By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Short of replacing the American electorate with the Canadian one, the left needs three things if it is to have any chance of wresting power back from the right: ideas, money and organization. Thanks to Bush, it has begun to get the latter two. Dubya’s face not only launched a thousand attack books, it helped spawn such marvelous fund-raising engines as MoveOn and prompted the Democrats to stage a smoothly organized campaign. The left is more structurally sound than it’s been in years, although it badly needs some well-funded think tanks. (I suspect it’s easier for MoveOn to raise $250,000 for an anti-Gonzales commercial than seed money for a left-wing Heritage Foundation. Over to you, Mr. Soros.)
Of course, money and organization can only take any political movement so far. In the wake of Kerry’s defeat, you often heard it argued that the candidate himself was the problem, that he lacked the charisma to put across ideas that most of America would agree with. Now, if only Barack . . .
Yet Kerry, too, is a symptomatic figure. Voters couldn’t tell what vision of America he stood for. And his vagueness was his party’s vagueness — indeed, the whole left’s vagueness — in a hypercapitalist world in which socialism can no longer be used as a threat or a promise.
What the left lacks is not a galvanizing messenger but a positive message, a set of energizing ideas and values. It’s not enough to oppose the invasion of Iraq or Bush’s plans for Social Security. That’s merely to react against someone else’s agenda. We must reverse the great (and startling) historical flip-flop in our political iconography. Forty years ago, the left represented the future — it crackled with pleasurable possibility — while the right symbolized the repressive past, clinging to dead traditions like shards of a wrecked ship. Change means movement, said the great organizer Saul Alinsky, and during the ’60s, the political counterculture had the passion to get things moving.
These days, all that has been stood on its head: In the wake of September 11, the right claims it wants to free oppressed people — why, democracy is on the march! — while the left is too often caught saying "I told you so" about the mess in Iraq, even as that country speeds toward an election that any decent human being should hope goes well. In 1968, who would have believed it possible that the left would be home to the dreary old "realists" while the right would be full of utopians?
For this to change, the left needs to do what the right did. It needs to define what it stands for. And it must be willing to fight for what it believes over the long haul, even if it means losing some elections. In particular, it must begin to take back four things that it has ceded to the right.
1. It must reclaim virtue.After the election, you heard endless talk about how Bush won on "values." This wasn’t true — the so-called values vote was no more powerful in 2004 than in earlier years. But what is true is that conservatives are scarily comfortable talking about morality, while the left (still influenced by "scientific" socialism) is made nervous by moral language. Because of this, our political culture’s idea of virtue has been whittled into a sad, mingy thing, a question of private behavior. Yet one historic strength of the left was its belief that morality is also a matter of public virtue — justice, equality, generosity, tolerance. The loss of this idea has been catastrophic. While Republicans rouse their troops by attacking Clinton’s immorality or gay marriage, Democrats couldn’t make hay from the moral outrage of corporate executives (who make 1,000 times their employees’ wages) selling off stock options for top dollar while letting pension funds collapse. Morality should be our issue, not theirs. Where’s The Book of Liberal Virtues?
2. It must reclaim freedom. One of the left’s glories has been its tradition of heroic internationalism, still alive in the anti-globalization movement’s insistence on workers’ rights around the world. (Typically, though, "anti-globalization" sounds negative rather than positive.) But when it comes to foreign policy these days, the left appears lost. I get depressed hearing friends sound like paleocon isolationists or watching them reflexively assume that there’s something inherently tyrannical about the use of American power. It’s not enough to mock Norman Podhoretz’s insistence that the battle with Islamic terrorism is World War IV. Just as the left lacked a coherent position on what to do with murderous despots such as Milosevic and Saddam — it won’t do to say, "They’re bad, but . . ." The left now needs a position on how best to battle a Muslim ideology that, at bottom, despises all the freedoms we should be defending. America should be actively promoting the freedom of everyone on the planet, and the key question is, how would the left do it differently from the Bush administration?
3. It must reclaim pleasure. For the last 30 years, the right’s been having fun — Lee Atwater playing the blues, Rush Limbaugh giving that strangulated laugh, The Weekly Standard running those mocking covers — while the left has been good for you, like eating a big, dry bowl of muesli. This isn’t simply because leftists can be humorless (a quality shared with righteous evangelicals), but because, over the years, they’ve gone from being associated with free love and rock & roll to seeming like yuppified puritans; hence the Gore-Lieberman ticket talked about censoring video games and brainy leftist Thomas Frank tirelessly debunks the pleasure of those who buy anything Cool or find Madonna meaningful. (Clinton was an exception — he enjoyed a Big Mac and an intern as much as the hero of a beer commercial — and he was the one Democrat in recent years that most average Americans really liked.) While the left is correct in talking about the gas-guzzling horror of SUVs, it’s a losing cause to tell a nation full of proud drivers that they should feel guilty about the car they love. Rather than coming off as anti-consumerist puritans in a consumerist culture, the left should be fighting on the side of freedom and pleasure — for instance, arguing that ordinary people should have more time off from the endless hours of work that increasingly devour our souls. This is the kind of idea we should own — and force the right to argue against.
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