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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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

30 thoughts on “A Blueprint for the Left

  1. Robert, this is such a clear, concise, and interesting discussion of the challenges faced by the left — and logical suggestions for “populist reform.” I plan to share it with students in the policy class I teach.

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  2. Robert,
    This article is neither a pipedream or farfetched. Perhaps, because the fight against inequality and unlimited spending on elections is so challenging, the 99% (and it is good to remember that 99% are in virtually total agreement) have mistakenly placed blame on themselves. For sure people are seeing that human actions which do not have benevolent intent are becoming more and rejected, so the “left problem” is overestimated, perhaps to a large degree.
    Thanks,
    Jerry

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    • Possibly, although this strategy would require a degree of solidarity that hasn’t been present in the political left for many decades. Asking groups now to subordinate their individual agendas to a larger cause would be problematic, even though its success would better serve each in the long-run. Unfortunately, the ideological unity that enables conservatives to wield more political power than their actual numerical strength, has become an anathema to the Left. It’s a case of not seeing the forest from among the trees.

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  3. I wrote some of my response to this article in a different comment section, but I’ll write the rest of it here so that you can refer what I’m saying to the parts of your post I address.

    I think your blueprint is brilliant. It’s exactly what the country needs. The question is, how do we get enough support for it? If you look at my other comment, I talk about how to get the money together. Should it really be so difficult to get all those groups together? They all agree on the same basic ideas. They are all liberal/left leaning. They all care about humanity as a whole. Once we get the money, we can get our message out! Citizens United made it so that a voice with less money behind it is weaker, but once we get even a good amount of money (even if it doesn’t quite match theirs), our voice may just be loud enough so that people have two choices, not just one.

    One thing that concerns me though, is the lack of motivation on the part of many people. As a college student, I see very little activism or any care at all about societal concerns by students. It could be that, because I’m 33 and therefore a bit older than most of the kids, I notice it more. Do you think this lack of interest is a wider problem? If so, how do we combat that? Maybe your ideas about creating a platform with simple, easy to understand ideas may help.

    There’s another problem, too- cynism. I see it a lot here amongst our fellow bloggers, and it troubles me. I understand being angry- I’m angry about what’s going on, too. But for some, the anger takes on an almost hateful tone. They say that the powerful will always control us. It’s bitter, it’s name calling. I’m also picking up a sense of hopelessness, there, too. When I read those blog posts, I don’t feel energized or hopeful. Instead, I get hopeless and feel like a naive little kid to think things can get better. Those feelings are sometimes followed by thoughts like, “This activism stuff is such crap.” It takes the wind out of my sails, so to speak.

    But then I remember that I DO believe in change, and stop reading the blog post that ‘s getting me down. Which makes me wonder- how do others feel when they see these kinds of posts? Do they feel as down about trying to change things? Do they decide that the effort isn’t worth it? If so, such cynism is toxic to progress! When I blog, I want people to be informed through my blog about what’s wrong. BUT also to feel energized and empowered!!! If you’ve already given up, you’re not really helping, are you?

    Let me know what you think about all this! (I know I practically wrote an essay here!)

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    • I commented on your Keystone XL post about Ed Schultz. He’s an example of the fragmentation within the Left. Schultz is a pro-labor progressive, and unions want the Keystone XL construction contracts. But, that’s a terribly short-sided position. The few temporary jobs it would create pale in comparison to the long-term damage that would be done by unleashing the dirty Canadian tar sands. My blueprint addresses this problem. The platform prioritizes a subset of positions that all left-wing groups can support in unified opposition to the conservative right. Schultz could still advocate for the XL, but his stance would exist outside the platform and therefore be a secondary issue.

      You’re correct about the apathy and self-defeatism of many lefties. It’s a big problem. I addressed it with the education provision. People must be taught about the nature and importance of participating in a democracy. Folks are cynical because they feel dis-empowered, and because they have been fed anti-government propaganda for many years. It will take great effort to correct this, but we must do everything possible to make people feel relevant again.

