Like little stars.
I used to talk to the political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. a lot back in the ’90s when we both lived in Chicago and wrote for the same magazines. I thought of him in those days as a man of brilliant skepticism, as someone who could always be counted upon to have the exact right word for the situation of the left in the Clinton years.
Reed has a great and important essay in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine in which he assesses the situation under President Obama—and manages to throw bucket after bucket of cold water over a Democratic Party that is still exulting after its big win in 2012.
I got him on the phone last week to talk it over, and the conversation wandered all over the political map
In a lot of areas, the left appears to be enjoying a moment of triumph, Yet, the title of your article in the current issue of Harper’s is “Nothing Left: the Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.” This is going pretty massively against the grain isn’t it?
Well, I don’t know. Not in the circles I move in, it’s not. Not in the labor movement either. I guess everything hinges on how you define the Left and what you mean by it. That’s part of what’s at stake. As I argue in the essay, by “Left” I mean an old-school understanding that’s rooted in evaluation and critique of current circumstances from the standpoint of an ideal of equality and justice that’s rooted in political economy.
That’s key: political economy. And you use the word “egalitarian.” That’s sort of what’s completely missing today. All of these victories on these other fronts, largely matters of identity politics, and where is the egalitarian left?
Right, and my friend Walter Michaels has made this point very eloquently over and over again . . . that the problem with a notion of equality or social justice that’s rooted in the perspectives of multiculturalism and diversity is that from those perspectives you can have a society that’s perfectly just if less than 1 percent of the population controls 95 percent of the stuff, so long as that one percent is half women and 12 percent black, and 12 percent Latino and whatever the appropriate numbers are gay. Now that’s a problem.
Do you remember those wealth-management ads in the 1990s that said “Money: it’s just not what it used to be,”and it would have a black-and-white photograph of rich white people, rich white men, from a long time ago. And then they would have a photograph of what the rich look like now and it’s what you just described.
No. I didn’t see that. But, yeah, it’s perfect. I wish I had. It would be a nice book jacket. Yeah, I think where we are now is, from one perspective, the result of either 30 or 60-plus years, depending on how you want to count it, of a left that has been able to take only what the other side would make available . . . would permit them to take. And what that’s meant is that our political strategies…I’m not saying this to fault activists; you can only do what you can do, but the political strategies and understandings that have constituted the Left have come increasingly to accommodate with neoliberalism. And the only place that that’s a conspicuous problem is in the labor movement because that’s the one interest group that basically can’t be accommodated to neoliberal economic policy.
Interesting. So the other movements that make up the historical Left have prospered…
Right. Well that’s true by some standard. Like in black politics, for instance, the subtle shift from a notion of equality that’s anchored in the political economy to a notion of equality that tends to a norm of parity has been a really important shift. And when we look around now at academics and others who plead the case for racial justice–Merlin Chowkwanyun and I did an article on this in the 2012 Socialist Register, a challenge to the racial disparity discourse. The language through which briefs for racial justice are crafted at this point are much more likely—I mean, vastly more likely—to point to the problem as a racial disparity instead of inequality. And that might sound…
I don’t get the difference…
I was going to say, it might sound like a pedantic distinction. But the notion of disparity as the metric of racial justice means that blacks should be represented roughly in their percentage of the population in the distribution of goods and bads in the society. So you can have 15 percent unemployment, but if blacks are only 12 percent of the 15 percent that are unemployed basically…
Then it’s OK?
Yeah. And while no one actually says that would be okay, the way in which the problem is posed leaves that implication and deflects discussion away from the underlying structural problems in the political economy that put anyone in the exploited or oppressed position. I just saw an article in Labor Notes a month or so ago about how Kellogg’s is jerking workers around in a plant in Memphis. And the slant of the Labor Notes article is that the moves that the company is making disproportionately hurt black workers. The logic of that argument, that type of argument is, in effect, that we can understand the costs of economic restructuring or whatever, but they need to be borne on an equitable basis. Because it was Labor Notes, I know that’s not the intent or the perspective of the magazine or presumably the author, but that just makes the trope stand out even more.
