The Left as Straw Man
If you take a look at the history of the “left” in the United States—and I mean really study the reality of it—and then compare that with the notion of the “left” as framed by conservative or “mainstream” discourse in this country, you just have to laugh. It’s a melancholy type of laughter, I suppose, but nonetheless the comparison is funny in a gallows humor type of way.
I am loosely defining the left as those who are in favor of a truly participatory democratic process, and who oppose the domination of government and society by class interests, which has primarily meant capitalist interests but has also included military and police forces considered as classes. Usually this has also involved a belief in justice conceived as human rights, not just in the sense of the three rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but also the rights to adequate food, housing, health, and socioeconomic equality. There is of course plenty of room for differences within this definition of the “left,” but I think this covers it in broad outline.
Separate from this, but sharing occasional points in common, is that segment of political culture known as “liberalism.” Liberalism has always operated within the class system, and assumed as an article of faith that the class system is inevitable, yet has argued that relatively equitable conditions should be maintained for all classes in order for the system to work. So-called conservatism, on the other hand, claims that the government has no business trying to maintain even relatively equitable conditions, and that, in effect, it’s every person for himself, with the wealthy wielding power by right. (In detail, the landscape is always more complex and varied, but this will do for my purposes.)
If you study the history of the United States, then, it is clear that the left has never gained anything close to a major share of power in the political process. There have been isolated figures with small followings, such as Senator LaFollette and the Progressive Party in the early 20th century, but in truth there’s never been a powerful leftist faction in Congress, and certainly never in the White House. The left has been active in grass-roots organizations, in the early labor movement, and in social movements of one sort or another, such as the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the various peace movements over the years. There has been a certain degree of influence on politics, especially as a general cultural force that seeps gradually into the process, which happened for example in the 1970s as a result of the ferment in the previous decade. But in tangible terms, in terms of who holds the real power in the government, the left has always been isolated on the margins.
Liberalism, on the other hand, has held power within the establishment at various times, and with various degrees of influence. The New Deal, for instance, and the social programs instituted in the 1960s and 70s, attempted to foster and maintain more equitable conditions, economically and socially, in America. It’s significant that liberalism has at the same time held to imperialist foreign policy aims. The Vietnam War was begun under liberal administrations, and supported by most liberals. More recently we saw a majority of mainstream liberals in the Congress, including such figures as John Kerry and John Edwards, vote for the invasion of Iraq. Liberalism does not take an anti-militarist stance, not only because it’s politically taboo to do so, but because liberals identify with the class interests that support themselves through foreign intervention and control of foreign markets.
For someone on the left, therefore, as I have defined it, the political experience in this country has been one of constant frustration and failure. Psychologically, a sense of defeat has been a salient feature of progressive consciousness for generations. I have witnessed this personally as an almost fatalistic attitude, a perpetual underdog role, and a constant underlying feeling of anger and despair. One backlash after another has effectively neutralized the labor movement and stymied the progress of the women’s movement, the movements for racial and ethnic equality, and just about every other facet of leftist political struggle. The use of protests and demonstrations, which for a brief moment in the 1960s seemed a potent force, has become practically meaningless due to a strategy of deliberate indifference and marginalization on the part of the establishment. Whatever satisfaction has been experienced in the ranks of progressives has been almost solely the satisfaction of solidarity with those of like mind and purpose, with actual achievements being sorely limited in scope and effect. Being on the left in this country has been, in terms of real power and influence on events, to be a loser.
Now if we turn from the historical reality of the American left and look at the narratives that have been, and continue to be, presented within the mainstream of public discourse as describing the left, you see a grotesque distortion, a set of assumptions and beliefs divorced from reality yet dominating the political landscape. It is the “right,” the so-called conservative movement, that has written and honed this narrative so that it is now largely accepted without challenge within the establishment and its expression in corporate media.
First of all, the left was lumped together with liberalism as one monolithic entity. Sometimes the distinction is subtly acknowledged by referring to certain politicians as “liberals,” and groups outside the “mainstream,” such as the peace movement, as “left.” Nevertheless, they are essentially treated as synonymous terms. Increasingly over the years, these terms have become interchangeable. In the language of the right, the “left” encompasses everyone from a business-friendly “centrist” such as Bill Clinton all the way over to Noam Chomsky. This is a deliberate strategy. Actual leftists had already been demonized many times over, particularly after World War II, when the right identified them with hostile foreign powers—the Communist bloc—and then persecuted them as threats to the country’s security. McCarthyism was one of the first attempts to connect liberalism with the “anti-American” left in order to gain political advantage and win elections through fear. This strain continued to have a considerable degree of influence on politics, although its more overt varieties—the John Birchers and their ilk—were generally perceived as on the fringes. With the right-wing backlash, first under Nixon and then with the triumph of the hard ideological right under Reagan, the conflation of “left” and “liberal” became more mainstream, until finally the term “liberal” was accepted as a complete negative, an insult. By 1988, the Democratic candidate for President, Michael Dukakis, denied that he was a liberal when asked. He was actually much more conservative than the liberals of the 1960s, but the point is that his campaign considered it political suicide to accept “liberal” as a label.
During the Clinton administration, leftists found themselves in the bizarre situation of seeing the President relentlessly attacked by the right and portrayed as a dangerous leftist. Self-aware progressives knew, on the contrary, that Clinton was in almost every respect an enemy to the left. Yes, he was pro-choice, and tried to throw a few crumbs to progressives in his social agenda, but overall he was a staunch NAFTA-backing corporatist, a traditional imperialist in foreign policy, passive on the environment, never challenging the oil interests, and aiding the erosion of the Bill of Rights in his anti-terrorism policies. It was his administration that helped spearhead the deregulation of the banking industry. He was also fond of trying to out-conservative the conservatives in an attempt to win votes from their base—the regressive “end of welfare” policy being just one example. Meanwhile, less politically aware citizens who tended to be more liberal, at least on social and economic issues, bought into the idea of Clinton as “one of them” because the right-wing fought him as if he were in fact a liberal. The progressive movement was left out to dry.
