nowhere to turn

Like many people, I was both convinced and discouraged by this recent piece by Adolph Reed. Reed is one of the most eloquent and useful commentators we have today on the left, and a credible and intelligent critic of the kind of obsessive word policing that many now mistake for left-wing politics. Similarly, I was very impressed by David Atkins’s recent piece at Digby’s blog. It eloquently summarizes decades of political and policy failures by American liberals and the Democrats, and comes from someone who works in electoral politics frequently. He voiced many opinions that I’ve expressed in the past, in particular the folly and failure of procedural equality. What both Reed and Atkins make clear is a crucial point that anyone on the lefthand side of American politics has to reckon with: these developments were the product of choices, intentional political and policy choices by Democratic and liberal leaders. We cannot ascribe these failures to chance.

Inevitably, the pushback began, and inevitably, it came in service to the idea that anyone on the left must support Democrats above all else. This missive came from Michelle Goldberg writing, of course, for the Nation, still putting the “less” in bloodless after all these years. Goldberg accused Reed of nihilism and insisted, as so many do, that all roads lead to the Democrats. Says Goldberg, expressing the Stockholm Syndrome the broad American left has felt with the Democrats for a long time, “yes, for liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running.”

It’s the sort of statement that has made me give up the self-identifier of liberal, after many years of using it. And it makes me wonder what left-wing critics have to do, rhetorically, to not be condescended to by liberals, if someone as eloquent and respected as Adolph Reed does not escape the paternalistic sighing of liberals. But what it really made me think about was Ned Lamont.

The 2006 Lamont campaign was everything that establishment Democrats say they want. I’m a Connecticut native. I argued and voted for Ned Lamont in the primary and in the general election. Everything about the primary campaign played out according to the script that people like Goldberg constantly endorse: liberal activists in a liberal state generated enthusiasm for a more liberal candidate against a connected member of the Democratic establishment, someone who was a career centrist (which in international and historical context makes him actually a conservative) who had a record of militarism, coziness with corporations, and collaboration with Republicans generally and President Bush specifically. Lamont is no Eugene Debs. But he offered a substantially superior alternative to Lieberman, in a state that had 18 years to learn why Lieberman had to go. So we went through the official channels, had a primary campaign, and won it.

So: did the establishment Democrats praise us for “electing better Democrats”? Did they rally around Lamont, and use his campaign as a way to move the national party further to the left, in a way that suggest they’re open to in the abstract? No. No, of course not. On the national level and the state level, Democrats and media liberals excoriated Connecticut Democrats for having the gall to reject a made man like Lieberman. If you’d like a perfect distillation of the Very Serious opinions of the Very Serious people who helped lose the Lamont general election campaign, you can find none better than this absurd, self-important piece by Jacob Weisberg. It really runs all the bases, including an illustration of a donkey dressed as a hippie and an invocation of Hubert Humphrey. And it’s perfectly indicative of what it was like to be one of those liberal Connecticut Democrats who campaigned for Lamont– Weisberg is condescending, imperious, and convinced that the people with whom he disagrees are not just wrong but have deeply flawed characters. That was all part of the tenor of Connecticut politics at the time, with establishment Democrats railing against the liberals who had voted for their interests and worked within the system the way people like Goldberg constantly insist we should. Meanwhile, the national Democrats, having pledged to respect the primary process, reneged on that deal once their guy lost, and Democrats like Chuck Schumer stumped vociferously for Lieberman. The usual establishment Connecticut Democrats banded together with Connecticut’s sizable plutocrat faction and elected Lieberman on a third party ticket.

They were wrong, and we were right. We were 100%, unquestionably, unambiguously right. Lieberman was a horrid Senator, both before and especially after the 2006 campaign. Lieberman is genuinely one of the most loathsome politicians of the last 25 years. By the end of his last term, he was an immensely unpopular politician in Connecticut, couldn’t have gotten elected student body president. It turns out that the people who best understood what was in Connecticut and the nation’s best interests were Connecticut’s liberals and lefties. It turns out that the billionaires in Greenwich didn’t actually have the best interests of the working man in mind. (Who could have known!) It turns out that someone who had invested great effort in the support of neoconservatives and the War on Terror was not the best representative for an anti-war state in a country turning very quickly against militarism and the two brutal conflicts that were raging. (No one could have predicted!) What’s the counterfactual? The Republican candidate got less than 10% of the vote. Connecticut was not going to elect a Republican senator in 2006. Lamont would have voted for Obamacare too, and if anything, would have been a stronger advocate for it. Lieberman was the lamest of lame ducks by the end of his term, a pariah in his state and vastly less powerful in the Senate than he had been. There was no upside.