Yeah, you hear that all the time.
Right, and my argument is: well, let’s back up.
Maybe the whole project of economic restructuring should be called into question.
And the funny thing about it when you think about it, Tom, is that if you’re concerned with the conditions of black Americans, most black people are working people. One might say even disproportionately. And what improves the condition of the working class is going to improve the condition of more black people than the disparity focus would. That’s not to say it’s either/or. But the fact is we’ve largely dropped the one in favor of the other. You can see the same thing in the women’s movement. I made this point in the article. It wasn’t that long ago when the political agenda of the women’s movement included stuff like comparable worth and universal child and elder care. And right now, attention to that stuff is shriveled. The defense of reproductive rights is a constant, of course. But the political-economic program that gets touted by the women’s movement is directed toward the glass ceiling and the first woman president. Stuff like that.
I was thinking of Sheryl Sandberg.
Right. She is the Alexandra Kollontai of our moment.
Or the Clara Zetkin. The radical Bolshevik theorist who was also a feminist. I guess I should say that Sandberg is the Alexandra Kollontai of the bourgeoisie at this point.
Wow. That is a tough metaphor.
You use this word “electoralitis”to describe what’s happened to the left.
Well, it’s a bizarre one, man. I wrote a progressive column on this 20 years ago or close to it. And it just seemed somewhere in the mid-’90s almost like I didn’t set my alarm one night and woke up and the rules of being on the left had changed. Everyone was focused on electoral politics. That’s a phenomenon that’s like cause and symptom. It’s certainly a symptom of not having any other kind of traction in the social-movement world as a left. And once again, I acknowledge there are all kinds of people out there doing all kinds of good stuff. Who are trying to make people’s lives better. And to the limited ways it’s possible to succeed, succeeding. But there is not a left social movement that’s got any capacity to do anything. That has any institutional capacity. And most of all, that has any capacity to alter the terms of political debate at the national level, or for that matter even the local level.
So in the absence of that, what can you do? Well, voting has come to seem more important as a form of political practice. We’ve lost the capacity to do anything else. And when you think about it now we’ve got at least a generation of people who never had any experience with any other kind of politics.
You’re talking to one of those people. What other kinds of politics is there than voting? There’s protesting, I suppose…
Well, actually I think protesting is overrated. In fact, I think protesting was always kind of overrated in the sense that it’s not so much the protest that produced the change; it’s the movement that produces the capacity for the protest to be effective. That’s the source of the change.
So it goes back to the movement?
Yeah. Yeah. But I would say—and a bunch of us have been saying for a while—that I think it’s much more useful . . . to look at elections as vehicles for consolidating and expressing power that’s been created on the field of social-movement organizing around issues. Ultimately, mass mobilization around issues that connect with concerns that are broadly shared among the mass of people that live in the country—those of us who are expected to get up and go to work every day. And that’s how the nature of the debate changes.
Here’s a factoid: a Roper poll a month before the 1944 presidential election found that 68 percent of respondents said that they would not favor a political and economic system no matter what it was called that didn’t pivot off of a fundamental right to a job, that didn’t rest on the fundamental premise that everyone in a society who is willing and able to work should have a right to a job.
Sixty-eight percent. That’s a month before the 1944 presidential election.
What ever happened to that view?
Well, the other side won. There’s an interesting literature on the streams of the defeat. The public opinion industry was mobilized in the support of selling the gospel of free enterprise, which itself was only invented in the late 1930s. The term wasn’t even around before then. But there is a steady mobilization of bias, as political scientist E. E. Schattschneider used to call it, against left ideas.
I wonder if you did a poll today what would happen?
Yeah, I wonder. The numbers might be higher than one might think. What full employment meant then in terms of the full-employment bill that passed the Senate and was defeated in the House…
You’re not talking about Humphrey–Hawkins are you?
