already had helped liberal Democrats to view behavior modification of a defective population as the fundamental objective of antipoverty policy. Indeed, even ersatz leftists such as Glenn Greenwald, then of, and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel defended and rationalized Obama’s willingness to disparage black poor people. Greenwald applauded the candidate for making what he somehow imagined to be the “unorthodox” and “not politically safe” move of showing himself courageous enough to beat up on this politically powerless group. For her part, vanden Heuvel rationalized such moves as his odious “Popeyes chicken” speech as reflective of a “generational division” among black Americans, with Obama representing a younger generation that values “personal responsibility.”* Perhaps, but it’s noteworthy that Obama didn’t give the Popeyes speech to groups of investment bankers.

Obama’s reflexive disposition to cater first to his right generally has been taken in stride as political necessity or even applauded as sagacious pragmatism. Defenses of Obama’s endorsements of the likes of John Barrow, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, and the Republican turncoat senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania over more liberal Democrats rest on the assumption that Democrats can win only by operating within a framework of political debate set by the right and attempting to produce electoral majorities by triangulating constituencies. At least since Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “serious” Democratic candidates have insisted that, because appealing to the right’s agenda is necessary to win, the responsible left must forgo demands for specific policies or programs as quid pro quo for their support. As its reaction to left criticism of his approach to health-care reform illustrated, the Obama Administration defines as “responsible” those who support it without criticism; those who do not are by definition the “far left” and therefore dismissible. To complete the dizzying ideological orbit, this limitation has been sold as evidence of the importance of subordinating all other concrete political objectives to the project of electing more Democrats, on the premise that the more of them we elect, the greater the likelihood that a majority will be amenable to embracing a leftist program.

Anticipation of jobs and “access” — the crack cocaine (or, more realistically, powder cocaine) of the interest-group world — helps to make this scam more alluring, especially among those who have nurtured their aspirations in elite universities or the policy-wonk left or both. Such aspirants can be among the most adamant in denouncing leftist criticism of the Democrat of the moment as irresponsible and politically immature.

But if the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.”

The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; the black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist” software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.

This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So 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. Far from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.

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.

As the “human cipher” Taibbi described, Obama is the pure product of this hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content. Taibbi misreads how race figures into Brand Obama. Obama is not “without” race; he embodies it as an abstraction, a feel-good evocation severed from history and social relations. Race is what Obama projects in place of an ideology. His racial classification combines with a narrative of self-presentation, including his past as a “community organizer,” to convey a sensation of a politics, much as advertising presents a product as the material expression of inchoate desire. This became the basis for a faith in his virtue that largely insulated him from sharp criticism from the left through the first five years of his presidency. Proclamation that Obama’s election was, in Žižek’s terms, a “sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates” was also a call to suspend critical judgment, to ascribe to the event a significance above whatever Obama stood for or would do.

In fact, Obama was able to win the presidency only because the changes his election supposedly signified had already taken place. His election, after all, did not depend on disqualifying large chunks of the white electorate. As things stand, his commitments to an imperialist foreign policy and Wall Street have only more tightly sealed the American left’s coffin by nailing it shut from the inside. Katrina vanden Heuvel pleads for the president to accept criticism from a “principled left” that has demonstrated its loyalty through unprincipled acquiescence to his administration’s initiatives; in a 2010 letter, the president of the AFL-CIO railed against the Deficit Commission as a front for attacking Social Security while tactfully not mentioning that Obama appointed the commission or ever linking him to any of the economic policies that labor continues to protest; and there is even less of an antiwar movement than there was under Bush, as Obama has expanded American aggression and slaughter into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who knows where else.

Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal 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. From his successful wooing of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning of his political career, 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.

Particularly among those who stress the primary force of racism in American life, Obama’s election called forth in the same breath competing impulses — exultation in the triumphal moment and a caveat that the triumph is not as definitive as it seems. Proponents of an antiracist politics almost ritualistically express anxiety that Obama’s presidency threatens to issue in premature proclamation of the transcendence of racial inequality, injustice, or conflict. It is and will be possible to find as many expressions of that view as one might wish, just as lunatic and more or less openly racist “birther” and Tea Party tendencies have become part of the political landscape. An equal longer-term danger, however, is the likelihood that we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a desiccated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity. This is neoliberalism’s version of a left. Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to antidiscrimination, a point from which Democratic liberalism has not retreated. Rather, it’s the path Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice.

Confusion and critical paralysis prompted by the racial imagery of Obama’s election prevented even sophisticated intellectuals like Žižek from concluding that Obama was only another Clintonite Democrat — no more, no less. It is how Obama could be sold, even within the left, as a hybrid of Martin Luther King Jr. and Neo from The Matrix. The triumph of identity politics, condensed around the banal image of the civil rights insurgency and its legacy as a unitary “black liberation movement,” is what has enabled Obama successfully to present himself as the literal embodiment of an otherwise vaporous progressive politics. In this sense his election is most fundamentally an expression of the limits of the left in the United States — its decline, demoralization, and collapse.

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. There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races. It is long past time for us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision. Obama and his top aides punctuated that fact by making brutally apparent during the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left would have a place in this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not be clearer.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • 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!

    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 ( and/or ( 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:

  • 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.

    • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • aprescoup

            That ought to do it!

          • kokanee

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

          • kokanee
          • Pizza the Hutt

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

          • 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.

  • Ted Tak

    Too much dogma. Not enough practical solutions.

    Obama is the president, not the legislative branch. Although, I doubt anyone votes for their congressmen:

    You might want to hurry:

  • HopeWFaith

    An incredibly accurate article. Much appreciated, even today!


October 2015

Lives by Omission

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lifting as We Climb

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cattle Calls

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Getting Jobbed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.