Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Today's Left: The Good News and the Bad News

John Judis' article on the potential of and dangers to today's left will be in next Sunday's Washington Post Magazine but it is already available online. I strongly recommend it.
The good news:
"One important advantage the contemporary left has over the ’60s left is that it was created by conditions that are not going away. The Vietnam War was the main issue uniting the diverse parts of the ’60s left, and it brought hundreds of thousands of new sympathizers into the movement. And so, when the Nixon administration ended the draft and then signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam, what we called “the movement” rapidly dissipated. The women’s, civil rights and environmental movements — to name three of the biggest groups — continued, but they were no longer part of a larger whole. Meanwhile, those groups that had espoused revolution were displaced by reformist, staff-driven organizations that worked out of Washington or New York offices.
Today’s left is different. Of the factors driving it, only the Trump presidency will expire, and that might not happen for five years. Climate change will continue to menace shorelines, create extreme weather, and imperil agriculture and fishing — and this is, unfortunately, going to happen even if a Democrat wins the presidency this year and rejoins the Paris agreement. As the politics around climate change inevitably become more pressing, the case for a large-scale subordination of private capital to public priorities — a demand that is at the heart of the political left — will only strengthen.
Most important, though, the underlying economic conditions that led to the creation of today’s left are going to continue to shape the labor force of American capitalism. Under the impact of artificial intelligence, many jobs will alter overnight or disappear, creating continuing insecurity among the young, fueling dissatisfaction with capitalism and providing an incentive to organize. The economy itself may not soon endure a recurrence of the Great Recession, but an increasingly fractious world trading order and overcapacity in manufacturing will continue to threaten growth. The predominance of finance and the winner-take-all structure of the high-tech industry mean that disparities of wealth and power will only grow.
During the ’60s, proletarianization was in its early stage. In 1960, only 8 percent of Americans had a college degree or above. Today, the ranks of college-educated people — those most susceptible to the appeal of the contemporary left — appear to be growing. Thirty-nine percent of Americans 25 and older have a bachelor’s or an advanced degree, a figure that is expected to increase over the next 10 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional occupations, which require at least a college degree, made up 20.9 percent of the labor force in 2018 and will make up 21.5 percent by 2028. Allied occupations such health-care support are also expected to grow, from 2.7 to 3 percent. During the same period, the ranks of sales personnel, office and administrative support occupations, and production workers — who do not fit the profile of today’s left — are expected to shrink. By the end of the 2020s, college-educated workers facing persistent insecurity about their future, and concern about the value of their work, should account for somewhere between 22 and 25 percent of the labor force.
Perhaps because these underlying economic trends are continuing, the youngest American voters are no less susceptible than millennials to radical appeals. In fact, they may be more susceptible. A January 2019 Harris Poll found that 61 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds — Generation Z — have a positive reaction to the word “socialism.” By comparison, 51 percent of millennials do. Taken together, these two generations could well pose a formidable challenge not only to conservatives but to establishment liberals."
The bad news:
"Today’s left has not embraced the separatism or the revolutionary fantasies of the last days of the ’60s left, but, as someone who was there, I find disturbing echoes in the present. I’ll list three. First, many on the left — and many more-moderate liberals as well — attribute Trump’s victory in 2016 and white working-class reluctance to support Democrats entirely or primarily to “white supremacy” or “white privilege.” They dismiss flyover Americans who voted for Trump as irredeemable — even though there is evidence that many supporters of Barack Obama backed Trump in 2016, and that many Trump voters cast ballots for Democrats in 2018. It is an echo of the ’60s left’s Manichaean view of Americans.
As a result, today’s left has become fond of a political strategy that discounts the importance altogether of winning over the white working class. Such a strategy assumes Democrats can gain majorities simply by winning over people of color (a term that groups people of wildly varying backgrounds, incomes and worldviews), single women and the young. One recent article in the left-wing Nation declared: “Since the 1980s, Democratic candidates have proven that they can win elections while losing whites without a college degree by a significant margin.” It’s a questionable strategy for Democrats — in a presidential election, it could cede many of the Midwestern swing states to a Republican — but it is even more questionable as a strategy for the left, which has historically been committed to achieving equality by building a movement of the bottom and middle of society against the very wealthy and powerful at the top.
Second, the left is again dividing into identity groups, each of which feels justified in elevating its concerns above others. In Philadelphia this summer at Netroots Nation — a gathering of left and liberal groups — Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) told aspiring officeholders, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up because we need you to represent that voice.”
While activists focused on identity politics have, like their predecessors from the ’60s, made perfectly reasonable demands — for instance, an end to police brutality, or equal wages for men and women — they have also made extreme demands that display an indifference to building a political majority. Some have backed reparations for slavery — an idea rejected by broad majorities of the electorate, most of whom are descended from immigrants who came to America after the Civil War. Other groups have demanded “open borders,” defying a majority of Americans who think the country should be able to decide who to admit as citizens and who will be able to enjoy the rights and benefits of being an American.
Third, many of these demands and strategies are accompanied by a quasi-religious adherence to special language and gestures that echo the experience of the ’60s. Again, at the level of morality, these aspects of the left may be persuasive, but at the level of political-majority-building, they are problematic. For instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lists “LGBTQIA+ Rights” among her priorities, but how many Americans outside the bluest Zip codes know what “LBGTQIA+” stands for? According to a recent poll, 98 percent of Latinos are uncomfortable with the left-wing term “Latinx.” At the Democratic Socialists of America convention I attended over the summer in Atlanta, delegates identified themselves on their name tags, and when they spoke, by their preferred pronoun (“he,” “she” or “they”) and signaled their approval by twirling their hands. Someone who used the colloquial “guys” to refer to the audience was sternly rebuked. There were charges of “ableism” and of “triggering” due to loud talking. These kinds of moral stances are fine for a church congregation, but not for a political organization that wants to win a majority of voters. The reality is that 80 percent or more of Americans who wandered into such a gathering would think they were on another planet.
And the trouble spots I’ve identified here are only being exacerbated by the importance of social media to contemporary politics. During the ’60s, the left’s cultural insularity was reinforced by its geography. Today, the insularity of the left is magnified by the Internet, which tends to draw us toward people who think alike while screening out unfriendly opinions.
As some of the stances of today’s left have seeped into Democratic presidential politics, it’s become clear that there could be real electoral consequences to these missteps. Warren and Sanders have both promised to offer free Medicare for undocumented immigrants — something that even Canada does not provide — and to decriminalize border crossings. Warren promised a 9-year-old transgender boy that he could have veto rights over her appointment of a secretary of education. Sanders has promised voting rights for imprisoned felons. As sophisticated politicians, Warren and Sanders must know that if they win the nomination, these kind of stands will make it difficult for them to gain votes outside of heavily blue metro areas — and therefore difficult to put together an electoral college majority."
He concludes, rightly I think:
"For the foreseeable future...if the left wants to create the political majority that Tom Hayden dreamed of in 1969, it will have to frame its positions in a vernacular that most Americans can understand. It will also have to draw a sharp distinction between the positions it deems essential for “big, structural change” and those that can be delegated to communities to calibrate and debate. The new left of the ’60s failed in this mission. We didn’t just dream big; we ascended into the realm of fantasy and visible sainthood. Today’s left will need to learn from our mistakes."
Or, as Winston Churchill said, paraphrasing George Santayana:
"Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it."
The underlying conditions for a left-wing ascendance are actually very promising. But young progressives are falling into old traps.

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