By Robert A. Vella
We on the political left are a frustrated lot. Our fundamental values, economic fairness and social justice, are so plainly relatable to the human condition that their marginalization within national politics causes us intense consternation. If the people support those ideas, so goes our thinking, then why aren’t they given higher priority in democracies which are supposed to be publicly responsive?
The answer challenges our competency to achieve what we so emphatically promote. The political left was once a powerful force in western politics. The great social democracies of Europe, the New Deal era in America, made tremendous strides in economic and social equality. Then it was split apart due to self-inflicted wounds and through internal divisions which were aggressively exploited by an opportunistic conservative movement. In the aftermath of that fall from power, the Left has failed to properly reorganize itself. It remains a fractious collection of special interests largely unrepresented by their professed political party allies.
Economist and author Ian Fletcher wrote a provocative article in late 2011 describing four reasons why the political left has become so ineffective on economic issues, to which he stated:
A major part of the problem here is that 100 percent of the political power in the United States is monopolized by the top 10 percent of the population. I know this sounds odd, but the hard fact is that one can’t exert political power without organization, and all major organizations are run by people in the top 10 percent. So the top 10 percent exercise a veto power over political action by everyone else. At an absolute minimum, anything any group does will be filtered through the media, and all media types are 10 percenters.
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Without solidarity, people don’t hate each other. They just don’t care. Not really, whatever they may say. Solidarity comes from having something in common with other people, and the less people have in common with each other, the more American society devolves to a model of pure individual self-interest. Which may be a leftist model in cultural or social questions, but it’s a rightist model in economics.
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This brings us to the third big problem with the American left. Since the Democrats decided in 1981, under Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tony Coelho, that they could seek (and get) corporate money on the same scale as the Republicans, there has been a yawning gap between the interests of those who finance the party and its nominal ideological commitments. This gap doesn’t exist for the Republicans, who genuinely believe in the pro-corporate policies they impose, and this is a big part of why that party is more effective. It isn’t condemned to talk out of both sides of its mouth at once.
Legal scholar Jonathan Turley’s blog took exception to Fletcher’s piece, writing:
As I mentioned at the break point there is an 800 hundred pound gorilla in the American room that Mr. Fletcher recognizes but ignores at our peril. That beast is an amalgam of like interests that coalesced after Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964 and who have literally put billions since then, into gaming our political system and funding an unprecedented Right Wing propaganda blitz that equals that of Goebbels in his prime. We know some of the names like the Koch Brothers, Mellon Family, DuPonts, Waltons and the Murdochs, others like to maintain low profiles. This combination of wealth to back candidates, control mainstream media and produce intensive lobbying has created this weakness, this inability of the Left to influence economic issues. Its’ cause has been that they have been outspent monetarily, out foxed in debate and incapable of compact messaging.
All the well-meaning books and articles by people of Mr. Fletcher’s goodwill, that don’t address the buying of our society and political system by this loose cabal of economic elitism, does us all a disservice. The red herring of having a losing argument assumes a level playing field. It’s not that those favoring economic and social equality haven’t been paying attention, it’s that we are only now metaphorically learning to shoot at people who’ve outdrawn us, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen. There is a lot of catching up to do and articles that superficially discuss real problems, demolishing straw men, rather than explaining that an unprecedented concentration of wealth has unbalanced our political system is not helpful.
Both views have merit, although I find it difficult to pardon the Left’s contemporary naiveté about the nature of politics. It isn’t something people occasionally engage in to further a specific cause, it is a continuous battle for societal control. Adversaries who ignore their opponents, even for a short time, are almost certain to suffer defeat. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:
“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
Being typically peaceful creatures, Lefties are not inclined to equate politics with warfare and I am not suggesting that they are the same. However, democracy is essentially a cold war where conflict is resolved through vigorous debate instead of violence. The tactics of politics may be different than those used in war, but the employed strategies are virtually identical.
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As Fletcher alluded to in his piece, the political left has an inherent advantage over the right-wing. There are simply more people who agree with its message of economic fairness/social justice than who agree with the conservative ideology advocating for a privilege of wealth. The Left’s big problem, since the 1970’s, has been how to mobilize all those potential voters.
Here’s my blueprint for how to get this done:
1) Construct and publicize a core political platform promoting simple populist themes:
- Economic fairness through the concern for workers and for human prosperity.
- Social justice as a principled commitment to civil rights and equal application of the law.
- Public education as the instrument of knowledge and for developing productive citizens.
- Secular government to ensure both freedom of, and freedom from religion.
- Political equality via open democracy and restricting the corrupting influence of money.
- Self-determination through the preclusion of transnational and supranational authorities.
2) Recruit interest groups and individuals to adopt and advocate for the platform.
3) The platform will support candidates who best meet its criteria, and will not formally align with outside political parties.
4) Use the platform to teach the public about the importance of participating in a democracy, why objective empirically-based reasoning produces better overall outcomes than subjective self-interest, and how people everywhere are interdependent upon each other in a unified cause for the survival of humanity.
Admittedly, this pipe-dream of mine is farfetched considering the myriad of obstacles it would face. For example, environmentalists and labor unions frequently disagree over economic proposals which would exacerbate climate change. But, with collective bargaining on the verge of extinction in the U.S., I’d think labor unions would want as many allies as they could muster. If each special interest group looked at the big political picture, they might realize the threat posed by their common foe is far more significant. Desperately holding on to life-preservers didn’t keep the Titanic from sinking, and it didn’t save very many lives.