America's Right, Left & Middle

by Laura Snedeker

Somewhere between Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan, we lost the left in America. Oh sure, there are the Green and Socialist and Communist parties, but none of these organizations have any power on the national stage.

Americans don’t even think in terms of “right-wing” and “left-wing” anymore except as pejoratives used to describe those whose politics are distastefully radical. Indeed, we prefer to think of ourselves as “liberal” and “conservative,” without giving any thought to the context.

When a Republican speaks of opening up markets in China or Iraq or Venezuela, he’s talking about economic liberalization. But wait…he’s not a liberal, he’s a conservative. He may be a neoliberal, but that word too has come to have a negative connotation, usually used to describe the exploitation of developing countries by multinational corporations. No, he wants to bring economic opportunity to those poor uncivilized masses with their national healthcare.

Democratic and Republican politicians play up the small differences between the parties, while at the same time espousing “bi-partisanship” and “cooperation,” as if having two different visions of America would somehow negatively affect democracy or result in open civil war.

Really, the two parties are quite alike. It’s no secret that parties tend to drift toward the center in a democracy for the sake of stability, but at what point does stability become stagnation? At what point does it cease to matter which centrist party is in power as long as K Street and Wall Street are satisfied? The easy transition for corporations from a Republican Congress to a Democratic Congress speaks to those similarities. The actors have changed, but the action remains the same.

In America, it’s not just a convergence toward the center, it’s a rightward drift. Both parties are essentially corporate-owned parties, one just leaves bigger scraps under the table. Both parties saw the economic interest in going to war in Iraq, and while the Democratic Party may now be against the war, they don’t dispute the idea that American foreign policy aims are good and just. We just make mistakes once in a while. That the Democratic Party, a party which by international standards is centrist at best, is considered the left wing of American politics is disgraceful.

Democrats often criticize George Bush’s CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), but ignore NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which was signed into law by Bill Clinton. They ignore the Defense of Marriage Act, but criticize attempts to amend the Constitution to criminalize gay marriage.

The right systematically destroyed the left wing and demonized the adherents of any ideology that did not accept the divinity of profit and the fairness of American foreign policy. The legacy of the Cold War lives on in the reluctance of Americans to accept that something farther to the left than Bill Clinton exists and could do the country a great deal of good.

(This is an official White House photo by Paul Morse from 2004 and in the public domain.)

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Liberal Arts Dude said...


I really liked your post. As a self-described left-winger it is good for the soul to read a positive article about left ideas and politics. In these times, it seems, being leftist for many people has become synonymous for all sorts of evil and wrongheadedness.

I pose a question to you. What should/can be done about it? What can be done in the Real World that will move the American middle to consider the left seriously as an alternative to the corporate-controlled major parties?

I ask that question not necessarily as a challenge but as an honest question. Is it just a PR problem that the left needs to overcome? Is it that the majority of Americans are, culturally, unsuited for letist ideologies? Is it simply a matter of buidling up an infrastructure of think tanks, scholars, activists, and people who want to participate in politics the way the conservative movement has done? Or does the left simply have to present a compelling case and a workable, realistic alternative to the status quo?

What do you think?

Laura Snedeker said...

I think it's a combination of several things. Definitely, the left needs an infrastructure of think tanks and activists as the right has. This would solve the problem of uniting activists and would help solve the PR problem.

The left also needs to disassociate itself from the authoritarian tendencies of some. Unfortunately, these strains are often the most vocal and make the rest of the left look fairly wacky.

Actually, I think the actions of the new congress and whoever is elected president are important. Those who are fed up with the current administration are looking to the new congress (and in 2008 to a new president) to solve the problems. If jobs continue to be shipped overseas, if the war continues, and if there does not start to be a feeling that Things In General are better, then I think there's going to be a lot of disatisfaction with our system (or at lot of potential for agitation).

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Hi Laura

Many thanks for your response. I do agree with you that the potential for agitation rests on dissatisfaction with the way the country is going in terms of economics, foreign policy, etc.

I am curious to hear your perspective on this idea: do you think the left has what it takes to successfully "mainstream" some of its most progressive views and agendas? By that I mean participate in electoral politics and be a force in the public discussion of issues?

