Sunday, July 23, 2017

What next for the Left?

Here we are America. Politics is looking as grim as one could imagine with Trump. The little good news is that Trump's despotic tendencies have been hindered by his incompetence. Regardless, the corruption, disregard of facts, and disdain for the rule of law is taking its toll.

Have I become numb to it? Perhaps. Still furious, but now simply have lower expectations for America. In the face of thousands of warnings, of blatant law breaking and possible treason, the Republican Party marches on, uncaring. Lauren Duca summed it up well, "There are no alarms left to sound." Who cares about political norms if taxes can be lowered at the cost of services for the poor. Since I've been old enough to care about politics I have thought the Republican party to be morally rotten, but they are continuing to sink to new depths.

Frightfully, this is what a significant portion of America wants. I have read report after report after report from people talking to Trump voters. I spent a good share of last year reading books attempting to explain what is in the mind of that side of the political spectrum. Most of them leave me wanting to scream. Impolitic as it was to say, Hillary was right when she said that a good share of Trump voters are deplorable. Too many are either fools, idiots, or bigots. An unfortunate number seem immune to feedback, cocooned in their bubble of Fox News propaganda.

Unfortunately, the right has been winning for the last forty years. From the late 70's and onward, the Democrats have moved toward the right while the Republicans have gone off the deep end, and the Republicans have kept winning. We have a political system that either by constitutional design, or by voter suppression and gerrymandering, has given the right an out-sized share of power. Trump lost the popular vote by millions. Yet here we are, with the Republicans having the most power at the state and national level than they have had since the 1920's. To recover is going to be an uphill climb.

Whether you call it neoliberalism, or give it some other label, economic policy has followed suit, and the results have not been pretty. America has seen wages for the middle class stand stagnant for forty years. We now have the greatest inequality and least economic mobility in living memory. Cultural politics has gone better in some regards, but still civil-liberties have eroded and a racist criminal justice system has caused prison populations to increase by nearly a factor of five since 1980. Our political system has institutionalized corruption and extreme partisanship that has brought responsiveness to a standstill. Worldwide, this has gone hand-in-hand with unchecked environmental destruction and population growth.

If we want to save the Republic, much less the damn world, the Left needs to be doing many things differently.

We face a situation where many on the right goals that are incompatible with the left. On the topics where there is agreement, there is still the problem that we have become partisan and tribal to the point that we no longer communicate. 

Regarding the concerns of the right, I see an odd mix. They are people on the other side, and there are many reasonable complaints. There are the concerns of middle class decline, the impoverishment of small towns, and to this I want to shout that the left has been trying to help fix this problem only to be spat upon for their efforts. Then there are values voters who are angrily fighting against abortion and for more Christianity in government, or against immigration and for white supremacy. For that, not much in the way of room for compromise. Some can be debated, but much of that viewpoint will have to be torn out root and branch from the American psyche if we are to live in a decent world.

Why have we become so separated? There is political clustering as documented well in The Big Sort. The Democrats have become the urban party, the Republicans the rural party, and our constitution values rural voters more than it does urban ones. With the increasing lack of interactions between the two sides, it is easier to demonize and fear the other.

Reaching out to the middle is not exactly easy. The Democrats have been compromising for decades and it never bought more than a temporary reprieve. Due to the lack of trust and communication, it is difficult to get the right to accept basic facts, much less have a policy debate.

What next for the left then? How do we win this fight?

It has been heartening to see the protests, the court cases, the swings in special elections, and the increased number of Democrats preparing to run for office, but being anti-Trump is not sufficient. I would have danced if Hillary had been elected and saved us from Trump, but she was hardly inspiring. Even Bernie had far too many weaknesses. That might just be the nature of political compromise, but we need a movement.

In response to all the liberal hand-wringing, the anguish trying to understand the other side, Tucker FitzGerald had an excellent post.
The progressive liberal agenda isn’t about being nice. It’s about confronting evil, violence, trauma, and death. It’s about acknowledging the ways systemic power, systemic oppression, systemic evil, work in our world around us. I’m not fighting for diversity. I’m not fighting for tolerance. I’m fighting to overturn horrific systems of dehumanizing oppression.
The conservative mindset strikes me as hideously immoral and unclean. Denial of truth and evidence. Denial of inequality, racism, and sexism. Destroying our future through the denial of environmental degradation.

Admittedly, I am staunch partisan with rigorous beliefs, but if one wants a successful movement, a moral foundation is necessary. Last year I read Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, which I highly recommend, in which he explains his moral foundations theory. In the book, Haidt looks at the partisan divide in America through social psychology, and has the conclusion that the right often wins because it appeals to a broader spectrum of moral beliefs. While the left concerns itself with care, fairness, and liberty; the right, in addition to using those foundations, also appeals to authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Whether or not these psychological traits are as fundamental as Haidt thinks, there is certainly room for the left to appeal to the authority of experts, loyalty to the common man, or the sanctity of knowledge and the environment.