We did everything that they say we need to do, and not only did they not support us, they worked hand-in-hand with lifelong Republicans to undercut us. And they did it with the nastiest, most personal form of political insults and degradation. I know. I was there. Have these establishment Democrats come out with mea culpas? Did Jacob Weisberg suddenly start supporting left-wing primary opponents of moderate Democrats? Did the people who constantly tell us to elect better Democrats start some national conversation about how badly the Democrats fucked up? No. Of course not. Advocating for Democratic candidates means never having to say you’re sorry.

Think the Lieberman-Lamont was some sort of one-off? It isn’t. A few months ago there was a brief conversation about an Elizabeth Warren primary against Hilary, and people absolutely lost their minds about the idea. For a hypothetical left-wing primary challenge, years in advance! And it’s not like Warren is Trotsky. Or take the 2012 presidential campaign. You can check my record: I voted for and supported Obama in 2008. I wrote dozens of blog posts articulating why. I had the stickers and the buttons. By the time of the 2012 election, it had become clear that on a variety of issues, Obama did not support my political convictions. That’s how politics are supposed to work. You’re supposed to vote for people who will advance your interests. After 4 years, I could not in good conscience say that Obama still did. The reaction to my saying so was poisonous, aggressive, and voiced in the strongest terms of personal condemnation. Like many, I was called a traitor, objectively pro-homophobia, and all the usual names by the professional hippie punching “liberal” bloggers.

The idea of primarying the candidate you don’t like– so often invoked by liberal critics of the left– was, with Obama in 2012, immediately and vociferously dismissed by the usual suspects, who derided the very idea, even if attempted symbolically, as the worst kind of political idealism. This is essentially the dynamic in any prominent race that features a more left-wing Democrat challenger of a connected Democrat, thanks to the preemptive surrender of electability arguments. So I am so, so tired of being told by liberals that our solution is to primary people. That solution is only ever embraced in the abstract; it is ridiculed in the particular. Please: until you actually show that you are willing to support an actual primary here on planet Earth, rather than in the purely abstract space, stop telling people to elect better Democrats. It has no connection to reality.

I violated Goldberg’s dictum in the first election I ever voted for, actually. In 2000, I did not vote for Lieberman for Senator in Connecticut. I couldn’t do it; he did not represent my interests. Does that eject me from the ranks of the Very Serious? Even for Lieberman? How bad, exactly, does it have to get before I am allowed to demur? Is there literally no limit, as long as the person wears the blue hat? Well, I’m sorry: I didn’t vote for Joe Lieberman. And I wouldn’t vote for Rahm Emanuel, and I won’t vote for Hilary Clinton, who not only voted for the Iraq war, but was one of its most important and influential architects. For years, we have been told that Ralph Nader is a detestable figure, because in a very convenient analysis for Democrats, he is supposedly responsible for a war that he actively and vociferously opposed. (The comprehensive awfulness of the Gore campaign, even given a hostile media and Florida, is never discussed.) Yet in short order, we will be told that it is our absolute duty to vote for a woman who made it safe for Democrats to support that same war. If your political calculations require you to square that circle, fine. But please, spare me the sanctimony.

I hear people complain that socialists and other leftists don’t engage with politics and thus write themselves out of the political conversation. Can you blame them? The people who push the “Democrats uber alles” are contemptuous towards activism and non-partisan political organizing. They are dismissive of actual primary campaigns and hateful towards third parties. They claim to think that liberals should hold Democrat feet to the fire, but they go crazy if you criticize Obama about Social Security or killing civilians in Yemen. And this is not merely a conflict of opinions; I have never in my life been excoriated with the same anger, derision, and glee as I have been by partisan Democrats. I have said many times: many who count themselves liberals demonstrate far deeper anger and hatred towards left-wing critics of Democrats than they do towards conservatives. That’s is my no-bullshit experience.

So I don’t know what to do. I mean I have no idea what these people want. They have shut off every conceivable angle of approach for those of us who are to the left of Ben Nelson, and they’ve done so in terms so rhetorically violent that it’s no surprise many young lefties abandon electoral politics forever. I have been arguing with Democrats my entire adult life, as an antiwar activist in the earl 2000s, with the Lamont campaign in 2005 and 2006, and online for the last six years. And I have no idea what aggressive Democrats want from me. Like Reed and Atkins, I have never said that electoral politics should be abandoned or that there is no difference between the parties. But it is eminently clear that the Democratic party does not offer a credible alternative to plutocracy, austerity, or perpetual war. So I simply do not know what people want me to do. And since there is seemingly no internal critical mechanism among those people at all, no sense of shame for giving us NSA overreach or drone escalation or the Afghanistan surge or proposed Social Security cuts or Bob Rubin or deregulation, I don’t believe I will ever in my life see Democrats say, “you know, the hippies were right.”

