ON THE LEFT
Embarrassed by the extreme antics of ultra-Right inciters like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and Joe Wilson, intellectual conservatives and the mainstream media paint a mythical landscape of American politics. David Brooks, guest pundit on virtually every TV news panel, is master of the art: the extremists and crazies on the Right are a fringe element that doesn't represent the GOP; the Left is the equivalent extreme on the fringe of American politics; the great majority of Americans occupy the Center, leaning Right.
What's wrong with that picture?
First, when it comes to die-hard opposition to every single facet of change that Americans voted for in electing Obama, the GOP is as stubbornly united as any political party ever was. On policy and on determination to bring Obama down, there is no crack in the ranks from Rush Limbaugh, Sara Palin and Newt Gingrich to Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Tim DeMint.
Second, the big majority that elected Obama clearly rejected the GOP and endorsed the progressive change that was promised. Within that majority, there is a strong, though very diverse, Left — one that is neither extremist nor a marginalized fringe. It bears no resemblance to the dangerous vigilantism that has become the hallmark of the ultra-Right.
The Left in American politics is not confined or defined by a political party. Nor is there a self-conscious recognition of the Left by all its diverse constituencies. Given that left and right are relative terms, is there a reasonable description of the American Left?
I think there is. The picture is becoming clearer as the fight for progressive change encounters huge systemic resistance. The Left's common denominator is the recognition that progress — every single step forward in the public interest — has to be won in struggle against corporate wealth and power.
That conviction is not universal in the overall majority that constitutes the Obama coalition, nor is it the philosophy of President Obama and his Administration. Still in practice, Obama and the entire progressive majority are pressed into conflict with corporate power over even modest reforms in health care, job stimulus measures, climate and alternate energy policy. The broad American Left has to be the engine that pushes the struggle forward. That outlook is crucial not only on domestic issues, but in the pursuit of peace against powerful pressures for war and persistent ambitions of imperial dominance.
Measured by the standard of struggle for human needs in deliberate opposition to anti-democratic corporate power, who and what is the American Left? It is a political conglomeration with no single leading center and with many different voices. There is no messianic component that is wiser than all the rest. Its public intellectuals include economists like Krugman and Steiglitz, analysts and journalists from Noam Chomsky to Bob Herbert, Rachel Maddow, Bill Fletcher, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Moyers, Amy Goodman and many, many others. There are strong trade union voices, especially Richard Trumka. The most dynamic leaders are community organizers fighting injustice at ground level in areas devastated by joblessness and foreclosures. There are a multitude of Left organizations, movements and publications. There are legislators such as Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, Barney Frank and like-minded members of Congress.
The diversity of the Left is a great strength, but it also makes for problems. Its place in the political landscape lacks definition, so it is readily misrepresented by those who seek to marginalize its influence. Also, particular organizations and individuals can be targeted for slander and frame-ups while others are silent and the entire Left is smeared. (Cases-in-point: the assault on Acorn and the forced resignation of White House Adviser Van Jones.)
It would be impossible to merge all of the Left into one formation, and foolish to try. But a developing strategy of unity and cooperation is essential, as is the defining theme: fighting for the public interest, for basic democratic reforms, against corporate greed and power.
The Left has an impressive place in our country's history. Its legacy is in anti-monopoly and farmer-labor coalitions; in every battle for progressive social legislation; in pioneering advances for trade unionism, for human, civil and immigrant rights, for racial and gender equality. A hallmark of the Left was its early consciousness of fascist danger and commitment to overcoming Jim Crow. Within the Left, advocates of socialism have been a significant presence, highlighted by the great popularity of Eugene V. Debs while imprisoned for opposing the First World War. The Left included, but never was limited to, socialists and communists of varying convictions, who contributed much though often diverted by ideological combat with each other.
Today the part of the American Left in various socialist and Marxist organizations is much smaller than in other times. That's another discussion, but it's a mistake — and demoralizing — to view the strength and impact of the Left through that narrow window. As the current severe crisis of Capitalism reminds us, Marxist analysis and socialist ideals have much to offer toward understanding and coping with the world we live in. But that's significant only in the context of openness to the total experience and thoughts of a broad and influential Left.