No, no. I’m talking about the full employment bill of 1945 that went down, despite passing the Senate – so it wasn’t a gimmick bill — that would have mandated that the federal government take action, both in public spending and public works job creation when unemployment crossed the 3 percent threshold with the goal of moving the full employment threshold over a decade to 2 percent. By the Kennedy Administration the full-employment bill became four percent with fingers crossed. Now, I understand it’s 6 percent.
By that metric we’re almost there!
The problem is we’ve given up on movement building for elections. But not just elections, elections between the two parties. This was driven home for me most emphatically after the 2000 election, when lots of people voted for Ralph Nader, and here Al Gore loses. Theoretically, the people who voted for Nader, if they had played by the rules of the two-party system, Al Gore would have won. This frightened a lot of people.
Well, there’s a lot of crap going on there, too. And I’ll come clean. I voted for Nader in 2000 partly because I lived in Connecticut and it wasn’t a big choice because I knew the Democrat was going to take the state anyway. But partly also because I had lived in Connecticut in the ’80s and I had a track record to maintain of not ever voting for Joe Lieberman for anything.
But I was struck, too by the incredible vitriol that the Dems directed at Nader and anyone who supported Nader after that defeat. And it was a defeat that Gore wouldn’t even fight against either, which they tend to forget. My response to them was, the vitriol was a signal that they were looking for a scapegoat because their flawed candidate couldn’t even carry his home state. I mean, if he could have carried his home state he would have won the presidency. But I always said to them the best explanation of the defeat in 2000 came from a 1970s R&B singer named Ann Peebles with a song called “I Didn’t Take Your Man, You Gave Him To Me.”
The Nader thing. The vitriol of the reaction was striking to me because it communicated that the Democrats felt entitled to every left-of-center vote, but that they didn’t have to do anything to get it. They didn’t have to appeal at all. And distaste for Lieberman notwithstanding, I would have voted for Gore if he wouldn’t have run such a right wing campaign. That’s part of it. And this goes back to Clinton’s first campaign too. I worked in the short-lived [Tom] Harkin campaign and the word we were getting in that campaign from people in the South in particular was that Clinton’s people were coming through and saying, “Our guy’s going to win the election so you better get on board if you want any consideration. And don’t ask for anything because if you ask for anything we probably aren’t going to give you any access.”And that’s pretty ugly. And that’s the way they can be. And I think that Clintonism basically polished off the purge of the left wing of the Democratic party.
So it was a success in that regard.
Yes it was. It was an utter success in that regard. But it’s the cycle though, right? So there’s nothing to do at election time except vote for the Democrat because the Republican is almost invariably going to be worse and despite the Third Party votes I’ve cast in my life, that’s no response to anything. And that speaks to another problem that’s an element of the electoralitis within the left and that’s that the same thing happens every four years. Around this time you begin to look around and see how the Democratic presidential field is shaping up. Then one strain of lefties will say, “God, Hillary Clinton? This looks terrible. We need to find a progressive candidate.” So now there’s talk about an Elizabeth Warren of the Democrats that’s supposed to an alternative to the corporatist Clinton wing, and there’s even talk of Bernie Sanders running. Well, at that point, it’s too late. You can’t build a base for a candidacy in a year or two years or even four years. The only way to get candidates worth having is to build the social force that will create candidates worth having.
So it comes back to movements again.
Yeah. It comes back to movements all the time really.
The two-party system is so frustrating for someone like me. I often wonder why the Republicans don’t ever make a play for disaffected Democrats. They certainly could have in 2012 and they had almost no interest in that.
Well, no. There are a couple things going on. One of them is…I think the capture by the Tea Party tale is overstated. It’s true that that element has some—a disproportionate—impact in the primaries, and I may be wrong about this, but I’m still hard pressed to think that there is anything truly organic in the Tea Party movement that wasn’t already the sort of Birchite nut cases on the right flank. And now they’ve been fueled by the most cynical kind of right-wing money.
But Republicans, why don’t they play those guys the way Clinton and company played the Left?
