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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Progressive ‘Surrender’ Overstated, Underanalyzed

Adolph Reed, Jr.’s article “Nothing Left:: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” in the current issue of Harper’s has created a bit of a stir in Democratic circles. Read it, give it some thought, and then read two more nuanced takes on the topic and Reed’s article by Harold Meyerson and Kos blogger Armando, cited below.
First, from Meyerson’s American Prospect post, “The Left, Viewed from Space“:

As Reed sees it, both political parties have been captured by neo-liberalism, by Wall Street, by the cult of laissez-faire. The Democrats have succumbed while maintaining, or even increasing, their liberalism on social and cultural issues, even as the Republicans have moved rightward on those same social issues. More troublingly, as Reed sees it, the American left has acquiesced in the Democrats’ rightward movement, backing a passel of candidates and two presidents–Bill Clinton and Barack Obama–who adhered to the economics of Robert Rubin and his protégés. The Left, says Reed, has always had an excuse: If the Republicans are elected, the world will lurch to the right. Backing Clinton and Obama and the Democrats is a defensive exercise, and a kneejerk defensive exercise at that.

Meyerson notes that Reed is not calling for a third party and that Reed’s “primary lament is that the left over-invests, emotionally and otherwise, in Democratic candidates, inasmuch as those candidates don’t deliver much if and when they’re elected.” This, plus “its absorption into single-issue politics” distracts the left from its central goal of “building a long-term movement for economic equity that challenges the direction of American capitalism.”
Meyerson credits Reed with some worthwhile insights, but adds that “Reed’s characterization of the Democrats as neo-liberal NAFTA-ites seems frozen in time, that time being the 1990s.” Further, says Meyerson,

..Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have ruled out any support for Obama’s bid to resurrect fast-track–in essence, killing any chance for passing the latest iteration of corporate-backed trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Reed’s view of the Democrats takes no account of the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base, of the movement of fast-food workers and the spillover effect their campaign has had on efforts to raise the minimum wage. He didn’t get the news that Senate Democrats rejected Obama’s effort to make Larry Summers the chairman of the Fed precisely because of Summers’s role in deregulating finance. He seems not to have heard of the successes of groups like New York’s Working Families Party, which has built an electoral left in New York, or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has won higher wages, union recognition and environmental victories by uniting labor and enviro groups in L.A. He seems, in short, to have missed the rise of a left that is doing pretty much what Reed says a left should be doing….

But Meyerson sees “the biggest hole” in Reed’s argument is his myopia about the role of labor unions in politics:

…With the Republican Party fairly brimming with Scott Walkers and Bob Corkers–with politicos whose very mission is to stamp out what’s left of the labor movement–the unions lack the luxury of downgrading their electoral work. Wherever they can, labor, liberals, and the left should favor candidates and campaigns devoted to working people’s interests and power. But if the choice is between a Scott Walker Republican and a Democrat of limited virtues who nonetheless will support unions’ right to exist, labor, liberals and the left still have to mobilize for that Democrat.

Reed blasts away at Democratic strategy, as well as Party leaders’ propensity for selling out core principles:

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.

In his Daily Kos post, “The surrender of the left? Activism and electoral politics,” Armando also takes a more thoughtful look at the political reality behind Reed’s article. “I think that while Reed’s pessimism and diagnosis of what ails the left, the electoralitis, is accurate, I’m not sure that I agree with his prescription.”
Armando takes particular issue with Reed’s contention that a Hillary Clinton presidency would spell the end of progressive Democrats’ ability to shape and influence policy debates:

A President Hillary Clinton will not be, nor be perceived, as the left flank of the Democratic Party. This permits, in my view, real arguments, initiatives and negotiation from strong progressive elements in Congress. There will be more room for independence, initiatives and influence. This was not possible in my view under the Obama presidency.

If Reed doesn’t directly advocate that progressive Democrats sit out the next couple of elections, he comes pretty close:

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…

Armando responds,

I cannot agree that the abandonment of electoral politics, as Reed seems to advise, is wise. Reed, it seems to me, like too many persons, sees elections as only the presidential election. The hard work to do necessarily includes electoral work, especially at the state and congressional level. And there is no better period than the coming election cycles.

In any case, 2014 seems like a bad year for Dems to reassemble the old circular firing squad. The “long, slow surrender” in the title of Reed’s article may better describe the defeatist attitude that underlays withdrawal from electoral politics than any real ideological trends within the Democratic Party.

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