I have been observing third-party efforts these past several years and the issue that keeps coming up is in a winner take all 2-party system, the third parties always end up either (A) irrelevant or (B) spoilers. So a lot of people for whom participation in democracy means voting for the candidate of their choice are paralyzed because if they do something and they are successful they eventually end up having to face the role of spoiler. So what's someone dissatisfied with the 2 major parties to do?

There are efforts out there to "reform the system" -- fusion voting, instant runoff voting, etc. The Working Families Party in New York is the most successful example of a 3rd party that has taken this strategy. But almost no one knows about them and their successes save for a few adherents.

So I am genuinely stumped. Electoral politics seems to offer a dead end unless the system is altered in a major way so that the 2 major parties cede some of their power voluntarily to give room for 3rd parties (something that is not likely to happen anytime soon). Yet in a democracy electoral politics is really the only legal and legitimate way to go if you want to participate in shaping the direction of this society as a citizen.

Rick Rockwell said...

I'd like to weigh in here for several reasons.

First, to acknowledge that we actually lost a wonderful anonymous comment from someone who had lived in Italy discussing the possibilities of third parties based around charismatic leaders. And that person noted the downside of U.S. politics is promoting too much consumerism (thus depleting the world's resources). However, the positive side was the liberty inherent in the system.

Sorry that somehow we lost that comment in the moderation system.

Next, we should acknowledge the contributions of "liberal arts dude" who unfortunately has closed down his blog (at least temporarily). You are always welcome to comment here if you feel the need to blog a bit despite your hectic schedule, LAD.

Finally, because I now have the soapbox...

1) Third parties can only work in the U.S. system if they move beyond vehicles for charismatic leaders (Perot, Ventura, etc.) who usually only have their own interests in mind. This is so rare, you really haven't seen a third party make much headway in the national system since the Progressives in the early 20th Century.

2) The diminished left is unorganized and often gets hijacked by flakes, again for their own ego gratification. If the left can bring central focus to a few messages it might be able to gain traction. But this goes against the central philosophy of the left to encourage different viewpoints. With so much nattering from individualistic and idealistic viewpoints rarely is a central message crafted for the masses.

3) Hope can be found in someone like the new Senator from Vermont: Bernie Sanders. Yes, he must caucas with the Democrats to have any leverage. But these days, as we know, one Senator can make a difference. Listen to Sanders and you will hear someone who doesn't pander to the left... he is truly of the left and sincere about it.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the comment about individualism and politics can be found down in ”Identity Crisis” where it was meant to be, but it also goes quite well with this post.

Anonymous said...

I am not optimistic about the future of politics in the USA. On a National level, campaign money is a prerequisite to any chance of success and big money from special interests control campaign money.

Americans would do well to study other democracys and one will often find political TV commercials are illegal or severly controlled. I find it astonishing that big campaigns in the US are essentially a battle of who can get the most effective (ie..divisive or fear inducing) TV commercial, rarely . is it right that Harold Ford Jr was not elected in Tennessee because the GOP spent millions to scare white folks in Tennesse that a coloured man might go to bed with their lilly white babies... Is is right that Willie Horton elected George Bush Sr?

Campaign reform will not be enacted in any serious way because the very persons who can achieve that would give up power. Read Machiavelli, that simply is not going to happen until voters let it be known that campaign reform is a top issue and start kicking the bums out.

Before we fix campaigns and campaign financing, how can we know if the two party system is a problem or not?

Laura Snedeker said...

First, I apologise for my unresponsiveness the past few days.

Anonymous, I would love to see more restrictions on political TV commercials and on the 527s who fund a lot of them. These commericals allow politicians and their advocacy groups to plant words (and probably more importantly, images) into people's minds which don't seem as insane or racist than they should because they're not coming right out of the mouths of these politicians.

What happened with Joe Biden recently is a good example. Describing Obama as "clean" and "articulate" (well, Joe, the man is educated...did you expect him to be inarticulate?) caused a huge fuss. If supporters of a rival had instead run a TV commercial implying that certain black politicians are not as "clean" or are inarticulate, I wonder if the effect would have been the same.

I actually like Bernie Sanders, and it says a lot about Vermont that they elected him.

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