Update: I’m digging through old media on this still, but several readers have pointed out that most prominent Senate Dems in fact supported Lamont, at least as far as public statements go, including Chuck Schumer. Those that didn’t were largely centrist or conservative Dems like Ben Nelson. This is a very important correction for this piece. Some have suggested that several Democrats who initially pledged to back Lamont reneged on that pledge later on in the campaign, but I am not finding evidence of that at present. I do think it’s important to continue to have a discussion about when it is in the best interests of liberals to abandon Democratic candidates, such as Alex Pareene recently did in the pages of Salon. I apologize for my error and I appreciate the effort of those who let me know.

Memory can be a funny thing. I suspect that the experience of living through the general election in Connecticut, and my interaction with many state Dems then, colored my perception of national Democrats.


  1. Well, I sympathize. But if the tea partiers were able to create a movement that elected extremists on the Republican ticket, why aren’t we lefties able to create a movement that will elect extremists on the Democratic ticket? In fact, your article identifies some successes in doing just that. Quit caring what Democrats say about it, and forge ahead.

  2. There is an important link between the apparent need to excoriate fringe liberals and an obsession with policing discourse and demonstrating cultural superiority.

  3. I think it is uncontroversial that the establishment in either party have a habit of defending their own.

    That said, I’m pretty sure I supported the Lamont bid at the time. Similarly, Lawyers, Guns, and Money had a blog post on the piece in question.

    But for Weisberg, the politics of national security are never about working out a reasonable, well thought out policy designed to protect the citizens and interests of the United States. Instead, it’s about hiding from the hippies under the bed. Joe Lieberman can’t be relied upon to fight Republicans or Al Qaeda, but we know that he’ll take on the hippies. That’s all that matters.

    Lieberman in Connecticut is absolutely the place to go for a primary challenge. Weisberg’s article is ridiculous and was called such by some liberals at the time. I can entirely understand why someone on the left would not donate money or labor to any major party organization, for that reason. Similarly, its totally reasonable to not work with any faction that would oppose doing a primary challenge with a solid candidate in a deep blue state. But ultimately, the establishment is one faction among many and they don’t win all the fights.

  4. “I have no idea what these people want.”

    What they want is to not face the incontrovertible truth about their movement.

    Liberals will eagerly point to the recent successes of the LGBT movement, for instance. And it’s fantastic that this progress has been made, but let’s be blunt; we’re talking about social progress for a small percentage of the population. So as far as I can tell this is liberalism’s great success of recent decades (they’ll also sometimes point to Obamacare, though I’m not sure that moving from “worst health care system in the western world to still worst in the western world though not as bad as before” should be deemed a success).

    In the economic realm, on the other hand, an arena that profoundly affects us all, things are vastly, and I mean vastly worse than few decades ago. Unions are almost functionally obsolete. College students take it for granted that they will graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and a job at a coffee stand. Income inequality is approaching Gilded Age levels. And on and on. Liberalism’s greatest success here is an executive order that raises the minimum wage for a small subset of the population to what it was in the late 1960s in constant dollars.

    This is a catastrophic failure of liberalism in the most important arena of all, and of course they don’t want to face that.

  5. If you’ll forgive the football analogy, politics is a game with a line of scrimmage AND a game where you need to throw deep downfield. A good football team will of course try to do both things, and crucially, being good at one makes the other easier.

    Having an energetic left pushes the politicos leftward, that is clearly true. But the converse is also true: having Democrats in office frees up space for activists to push the envelope leftward.

  6. “having Democrats in office frees up space for activists to push the envelope leftward”

    How? Point me to some examples during the Clinton-Obama era. I’ve seen almost zero indication that neoliberals have been pushed even marginally to the left of their conservative perch. And given one of FD’s central points–that we’re to vote for them whether they heed our pleas or nay–why would they?

    1. What I said was “freeing up space to push the envelope leftward” not necessarily Democrats themselves. That would come later. What I meant was that there is an opportunity cost to having a reactionary Republican in office. The activist left spent the entire Bush administration reacting to the Iraq war and other horrible things like that instead of putting time and effort into longer-term grassroots change. I know plenty of folks who would have rather been organizing locally for unions, immigrant rights, or something new and innovative who instead put a lot of effort into the anti-war movement.

  7. I saw Barney Frank yelling at Alexis Goldstein on Bill Maher’s show last year about this – he was mad that Occupy hadn’t turned into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic party. At some point in his browbeating he asked why Occupy hadn’t engaged electorally – “It wasn’t that kind of movement,” Goldstein said. If she had said “Ned Lamont is why,” they would have had a much more interesting conversation.

  8. What makes this all the more frustrating is that gerrymandering has made a lot of Dem house seats safe. These seats should be primed for lefty challengers that can actually get elected and at worst force the debate to the left.

    1. Example: Pennsylvania’s second congressional district has zero chance of going Republican, and yet Chaka Fattah is barely to the left of the President.

