MISSING MOVEMENT WATCH! Whatever became of the left?

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2011

PART 1—KAZIN’S QUESTION: Michael Kazin is a professor at Georgetown—but today, we won’t hold that against him. In Sunday’s New York Times, Kazin wrote an essay which asked a very good question:

“Whatever Happened to the American Left?”

This, the headline on Kazin’s piece, represents the basic question he posed all through his piece. For the record, his question is a bit of a lover’s question. Kazin defines himself as a man of the left.

Kazin has just published “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation,” a history of the American left. But as he started Sunday’s essay, he wondered about “the relative silence” of the left today. At the end of this, his opening passage, the professor asked his basic question in a second way:
KAZIN (9/25/11): Sometimes, attention should be paid to the absence of news. America's economic miseries continue, with unemployment still high and home sales stagnant or dropping. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and their fellow citizens is wider than it has been since the 1920s.

And yet, except for the demonstrations and energetic recall campaigns that roiled Wisconsin this year, unionists and other stern critics of corporate power and government cutbacks have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.

Instead, the Tea Party rebellion—led by veteran conservative activists and bankrolled by billionaires—has compelled politicians from both parties to slash federal spending and defeat proposals to tax the rich and hold financiers accountable for their misdeeds. Partly as a consequence, Barack Obama's tenure is starting to look less like the second coming of F.D.R. and more like a re-run of Jimmy Carter—although last week the president did sound a bit Rooseveltian when he proposed that millionaires should ''pay their fair share in taxes, or we're going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare.''

How do we account for the relative silence of the left?
According to Kazin, the left has “failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.” How do we explain that relative silence, he asked.

Has the left really been silent—even relatively silent—about the nation’s ongoing economic miseries? Some folk may reject this basic claim as a scurrilous slander. For ourselves, we think Kazin is asking an important question—a question liberals and progressives should be asking themselves much more often, in a much more disciplined way. Beyond that, we think he paints an accurate picture of the modern political discourse—a discourse in which most of the energy, and most of the skillful messaging, can be found on the right.

In truth, Kazin can be a bit annoying when he describes this sad state of affairs. Have the forces of the right taken control of the discourse? We would say that this claim is accurate. But here’s the way Kazin describes their efforts over the past thirty-plus years, a period in which the right has taken the energy away from the left:
KAZIN: In the late 1970s, the grass-roots right was personified by a feisty, cigar-chomping businessman-activist named Howard Jarvis. Having toiled for conservative causes since Herbert Hoover's campaign in 1932, Jarvis had run for office on several occasions in the past, but, like Henry George, he had never been elected. Blocked at the ballot box, he became an anti-tax organizer, working on the belief that the best way to fight big government was ''not to give them the money in the first place.''

In 1978 he spearheaded the Proposition 13 campaign in California to roll back property taxes and make it exceedingly hard to raise them again. That fall, Proposition 13 won almost two-thirds of the vote, and conservatives have been vigorously echoing its anti-tax argument ever since. Just as the left was once able to pin the nation's troubles on heartless big businessmen, the right honed a straightforward critique of a big government that took Americans' money and gave them little or nothing useful in return.

[…]

Like the left in the early 20th century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like Fox News and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to their cause.

The Tea Party is thus just the latest version of a movement that has been evolving for over half a century, longer than any comparable effort on the liberal or radical left. Conservatives have rarely celebrated a landslide win on the scale of Proposition 13, but their argument about the evils of big government has, by and large, carried the day.
Our questions: Is Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio program really part of “an impressive set of institutions?” Has Limbaugh’s talk radio program mainly served to “disseminate ideas?” How about the conservative think tanks which have churned endless sets of talking-points designed to disinform the voters? One example out of millions: When these think-tanks convinced the public that the Social Security trust find was just “an accounting fiction,” were they really constructing “arguments” and “ideas”—a “straightforward critique?” Or would it be more accurate to say that they were engaged in disinformation?