I go into such detail on this period because it is crucial in understanding how the right-wing narrative about the left and liberalism succeeded. It was to the advantage of the liberal establishment to abandon traditional liberalism in order to shore up the support of the upper class, and replace it with a sort of “conservatism lite,”—giving lip service to the notion of equality while relying on corporate power to keep the campaign money flowing. Greed had made liberalism in the traditional sense unfeasible for the political leadership. The old idea was that the system worked better when the government tried to foster more equitable conditions for the people. The right harassed that notion into the margins, and the Democratic Party for the most part abandoned it, in order, they thought, to hang on to a share of power.
The trouble was, that since the right had found a winning political formula, they weren’t about to be co-opted by Clintonesque “triangulation” strategies. Conservatives heated up the rhetoric even more, and after the September 11th attacks, the paradigm of the liberal as dangerous leftist traitor was established as official White House doctrine under Bush Jr. It didn’t matter that most Democrats had stopped calling themselves liberals. The right simply made the word “Democrat” synonymous with “liberal” just as they had done with “liberal” and “leftist.”
A very significant development of the last thirty years was the right’s identification of the media as “liberal.” The “mainstream” media has always been thoroughly establishment, which should be obvious since it is corporate-owned. It’s just that the establishment was not yet thoroughly right-wing. By hounding the media with accusations of “liberal bias,” the right was able to frame themselves as something of an oppressed political minority, with the media as part of a liberal elite opposing the will of “the people.” In response, the media shifted gradually rightward, until conservative dominance of the public discourse was effectively achieved. The “liberal media” became a famous catchword, and the right still clings to it strategically even though it is a patently false description. By continuing to demonize the media, the right can maintain its fictitious identity as a movement outside the establishment, fighting the power of the government with populist anger.
The absurd result, from the point of view of progressives, is that “the left” is treated in the right-wing narrative as a powerful establishment force, even a force of tyranny opposing the will of the citizenry. Rightist demagogues persistently frame themselves as oppressed by a powerful left-wing movement. But the truth is quite the opposite, as you may recall. The actual left in the United States has been isolated to the margins of power for generations. This fact has not changed to any significant degree. Liberalism, on the other hand, has shown faint signs of life within the establishment, simply because the effort to co-opt conservative Republican strategies has failed, and Democrats have been forced in some degree to attempt a more spirited opposition. Nevertheless, Obama still represents a segment of “centrist” political strategy—still supporting the imperialist enterprise, still beholden to Wall Street, still taking an ameliorist approach to social issues. Leftists are in a similar situation as in the Clinton years—howling outside the gates of power, while many of them reluctantly support the President because the right-wing alternative is so much worse. Liberalism has always offered more of an opportunity for the left than conservatism—liberalism allows for the awareness of inequality and injustice as social realities, whereas conservatism doesn’t.
The dominant narrative about our political process that we are presented with today is so riddled with confusion and deliberate obfuscation that it takes a concerted effort of attention and awareness to not be fooled. The left in western Europe, for example, takes overtly socialist positions, which are in line with general developments, since socialist institutions have been effective there to some degree. They also have had much more success gaining real power within the political structure of those countries, although the history of their influence is problematic for a variety of reasons. The left in the U.S., on the other hand, has no access to real power, and yet finds itself in the curious position of being demonized as if it were extremely powerful, while at the same time being confused with an establishment liberalism that won’t challenge corporate or military power. If you hear the term “left” or “leftist” on TV in this country, it has no relation to any actual conditions on the ground. These terms are nothing but straw men set up by dominant conservative forces in order to characterize all their opponents as dangerous and beyond the pale. This extends across the spectrum of policy. In foreign affairs, for instance, it would be virtually impossible to discern from the American public discourse that Muslim fundamentalism is an essentially right-wing movement. Since the left opposes imperialist foreign policy, and that includes the so-called “War on Terror” and the Iraq war, the right simply identifies the left (and therefore liberalism, and therefore Democrats) with Muslim terrorists, even though the social aims of the left are directly opposed to the conservative, intolerant, anti-feminist, anti-labor aims of Muslim fundamentalism.
Recently the right has been attempting to revise historical realities that have seemed inviolable. The latest outrage is the equation of liberalism with fascism and Hitler. There is seemingly no end to the mendacity of the conservative “message.” Before any meaningful discussion of politics can be had in this country, it is necessary, unfortunately, to dispel the fog of rightist rhetoric that surrounds our public conversation. This requires continual alertness, and the work involved in simply dispelling incorrect assumptions might seem like an enormous waste of time. But that was the right-wing strategy, and they have proven adept at it, so that is where a great deal of the battle needs to be fought. The one saving grace, perhaps, is that the lies and distortions become, as if impelled by a natural law, increasingly extreme over time. If you even compare the sort of things said nowadays with what the right could get away with during the Reagan years, you will notice a very sharp increase in the extremist tone. As a result, we are finally seeing the rhetoric becoming too outlandish for a majority of the voting populace, and consequently the first signs of the right painting themselves into a corner where they could become marginalized themselves. The more they sense themselves losing, however, the more desperate and hysterical they become, so that what could be a tipping point for the country in a progressive direction has also the potential for unpredictably dangerous developments. The role of the left will be to oppose right-wing extremist rhetoric at every opportunity while at the same time pressuring the establishment to challenge its investment in a failing class system. The task is not easy.