Letter to 'The Nation' From a Young Radical
Unlike its center-left counterparts elsewhere in the developed world, the American reform tradition has battled to enact policy without the benefit of a labor party. Absent such a party and faced with intense corporate resistance, the bulk of the American left has been tied to the Democratic Party, a social liberal, not a social democratic, formation. Workers and trade unions were brought into the big tent, but they were never structurally connected to or put in the vanguard of reform efforts. This lack of agency and of a solid institutional foundation for combating the excesses of capitalism eventually undermined liberal programs to build a more expansive welfare state.
The practical consequences of this failure are evident. In their 1987 study The American Perception of Class, Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Cannon showed that self-identified working-class voters in the United States, lacking a party like Britain’s Labour, often do not vote. The growth of highly organized, mass-membership political parties was a development of Europe’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century labor movements, starting in Germany. That the Democratic Party retains a looser political structure than its counterparts elsewhere finds reflection in its relatively inchoate, and at times contradictory, politics, and the lack of meaningful political action it inspires.
It is, after all, only a party in the broadest sense of the word. Open to all, the Democratic Party has no ideological requirements for membership. Anyone can register, making it little more than a coalition of social forces in which various groups contest for influence under a common banner. The American left, without a natural base and condemned to support the Democratic “lesser evil,” has traditionally conceded legitimacy to forces governing in the center.
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It’s no surprise that publications like The Nation, no matter how earnest in their opposition to the worst excesses of the Clinton or Obama administrations, have been prone to paint too many segments of the diverse Democratic Party as good-faith partners with progressives. Case in point: during last year’s labor dispute, in her “Sister Citizen” column [October 8], Melissa Harris-Perry equivocated between the insurgent Chicago Teachers Union and Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Instead of closing ranks and protecting a vulnerable union during an important fight, she pitied the children stuck “between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.” There was no deeper analysis of the stakes of the dispute or acknowledgment that the demands of the teachers—geared almost entirely toward student needs—enjoyed high levels of community support. Political conflict itself was painted as regrettable, and perhaps because Emanuel was a prominent Democratic leader, as a kind of fratricide.
But even The Nation’s bravest material has, like welfare liberalism as a whole, struggled to articulate a clear critique of the structures and social forces that have rolled back many of the social gains of the past century. Hence the room for some contributors to make battles over neoliberal education reform seem like the result of mutual intransigence and the clash of personalities rather than a broader class struggle.
The other half of the liberal scene, technocratic liberals, best embodied by Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, seem at first glance to have responded to the global social democratic impasse in more sophisticated ways than their peers. In a January piece, “After ‘the end of big government liberalism,’ ” Klein claimed that “the progressive project of building a decent welfare state is giving way to the more technocratic work of financing and managing it. How government is run, more than what exactly it does, seems set to be the main battleground of American politics in coming years.”
Unlike the welfare liberals with whom they share the same political party, technocratic liberals are less nostalgic for the postwar Fordist compromise between a strong labor movement and growing corporations. They are more apt to advocate reduced government spending and the introduction of markets into previously decommodified spaces—public schools, for instance. It’s a self-consciously “realist” approach to a new historical moment.
For technocratic liberals, sound policy has become an end in itself. But big policy changes require mobilized political actors. By acquiescing in the conservative consensus on welfare entitlements (largely transformed into “workfare” by President Clinton in 1996) and attacks on teachers disguised as education “reform” (pushed by mainstream Democrats at the local level across the country), the technocrats launch broadsides at the very people who got them elected, eroding the base from which they can enact policy. Even sharply progressive calls, like a recent one from The New York Times in favor of strengthening collective-bargaining rights, are more often than not presented as a wonkish policy program for economic stimulus, to be turned on and off at will, rather than a vehicle for working-class power and long-term progressive advance.
Socialists would not make this mistake. And neither would conservatives, for that matter. Though there are fierce battles in their party, House Republicans bind themselves to an ideological code, enforcing a set of standards that ironically resemble that of European socialist parties: dues are paid, commitments made explicit and members occasionally expelled. Declarations like Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” unite conservatives in Congress, while a network of think tanks, political action committees, grassroots activists and organizations at the state level keep them setting the national discourse, even as the demographics continue to skew in the Democratic Party’s favor.
The basic liberal program—a responsive government and the preservation of key social protections—is far more popular than, say, weakening child labor laws or forcing pregnant women to get transvaginal ultrasounds. But the conservative program is not only “on the agenda,” it is often enacted, and for good reason: the right is generally more confident, more ideologically consistent and better organized than those who oppose it.
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