Kazin is quite polite in his description of this conservative world—the conservative world which has emerged since the days of Howard Jarvis. He doesn’t mention the mountains of garbage which have emerged from those “think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos”—mountains of garbage which have often disinformed the public. On the other hand, not everything from the right has been garbage during this period—and we think Kazin’s basic picture is basically accurate. Starting at some point in the 1960s or 1970s, the conservative world began to build a very successful message machine which has in fact largely “carried the day.” These institutions have been “impressive” in their raw political power. And in the face of this message machine, the left has been rather inept.

Whatever happened to the left? In the fact of this “impressive” onslaught, the left has largely failed.

This basic portrait isn’t new, but progressives need to discuss it more often. Whatever happened to the left? Why has the left been so inept in the political wars of the past forty years? Why does so much of the energy and messaging success lie with the heirs to Howard Jarvis?

What accounts for our relative silence?

In his essay and in this recent interview, we think Kazin is asking good questions. Sadly, major figures of the left are constantly giving us partial answers. Just this week, some of Kazin’s fellow professors are giving us our latest look at some of the ways the left keeps failing. Alas! There is rarely a dearth of damn-fool conduct emerging from folk who represent the left in the eyes of the larger world. The modern left loves to fail, in the dumbest ways possible.

Why has the left been so inept? We think that’s a very good question. Sadly, there are many good answers. We’ll be frisking Kazin’s question in this series all week.

Tomorrow: History takes a long time

12 comments:

  1. For one thing, the Right concentrates wealth into big pools, and can skim from these these pools to pay propagandists and other helpers their big salaries. The Left disperses wealth widely, so there's no big pool to fund activities.

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  2. I don't understand the complaints from the left. In only 2 1/2 years, President Obama and a Democratic Congress have grown the federal government 33%, from an annual budget of $3 trillion to $4 trillion. They've enacted a program of universal health care. They're added thousands of new regulations. The left has been winning.

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  3. People should be banned from discussing the difference in the relative efficacies of the right and the left without talking about the difference in the amount of money the right puts into propaganda compared to the left. Yes, there are a lot of dumb leftists who don't care about convincing others and even more dumb liberals who don't understand why they're liberal, but the source of the problem is the allocation of resources.

    Back in the day the left was able to compete because mass communication had largely not been invented or was still relatively cheap - TV wasn't around, there was local radio, etc. Nowadays, for a movement to get its ideological foot in the door, entire TV channels are needed, with slick productions and lots of graphics, as well as radio shows that can reach the whole country and keep a large advertising budget, magazines need to be able to compete with free content online, while blogs are too busy either trying not to piss people off so they can keep their grants and mainstream media appearances or trying to keep the bills paid so they can't expand and reach a larger audience.

    The internet might still turn around some of these problems. But the fact remains that a substandard writer and mediocre thinker on the right can find paying work while lots of smart people on the left give up the dream and find a 9-5 because there just isn't enough to go around in these parts.

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  4. David in Cal said "President Obama and a Democratic Congress have grown the federal government 33%, from an annual budget of $3 trillion to $4 trillion," demonstrating that he has a very flexible interpretation of agency.

    The budget grew because the Dems have increased it, huh? You can certainly be forgiven, David, for thinking that. There's little coherent discussion of the budget. Nevertheless, your thinking it and it being true are two very different things.

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  5. Swan, why not explain to David in Cal why his thinking isn't "true"? Your non-answer doesn't address any of his talking points, which you could debunk in a paragraph or several.

    David in Cal, the reason the budget has increased from $3 trillion over President Obama's term is because we have faced a massive shortfall in taxes based on the economic collapse that begin in 2007 under George W. Bush.

    The government has had to step in, with funding for a range of programs, to make up for the already curtailed revenues (because of the unfunded Bush tax cuts/shifts to the rich, the spending on the wars, the Medicare advantage program, and the fact that millions more people now depend upon the social safety net programs that kept them from living on the street.

