There’s but one compelling, existential question for marginalized leftwing politics: will progressive clout be higher or lower when 2015 ends? If not, why not? Imagine the trend when the next inauguration caps another cash-stuffed, election fiasco: how much will the left have to cheer about? Whither the left (or the liberal middle) when Jeb and Hillary or their ilk possess the White House for four or eight years?
Reality is front and center: progressive Democrats can’t even match the seditious Tea Party, fronting dozens of primary challenges against entrenched, “inevitable” GOP candidates. Does not the status quo, when notching another victory without fierce opposition, add to its entrenchment?
That dilemma dramatizes our most vexing question: if progressives can’t gain ground during today’s hard times, full of disasters at home and abroad, then when? If progressives don’t gain when the right lurches between disgrace and farce, gloating with lies that scandalize reality, then when? Bright spots surface, but what notable change, especially on income distribution, speaks to unified progressive activism? If politics are truly in “Worse Shape Than We Thought,” why aren’t progressives gaining ground? For
huge numbers of Americans are now wary of both major political parties and increasingly upset about prospects in the long term. Many are convinced that a few big interests control policy.
They crave effective action to reverse long term economic decline and runaway economic inequality, but nothing . . . will be offered to them by either of America’s money-driven major parties.
Yankee Firebrands, Notable by Absence
Bottom line: if disorganized progressivism can’t leverage this blatant “craving” for action, so much for reform, let alone systemic change. Or fostering strong national leadership. Where are our conspicuous, Yankee insurgents, like England’s Russell Brand, who call for “revolution” from the outside in? Not sustained inequality, nor unfair taxation, government gridlock, nor police injustice infuse an expanding protest movement that paints all the dots. What articulate, powerful TV interviewer will replace the departing Bill Moyers? What disruptive cable pundit even replaced Keith Obermann? See any new George Carlins lately, blending incendiary satire and politics?
When does a clear-thinking, inspired movement, recalling unified ’60’s protests, extend the rage against rogue cops stealing more than civil rights from minority youngsters? Or serial killers machine-gunning children? Must we wait for Pope Francis’ U.S. visit next year to widely indict unbridled greed, speak for the poor, or remind Christians what defines their own stated compassion? There are stalwart leftwing voices, like Amy Goodman, but no unified vanguard awards progressive politics a national stage.
First, the Left Must Change
Is it a pipe-dream to propose the left come together, admit failures, and redirect priorities and methods? Can we honestly grade ourselves, explaining why so many remarkable brains, with high energy and decent money, have failed to gain traction? Like our government’s five-decade debacle towards Cuba, the left soldiers on, staggering against the greatest reactionary onslaught since the 19th C.
If shredded economic opportunity, regressive taxation, or dismal outlooks for their children don’t move the middle or lower classes from despondency to protest, what will? If shrunken voting, women’s and workers’ rights don’t rock the boat, what will? Fracking? Keystone pipeline? Fast-track for TPP, the next NAFTA? More murder in the streets?
Certainly, current cable ratings signal no turnaround, as earnest liberals are swamped by FOX wingnuts: the Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell Shows hit all-time audience lows while O’Reilly Factor marks its 15th consecutive year as the No. 1 cable news program. Okay, MSNBC draws the most diverse audience, top-ranked for Hispanics and African-Americans, with seven times more black viewers than FOX, but hardly enough.
Reform times are tough, with endless fat cat money, media conglomerates, and the unholy alliance of corporatism and governance. But that existed in the Gilded Age, too, without shutting down irrepressible reformers, shifting from abolition to women’s voting rights, labor abuses, rampant monopolies, even the vagaries of temperance. Most upsetting isn’t losing on policy or specific legislation, but failing to mount meaningful populist campaigns against outrageous abuses, large and small.
My point is simple: if the left is failing, should we not stop the presses, reason together, create bridges, and try something different? We still don’t get George Lakoff’s brilliant messaging/framing advice, “This is why conservatives win: George Lakoff explains the importance of framing — and what Democrats need to learn.” If nothing changes, let’s concede the progressive movement had its day, peaked during the 20th Century,but today resembles the “poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more.”
While online work informs the choir, the larger congregation is unmoved, distressed but manifestly not embracing leftwing language, presentation, and sentiment. Does the left change the world without changing itself? A few ideas to stimulate discussion:
1) Focus on Simple Ideas and Big Fixes: Confront climate change with desperately needed (green) infrastructure. Invest in training, jobs, stimulus. Tax the rich, stop crony corporatism. Redeem voting and women’s rights. Defend the efficiency of government and the glory of community.
2) Offset Doom and Gloom: What injured party signs on to pronouncements like “all of America sucks”? Or joins the crowd convinced the god-like U.S. is the monolithic “empire of chaos”? Or hears all of capitalism (thanks to its worst side) supplies not food, clothing or housing to billions but only huge fat cat profits? Or that climate calamity is upon us, another reason voting is pointless? What is more self-fulfilling than depression and cynicism that feed on each other?
3) Self-defeating Messaging & Frameworks: What reform movement grows with banners that declare America is the “source of all evil in the world”? Or sees Putin as the world’s great, moral hero? Or everyone in Washington (or Europe) is corrupt, vile, and inept? Or all terrorism is reducible simply to U.S. foreign policy disgraces? Will constantly dire hyperbole not exile skeptical moderates, even conservative allies?
4) Need to Pool Resources: Do liberal and/or progressive groups (and sites) not elevate self-reliance, certainly in fundraising, if not individualistic agendas? How many good groups cling to loyalists, eschew binding alliances, thus undermine any critical, anti-plutocratic “movement of movements”? Not only is unity strength, but today’s rampant disunity assures, even propels leftwing failure. Look to the last two decades but also remember that democracy, like baseball, ain’t over ’til it’s over.
5) No Clear Payoffs, No Critical Mass: What reform movement advances without detailed programs that benefit the vast majority, like redressing Main Street assets decimated by the avoidable ’08 collapse? What mission stirs the masses without legitimate audacity of hope? Without renewing the progressive New Deal, why should the oppressed study populist history and learn that leverage begins small, then grows? Even police, prison guards, and soldiers, nearly all with ordinary backgrounds, can sympathize with resistance when the time is right. Easy no, but not impossible.
Perhaps we should begin by recalling simple roadmaps, “Those not part of the solution are part of the problem” and “Never Give Up.”
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