        1. Sadly no, a green candidate would be laughed out of Dingell’s district. You’re talking about mostly white, blue-collar people, lots of union and auto workers. In fact, Dingell’s willingness to beat up on environmentalists to protect the auto companies was a big reason he stayed in that seat for so long.

  9. I don’t know. I think there’s a real fundamental incoherence in Reed’s argument. The title suggests that the problem is the “surrender” of American liberals, but if you read the essay the argument seems to be that it’s the absence of a strong left that created the conditions which have enabled the liberals to surrender to their natural tendency to edge away from the left.

    I’m in sympathy this argument, but if it’s right then directing one’s fire at the liberals for doing what they’ve always done seems utterly misplaced. Liberals have long engaged in Democratic Party electoral politics, and have long had a tendency toward contempt for the left. That’s who they are. And if anything I’d argue there’s been a turn toward the left, amongst liberals, over the past 10 or 15 years.

    The problem, according to Reed’s real structural analysis, is a lack of vision and movement building strategies on the left. If a strong left emerges, liberals will respond.

    So okay, critique the left for failing to do that. Which he does, rather well, in these two paragraphs toward the end of his essay:

    The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; the black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist” software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.

    This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.

    This sounds right. But these aren’t the folks spending their time attacking Reed and others for voting for Nader, or swooning over Obama. These folks have never gotten on board with the Democratic Party.

    So who is Reed talking to? The liberals? Maybe, but according to what I see as his own premises they aren’t the ones whom we should ever rely on to build or sustain a left in this country. Or is it the left? Probably the left, since that’s where Reed lives. But I just don’t think the left suffers from an overinfatuation with the Democratic Party. The left’s got other problems.

  10. Thank you.

    I feel incensed on behalf of women when Michelle Goldberg et al. say that not voting Democratic is tantamount to treason, or whatever. Have they ever faced the choice (as every woman voter in West Virginia did in 2010 and again in 2012) of supporting an anti-choice, pro-NRA Democrat owned by the coal industry, an anti-choice, pro-NRA Republican who would be happy to sell out to the coal industry, or a third-party candidate?

    1. I haven’t had to face that choice as a Marylander and obviously primary challenges aren’t going to be an efficient mechanism in that sort of case. That said, there is one other strategy that the Left can pursue and that liberals should support. Namely voting system fixes, particularly at the state level.

      I recommend Fairvote for this. But under a sensible voting system (proportional or preferential voting for instance, depending on the context), it should be possible for you to express your support a palatable third party first, the Democrat second, and the Republican last (possibly with some other third parties intermingled in as fits the bill). This wouldn’t deal with the problem of having a candidate that doesn’t fit your values somewhere on your ticket. But it would assist organizing and give many more opportunities for the populace and the left in particular to reveal dissatisfaction.

      Such an approach won’t get much establishment support for obvious self-interest reasons. But I think anyone asking the Left for their votes should be willing to work towards a system where expressing their actual preferences doesn’t constitute throwing their vote away.

  11. Your mention of Holy Joe causes me to realize that I have heard virtually nothing about him since he left the Senate. Is he ill?

  12. What must we do?
    Win a goddamn election!

    I sympathize with your frustration, but the fact is that the left has no welcome in the Democratic Party because most people in the establishment—hell, most people who follow politics—regard leftists as consistent losers at the ballot box.

    Your piece, while heartfelt, basically amounts to pleading with Lamont’s opponents to be nice to him and give him the win because it would have been better for everyone. But politics don’t work like that. And if you think the party establishment was mean to Lamont, it’s nothing compared to what the Republicans would’ve done to him; he would’ve become a national joke instead of a footnote. I liked Lamont (or at least, hated Lieberman), I donated to Lamont, I pushed people to vote for him… But in the end, he was simply another well-meaning liberal who couldn’t play politics, and if you can’t play politics, you don’t get to make policy.

    The Republican willingness to embrace the Tea Party isn’t the result of their greater sympathy to the fringes, it’s the outcome of a long intra-party battle, which was settled by the fringe’s command of votes. When Reagan ran in 1979, the Republican establishment *hated* him. He was perceived as another Goldwater, a far-right candidate who’d blow a winnable election. And they went after him for it; the phrase “voodoo economics,” which liberals rightly attacked him with for a decade, was coined by George H.W. Bush during the primaries. Reagan didn’t win over the party by explaining how his election would advance their goals, much less by begging for mercy, he won them over by winning primary after primary, and then trouncing the Democrats in every election.

    Don’t say “We would win if the establishment would back us.” Some people in the Democratic Party establishment are simply opposed to your goals. They will fight you until you beat them at the ballot box. Others kind of like your goals, but see you as electoral losers. Prove them wrong.

    That is the *only* way the Left will build strength. All the pleas for Michelle Goldberg to be nicer are worth nothing if you can’t command the votes.

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