The left is poised for a comeback

Since Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, reactionary columnists and commentators have been joyfully trumpeting the demise of the left in American politics. And they’ve certainly had plenty to crow about.
Though they no longer control the presidency, the Republicans’ strength in Congress has grown steadily in the years since the Gipper first took office. Ultra-conservative opinion is over-represented in the op-ed pages of the more respectable newspapers and on radio and TV talk shows. Rightist religious groups like the Christian Coalition and Focus on The Family have grown by leaps and bounds. And the terms of public debate on issues ranging from balancing the budget to welfare reform to gays in the military have shifted decidedly to the right.
Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership is happy to parrot the Republican line and to ostracize the party’s few remaining liberals. Leftist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich are steadfastly ignored by the mainstream media. Even Jesse Jackson (who at least has his own talk show on CNN) doesn’t get the media attention he once did. Unions — the essential backbone of any broad-based progressive politics — have been weakened by a 40-year decline in membership. The feminist movement has been adrift since the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. To make matters worse, the conservative, nationalist philosophy espoused by Louis Farrakhan has won a sizable following in the historically progressive African-American community.
The apparent defeat of the left has even insinuated itself into ordinary language: The word “liberal” has become a pejorative. Equally pejorative, the label “socialist” is now used to cast aspersions on any attempt to limit the social damage caused by the unrestricted workings of the market. “Communism” has become synonymous with evil. “Revolution” is today more associated with Newt Gingrich and his minions than it is with student radicals or ghetto insurgents. And, even more depressing, conservatives have successfully appropriated the left’s old rallying cry of “equality” to sell their racist, sexist attacks on affirmative action.
In short, it doesn’t look good for the left — not good at all. However, looks can be deceiving and, to borrow a phrase from the title of a recently published book on the subject, the progressive wing of American politics only looks dead.
For those whose vision hasn’t been ruined by endless hours watching “Crossfire,” the signs of an impending left revival aren’t too difficult to see.
To begin with, the AFL-CIO under the new leadership of John Sweeny and Richard Trumka are taking serious steps to reverse organized labor’s dwindling membership and lack of political clout. The federation’s Union Summer organizing project involved over 1,000 college students in the fight for decent wages and job security in workplaces around the country. Also, while the $35 million the labor federation spent during the last election may not have decided the outcome of many Congressional races, it did at least put working people’s concerns and interests back on the table. The AFL-CIO’s aggressive approach to organizing is beginning to pay dividends; this past year actually saw a slight increase in union membership. As in the past, when support from powerful unions strengthened the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, a rejuvenated labor movement would inject life into existing struggles for social justice and, by extension, into the left as a whole.
Also encouraging is the proliferation and modest success of progressive third parties. The lone socialist in Congress, Bernie Sanders, won again in Vermont this year. The left-populist New Party has had some luck running progressive candidates for local office. So have the Green Party, who appear to be making a comeback after a long period of dormancy. America’s own Labor Party was founded this summer at a convention attended by delegates representing over one million union members (although they decided against running candidates for office in the near future). With the majority of the population deeply dissatisfied with the two major parties and casting about for alternatives, prospects for more and more successful independent progressive forays into the electoral arena appear good to excellent.
Then there’s the fact that, though the Republicans retained control of Congress, liberal Democrats generally fared pretty well in the recent election. Paul Wellstone — the only senator on the ballot to vote against the Clinton-Gingrich “welfare reform” bill — got re-elected. Proportional representation advocate Cynthia McKinney kept her seat in the House despite having her district redrawn. And Ohio sent fiery populist crusader and former “Red” mayor of Cleveland Dennis Kucinich to Congress.
Finally, of course, there’s the likelihood of a coming backlash against the disastrous policies Clinton and Congress have passed into law over the past couple years. Last summer’s welfare reform bill will push over a million children into poverty in the near future. No doubt, many of them will end up homeless and hungry. I’m convinced that Americans are decent people; they simply aren’t going to stand for the sight of 5-year-olds living in the streets. Nor will they stand for the corporate-sponsored devastation of our wild areas and ancient forests now that Congress has watered down our environmental regulations. Nor will they sit idly by as the North American Free Trade Agreement and other Clinton-era trade treaties allow good-paying American jobs to be exported with impunity. Progressives, with their emphasis on living wages and a secure safety net for all, are well-positioned to tap into the justified anger soon to be unleashed by these and other attacks on the common good.
True, the left isn’t what it used to be. But it’s not washed up either. The current moment presents those committed to an agenda of radical democracy, economic justice, gender and racial equality, environmental sustainability and international peace with a historic window of opportunity. Naturally, nothing guarantees that folks who care about such things will actually take advantage of this opportunity. It is always possible that the left will, as it so often does, destroy itself with sectarian squabbles, backstabbing and moralistic name-calling precisely when the chances for realizing its values are greatest. But there’s no reason it has to happen this way. If enough people of good will come together out of a desire to take back our country and our culture from its corporate masters, there’s no telling what can be achieved.
Writer’s Note: This is my last column. All told, writing these weekly opinion pieces has been an exceedingly pleasurable experience for me. It has given me a chance to discuss things that aren’t often discussed in the pages of most newspapers: the labor movement, third parties, the growth of the media monopoly, the foibles of the Christian right, the damage automobiles are doing to our environment, etc. Along the way I’ve been denounced in advertisements bought and paid for by union leaders, called all sorts of names by the addicts of the TV show “Friends,” mocked by those who think the welfare system causes poverty, and threatened with eternal damnation by thin-skinned Christians. Alas, the time has come to hand over this space to some other rabble rouser.
Steve Macek, who has been a columnist at the Daily since spring quarter, is leaving to complete his doctoral dissertation on the contemporary American city.