Well, they did with Romney and McCain. They get their candidates. I remember back in 1996 when Pat Buchanan won in New Hampshire and he came out of there with a big bounce and was moving down to South Carolina next which is where his real base was. His main bank roller was a mill operator down there named Milliken. So I was afraid enough to begin to wonder what I was going to do if he won the presidency. Either head north or head south, across the border. But what’s fascinating was that the Moral Majority pulled the rug out from under him in South Carolina. The holy rollers backed [Bob] Dole. And that’s where the field capacity was in South Carolina, among the holy rollers. And you’d wonder, well, why would they do that, right? Partly, it’s because they made the rational calculation that the interests that the elites in the right wing with populist tendencies are fundamentally connected with right wing corporate and financial sector interests.
And they want the presidency. They’re not fooling around.
Exactly. And they figured that in strategic terms they’d be better served by getting behind Dole and helping to deliver him the nomination than by going down in flames with their version of Henry Wallace, I guess. It’s interesting in that regard too that year when they had the big jamboree they had down in Dallas. I think it was Jerry Falwell. I often get him and Pat Robertson confused. But he said that the two things God was most interested in that year were cutting capital gains taxes and I think the other may have been the estate tax.
(Laughs) That’s what God wants them to do…
Make it plain, why don’t you. So in effect, and I think this gets to the point I was making in the article, that the choice is between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.
When people say things like that they often run into trouble. Because, you look at something like Fox News, and they talk about Obama as if he were a socialist or a communist or a dictator. And as you point out in your article, Obama’s entire career has been triangulation, conciliation, and compromise — and yet they look at him and see red.
Well, yeah, kind of. This gets into another issue. In a way, I think their hysteria about Obama being a communist or a socialist is in a funny way a backhanded acknowledgment of the success of the Civil Rights movement. Because they can’t say he’s a n—– in the White House. Right? And I don’t even necessarily think that people are being consciously disingenuous about it. I think they sell…
So instead they say, there’s a communist in the White House. Someone actually had a song that they would sing at these Tea Party rallies, “There’s a Communist in the White House.”
I’ll tell you, it’s that Birchite psychosis. This is the social base of fascism, really, is what they are.
They don’t have the street gangs.
No, thank God. Not yet anyway. And I guess that’s partly because a lot of them are pensioners.
They’ll get you with their golf carts.
But I still think there’s a lot of astro-turf there. I go back to the founding moment of the Tea Party. And I’ve watched this clip a number of time since then. That day that Rick Santelli…
I’ve written about that at great length.
Oh good, I need to read that because when I watched it after the founding moment it seemed pretty clear to me—I mean, you can tell me if I’m wrong—that the co-host knew what was coming. That this was not a spontaneous rant.
It might have been planned, I dunno. You know what got me about it, is that it was on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. And you think about Populist movements, like my favorite one from the 1890s, where the Chicago Board of Trade was the pit of evil. And here’s a guy launching his populist movement from that same spot. Remember, he’s not yelling at the traders, he’s not chastising the traders, he’s speaking on their behalf. What kind of populist movement is that? It’s like they were trying to reverse the fundamental symbolism (of populism). Because that’s what the Tea Party movement is: it takes all of the classic populist symbolism and reverses it.
Right. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. Yeah.
Here we are in hard times, second only to the Great Depression itself and what are the demanding? An end to the welfare state. Destroy our unions.
Right. That’s exactly right. And it says something about the extent to which content has been drained out of our politics too.
The symbolism is quite persuasive to some people.
Sure. Well yeah because there’s nothing else. The Democrats don’t have an alternative to offer. Right? I mean, that’s the problem. My son said in ’04 that either, in the industrial Midwest in particular, either Kerry would talk about NAFTA and trade or Bush would talk about gay marriage. And that’s what happened. And I recall…
Now the shoe’s on the other foot.
It sure is. Which is kind of funny. And frankly, it also says something about how successful an egalitarian—a reasonable egalitarian program—can be if it doesn’t cost anybody anything. If it doesn’t raise the backs of upper-class economic interests.
You’ve got to explain that a little more.
Well, in not much more than a decade, gayness has gone from being if not completely stigmatized, certainly not normalized. . . .
