17 February 2014

Populism or Progress: Is either possible?

In the March Harper's Adolph Reed Jr. laments a "narrowing of social vision"on the American left since the 1960s, culminating in the administration of arch-centrist Barack Obama. Reed notes that accounting for this narrowing of vision is a complex task, but he wants to blame it, not unreasonably, on too close an identification between the interests of the left as a whole and those of the Democratic party. He diagnoses a bad case of "electoralitis," victims of which believe that "each election now becomes a moment of life-and-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection." Reed blames this on the increasing demonization (itself not exactly unjustified) of the Republican party, noting a trend long observed here in which the Democrats present themselves as the only viable alternative to Republican ruination of the country, whose success depends on unconditional solidarity on the part of everyone to the left of the GOP. As Reed describes the typical argument: "true, the last Republican didn't bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will." Reed damns both Obama and Bill Clinton, their electoral success having vindicated an unambitious excuse for progressivism. These Democratic presidents have reduced the "left" to no more than "a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order." It seems to stand for no more than "inclusiveness," perhaps taking Obama's election as proof of a reformed social order rather than as a halting first step toward that end. Reed fears that post-Obama leftism will have be "capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering and making up 'Just So' stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity....Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to anti-discrimination."

The problem, Reed thinks, is more than the fact that by now "no politically effective force exists." The deeper problem is that the American left lacks "a clear, practical utopian vision," while the right has one, however wrong that may be. Liberals and those further left seem to have abandoned the "belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present," while the right still peddles the entrepreneurial dream of upward mobility through individual effort. The problem with Reed's essay is that it says little about how we've reached this point. He dismisses the "relentless Republican juggernaut" as a Democratic scarecrow without accounting for how the GOP could play that role convincingly. You get little historical sense of why the left has grown demoralized -- why the Republicans started winning more elections, and so on.

Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books promotes Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as the face of a new American Populism that could turn the historical tide. Warren is the anti-Clinton, more specifically the anti-Hillary, in the eyes of many progressives: a "populist" progressive untainted (as yet) by power. Her success in Massachusetts, reclaiming Ted Kennedy's seat from a short-term GOP usurper, and her seemingly glittering promise for 2016 signal to Michael Tomasky that the Democratic party is "finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and toward a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years or even decades."

Warren is probably the New York Review's ideal populist: born poor in Oklahoma but eventually a Harvard Law School professor. Her main populist credential is a 2011 speech in which she said, "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own." That's little different from Obama's "you didn't build that" remarks, and as such little real proof of populist inclinations, however those may be defined by Tomasky. He thinks conditions are ripe for a populist backlash against the Republicans, given growing inequality, but he thinks conditions will be riper, if not ripest, should someone like Warren defeat an authentic Tea Party Republican in the 2016 presidential election. It's important that the Republican loser be a genuine ideologue so that the party sees his defeat as a decisive if not definitive repudiation of the TP ideology and doesn't repeat the excuse-making of 2008 and 2012. Tomasky may underestimate ideologues' capacity for excuse-making, however. For the true believer, any loser by definition is unsound or impure ideologically; since the pure message would surely win, the losing message is ipso facto impure. In any event, Republican defeat is the sine qua non for any populist or progressive revival -- for Tomasky the two adjectives may be synonymous -- but if the Democrats again define themselves by what they're against (Republicans, Tea Partiers) instead of by what they're for someone like Adolph Reed may see little progress. It may seem very familiar to him instead, especially if the imperative to elect Warren or Clinton as the first woman President trumps other progressive or populist imperatives.

Tomasky believes that "history in fact shows that while progress may take its time arriving, it always comes." That doesn't sound like the sort of pessimism or fatalism Reed decries, while Tomasky might accuse people like Reed, typically, of impatience. Reed may be impatient to the extent that he may not understand fully the causes of today's apparent pessimism. Americans may simply be all too conscious of scarcity to dream big progressive dreams. More so than during the New Deal years, there's a consciousness of ultimate scarcity, not only of any nation's economic resources but mainly of the natural resources of the planet. If anything, people on the left are more conscious and more constrained by thoughts of our ecological vulnerability than those on the right. Do such thoughts make people on the left too quick to assume certain things can't be done? Possibly. Meanwhile, the non-ideological majority remains cautious or just plain scared. Last weekend's vote against unionizing a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee doesn't exactly testify to the common people's faith in solidarity -- though of course the labor movement blames their defeat on Republican fearmongering. Reed writes that a strong labor movement is absolutely essential to a real American left; "Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless." Writing well in advance of the VW vote, he admits that the task won't be easy; "It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves." It definitely seems to require more than trusting another technocrat like Sen. Warren to save us. Does it also require a "utopian vision,"as Reed suggests? It depends on what we mean by "utopian." Utopian thinking today seems constrained by our consciousness of limits. But what if the real meaning of utopian thinking is to demand what we should have regardless of whether we can have it or not? There's some danger to such a mindset, since it's unrealistic by definition, but if realism results only in pessimism, we can still imagine a better world. In fact, we have to, whether it's realistic or not, and whether everyone wants it or not, to be true to our human nature.

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