[D]uring the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same time, business interests, in concert with the Republican right and supported by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left had won. [...]In the Bill Moyers post on his interview with Reed, the commentary seemed to see Reed's analysis as vindicating their views that the modern Democratic Party, especially Hillary Clinton, has nothing for progressives. I strongly disagree. Indeed, it reflects a misperception I saw in the comments to my own post, Hillary Clinton and a left flank: How a Clinton presidency could redefine progressive governance—a focus on the pol as savior or devil. What I actually argued for is thinking about the issues and how to best forward the progressive (or if your prefer, liberal) position. Rather than embracing "electoralitis" (to use Reed's term), I was rejecting the idea the each presidential election will be the determinant of the fate of the progressive position.
In the absence of goals that require long-term organizing — e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security — the election cycle has come to exhaust the time horizon of political action. Objectives that cannot be met within one or two election cycles seem fanciful, as do any that do not comport with the Democratic agenda. Even those who consider themselves to the Democrats’ left are infected with electoralitis. Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection. [Emphasis supplied.]
In short, I think that while Reed's pessimism and diagnosis of what ails the left, the electoralitis, is accurate, I'm not sure that I agree with his prescription. I'll discuss this on the other side.
Reed argues that "When Democrats have been in office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican bugbear remains a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for suppressing criticism from the left." I think this has been true and quite a mistake. But in that sense, Hillary Clinton would be the perfect president for a rejuvenated left. In my post last week, I argued:
[T]here is another benefit for progressives to a Hillary Clinton presidency, a less fettered ability to establish the left flank of politics outside a Democratic White House. [...] I want to add one last, and I think, crucial point—which is in fact the title of my post, "Hillary Clinton and a left flank: How a Clinton presidency could redefine progressive governance"—a Hillary Clinton White House will not, by definition, define the left flank of the Democratic Party. The fact is President Barack Obama, THROUGHOUT HIS TIME ON THE NATIONAL STAGE, was and is perceived as more progressive or liberal than his policies have ever been. But that did not stop the establishment media from presenting President Obama as the left flank of American politics. [...]Who on the left will be biting their tongue regarding their criticisms (from the left) of Hillary Clinton? What progressives will not be utterly suspicious of every initiative and policy a President Hillary Clinton will propose? What progressive will not be questioning Hillary Clinton about everything? What progressive will not be tough on Hillary Clinton about everything? "Suppressed criticism from the left" will not happen during a Hillary Clinton presidency. And this, I argue, would be a very good thing for progressivism.
A President Hillary Clinton will not be, nor be perceived, as the left flank of the Democratic Party. This permits, in my view, real arguments, initiatives and negotiation from strong progressive elements in Congress. There will be more room for independence, initiatives and influence. This was not possible in my view under the Obama presidency. In 2009, Chris Bowers wrote:President [Bill] Clinton told the assembled bloggers that one of the best things they could do for elected Democrats is to function as a "counterveiling" source of progressive pressure. That is, he encouraged us to offer left-wing criticism of Democrats on key policy areas, and that we should urge our leaders and elected officials to favor further reaching, more community-focused public policy. In fact, he indicated that he would have wanted more such progressive media pushing him during his time in office.I think this is a much more likely approach under a President Hillary Clinton than it was to President Obama. In the longer term, increased independence and, hopefully, influence, from progressive segments in and out of Congress would be a good thing that could be produced by a Hillary Clinton presidency.
