Why the Left Is Stronger Without the Democrats

(WARNING: Pretentious personal lede.)

A few months ago, on a reporting trip to London, I met up with the British historian and columnist Tim Stanley for a sad and bracing update on the fate of his country’s conservative movement. The Conservative Party was in power, married for now to the Liberal Democrats in a rare national coalition. But the conservative movement was in poor shape. The Tories had bled most of their membership as the party moved left on gay marriage and environmentalism. The problem, said Stanley, was that there was no conservative movement—just the party.

I remembered that conversation after reading Adolph Reed Jr.’s cover essay in Harper’s, a long criticism of the left for prioritizing the election of Democrats over ideology and results. Obama represented the worst of this, he writes: “Confusion and critical paralysis prompted by the racial imagery of Obama’s election prevented even sophisticated intellectuals like Žižek from concluding that Obama was only another Clintonite Democrat.” Reed’s advice:

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.

Michelle Goldberg responded to this in the Nation, accusing Reed of falling back into the nihilism that allowed progressives to see no difference between Gore and Bush. The right, by contrast, “has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up, built a huge network of interlocking intellectual, legal and political institutions and mobilized every four years to try to elect a Republican president.” Why can’t the left do the same?

I’d argue that the left has already done much of that work—oh, and that Reed is still sort of right. Compare the Democratic Party that won in 2008 and 2012 with the one that lost in 2000. The party in 2000 had just undone Glass-Steagall and nominated a candidate who backed the first Gulf War. Its big idea on health care: prescription coverage as part of Medicare. Eight years later, no candidate who dreamed that small or was that uncritical of the banks could win a nomination.

What happened? A new left infrastructure had been built, including a think tank modeled on the right’s AEI and Heritage Foundation (the Center for American Progress) and an aggressive “netroots” movement of writers and activists. You can track the development of the Democratic Party by tracking Al Gore, who started criticizing intervention in Iraq and backing single-payer within two years of losing the presidency. The Democratic Leadership Council, invented to move the party right, imploded at the start of the Obama years.

That’s actually pretty impressive when you consider what the Democratic Party is. We don’t have a social democratic, labor movement-rooted party in this country, like the U.K. does or like France does or like Germany does or like Brazil does, etc. and etc. The Democratic Party was, for more than a hundred years, a coalition of progressives, immigrants, and conservative Southern whites. Only pretty recently has it become clearly a party of the left, backed by labor but not led by it, adopting positions—gay marriage, immigration reform—after activists force it to. To some extent, Reed is burning a straw man.

What does he get right? Well, insofar as anyone actually thinks that “the left” is done when it elects charismatic Democrats, they should know better. (Reed hardly mentions Hillary Clinton, but this essay is of a piece with recent commentary that fears what’ll happen if the Democrats re-embrace the Clintons, as the polls say they’ll do.) Unless it’s operating in the sort of state that can be changed by fiat*, a political movement will always, always be disappointed by the people it elects. It has to make those people respect and fear the movement.

Conservatives have figured this out, which is why they’re on track to be “disappointed” in who wins in this year’s primaries but end up with a GOP that refuses to cross them on most of their issues. The left has figured it out, too. Not completely. But more than Reed suggests.

*Venezuela, to pick an example that’s not pretty right now.