MISSING MOVEMENT WATCH: Could the left be getting it wrong?


PART 3—KAZIN’S STRANGE SUGGESTION: “How do we account for the relative silence of the left?”

In Sunday's New York Times, Michael Kazin weirdly asked that plainly ridiculous question. Despite the nation’s economic woes, despite the vast rise in inequality, we on the left “have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession,” Kazin improbably said.

Why would Kazin say such things about us, the good pure brilliant smart decent folk of the American left? We’re not sure, but he kept it up all through his lengthy essay. As he continued, he even seemed to say that folk on the right have been kicking our perfect pure butts in the nation’s messaging wars:

“Instead, the Tea Party rebellion…has compelled politicians from both parties to slash federal spending and defeat proposals to tax the rich and hold financiers accountable for their misdeeds,” the professor continued—weirdly suggesting that we on the left might need to improve our game!

According to Kazin, most of the juice has been on the right as the nation tries to deal with its economic miseries. Hence his plainly ridiculous question: “How do we account for the relative silence of the left?”

Kazin attempts to answer that question in his essay. Yesterday, we reviewed one major part of his answer (click here). But sure enough! Due to the fact that Kazin is white, his insidious electoral racism was sure to emerge in the course of his effort! And sure enough! As he neared the end of Sunday’s piece, he began to pretend that those on the left may have done some things imperfectly. As he started this part of his piece, his obvious electoral racism plainly began to emerge:
KAZIN (9/25/11): If activists on the left want to alter this reality, they will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility. During the last election, many hoped that the organizing around Barack Obama's presidential campaign would do just that. Yet, since taking office, Mr. Obama has only rarely made an effort to move the public conversation in that direction.
The left has to “figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice,” but Obama “has only rarely made an effort to move the public conversation in that direction!” Plainly, Kazin would never say such a thing about a sitting white president!

OK, we’ve had some fun. For now, let’s put the snark to the side. For those who care to consider the possibility that we on the left might step up our game, Kazin makes some fleeting suggestions at the end of his essay. We think those suggestions are well worth discussing, although his remarks are brief.

How have progressives won in the past? In the past, progressives have “seldom bet their future on politicians,” Kazin says. Instead, progressives have “fashioned their own institutions,” which have driven the discourse along.

In this, Kazin makes an excellent point. Liberals and progressives can’t expect a politician, even a sitting president, to create miraculous new understandings among the American people. Whether it’s President Clinton or President Obama, a president marches to political war with the economic understandings the public already has. In Kazin’s view, the left has tended to drop the ball in this area over the past forty years. During that period, liberals have “focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth,” he says. There have been large successes in these areas. (Just look how well Herman Cain is doing!) But the right has tended to fill the vacuum concerning the way the economy works.

What explains our relative silence in that area? What have we on the left perhaps been doing in a slightly imperfect fashion?

We know, we know! In a highly tribalized culture, it’s against the rules to ask such questions—to suggest that one’s own tribe may have failed in some manner. Within our burgeoning pseudo-liberal political world, our multimillionaire cable leaders encourage us to mock The Other. Every night, we’re trained to laugh at how stupid Those People are. (You know? The ones who are kicking our asses?) We must never note the sheer stupidity on vivid display within our own tribe. Criticizing one's own tribe is a break with every known rule!

But as he finished Sunday’s essay, Kazin made a strange suggestion. He suggested that we on the left should take a good look at ourselves!

For our money, this part of his essay could have been expanded—and Kazin did expand on these ideas in a recent interview. But here are the brief suggestions with which he ended Sunday’s piece. We’ll highlight two of his statements:
KAZIN: [T]he left must realize that when progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions—unions, women's groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press—in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.

Today, such institutions are either absent or reeling. With unions embattled and on the decline, working people of all races lack a sturdy vehicle to articulate and fight for the vision of a more egalitarian society. Liberal universities, Web sites and non-governmental organizations cater mostly to a professional middle class and are more skillful at promoting social causes like legalizing same-sex marriage and protecting the environment than demanding millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.

