politics is a fulcrum

There’s an old joke where three statisticians go hunting deer. The first one shoots at a buck and misses five feet to the left. The second one shoots at a buck and misses five feet to the right. The third one shouts, “we got ’em!”

To me, that’s what politics is, more or less. Think of every political opinion that is prevalent in our system, balance on a long beam. The only way to achieve positive equilibrium is if you have equal balance along both sides. If someone says that the federal free lunch program is a sign of creeping fascism and should be abolished, it is not sufficient for others to say “Well, we believe in this program in principle, but maybe we could make a few cuts here and there.” What is required is that some people say, “In fact, all Americans, not just school children, should be eligible for federal lunch subsidies.” Otherwise, the whole thing starts to slide further and further towards the anti-school lunch fascism side.

Since the rise of the early reform liberals in the late 1970s or so, we have not had equal balance. At some point, it was decided that the leftward swing of the 1960s had gone terribly awry, and that it was time to push back towards the center. You could chalk this up to the Cold War, to stagflation, to anger over the culture wars, whatever. It happened that this was happening at the same time as the seeds sown by the Goldwater candidacy were fully sprouting, and the Reagan Democrat was born. That led directly to the Clinton era, welfare reform, and an American political scene which has a centrist party and a conservative party, which we operate in still today.

Now, I have a particular attitude towards the change described above, and it won’t surprise you that I think it was always and only a mistake. But surely anyone should see that, even if it was the right thing in 1980, that was a long time ago. It’s not 1980 anymore. Few people believe that our economic problems stems from labor unions that are too powerful. Few people believe that capital is paying too high taxes to generate growth. Those are not our problems. And yet Michael Kinsley is still Michael Kinsley-ing– in The New Republic, of course! Slate is Slate-ing like our political system is afflicted by too much left-wing power. Seriousness, in many contexts, is still defined by one’s willingness to find a left-wing position and declare it dangerous, or childish, or unworkable, or naive. And I simply cannot understand why.

The people I wrote about recently happen to hate the Tea Party. They should. But they don’t seem to understand: the conditions that allowed for the rise of the Tea Party are the result of an American political scene that has invested desperate effort in denying any voice or agency to a legitimately left-wing alternative. Of course Obama can’t pass his center-left agenda! There is a crazy-far-right dragging the conversation right, and a right driving the conversation right, and a middle halfheartedly trying to keep the conversation there, and a center-left vainly trying to hold the line while simultaneously telling leftists not to join in. Does this sound like a winning strategy for tug-of-war, to you?

So what I would say, to market liberals or the center-left or however you want to define it, is simple: you don’t have to be a lefty yourself. You certainly don’t have to hold your fire when you are arguing with people with whom you disagree. But I do think that you should make space for genuinely left-wing argument, and not to reflexively dismiss it as inherently unserious, which has been the tendency in American politics for better than three decades. The right wing is well funded. They are always going to be able to carve out mediums in which to express themselves simply through the force of their dollars. A new American left is nascent and can easily be strangled in its crib. Don’t participate in that.

I talk to young political types all the time. And there are very many people who are neither full-blown socialists like me, but who are far more amenable to redistribution and similar than the average liberal in the media. But they see the particular nature of the pushback against those opinions– not just disagreement but mockery, being pushed out of the conversation, being declared unserious– and are forced to choose between arguing in fringe spaces or modifying their views. And what these kids want, desperately, is to be in the conversation, to be one of the people who talk and are listened to.

Maybe my theory of politics is wrong. Could be. But I don’t think so. And at a time when so many are asking what to do about the recalcitrant madness of the extreme right, I think it’s time for people to consider whether it’s possible to fix that problem without balance. Not out of sympathy or principle or friendship. Just as a way of getting what you want.

11 Comments

  1. I don’t excuse the left as much on the failure to make a decent leftward pushback. The Cold War is over, and there are plenty of means to organize.

    Yes, it sucks that the bulk of the money for organization is over on the reactionary side of things, but did that stop earlier waves of attempted organization back in the late 19th century/early 20th century? Inequalities of wealth and income were even worse back then, and the connections between wealth and political power tighter. But we don’t really seem to see it beyond local levels of organization, and the occasional national campaign like OUR Walmart or the “Fight for $15” crowd.

  2. I’ve been reading you for basically that purpose for a while and I generally agree with your argument. That said, I do think the quality of argument also matters, as pulling in a line is a lot more straightforward than adding to the discourse.

    That said, I think that the importance of quality is often misapplied by market liberals/center left such as myself. I think many of us are willing to go the extra mile to find arguments on the right that are at least worth engaging with. I don’t think that’s a misbegotten impulse, but I think it should be equally applied to the left.

    Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to find good sources on all issues. I think the best rule of thumb is to look for where center-left/market liberal approaches under perform expectations, have major negative side effects, or simply are inadequate to the task of big problems.