Yeah, you’re right. Ten years ago, remember, those ballot initiatives all over the country in the election of ’04 to outlaw gay marriage and it was instrumental to winning Bush’s reelection.
That’s right. And here we are like a decade later and that’s. . . .
Going the other direction now. But the symbolism of this is all very interesting. In your Harper’s article you talk about Obama as a symbol, that he’s a cipher. I think you’re quoting someone…
I think I’m quoting Matt Taibbi I believe, but I’ll take it. I’ll take credit for it also. Because he is. He’s always been a cipher. You know that.
Obama’s a highly intelligent man. You’ve met him.
Maybe he’s a cipher in the sense that he’s a symbol. But he’s not a cipher of a human.
I don’t know. Look, I’ve taught a bunch of versions of him.
You mean you’ve had people like him as students?
Yeah. So his cohort in the Ivy League. His style. There’s superficial polish or there’s a polish that may go down to the core. I don’t know. A performance of a judicious intellectuality. A capacity to show an ability to understand and empathize with multiple sides of an argument. Obama has described himself in that way himself in one or maybe both of his books and elsewhere. He’s said that he has this knack for encouraging people to see a better world for themselves through him.
Yeah, he’s like a blank slate.
Right. Which in a less charitable moment you might say is like a sociopath.
Come on now!
I’m not saying that. But I’m just saying. I’m not saying he’s a sociopath but…
That (blank slate personality) seems like the classic … the kind of people who lead the Democratic Party. Only he’s got considerably more charisma than most of them.
He’s better at it than most. And this is another point that I make. That any public figure, especially a politician or a figure in a movement, is going to be like a hologram that’s created by the array of forces that he or she feels the need to respond to. That’s how it was that we got more out of Richard Nixon from the left than we’ve gotten from either Clinton or Obama.
That’s a provocative point right there.
Not that he liked us any more, to put it bluntly.
Yeah, he said terrible things. Right? Kent State, all that…
Right, but the labor movement and what are now called the social movements of the 60s had enough traction within the society that, as part of his understanding of who he was as someone that had to govern the country, was that he had to take them into account in some way. Clinton, as he pointed out, felt our pain, except for maybe Ricky Ray Rector. And when he dreamt of a world he would like to see in his earnest moments I’m sure it was closer to the world that you and I and others like us would yearn to see, than anything that Nixon ever wanted. But he screwed us a lot more. And the same with Obama.
That’s interesting. If Nixon had to take the left into account and Clinton didn’t, that’s very interesting.
Well, in fact, I go a step further about Clinton. He not only didn’t have to take the left into account, his presidency was in good measure about making that clear to the left.
Making it clear to the left that they were of no importance or significance?
That’s right. That they were cue-takers, and cue-takers only. NAFTA. Welfare reform. The effective elimination of the federal government’s commitment to provide affordable housing for the poor.
Yeah. There’s a long list: deregulated the airwaves, deregulated banking…
I’ve got the photo of him signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
With Larry Summers at his elbow I believe.
Indeed. Indeed. The ’70s, and even to some extent the ’80s, perhaps especially the ’80s, were among other things a moment of contestation within the Democratic party between what would later be understood as the neoliberal wing. You remember these guys…
Sure. The new Democrats—the Democratic Leadership Council.
Them. And the Atari Democrats and that crowd. Clinton, who had been president of the DLC, as had Gore, that administration is what installed them basically.
It’s funny though, now that people look back, younger people—people younger than me…I mean, I barely remember any Democrats other than Clinton myself. The Carter Administration which was not exactly the greatest time in the world. Before that you got Johnson. Vietnam. People look back at the Clinton years and see success.
Yeah, but success by a really shallow standard. Just that he won.
Exactly, he won. That’s right. I live here in Washington now. For people here, that’s it. It’s one or zero and he got one.
Even then, yeah. I’ll accept that he’s a savvy pol and all that, but Kerry, I think, got a higher percentage of the vote losing in ’04 than Clinton got winning. Maybe either time. I know one of them for sure. Because in both cases the smartest move he made was when Ross Perot filed to run. That’s the only standard. But that’s the other thing that’s happened. As the left constituencies have shriveled and have been pushed to the side, the inside-the-beltway types that we know and love set the agenda. I wrote this in a symposium years ago. Rick Perlstein did a symposium in the Boston Review that was later published.