A reconnection with ordinary Americans is vital not just to defeating conservatives in 2012 and in elections to come. Without it, the left will remain unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.
Say what? Current liberal institutions “cater mostly to a professional middle class?” And we on the left need to fashion “a reconnection with ordinary Americans?”

Impossible! Aren’t they the very people we very much like to mock?

What is Kazin talking about? And why is he saying these things about Us? For our money, Kazin has more to say on these topics. Luckily, he said some of those things right here, in a recent interview conducted for Salon.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine some of the ways we on the left—brace yourselves!—may be failing to move the ball. Warning! In his interview, Kazin discusses possible errors being made by us on the left!

We know—the notion is strange on its face! Where do they find the very strange folk who are willing to make such claims?

Tomorrow: Possible errors


  1. Mr. Somerby has asked a fascinating question in the past, one that I have been posing a lot myself. Where is the liberal Grover Norquist? In the passed, one could have asked, where is the liberal Howard Jarvis. Where is the guy on the TV who presents the liberal view, clearly, effectively, and omnipresently?

    The president is an effective spokesman. But the problems is, a lot of other things take up his time. He just can't be a regular on "Morning Joe". What we do need, assuming the format is created to allow it, is someone who is strong, who is responsive, and who is willing to call something nonsense, when he hears it, and is able to explain coherently why it is nonsense.

  2. Ummmmmm.... maybe liberal institutions pay more attention to the professional middle class because those are the people in the Democratic coalition who have money?

    I know that we're not allowed to bring up money in any discussion of the effectiveness of the left in the US, but I'm willing to risk arrest here: the institutions of the left are mostly funded by people who have money to do said funding, and because they are funded, they get noticed more than institutions that don't have funding.

    LGBT issues is a good example. Same-sex marriage and DADT repeal, two goals the professional middle class has gotten behind, get a lot of attention, a lot more than, say, reforming prisons to be more gay-friendly, banning employment discrimination against LGBT people, or fighting queer homelessness (which is a lot higher than straight homelessness, BTW).

    Now why would there be a cottage industry built up around marriage and military service but not a similar one built up for gay prisoners or queer homeless people? Could it have anything to do with how homeless people and prisoners and the unemployed don't have much money, but people who want to marry or like the idea of gay people fighting wars do have money, and LGBT orgs need money to exist, for the moment they stop asking for money all the time they'll go under and no one will notice them?

    My little rant is done. I apologize to all the fine liberals here for bringing up such a coarse topic and suggesting two things (that money is power in the US and that money isn't equally distributed in the US) that are obviously only real in my head.

    You can all go back to discussing how the left caters to people with money and how people with even more money on the right, for completely inexplicable reasons, are better organized than people on the left. Obviously the problem is one of tactics!

  3. Anon - I can think of a few people on the left who are ideologically consistent like Norquist and energetic and intelligent and motivated. Noam Chomsky, Richard Kim, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Naomi Klein come to mind. They aren't as single-issue, but still they're out there.

    The issue isn't that they don't exist, but that no one with a lot of money wants their voices heard. It's hard to get access to the media when your views are fundamentally opposed to their continued privilege, it's hard to get lots of donors to start giving millions in campaign contributions if your beliefs are against the donors' interests, etc.

    Oh, there I go talking about money again. Excuse me! Clearly the problem is that Chris Matthews is just too dumb (for no explicable reason!) to see the need to have people like this on his program.

  4. Many Howler readers are doubtless familiar with the late Joe Bageant, who sounded notes similar to Bob S's on the left's failure to establish a compelling narrative about how the economy works. Thanks to a CJR review of Joe's memoir, I'm reading Deer Hunting with Jesus, an earlier book that tells the story of the “great white underclass” in places like Winchester, Va., his home town, who "cling to their guns and religion" and vote Republican.

    Comments blogger Paul Soderman, "As you read the stories of these 'plain country folk,' realize that we are all heading down the same road, and they may have started at a lower level, but we will all eventually reach the same point – courtesy of the Corporatocracy that has us all in thrall." Bageant was a good reporter, and his reportage about his Winchester neighbors suggest a path towards an economic narrative that might reach them.