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An Incoherent Harper's Essay Suggests There's No Difference Between Obama and Republicans

Left-wing naivete about right-wing radicalism

Alex Wong/Getty Images

A Democratic president’s economic agenda is a failure, lost to business class acquiescence, the embrace of austerity, and an overall lack of vision.

This was the conclusion of The New Republic, summarizing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal in May 1940. Though there were “extraordinary accomplishments” to acknowledge, the magazine understood that the New Deal was a “failure in the central problem.” That central problem was the economic question, and there, the Roosevelt administration had “fail[ed] to discover or apply a genuine remedy for the stagnation of our economy and for unemployment.” Beyond the failure of vision, it “heeded business advice, at least in part, by trying to cut recovery expenditures” and engage in other forms of austerity.

Though the magazine believed the New Deal did more for the general welfare than any other administration, and even helped shift the ideological space against laissez-faire conservatism, they weren’t sure whether they could say they supported it. “If the New Deal is to deserve our support in the future, it must not rest on what it has already done, great as that is, but tell us how it is going to finish the task.”

In other words, being disappointed in Democratic presidents is what opinion editors refer to as “evergreen” content. It’s always ready to go, and always applicable with a built-in audience. With this in mind, political scientist Adolph Reed has a cover story in the latest Harper’s, Nothing Left, making the case against President Obama and for the idea that liberalism is currently exhausted.

Much of the text is focused on the well-rehearsed argument that President Obama is much more conservative than people understand, and that the Clinton years were nothing to get nostalgic over. There’s nothing particularly new there to dislodge people’s feelings on those matters one way or the other. And most of the responses have been focused on “electoral nihilism” of the piece, and the various other implications about electoral strategy and grassroots energy.

Though there are many reasons why there is no liberal Tea Party beyond the disappointments of individual politicians and lack of a labor movement, Reed’s other point that liberals focus too much on elections and less on ideology is correct. As New America's Michael Lind, a former neoconservative before he became a heterodox liberal in the early 1990s, told me, "many of the original neoconservatives were ex-Trotskyites. They knew you fight over your principles first, then purge from the movement those who fundamentally disagree, and only then fight over electoral strategies." However liberals, according to Lind, fight over electoral strategies first, and hope somehow their first principles will fall out of all that action and energy somehow.

But Reed is making an argument that goes beyond the current Democratic Party, and there are three points worth exploring further.

Reed: “With the two parties converging in policy…”

This is the kind of stuff that drives liberals up the wall, and for good reason. The two parties at this point are pushing two very different, ideological visions of the role of the state and the market. Ignore, for a second, cuts and expansions. Conservatives want to privatize Social Security, while liberals want it to remain a public program. Conservatives want to turn Medicare into a coupon to buy health insurance on exchanges, while liberals want to use Medicare’s footprint to control health-care costs. Liberals see a greater role for the federal government, for instance in absorbing the costs of a major expansion of Medicaid. Conservatives want to turn everything over to the states where it will be easier to starve and replace with private control. These aren’t minor differences.

These battles are clearer if you look at the fighting in the states. States taken over by conservatives have waged an all-out war on workers, reproductive health, and public goods. Meanwhile liberal states and cities have moved to expand paid sick-leave, minimum wages, and reproductive health. Even the so-called culture wars have a hard economic edge. Reed dismisses feminism as a set of fake cultural politics. Yet health-care reform has eliminated “woman” as a pre-existing condition, and minimum wage hikes, which disproportionately benefit women of color, and equal pay are in the forefront.

Reed: “...what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms ‘left’ and ‘progressive’ signify a cultural sensibility...The left has no particular place it wants to go.”

Inequality is shaping up to become the new focus of liberals. Reed is worried about the “dilettantish” behavior of the left which “careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one.” And yes, inequality could turn into another bright shiny object of the day. But I believe inequality will have legs. It has enough moral energy to coordinate political imaginations, yet it’s plastic enough to cover different elements like poverty and plutocracy, as well as values like economic freedom and security.

There’s certainly room. So much liberal energy, both through infrastructure and as a matter of the political horizon, was focused on passing health-care reform and completing the social insurance project. Much of the centrist energy is on the defense or otherwise in decline. Inequality can fill the gap.

This will create its own challenges. It’s not clear inequality as a political project can challenge some of the more egregious blind spots of where Democrats are right now. Questions of worker power and privatization of public goods are left underdetermined in the framework of inequality. Full employment and the actual management of the business cycle can disappear in this focus. However, if done well, inequality can be used to open up these discussions in a progressive way.

But here Reed’s evocation of “the left” becomes problematic. Inequality as a political project will be a distinctly liberal project, focused on a mixed economy, social insurance, and the ways law and custom structure markets and distributions. These are not radical sentiments as the term is historically understood.

This is a total cliché, but it remains the case: After the “End of History” it’s not clear what will animate genuinely leftist politics. Where liberals have been mildly emboldened by the economic crisis, actual leftists continue to seem lost, unable to turn the middle of the plate pitch of a global financial crisis to their advantage. (It’s noteworthy that the recent, big, standard-setting Marx biography is predicated on the idea that trying to read our economic times through Marx is a “singularly useless pastime” that “has run its course.”)

I see new strands focused on the politics of creating alternative spaces and institutions, notably in much of the work and thought central to Occupy. Others are focusing on regrounding leftist politics in a critical re-engagement of work itself. I don’t see a convergence however. The question could use more engagement, including from Reed himself.

Reed: “....the areas of fundamental disagreements that separate [the two parties] become too arcane and too remote from most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action.”

No. Just a casual glance out the window shows that the differences in policy have created massive popular actions. From the Tea Party organizing against expanding access to health-care and efforts to fight the recession, to undocumented workers organizing to pass immigration reform, the actual differences in play get people on the street.

There’s a genuine issue here for liberals. One positive thing that the New Republic saw in the New Deal back in 1940 was the idea that the changes in social insurance and labor laws were self-enforcing, and that “it is improbable that these more permanent changes will be or even can be destroyed by any new administration.” (They were half-right; labor was decimated seven years later under Taft-Hartley.)

But can new liberal reform, in an age of diminished horizons, sustain itself? Concretely, will the people getting health-care through the exchanges stand up and prevent future dismantling of Obamacare, the way this is the case with Social Security and Medicare? Can the minor, and even major, changes that would come with an inequality agenda build an actual democratic politics that would call for more action? I’m not sure. But it’s worth finding out, because the potential for the inequality agenda is worth fighting for.