Each great essayist has a quip about the two-party system. I. F. Stone wrote that it appears “like those magic black and white squares which look like a staircase at one moment and a checkerboard the next. Sometimes the two parties seem very distinct and sometimes they seem very much alike.” Gore Vidal put it more bluntly, arguing that the US is the only country in the world with one party of property and two right wings. Present frustrations, perhaps, are better invoked by Christopher Hitchens’ remark that the system only represents two cheeks of the same derriere.
Yet folk wisdom on the left suggests that it is easier to oppose the status quo with a Democrat rather then a Republican in power. It often seems impossible to imagine anything left of the Democratic Party when the majority of opposition seamlessly flows into anti-Republican rancour, as the “anti-war” movement aptly demonstrates. However, history also provides the opposite example. Franklin Roosevelt had Alf Landon; Lyndon Johnson had Barry Goldwater; today, Obama has . . . the Tea Party? Lesser-evil-ism has its distinctive place in American politics, yet with all the conservative saber-rattling, each was defeated by a landslide. The Tea Party appears no different.
Still the Left never fails to paint a hysterical image during Democratic presidencies. Reading some of the left-wing press (if it is even fair to describe it as such) you would think the Tea Party is some kind of fascist insurrection. The idea is as laughable as the image of Obama as a Keynan Socialist. But putting matters of subtlety aside, what this theatrical 1930s-style political drama seems to demonstrate is just how thoroughgoing the demobilized political atmosphere within the Left (as well as the Right) actually is. Each is groping in the dark for a conflict that has long since passed.
As pundits from Washington to Wichita never cease to remind us: “bipartisan” is grace. Sectarian politics, which allows us to judge the ideological spectrum, are hardly on offer today. Even reforms, moderate or reactionary, are so rare within the US that whenever any action is taken it gives off a peculiar sense that the government has somehow been hijacked and perverted. The Right struck this posture over the health insurance reform, and certainly, this is how the Left experienced the Bush-era. At each moment, the continuity between administrations always appears hard to register, as the rightward drift — irrespective of the party in power — too often appears as the “irresponsible” act of a powerful individual.
As President Bush was about to leave office the philosopher Robert Hullot-Kentor made a prophetic remark on this score. “[Bush] remains among our representative men,” he claimed. “It could be argued that the Bush administration, as a whole, has unstintingly bestowed a deeper good look at the country than we perhaps ever received before.” We should only hope that Obama can shed the same light. As he goes on the campaign trail promising to build an “infrastructure bank” and protect Social Security, rather then cheering for his paltry Social Democratic side, critics would do better to underscore how even investing in infrastructure, once the ultimate bipartisan “issue,” has begun to look like pulling teeth. A turn towards some type of Keynesian approach to the state is not on offer. Even the most tepid reforms are caught in a deadlock. Liberal legislation, like The Dream Act or the Employee Free Choice Act, have the odds staked against them. One recent study has it that in the 1960s only eight percent of major Senate bills were subject to filibuster, however now, the figure stands at around seventy percent. It appears that it would take a revolution just to pass a meager reform, and perhaps, that is exactly how one should look at the situation.
Reforms always have unintended consequences. What can appear like a victory at one point can seem retrospectively as a tactic for demobilization. The Democrats insistence on using legislation and the courts to push for social reforms has for this reason caused considerable confusion among the would be left. Many fail to see that the Democratic Party (and the Republicans in their own way) have nothing to gain from mobilizing popular support around anything other then elections. Even when a few northern Democrats supported Civil Rights, the party never sought to organize mass support, but rather always took a legislative or judicial route. This has meant that “ever since World War II,” as Christopher Lasch perceptively points out, “[the Left] has used essentially undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends, and it has paid the price for this evasive strategy in the loss of public confidence and support.” This is not a denunciation of Brown v. the Board of Education or The Voting Rights Acts, the pillars of the Civil Rights movement, Lasch refers to. Rather it is an assessment of the Civil Rights agenda judged on its own terms. It is essential to remember that a law and its practical effect are quite different. The Civil Rights leader, Bayard Rustin, was correct to point out in the late 1960s that despite all the “judicial and legislative victories which have been achieved in the past few years [ . . . ] Negros are in worse economic shape, live in worse slums, and attend more highly segregated schools then in 1954.” Hard as it is to accept, this unromantic view should be taken to heart. We should not take comforted in the past, but rather allow ourselves to be challenged by it.
The inadequate Cold War liberalism behind the Civil Right movement deserves special emphasis today, particularly after the recent controversy over the March on Washington, catalyzed by the “Restoring Honour” and “One Nation Working Together” rallies. Both are nothing but cynical get out the vote campaigns with vague populist messages, and neither compares to the historic 1963 march. That much is clear. But what they do signify is an important shift in historical imagination. During the Bush years, vintage 1968 politics appeared to be all the rage; The comparison between Vietnam and the Second Gulf War was constantly evoked. Students for a Democratic Society, almost spontaneously, was brought back from the dead by university and high school students. Today, the early sixties attempt to realign the Democrats into a European-style Labor party (by using the Civil Right Movement and the power of organized labor to flush out the Dixiecrats) has gained new purchase. However, not only did this strategy, embodied in the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, fail at the 1964 Democratic Convention (with the help of Walter Reuther and some good old party pragmatism), retrospectively, this strategy was deeply flawed. Globally, European social democracy was entering a new phase of decline, signified by the Godesberg Program adopted by the German Social Democratic Party which renounced any association with leftist ideology. In fact, just as the traditional Labor parties of Europe were arriving at the conclusion that being administrators of the welfare state had become the best of all possible options, that particular historical compromise between labor and capital began to unfold. That this decaying model could be grafted onto the American political scene was a profound illusion then and even more so today.
The most conscious members of the coalition pushing to realign the Democratic Party were aware of this problem in the mid-sixties. One groups, which included not only Bayard Rustin but also Tom Hayden and James Boggs, warned in “The Triple Revolution” about a “cybernetic revolution” with “almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor,” which is to say, the startlingly high levels of unemployment we currently live under. These issues, of course, have become all the more complex since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift from post-Fordism to contemporary neoliberalism. In the years since the Great Society programs in the 1960s the Democrats have spiraled farther and farther away from anything that even remotely resembles mid-century social democracy. Bill Clinton, and now Obama, make this painfully obvious.
What is needed today is not a refashioned social democracy, “New Deal” coalition, or, even worse still, a “populist initiative” that would “mirror of the Tea Party movement,” as Bill Fletcher recently proposed. The Left cannot keep on puttering around wondering why people do not act in accord with their own “economic self-interest.” Any refashioned Left will need to move ahead of the historical curve, cleanse itself of crude populist baggage, and take into consideration the far reaching transformations that have taken place since the collapse of the New Left. That would necessarily entail assessing the continuity between administrations, while more importantly, critiquing past attempts at maneuvering through the peculiar two-party system. Unfortunately, frustration and anger about the economy and “irresponsible government action” do not readily transform into left-wing politics. Looking back at the twentieth century should make that abundantly clear. That the Left has largely disappeared across the globe irrespective of the various political parties in power points to a historical dynamic that demand more than ever a clear basis of critique, which, currently, is desperately lacking.