I believe I’ve got a copy of that around here somewhere.
And one of the points I made was that the rise of the political consultants is an expression of the problem because the service that they sell is the alternative to popular electoral mobilization. So of course they have no time for that. They don’t think it’s necessary. They don’t think it’s important. You target this. You target that. But on the other hand…
Exactly. I’m here among them and they, Democrats, don’t think they don’t need to worry about…all the problems you’ve identified sort of making people angry, lose interest. They don’t need to worry about this. They think they have an iron clad coalition behind them. They have this term for it: the Coalition for the Ascendent. I forget what it is. Made up of these groups, and labor is not one of them.
Generally, who do they mention? Women, minorities, and millennials—meaning young people.
Which is not a group. That’s a demographic category. It’s bullshit, like the other bullshit that they’ve come up with. Remember the National Security Moms?
Yes. When was that? What year was that?
I think that was ’04.
Yeah. And they were going to deliver the election for Karl Rove or something like that?
But they’ve got it all figured out. You don’t need movements like what you’re describing. For the Democrats to continue to win you don’t need movements.
That’s right. In fact, you don’t want them.
Well they would only complicate things.
That’s right. And get in the way.
You had so many fascinating passages in this article and I want to unpack them more. You started talking about the left itself, and you say that they careen from this oppressed group to that one, from “one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of agency to another.”You nailed it there. But you need to tell us what you mean. That is fascinating.
Some peasants somewhere. The urban precariat. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.
These are all real things though, right?
Well they’re real, but the problem is the fantasy of the spark. That there’s something about the purity of these oppressed people that has the power to condense the mass uprising. I’ve often compared it to the cargo cults.
Well that’s what it’s like. Frankly, what I’ve come to describe as the Internet fundraising left—Common Dreams, TruthOut, and all the rest of that stuff….
I probably get 10 solicitations a day.
Me too. Yeah. But I think the proliferation of that domain, no pun intended, has exacerbated this problem. Because there is always a crisis. There is always something that’s about to happen. I think, frankly, a lot of the demoralization and the fretting that followed in the wake of the UAW’s defeat in the Tennessee plant was the product of expectations that had been unreasonably stoked in advance. This was going to be the thing that reinvigorates the labor movement. It would be like the CIO going into the South. It would be like the Flint sit-down strike. It was a 1500 member bargaining unit in a rabidly anti-union state for God’s sake. So you would expect that the greater likelihood would be to lose, right? That’s what’s happened.
Why do we put our hopes in these magical constituencies?
I think there is a good reason and a bad reason. Well, no. There’s a nice reason and an ugly reason. The nice reason is that people see how desperate the circumstances are and they feel a sense of urgency and they want to have something happen that can begin to show signs of turning the tide. And when somebody says, “You know, we didn’t get into this overnight. We’re not going to get out of this overnight,”then people start to yell at them for being insensitive to the suffering and the urgency. The other side of the coin by that reasoning is they don’t want to do the organizing or they can’t figure out how to do it or their sense of how political change is made is so underdeveloped that they can’t conceptualize a strategic approach to politics. So it’s like the bearing witness stuff basically.
That’s a fascinating term. So they want to bear witness. I think another word for what you’re describing is, they’re “fans.”
Yes. Exactly. For some as well it’s the expression of an earnest but naïve, or too self-centered, inclination to stand publicly against injustice.
They want to watch it. And we have this army of bloggers and everybody wants to be an op-ed columnist. I shouldn’t complain here because I used to actually be one. And it’s great and everything. But can you have a movement that’s just made up of commentators?