    When you talk about "spending," it is easy to simply cite numbers, but you have to put them in perspective. Also, note that President Obama has presided over the lowest federal tax rates in history; he implemented a GOP/conservative-created health insurance plan; and he has not implemented more regulations than any other recent present (than George W. Bush).

    It's very important not just to cite GOP/Republican talking points, because while they preach to the conservative choir, they do not touch upon any of the concerns liberals, or even many independents, have with this president.

    Liberals are unhappy with President Obama for a host of reasons, including: his failure to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he promised to; his failure to close the prison at Guantánamo, as he promised to; his failure to return federal tax rates to their level under Bill Clinton, during whose tenure the country created 20+ million net new jobs, almost 7 times what occurred under George W. Bush's lower-tax, deregulatory environment; he promised to impose regulations that would prevent another global financial catastrophe of the sort that Wall Street caused, but he has presided over a weak regulatory environment that has transferred trillions to Wall Street and done comparatively little for the rest of the country; he has not been sufficiently attentive to the fact that we have 9% unemployment, which is devastating Americans all over the country, and he has until recently pushed an austerity approach to addressing our economic problems, when history and economists on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly noted that this approach would not work; he promised a public health insurance option, which could have helped to lower health insurance costs, but actually negotiated this away in advance of the health insurance legislation, while publicly claiming he was fighting for it; and on and on.

    Now do you grasp why liberals may be unhappy with Barack Obama?

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  6. The above paragraphs should read:

    The government has had to step in, with funding for a range of programs, to make up for the already curtailed revenues (because of the unfunded Bush tax cuts/shifts to the rich, the spending on the wars, the Medicare advantage program), and the fact that millions more people now depend upon the social safety net programs that kept them from living on the street. People's use of the social safety net (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, disability, etc.), and the first jobs bill package's aid to states, which have suffered massive revenue shortfalls and thus have had to implement spending cuts, have account for increased budget expenditures.

    When you talk about "spending," it is easy to simply cite numbers, but you have to put them in perspective. Also, note that President Obama has presided over the lowest federal tax rates in history; he implemented a GOP/conservative-created health insurance plan; and he has not implemented more regulations than any other recent president (than George W. Bush).

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  7. Two small corrections:

    "his failure to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he promised to"

    During his campaign, he promised to expand the war in Afghanistan, and he did.

    While he did promise to close the prison at Guantánamo, his proposal was to transfer the prisoners to a Guantanamo North, not actually end the illegal imprisonments of uncharged--and mostly innocent--people.

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  8. It's interesting that Kazin mentions both Henry George and Howard Jarvis in the same article, yet fails to identify a central point: it wasn't just that George was a pro-labor leftist and Jarvis was an anti-tax rightist; George based his prescription of a just society around a system of capturing socially-created value, while letting individuals keep individually-created value (land value tax), where Jarvis' Prop. 13 acted as a huge transfer of socially-created value from government to Cali landowners -a transfer by which, as George might have predicted, Cali has since been doomed (half of a property tax is a tax on land).

    People everywhere would do well to read George's Progress and Poverty.

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  9. Matt--

    Agree with what you have to say. The idea of capturing socially-created value was also behind the UK Liberal party's "People's Budget" passed before WWI, when UK was seeing a very similar social and economic breakdown as that now affecting US. George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England--by which he mean old school Adam Smith Liberalism-- is a key read. One of the main principles in that budget was capturing the 'unearned increment' of income, i.e. what accrued to an individual through no effort of his/her own, but merely because government or society as a whole had taken action.

    It is an argument that can speak well to conservatives.

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  10. Chris--


    The land tax portion of that People's Budget was the result of the efforts of adherents of Henry George. George had a large following in Britain, not in small part due to his work on the Irish famine. His "The Irish Land Question" is a worth-while read, even today.

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