Sunday, November 07, 2004

Whither the American Left?

The Democratic party, it seems clear enough, is not about to change its current stance of refusing to publicly question the paradigm of the neo-cons, as this important post by Matthew Yglesias also states. As far as political theory goes, there is no clear alternative to the neo-con project currently making itself heard in any significant way. The Clintonesque "third way," despite what some may argue to be its accomplishments, was largely responsible for paving the way to the impotent and hopelessly compromised position where the American left, such as it is, currently slouches, smokes its cigars, and licks its wounds. Whether an international counterbalancing force to US hegemony emerges or not remains to be seen. Much may depend on the next few months in Iraq.

In the absence of a truly unprecedented protest movement within the United States, disastrous political trends may indeed soon be set, and in ways extremely difficult if not impossible to disrupt.

In the spirit of continuing the hard work of articulating just what such an alernative "left" might need, now more than ever, to embrace, I offer the following passage from Roberto Unger and Cornel West:

The present form of affirmative action, sitting uneasily between aggressive antidiscrimination and race-based preferment in employment and education, has fueled resentments in the white small-business and working classes. These resentments in turn help prevent the emergence of a transracial progressive majority. The absence of such a majority makes the present limitations of policy for the redress of racial injustice seem inescapable, thus closing a circle that squeezes American democracy dry. A balkanized citizenry cannot reach a progressive consensus on this issue, especially when awareness of class is buried in the fray.

The Democratic party and the progressive movement forged by this sequence of striking retreats and precarious advances has two factions. One, smaller faction looks back nostalgically to the New Deal. This group clings to a cause in whose further advance it gives no sign of believing. The other, larger faction, which includes Clinton and Gore, as it included Carter before them, looks sideways to the Republican party. It hopes to humanize what it no longer seeks to rival or replace. It finds its view of the world confirmed in the story line of the most prestigious newspapers and magazines and in the myopic pronouncements of the academic economists and policy experts.

This is a rump and a residue rather than a party or a movement. Its leaders pride themselves on being managers rather than ideologists. They speak and act as if the government of a country were like the management of a business -- and an old-fashioned business at that, one satisfied with balancing the books, keeping the workers disiplined, and animating them with pep talks. However, the paradoxical result of their antipragmatic pagmatism is to make politics seems largely irrelevant to the solutions of any of the recognized problems of the country. Such a pragmatism will backfire soon.

Our politicians deny themselves and their fellow citizens the ability to experiment with the institutional arrangements of the American economy and American democracy. They resign themselves to brokering legislative deals among the powerful organized interests while calling upon voluntary social action to save the country from the incapacity of the government over which they preside. They claim to be practical, yet seem forever unable to deliver the goods. Thus arises, in the United States today, an oppressive contrast between the vitality and greatness of the country and the littleness and deadness of its public life. [Well, it's not dead any longer, of course, now it's just going pell-mell in the opposite direction]


In this circumstance, the work of progressives is to speak, within and outside the Democratic party, for a clear alternative. Not for some impossible romantic dream of a different "system." Not for the last-ditch defense of every part of the New Deal compromise in American politics. Not for the Republican agenda -- or the doctrine of the one true way -- with a human face. Not for the humanization of the inevitable. But for a practical view of how, step by step, and piece by piece, to democratize the American economy and reenergize American democracy.

To understand our country you must love it. To love it you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as it is, however, is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America -- this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope become capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes -- needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.
(Unger and West, The Future of American Progressivism, 55-93, 1998, my emphasis in bold)

(more on Cornel West here and here)

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