    Meanwhile, I’ll keep watching this place for new sources of argument from the left. I’ll confess that I’ve got a backlog on reading, but I have at least picked up a New Inquiry subscription. I think the backlog may be more a problem that I need to read longer works and fewer feeds, but I’m not sure if there’s an ideological bias there.

  3. You may be interested to know that a true-blue Socialist (and Occupy activist to boot), Kshama Sawant, is currently narrowly leading in a Seattle City Council race. And sure enough, her message and focus during the campaign on things like a $15 minimum wage and a millionaire’s tax have moved the conversation in her direction. Even the incoming mayor now (tepidly) supports phasing in a $15 minimum wage. Even if she doesn’t end up defeating the incumbent, she has clearly shifted the debate to the left, and has raised issues that seldom get any traction. Initially those issues were derided as unserious, or impractical, or naive, yet they became what everyone talked about this election. And oddly enough, in a (neo)liberal town like Seattle, the establishment is incredibly conservative and beholden to developers and moneyed interests. Breaking through that edifice is certainly going to broaden the conversation, and produce a much healthier and far more robust politics in this city.

  4. How would you respond to the counter argument (not mine) that between the Chris Hayes wing of MSNBC and the critique at Salon and Gawker, there is actually more space for airing leftist grievances and discussing policy than you let on?

    1. I don’t consider either of them progressive. That’s why we so desperately need Bernie, and Elizabeth, to drag the conversation back from this insane precipice.

  5. Freddie,

    I like this piece, I think it makes a good argument, and notwithstanding the reputation that LGM has as a space for center-left-lefty-bashing, for my own part I do try to moderate the instincts you point to in paragraph six.

    That said, the notion that “hippie punching” (and that’s what this post refers to, if obliquely) is a one-sided affair is surely wrong, if only in that the hippies sure know how to throw a punch of their own. I recall Corey Robin’s argument that liberals should have treated Ace Cockburn with a great deal more respect; it was an argument that I could have taken more seriously if it wasn’t clear that Cockburn genuinely hated liberals (treating that term as a stand in for “center left”), and didn’t want their acclaim, tolerance, or respect. It’s not as if liberals reacted to Cockburn with anger and disdain simply because of his attitudes on foreign affairs; they also responded to the very clear signals that Cockburn was sending regarding the legitimacy of a center-left approach to politics. More important to this argument, it’s hardly the case that Cockburn was the lone voice on the left-left in assessing the center-left as a fundamentally illegitimate part of the broader mechanism of imperial capitalism.

    This isn’t to try to suggest that one side “started it,” or assess fault; it simply is. As a practical matter, there are plenty more writers on the center-left than on the left-left, and the former have access to a good deal more power and “legitimacy” than the latter. As a psychological matter, however, it’s something to ask the centrists to give the leftists a pass for what amounts to strategic balance, especially when the latter are pummeling the former with all the gusto that they can manage.

    Gotta run, so gonna leave this incomplete, but it’s a conversation worth continuing.

  6. This is a very nice piece Freddie, and expresses some things very clearly that many of us feel but never said as concisely or as well.

    But I’m very interested to hear your response to Rob Farley. I think he fingers a key point, and a key difference between right and left. Ever since the sixties, radicals have defined themselves in opposition to “liberals.” We do not see ourselves as “more” liberal, we see ourselves as something distinctly different, and has being defined by making a fundamental break with something fundamentally rotten (in re imperialism and labor). But with conservatives, there is a continuous identity. The far right is considered by both wing and center to be “more” conservative, and that’s what they argue about: who is the real conservative. Which is a very fortunate rhetorical ground for those wanting to pull things farther right. Being “more” or “truer” to a common defining identity is inherently a good thing, and people wanting “less” are on the defensive. But we on the left, by contrast, have this break, this non-continuous identity, where liberals have contempt for radicalism on principle, as you rightly say, but where also radicals have contempt for liberalism on principle, as Rob says. If rhetoric is a key, surely this is something rhetoric needs to address, and you seem like the man to do it.

    1. It might be a good idea to abandon the term ‘conservative’. Contemporary parlance is at variance with the basic meaning of the word, which is a desire to retain what exists. What has existed for 80-odd years has been the New Deal at home and the Imperium abroad, thus, the politics of the Democratic Party. Most Republicans are not particularly interested in conserving the New Deal, and have a variety of opinions about the Imperium. They are, therefore, not conservatives. In fact they have become a rather mixed bag of interests which have now fallen apart.

      ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ might be usable, if there was any organized Left left, but there doesn’t seem to be. The American ruling class has not had many successes in recent decades, but completely destroying or subverting the Left has certainly been one.

  7. The DNC has gotta go. (Yesterday I sent money to defeat Wasserman-Schultz.) They are clueless; and Hillary-Bill are a throwback to failed neoliberal policies of the past. The electorate desperately does not want a third term for the policies devised by the elite of either stripe, red or blue. The pundits are convinced Hillary will win. Don’t be so sure. Hey, they were wrong about Trump choking before last November. The Bernie-or-Bust crowd is bigger than you know. And “the Devil you know” may not prevail, even if she wins the nomination.

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