Ripe for Revolt: Building a New Left
RIPE FOR REVOLT:
BUILDING A NEW LEFT
by Morris Sullivan
Let's have a revolution.
The time is right for one; following this past election, America's dissenting groups seem more active than ever. Over 20,000 demonstrators appeared at the Bush inauguration, alone. As the media repeated ad nauseum, that represented the highest number of anti-president demonstrators at any inauguration since Nixon's second, in 1973.
Perhaps after this election, more Americans feel disenfranchised, disgruntled, and disgusted with our political system and our politicians than at any time since 1973. A number of organizations have already sprung up, each proposing to somehow oppose the Bush presidency, including CounterCoup and the Justice Action Movement. Email has begun to flow throughout the Internet suggesting that we insist that Congress not confirm Bush's appointments to the Supreme Court. No doubt many such "movements" will take shape in the coming months, and the effect on the Bush presidency could be devastating.
At best, unless Bush takes dramatic steps that prove he's the best president we've had in decades, the U.S. government will have a very tough time accomplishing anything worthwhile for the next four years.
At worst, evidence that Bush is less than perfect will likely fuel the fires of rage left smoldering among those groups who feel, justifiably, that their votes were discounted. Worse yet, over half of all Americans voted for the "other side"; the latest estimates suggest that Bush actually lost the popular election by a half-million votes, and many individuals among the popular majority believe that Bush became president through unethical means.
This is not the first time that's happened, and it has dire consequences for American attitudes towards government and politicians. In 1876, Samuel B. Tilden won the popular election, yet lost by one electoral vote to Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1888, Grover Cleveland lost to William H. Harrison, in what was probably the most corrupt election in U.S. history; Cleveland won the popular vote but still lost to Harrison due to electoral votes. By the turn of the century, the presidency--and politics in general--had fallen into such disrepute that it became a second-rate avocation unfit for "polite" society.
Ethical considerations aside, most voters worry that George W. Bush's administration will be a carbon copy of the last Republican administrations. They will point out the failure of Reaganomics and the "downsizing" that ensued. They will recall that administration's attacks against civil liberties, its discounting of environmental measures like the Clean Air Act, and so on, and will see Bush's cabinet-appointments of Ashcroft and other controversial figures as evidence supporting that concern. Combining the "election debacle" with worsening social and economic conditions could inspire a wave of dissent and activism not seen in America since the late 1960s.
Many already call for election reform. Undoubtedly, many others will attack the two-party system, which has increasingly fallen under fire for several years. However, as this election proves, a third party is not the answer.
We don't need a viable third party. We need a viable Left.
What currently passes for a Left in America is woefully fragmented, disorganized, and misguided; we need a new one. However, this New Left can't mimic the left of the sixties, which managed to alienate as many people as it attracted.
The violent actions of the Weathermen and Black Panthers, for example, may have seemed justified in the face of the wars being fought both in Vietnam and in America's ghettos. To the American bourgeoisie, however, the violence seemed equally to justify the force used in their repression. As brilliant as Abbie Hoffman was at attracting the cameras of the media, the silliness of the attempted levitation of the pentagon and the nomination of a pig as the Yippie presidential candidate made the Youth Independent Party hard to take seriously.
What we need is a New Left that has learned how to get things done from watching the extreme Right -- one that will get together and organize its point of view; one that will work to actually accomplish things, rather than generate "dialogue"; and one that will make use of the existing system to accomplish its goals.
"When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were," he said. "It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there."
--George W. Bush (from an Internet "Bush-ism" site.)
Given the Internet's iffy reliability as a source, the quote above could well be apocryphal; nevertheless, the statement contains a profound wisdom, if a muddled one. The world is no less dangerous for those "coming up" at the turn of the millennium than it was during Bush's "coming up." However, thirty or forty years ago, it was easier to tell who "them" was, regardless of which side you were on.
There probably were communists, socialists, environmentalists, and dozens of other "-ists" present, but they were all anti-war. Therefore, "us" included the young, the African American and other non-WASPs; anyone with an ecology symbol on their knapsack or a baggie of pot in their possession; those opposing the world's domination by nuclear weapons; and anyone else with a desire to duck out from under the yoke of mainstream America's repressive/oppressive society by experimenting with sexual freedom and nontraditional or anti-materialist lifestyles. Regardless of their other sympathies, the demonstrators in 1973 united under one cause: the war in Vietnam.
And for all of those diverse individuals, "them" was this nebulous beast dubbed "the establishment," which included the "military-industrial complex." That beast was at fault for the war, of course, but also for the other dangers "us" faced: the H-bomb, imprisonment for marijuana possession, air and water pollution, racial discrimination, and so on.
However, as Bush allegedly said, "today we don't know who them are, but we know they're there." Many Americans suffer from complacency tinged with a vague suspicion that "things aren't okay." In recent decades, a lot of people frustrated with the not-okayness of "things" have tried to define the new "them." "Them" is the corporate giant, big business, or some variation on that theme; "them" is the religious right, the politicians--or the Republican politicians.
