I have made no secret of my belief that the left has a great opportunity to make very substantial progress in the coming years. I've also made no secret of my belief that this opportunity could be mostly wasted if the left does not discard a number of fashionable approaches that are diverting it from focusing on realistic and important reforms and building the broadest possible progressive coalition. This essay on Oren Cass' heterodox, pro-worker site American Compass is my take on the five political sins that are holding the left back. I urge you to read the whole thing but some excerpts are below.
I hope the essay will provoke productive discussion on how the left can discard elitist viewpoints and become a truly mass and effective movement.
"After 40 years of decline, perhaps it’s time for the Left to try something new.
After all, capitalism has been underperforming as an engine of prosperity since the latter part of the previous century, in terms of both the rate and distribution of growth. But these many decades of rising inequality do not appear to have benefitted the western Left. Mass publics have not seen what the Left has on offer as a plausible cure for what ails their societies and they have voted accordingly.
It is especially striking that even the Great Financial Crisis of 2008–09 did not spur any realignment of voters toward the Left. In the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, with widespread suffering and plummeting incomes, forces of the Right benefited the most, particularly Right-populists. Of course, Right-populists are themselves vulnerable, as their significant losses in the 2018 election made clear. In 2020, they face the possible defeat of their standard-bearer, Donald Trump. But such outcomes reflect Trump’s own weaknesses more so than the Left’s ability to govern effectively or sustain a majority coalition over time. On those counts, the record for decades has been poor.
The Left has theories about this failure. One is that the true Left has the right formula but has not been able to make its case, thanks to the pernicious influence of neoliberal incrementalism and the craven politicians who espouse it within the Democratic Party. Another is that the globalized capitalist class has become more powerful and, in alliance with a cleverer and better-organized Right, has bent societies and politicians in its direction, despite the Left’s resistance. Still another is that, precisely because of this globalization, national Lefts cannot succeed on the level of the nation-state.
But there is a simpler theory: The public just isn’t interested in buying what the Left is selling. No matter how loudly the Left hawks its wares or how heroically it organizes, even as America grapples with a pandemic-driven health and economic crisis, it will not succeed. The Left’s internal diagnoses lead it to believe that in picking up the pieces from this global debacle it can finally gain the elusive support it needs. But while it is certainly possible—perhaps probable—that the Left will win some important elections in the near future, durable mass support for the Left and its goals will not emerge unless and until it radically revamps its offering, abandoning the unhealthy and unpopular obsessions that consume its attention and distract from actually solving problems. In particular, it must find the strength to overcome five deadly sins.
The first deadly sin is identity politics. This form of politics originated in the entirely just and necessary 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against and establish equal treatment and access for women, gays, and racial minorities. In evolving to the present day, the focus has mutated into an attempt to impose a worldview that emphasizes multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles, advocates now police others on the Left to uncritically embrace this intersectional approach, insist on an arcane vocabulary for speaking about these purportedly oppressed groups, and prohibit discourse based on logic and evidence to evaluate the assertions of those who claim to speak on the groups’ behalf.....
The second deadly sin of the Left is retro-socialism, which demands a complete remaking of the market system to heal the problems of contemporary capitalism. In this view, the ills of the current era are traceable to neoliberalism—faith in the market as the organizing mechanism for society—which compounds underlying problems with the capitalist system itself. The retro-socialists contend that the public is so sick of stagnating living standards, inequality, and periodic crises that it will (eventually) embrace their complete socialist overhaul of the system. This mistakes the public’s genuine discontent with current outcomes for a desire to abandon capitalism entirely. Voters are indeed dissatisfied with the current model of capitalism, but what they want is a different, better capitalism, not “socialism.”....
The third deadly sin is catastrophism. From the final crisis of capitalism to the inevitabilities of war and fascism, the Left often extends systemic critiques to claims that the Big Meltdown is just around the corner and can be prevented only if the Left comes to power and radically restructures the system. Among many current iterations of this catastrophism, the most prominent one by far concerns climate change.
There are exceptions of course, but the Left’s dominant strand of thinking sees climate change as a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the Left, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most on the Left nod in agreement....
The fourth deadly sin is growthphobia: discarding the goal of faster growth in the rush to address economic inequality. While reducing inequality is a laudable and essential goal, both through market reforms that generate more equal outcomes (“predistribution”) and tax-and-transfer programs (“redistribution”), it is counterproductive to lose sight of the need for faster growth as well. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time and the Left presumably stands for the fastest possible rise in living standards.....
The Left’s final deadly sin is technopessimism. In the 21st century, the Left has become distinctly unenthusiastic about the potential of technology, tending to see it as a dark force to be contained rather than a force for good to be celebrated. This is very odd indeed. Almost everything people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in those advances. From smart phones, flat-screen TVs, and the internet, to air and auto travel, to central heating and air conditioning, to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life, to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, “the good old days were old but not good.”....
Not coincidentally, these deadly sins all emerge from a highly educated, intellectually influential part of what economist Thomas Piketty has termed “the Brahmin Left.” These ideas are what these individuals believe, but not what most voters believe, hence the difficulties of forging a mass, durable Left.
The solution is obvious: advocate for what most voters want and believe; don’t advocate for what they don’t want or believe. The overwhelming majority of voters oppose discrimination and support universal values of equal opportunity and fair treatment for all. The overwhelming majority of voters believe inequality is too high and that the wealthy have too much power and fail to promote the common good. The overwhelming majority of voters believe a clean energy transition is necessary and want it pursued effectively. The overwhelming majority of voters oppose the way growth has been distributed but want higher living standards and technological progress.
A Left that promotes universal values, a better model of capitalism, practical problem-solving on climate change, and an economy that delivers abundance for all has a great opportunity. But first the Left has to decide if it wants to be popular or Brahmin, only one of which is likely to succeed in a democracy. That is a debate not currently happening."
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