I think that’s corrosive in another way as well. Yes it’s true that any fool with a computer and internet access can call himself or herself a blogger. But to the extent that people actually see the blogosphere as kind of like the audition hall or the minor leagues for getting onto MSNBC, then it encourages a lot of individual posturing, the conceptual equivalent of ADHD, hyperbolic crap. And you’re right. The answer is, no, you can’t have a movement of just commentators. But there’s so much of that back and forth, so much of it, and it just seems to me like noise, the great bulk of it. Because it comes along with a sense—and I think this is also an artifact of the larger condition of demobilization and defeat. But the notion that being on the Left means being seriously well-informed about everything that’s going on with the world, every travesty, and tragedy, outrage and victory. So I’m sure there are a lot of people around now demanding that we do something about Ukraine. Like, what the fuck can we do about Ukraine? There’s nothing. The only thing we could do is something bad which would be to join the chorus for the U.S. to invade.
Lord, please don’t go there, Adolph Reed.
AR: I’m telling you. The last time I actually talked to Chris Hitchens we got in an argument about this at a bar on Dupont Circle. It was during the Iraq War and I kind of stopped him in his tracks, which didn’t happen often, I said to him, “There’s no place in the world that’s been made better by the presence of the 82nd Airborne, not even Fayetteville, North Carolina.”
I was going to say, the town, wherever they’re based is probably…
It’s horrible. I used to work down there. Although my son, who was actually born there when I was working there, pointed out to me that it was the 82nd that JFK sent to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962 to quell the riot after James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, where among other things they confiscated the arsenal from cheerleader Trent Lott’s frat house. So that’s the one place in the world that has been made better by the presence of the 82nd Airborne.
So you make another point about the left that’s very good, and we’re sounding very negative here, but there’s also some victories. [You write:] “Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to anti-discrimination, a point from which Democratic liberalism has not retreated.” But then you say, you modify this: “rather, this is the path Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice.” Explain, sir.
It goes back to the disparity thing. The Democrats have been very good in pursuit of the goal of reducing racial and gender disparities, which is a good thing. But it is as a small wheel, within the big wheel of pursuit of an economic policy that is all about regressive upward transfer.
Right now the hot topic in D.C. is inequality. They’re all talking about it. Larry Summers is talking about it.
Well, there you go. (laughs)
“Upward transfer,” that is inequality. They’ve signed on to this deliberately you think?
That they’ve signed onto the upward transfer?
Well they certainly haven’t done anything to stop it. Look, stuff like this—the Transpacific Partnership, financial sector deregulation, the transfer of subsidies from poor people to employers of low-wage labor.
That’s in the Clinton years.
Well, the same thing with Obama. Here’s the rub, too. It’s one thing to talk about inequality. Most people who are not on the Fox list will at least nod and say, yeah, inequality, tut tut. But then the question becomes: what approaches do we take for combating inequality? And that’s where you look at stuff like cultivation of petty entrepreneurship, human capital tales, breaking teachers unions and destroying the public schools to make them better.
So, these are all things that they have done? These are steps that they’ve taken. They have all backfired.
No, they haven’t backfired. I mean, they wouldn’t produce other than what they produced anyway. That’s what’s creepy about it. There is an open question as to how genuine they are in the belief that these market-based approaches—that are, at best, an attempt to dip the ocean with a thimble basically—can produce anything…and to whatever extent that’s cynical. It’s a tough call. My father used to always say that ideology in one sense is the mechanism that harmonizes the principles that you like to think you hold with what advances your material interest. Then he would say something like, “I’ll bet you that God has paid off so well for Billy Graham that he probably even believes in Him by now.”
So there is an element of true belief there. For instance, I believe that Obama truly believes that this kind of self-help twaddle that he talks is a way to combat inequality. I also believe that he believes, in his heart of hearts, that public schools are for losers and that what you got to do is identify the bright kids from the ghetto and get them into the Lab School or the Lab School equivalent. So in the ideological frame of reference that the dominant elites within the Democratic party operate now, this is the element that defines the center of gravity of political liberalism and also sort of has captured the imagination of those who want to think of themselves as being on the left. They, often enough, will invoke the same general principles at a high level of abstraction that we associate with the Democratic Party and its history back to FDR. But the content that they load into those lofty symbols is neoliberal and reinforces the logic of a regressive transfer. If you cut public services and privatize and outsource, that hurts people at the bottom half of the income queue, or the bottom two-thirds of the income queue. There’s no way around that. You can only talk about equality and support that kind of agenda if you are fully committed to a neoliberal understanding of an equality of opportunity.