Consequently, what passes as opposition for "them"--the progressive/leftist movement in America--is highly fragmented, as evidenced by the disparate groups present at Bush's inauguration. The National Organization for Women was there; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was there; environmentalist groups were there; and numerous other groups protesting other causes, only loosely united by their opposition to various aspects of the Bush presidency.
Several lists of leftist and progressive organizations can be found online. The organizations, loosely described by one Internet resource as "anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, [and/or] anti-homophobia," include: at least a dozen groups aimed at doing something about the "U.S. Election Debacle"; a half-dozen or more Middle-East-concerned organizations (like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Palestinian Information Center) a couple of organizations working against the "prison industrial complex"; the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and the National Organization of Men Against Sexism; the Direct Action Network; Pastors for Peace; Greenpeace; the Black Radical Congress; and even an anti-Vietnam War group.
Today's leftist and progressive organizations work toward everything from "reclaiming the streets" for bicycles to freeing convicted death-row inmates. They fight poverty and homelessness, free speech, and the global economic meltdown. They urge us to get out of Israel/Columbia/Iraq/etc., and advocate disability rights, gay rights, and workers' rights.
The "left," according to the Internet, also includes third-party political groups like the Green Party, the Communist Party USA and the Labor Party. I think we should begin our revolution by recognizing that no matter how ineffective the two-party system seems, either of the two parties are better than any of the existing "third" parties.
It would be naïve of us to believe that, in the unlikely event of his election, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader wouldn't get eaten for breakfast his first morning in Washington. While the Green Party may promote some good ideas, a Congress made up of Democrats and Republicans would guarantee that those ideas would surely die on the vine unless nurtured by a strong grass-roots movement. Such a movement requires active involvement in local politics, where most of the civil rights-threatening ordinances get passed by the religious-right Republicans.
Also, a three-party system would virtually guarantee that the worst candidate wins. Consider this: if two candidates are ideologically similar and/or similarly qualified, chances are good that the least-desirable third candidate will get elected. Liberals among us could consider the Gore/Nader split to be good evidence of this. There have been other examples in the past, as well.
As historian and attorney Terence H. Brown points out, for example, events surrounding the 1912 election not only cost the election for the Republican party, which had dominated the presidency since the time of Lincoln, but also catalyzed the overhaul of that same party.
Brown explains that after the assassination of President William McKinley, the politically progressive, Rough Riding environmentalist Teddy Roosevelt, had stepped into office from the vice presidency. After two terms, Roosevelt opted not to run again and "handed the Republican Party over to Taft." With Taft, Brown says, came a "more laissez faire wing of the Republican Party. That ticked Roosevelt off," he says, "so four years later he split off to form the [National Progressive] 'Bull Moose' Party and again ran against Taft."
Roosevelt took enough Republican votes with him to cost Taft the election and left the door open for Wilson and "the resurgence of the Democratic party,' says Brown. When the smoke had cleared, the angry "official" Republicans had ousted the remaining Roosevelt-progressives, and the Republican Party of Lincoln became the conservative Republican Party of Nixon and Reagan.
Instead of pushing for a third party, perhaps one objective of the New Left should be to support those who demand a re-evaluation of the American political process. Democracy has proven to be the most viable form of government. However, the United States system is, in many ways, outmoded. Our political procedures, such as the electoral system, were designed over 200 years ago.
As the Constitution took shape, our founders said that our nation would be a union of states, and that each state would be as autonomous as possible. The idea was this: each community knows best how it should be governed, so governing power should, to the extent possible, fall into the hands of the community. Therefore, the states would more or less govern themselves, and on those matters where federal leadership was needed, representatives of the states would come together to decide how to handle those matters.
If we look at this as a bureaucratic management structure, it is not a traditional "top down" system, where decisions are made by leadership at the top and implemented by middle managers down the pyramid. Rather, it is a "bottom up" system, where decisions are made at the lowest possible levels of the pyramid and communicated upwards to the higher levels.
No doubt, when communities were separated by expanses of wilderness, when the individual communities' economies were relatively self-sustaining and their cultures often dramatically individuated, this structure made a lot of sense.
As the current "election debacle" suggests, however, that system probably would benefit from major revision. In the Electoral College, for example, the people in each state vote for the presidential candidate they prefer; representatives of each state then meet to vote for the candidate who has won the popular vote in their state. Each state carries a certain weight based on population, much as each state is represented in the House according to population. The effect of this system is to remove by at least one step the individual American from the decision-making process.
If we view the U.S. as a collection of states where communication of votes from each state to Washington involved long trips by horse, the Electoral College seems imminently practical. However, in the 21st century, America is no longer a collection of autonomous villages. Rather, with electronic media (including the Internet) making communication between individuals and organizations almost instantaneous, there is no longer any need to put that extra step--that arbitrary barrier of "state"--between the individual and the federal government.
There is another reason to reconsider the republican model--it isn't working. The federal government already makes more and more decisions for us on local and state levels, and that's as it should be. Probably, there should be more power in the hands of the feds than there is. For example, why should the children of one state suffer an inadequate education because their state's government doesn't stress education enough, or be forced to learn pseudo-science like creationism because lunatics populate the state's school system? Many civil and environmental issues have encouraged the federal government to force the hands of state governments: desegregation, age and sex discrimination, and land-use planning, to name just a few.