Another point regarding the failings of the left that struck a cord with me, by way of David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules:
We no longer like to think about bureaucracy, yet it informs every aspect of our existence. It's as if, as a planetary civilization, we have decided to clap our hands over our ears and hum start humming whenever the topic comes up. Insofar as we are even willing to discuss it, it's still in the terms popular in the sixties and early seventies. The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy, or, to put it more accurately, rebellions against the bureaucratic mindset, against the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states. In the face of the gray functionaries of both state-capitalist and state-socialist regimes, sixties rebels stood for individual expression and spontaneous conviviality, and against ("rules and regulations, who needs them?") every form of social control.
With the collapse of the old welfare states, all this has come to seem decidedly quaint. As the language of antibureaucratic individualism has been adopted, with increasing ferocity, by the Right, which insists on "market solutions" to every social problem, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state: it has acquiesced with--often even spearheaded--attempts to make government efforts more "efficient" through the partial privatization of services and the incorporation of ever-more "market principles," "market incentives," and market-based "accountability processes" into the structure of the bureaucracy itself. 
The result is a political catastrophe. There's really no other way to put it. What is presented as the "moderate" Left solution to any social problems--and radical left solutions are, almost everywhere now, ruled out tout court--has invariably come to be some nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism. It is a testimony to the genuine lingering power of leftist ideals that anyone would even consider voting for a party that promoted this sort of thing--because surely, if they do, it's not because they actually think these are good policies, but because these are the only policies anyone who identifies themselves as left-of-center is allowed to set forth.
Is there any wonder, then, that every time there is a social crisis, it is the Right, rather than the Left, which becomes the venue for the expression of popular anger?
The Right, at least, has a critique of bureaucracy. It's not a very good one. But at least it exists. The Left has none. As a result, when those who identify with the Left do have anything negative to say about bureaucracy, they are usually forced to adopt a watered-down version of the right-wing critique.
Unfortunately, Graeber does not exactly provide a clear plan for where to take that idea. Yes, we want less bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy is run by the government or by corporations. The right has attacked the government, blaming it exclusively for the bureaucracy forced upon us, but this has simply allowed our freedom to be diminished under corporate bureaucracy and economic insecurity.

I would love to see the welfare state simplified by replacing the multitude of means tested programs with a basic income. Or the ending of the war on drugs and an emptying of prisons. Or a single payer healthcare system so that healthcare is guaranteed and people do not have to worry about the bureaucracy of private health insurance companies.

Some plans to decrease economic inequality and insecurity proceed by placing more power in the hands of the government, and that must be treated cautiously. As much as I hate the right for taking the position that all regulations and taxes are bad, the left is too often not willing to fight against taxes or regulations that end up harming the poor. At the local level here in San Francisco, it is easy to see so called progressive fighting for housing policies that evidence shows are harmful to the poor, harmful to immigrants, and primarily serve to benefit wealthy homeowners. Hell, if the conflict between the DSA and  YIMBY advocates can be resolved, I will throw my hat in with whatever group results from that.

The left needs a more coherent plan. Yes, we want less poverty and inequality. Yes, the world is complicated and regulation often has unintended consequences. Great. We have generalizations and hand waviness that has lead the Democratic party to an uninspiring muddle. While for me, non throwing more than twenty million people off of their health insurance is a perfectly good reason to vote for the Democrats, the electoral track record of the last few years shows something far more is needed.

The right-wing economic policy that has been pushed through over the last 40 years was built up for decades before it became politically viable. The Mont Pelerin Society started laying the foundation of neoliberalism in 1947, and it took until the stagflation of the 1970's before it leapt onto the national stage and then became the default under Reagan.

The left is still thrashing about for such a plan. There has been some movement with Piketty and talk of universal basic income, but it is still incredibly formative. The left needs that new model twenty years ago. When the financial crises and the Great Recession hit in 2007 and 2008, there was no change in direction. There will be more crises in the next few decades, and some will be worse than 07-08. Either another financial collapse, or economic dislocation brought about by advances in AI, or rising sea levels and climate change causing refugees and starvation.

It is easy to state ambitious goals. The elimination of poverty, the elimination of institutional racism, a Gini index below 30, a reduction in atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm, tuition-free public universities, housing for all, and a transparent and non-corrupt government. To be able to make such a platform that is not dismissed by the majority of the electorate as unrealistic or unacheivable, there needs to be plan. To then make it a movement, there needs to be a story for people to believe in.

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