The labor movement. You said to reverse all this, it requires a “vibrant labor movement.” How on earth is that going to happen? Actually I’ve made this point to progressives and they don’t understand. They’re like, “What’s so special about labor?”They don’t particularly like labor. Culturally, it’s not them. They don’t really get it.
They like their workers when they’re brown and really abject and getting the shit beaten out of them but they don’t like them when they try to work through institutions to build power for themselves as a class. That’s one way to put it.
These are people on the left that I’m talking about.
That’s who I’m talking about too. That’s exactly who I’m talking about. It’s a few things. One of them is the cult of the most oppressed that I mentioned a while back. And as my dad used to say, “If oppression conferred heightened political consciousness there would be a People’s Republic of Mississippi.”And the fact is all that oppression confers is oppression really. There’s that which connects with the cargo cult aspect that kind of fills the whole of…
Wait, stop for a second. Did you say, “The fallacy of the most oppressed?”Is that what you said?
So it’s like a logical fallacy?
Well, yeah in the sense that, I’ll tell you what happens. There’s a conflation of the moral imperative and the strategic imperative. In fact, it’s not even conflation, it’s substitution of moral imperative for a strategic imperative.
So what do you mean? We choose the one that our heart goes out to and imagine that they are the ones who have the answer?
Exactly. In a way, from an organizing standpoint, that often means that you’re stacking the deck against yourself or picking, choosing, to focus on the populations that have the least in the way of resources, the least in the way of institutional capacity. Take a group like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. They’re really good organizers with good, sharp politics doing that work, and they understand that those workers are so weak in their market position that they can’t assert power on their own against the owners. They’re dependent on mobilizing middle-class consumers to bring pressure on the fast-food companies and supermarket chains to get the chains to get the growers to sign the accord. It’s a clever approach for marginally, or maybe more than marginally, improving the conditions of these highly exploited workers. But you can’t generalize from that to a strategy for political change.
So with labor, how is it going to happen? In my lifetime all they’ve done is lose.
Well, they’ve won some.
In the big picture…
No, that’s right. Look, I’ve spent upwards of 15 years working in an effort to build an independent political party that’s anchored in the labor movement. I wouldn’t say that a political party is the model. But I think that what’s got to happen is—and this may sound like doubletalk, but trust me, I’m not a University of Chicago political theorist—just as a revitalizing trade union movement is essential for a grounding of a real left, a serious left is important for revitalizing the labor movement. There are a lot of leftists with serious politics in responsible positions in the labor movement. I don’t just mean the rank and file fetishist guys. I mean people who are core leaders. And I’m not talking necessarily about internationals, but at the district level. Big locals, and there are a lot of them around the country, who function in something like that old CIO social movement unionism capacity around the country now. . . . So there’s stuff like that going on.
Let me ask you this. One of my hopes for Obama was card check. Remember, he had been in favor of that when he was a senator.
Well, no, he wasn’t. He said he was. I had no illusions nor did anybody I know in the labor movement have any illusions that that was going to last. And it functioned kind of cynically, to be honest, as part of what union activists could point to to build a turnout that elected him and that also meant there was a tendency to exaggerate the significance of the E[mployee] F[ree] C[hoice] A[ct]. I mean, how many things did you read that touted it as the most important piece of labor legislation since the Wagner Act?
Well, I don’t know about that, but certainly there has to be some change in the playing field.
Yeah, and it’s certainly much better to have card check than not to have it. But the problems that confront the labor movement aren’t that simple. That would help around the edges but there are structural problems too, not the least of which is that the Democratic party said to go punt and treats the trade unions like a 3 a.m. booty call. They come by when they need the money…
But that’s exactly right. I mean, how much longer can that go on?
I wonder. Yeah. I wonder.
Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.More Thomas Frank.
Like little stars.
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