On the other hand, there are several good reasons to leave power in local and state hands. While local governments can be more reactionary, more proprietary, and more irrational than the federal government, they are also potentially more progressive. Smaller local governments can react more quickly to change (just as a smaller business with hands-on management can react more quickly than a large bureaucratic corporation). Under the bottom-up model of government, we should retain our strongest, best, and most extreme leaders at the bottom of the pyramid. This--at the local and state government level--is where third-party thinking belongs.
A New Left, then, can advocate for a more direct democratic interaction between the individual and federal government. At the same time, a New Left can begin working at local levels to create the kinds of conditions we'd like to see on the national level.
For example, we can insist that our public schools give our children an education, which means teaching them critical thinking and an appreciation for the humanities, not just making them suitable fodder for corporate consumption. We can insist that health issues such as AIDS, teen pregnancy and substance abuse be treated as health issues--not as political, moral, or law enforcement issues. We can insist that all Americans be treated equally not only under the laws of our society, but in the employee handbooks of businesses, in schools, and in all other organizations that have the privilege of operating in our free, egalitarian society.
At a local level, we can refuse to sit and watch complacently while the religious right attacks our freedoms, whether they do it through ordinances, through pressure against arts-funding agencies, or by threatening boycotts. We can prevent idiotic notions like creationism from finding their way into school curricula because a small segment of our society prefer myth to science.
On a local--and individual--level, we can favor the entrepreneur above the giant corporation. We can buy from the small independent rather than the giant chain; and while we may pay a little extra, we can view it as an investment in a better America. Corporations have no conscience. They are not human individuals, and therefore do not enjoy the same rights as individuals. While government regulation of corporate behavior should be kept to a minimum, that minimum is higher for a corporation than for an individual.
If a corporation has so much power that the economy of an area would collapse if the company folded, then that corporation has too damn much power. In a small corporation or other business entity, officers and owners will often forego their own paychecks to save their companies. Large corporations should not receive bailouts unless their officers and other primary stakeholders are willing to do likewise. If the government has to bail one out, then the government should become a stockholder and its dividends passed along to its citizens in the form of social welfare, infrastructure improvements, education, and other social programs.
We should also demand of our government and ourselves that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans stops widening.
Unfortunately, the American population is capable of maintaining a mind-boggling degree of complacency--as long as we are relatively comfortable. This last presidential campaign was nauseatingly concerned with money. "Which president will give us the biggest tax cut?" we asked. "Which one will keep us fat and happy like we've been for the last eight years?" I daresay we're the most shamefully materialistic society in history.
Prosperity is, indeed, important. However, a financially comfortable middle class does not guarantee a high quality of life. Perhaps we can use the next four years, while the executive branch and Congress are crippled by the strife of the November 2000 election, to begin creating a high quality of life for all Americans. That does not mean we install a PlayStation 2 in every living room. Rather, it means we insist on good health, good communities, good education, and freedom from the repression of our civil rights.
Americans are also bizarrely subject to manipulation through clever spin-doctoring and political marketing, and the government has much better marketing and PR than it did in the 1960s. For example, on the basis of his "charisma" alone, the majority of Americans held fast to the belief that Reagan was a good president, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. His administration led us into the ravages of savings and loan disasters, rising unemployment, the widening "income gap" between the rich and the poor, Iran-Contra, Desert Storm, and accusations that the administration introduced crack cocaine into the black population as a control measure. Despite all that, Reagan's down-home style and folksy homilies kept the Republicans in the White House for three terms.
That complacency and gullibility will be among the biggest obstacles for the New Left. We need to create a political system in which decision making has more to do with "what¹s right" and "what's best' than it does with "what'll get me re-elected?"
There have always been conflicting factions within America. During the late 18th century, American radicals ousted the British and created a democratic society. As the United States took shape and stabilized, most Americans felt a part of the political process. Few felt a need to rebel against our government, because they were the government. That doesn't mean that there was no activism, however: the women's suffrage movement, the temperance movement, slave rebellions and abolitionism are prime examples.
By the dawn of the 20th century, American expansion had pretty well stabilized, but social conditions still motivated activists. Socialists attempted to usurp the power of the capitalists to stomp all over American laborers, for example, and largely succeeded by creating labor unions and forcing the passage of labor laws. After the second World War, minorities began to ask for equality; a few intellectuals, academics, and beatniks tried to "ban the bomb," and women began to take a higher-profile stance in the workplace and started wondering why they got paid less than men.
America must continue to have a viable Left. As demonstrated throughout our history, it is only through opposition to the status quo that we, as a society, can progress. At the dawn of the 21st century, the lack of a unified left wing has led to the utter stagnation of the American political system, and is largely responsible for the mediocrity of its leaders.
Perhaps a unified leftist movement could not--and probably should not--succeed in overturning the status quo. However, as it brings our society closer to perfection, such a movement would not be wasted.
So, let's have a revolution!
Email your feedback on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make an IMPACT
Other articles by Morris Sullivan:
Morris Sullivan's Notes from the Cultural Wasteland columns