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  4. I also think that Democrats seem almost lifeless in Congress when it comes to their ideas and bills, yet Republican seem to scream from the mountain tops when they want their way. We need to understand that the energy they have is also helping them. We need to scream as much as they do, inc. on TV, radio, press conferences, etc. Right now, their voice (partly because of money, and partly because of the screaming and ranting) is controlling the media. It’s all most of us ever hear. That’s why I think we should support independent and liberal media more: ThinkProgress.com, Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, etc. We need to do this by watching/reading them, and spreading their content, inc. through blogging.

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    • Once again I completely agree. The Democrats sold out to corporatism when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992. Politically, they have become a centrist party. Relatively few politicians are truly left-wing these days. That’s why my blueprint calls for supporting candidates on an individual basis. If our “super group” could achieve sufficient influence, Democratic candidates – and possibly some Republican ones – would want our endorsement and support. That would further advance the platform.

      Thanks again for your insightful comments! It’s reassuring to know that people still care. 🙂

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      • Take a look at what Tubularsock wrote in response to the pipeline petition I posted. It’s that cynicism again. And it’s coming from someone who is probably very educated. I really hope that educating people about our role in democracy can address this, but I don’t know. But maybe not everyone will be reached. Maybe all we need is just enough.

        I think the individual basis idea is a good one. I also think that labor groups thinking the pipeline will be a good idea for them indicates that they don’t fully understand the whole picture. I think this happens when corporations (and politicians who back them) tell people that what the corporations are planning to do will help the population being effected by the techonolgy, whether it be the pipeline or fracking. This goes back to money equaling a louder voice. If we had a good amount of money and people behind us, we’d be able to counter that voice with one that gives real facts.

        What do you think?

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      • My education proposal is much more intense than simply trying to change the minds of set-in-stone cynics like Tubularsock through interpersonal discussion. I’m talking about teaching children the critical importance of democracy to a free and prosperous people. I’m talking about airing public service announcements (PSA’s) to inform the populace why participating in democracy is so vital. After three and a half decades of constant anti-government propaganda from Republicans, we must find a way to counter that strategy.

        For example, it is a provable historical fact that authoritarianism rules when democracy fails. That means less freedom, less prosperity, and a lot more oppression of the people. Far too many Americans have no conception about what life would be like under that scenario. If they don’t learn that lesson now, they’ll learn it much more unpleasantly later on. Yes, it is a negative message; but, it is also a factual one.

        We ought not to worry too much about intransigent cynics. They are the stone-throwers who have been with us since the beginning. When stones get thrown in their direction, they run for the hills. Let them. There are far more sensible people open to problem-solving than them. They should be our focus.

        Corporations do have the money and power, but we have the people. In the protest song “5 to 1” Jim Morrison of The Doors wrote in 1968, “they got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers…”

        We can use those numbers, and we can win.

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  5. You make some great points in your last comment, especially about cynics. Education about gov’t is extremely important.

    So what’s the next step? How can we work to make this plan happen?

    By the way, getting people and support from the Working Families Party would be a bonus, since they share our ideals. Check out their website– http://www.workingfamiliesparty.org/

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    • How can we make this plan happen? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? We would need support from influential activists. That might get the ball rolling. Once started, it could really pick up momentum. The WFP organization in your state looks like an ideological match, being very progressive. Have you tried contacting them? My appeals to similar organizations like the PCCC have failed to attract much attention. I don’t know what else to do other than keep spreading the word. The big problem, as I discussed in this article, is that the Left is so fractured. Each group is defending its own turf, and there is great reluctance to coordinate with a unified offensive strategy. Any ideas?

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      • I’ll contact the WFP today. I’ll try to contact the NY chapter of the ACLU, also, since I’m a member. I’m also a member of PFAW, so I’ll try them as well. Those groups are a good start. I’ll let you know if and when I hear back from them.

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      • I’ve seen that, at least with specific issues such as fracking and the Keystone Pipeline, many groups do come together and act as one giant group towards a goal. I see that as a sign that working together can be done, although I don’t know how often that happens for political/social reforms or movements. Perhaps we can find a way to harness the strategies used in the fracking and pipeline protests/movements.

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  6. Can you leave me a message on my “About” page in the contact box so I can have your email address? You don’t have to put your email address in the boxes, I don’t think. 🙂

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  7. Pingback: We told them so: Democrats are searching for their soul… belatedly | The Secular Jurist

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