It is rather ironic that Adolph Reed argues that there was some rose-colored nostalgia about the Bill Clinton presidency among the left. Anyone who lived through the 2008 primary season has to simply laugh at that. Indeed, Reed contradicts himself a few paragraphs later when he argues:
Obama and his campaign did not dupe or simply co-opt unsuspecting radicals. On the contrary, Obama has been clear all along that he is not a leftist. Throughout his career he has studiously distanced himself from radical politics. In his books and speeches he has frequently drawn on stereotypical images of leftist dogmatism or folly. [...] This inclination to toss off casual references to the left’s “excesses” or socialism’s “failure” has been a defining element of Brand Obama and suggests that he is a new kind of pragmatic progressive who is likely to bridge — or rise above — left and right and appeal across ideological divisions. Assertions that Obama possesses this singular ability contributed to the view that he was electable and, once elected, capable of forging a new, visionary, postpartisan consensus.But what Reed overlooks is that a large part of Obama's appeal to the left was in fact the anti-Clinton nature of the argument. Obama was the anti-Clinton, at least in the minds of the left—a rejection of "neo-Liberalism." Of course, anyone who viewed the matter rationally (imo of course) could see that Obama was a perfect fit for 90s-era Clintonism. (An aside, I've often argued that Clintonism, Third Way, DLCism, etc., was a function of political calculus—Bill Clinton believed that to win politically he needed to portray and adopt center-right, Eisenhower Republican policies. Whether that was true or not then, it absolutely is not true today.) Reed sharply criticizes the progressives who gave in to these illusions:
[C]ritics, skeptics, and voices of caution were largely drowned out in the din of the faithful’s righteous fervor. Some in the flock who purported to represent the campaign’s left flank, such as the former SDS stalwart Carl Davidson and the professional white antiracist Tim Wise, denounced Obama’s critics as out-of-touch, pie-in-the-sky radicals who were missing the train of history because they preferred instead to wallow in marginalization. [...] Some who called for climbing on the bandwagon insisted that Obama was a secret progressive who would reveal his true politics once elected. Others relied on the familiar claim that actively supporting the campaign — as distinct from choosing to vote for him as yet another lesser evil — would put progressives in a position to exert leftward pressure on his administration.Now, in all honesty, does anyone imagine the same occurring with Hillary Clinton? No way, no how, imo. Reed writes:
[T]he left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.Perhaps, but I believe a new way beckons for engagement in electoral politics, and I think Hillary Clinton can be instrumental in this. For more so than any other modern national Democratic politician, she is distrusted by the left. Which, in my view, is absolutely the correct attitude. But I think it is an attitude that should apply to all politicians. My old refrain:
As citizens and activists, our allegiances have to be to the issues we believe in. I am a partisan Democrat, it is true. But the reason I am is because I know who we can pressure to do the right thing some of the time. Republicans aren't them. But that does not mean we accept the failings of our Democrats. There is nothing more important that we can do, as citizens, activists or bloggers than fight to pressure DEMOCRATS to do the right thing on OUR issues.Reed ends his article with an exhortation of sorts:
And this is true in every context, I think. Be it pressing the Speaker or the Senate majority leader, or the new hope running for president. There is nothing more important we can do. Nothing. It's more important BY FAR than "fighting" for your favorite pol because your favorite pol will ALWAYS, I mean ALWAYS, disappoint you.
In the middle of primary fights, citizens, activists and bloggers like to think their guy or woman is different. They are going to change the way politics works. They are going to not disappoint. In short, they are not going to be pols. That is, in a word, idiotic.
Yes, they are all pols. And they do what they do. Do not fight for pols. Fight for the issues you care about. That often means fighting for a pol, of course. But remember, you are fighting for the issues. Not the pols.
The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races. It is long past time for us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision. Obama and his top aides punctuated that fact by making brutally apparent during the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left would have a place in this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not be clearer. [Emphasis supplied.]There is much to agree with there but I cannot agree that the abandonment of electoral politics, as Reed seems to advise, is wise. Reed, it seems to me, like too many persons, sees elections as only the presidential election. The hard work to do necessarily includes electoral work, especially at the state and congressional level. And there is no better period than the coming election cycles.
Hillary Clinton, if she chooses to run, will be very difficult to beat for the Democratic presidential nomination. Indeed, if Elizabeth Warren does not run, as she will not, there is not even a credible left alternative. But I think despair is the wrong reaction to this realization. The left should see the opportunity.
More so than any national Democratic politician I can remember, Hillary Clinton will be met with that attitude of suspicion from the left. Finally, we will be able to openly see and say that pols are pols and do what they do. Certainly, if the left can defeat her with a genuinely progressive alternative (Elizabeth Warren) then that is the best of all worlds. But what if the left cannot? What if the left instead concentrates on winning hearts and minds—in the Congress and in the country? Will Hillary Clinton stand in the way? In my view, no. YMMV.
A Hillary Clinton presidency will present a unique opportunity to a resurgent and committed left, willing to take on a president and to fight to win battles in Congress and in the country.
Let's not let electoralitis stand in the way.