Sam Smith

IF nothing happens to change things, it looks as if Hillary Clinton will be running against Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Let’s hope something happens to change things because it is hard to imagine a more depressing choice, the final triumph of money and media over democracy and sanity.

Yet, even on the left, one doesn’t get much sense that we seem to be moving from frying pan to fire. Six years bitter experience has left many liberals and progressives convinced that exorcising the demon in the White House and finding a Democratic replacement is all we need for happiness.

It doesn’t work like that. It is a reasonable bet that after eight years of the next administration – of whatever party – the overwhelming majority of the sins of the Bush years will remain, quietly institutionalized either because of lack of will, lack of votes or an excess of inertia.

The primary reason for this is that in politics we get the presidents we deserve and a Clinton-Giuliani race would reflect the fact that in neither party is there sufficient will to do things differently – to rebel against the corrupt, cynical anti-democratic spirit that these two power-obsessed leaders represent.

As the right has demonstrated over the past quarter century, the creation of a new popular paradigm is a complex, expensive and lengthy business. One can argue that the right had a grossly unfair advantage by controlling the hearts of corporations, mass media and evangelicals who happily and mindlessly spread its message to an unwitting electorate.

This is true, but there is another factor that hardly ever gets discussed. The left has blown it.

In fact, since the beginning of the Reagan administration there has not been a single mass movement on the part of the left that has made any significant impact on the country.

Part of this has been a matter of priorities. Under Reagan and the Bushes, the left was happy to do what it seems to like best: protest. Under Clinton it switched gears and quietly and obediently complied. In either case – dissenter or drone – the left did little to offer Americans an alternative vision, platform or movement.

Twenty years ago, as a member of the board of a national liberal organization, I found words for my concern as we discussed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Defeating Bork, I noted, was a necessity but it was not a policy. And we needed more policies.

I could tell from the room that I had said something alien. Who are we, I sensed around me, if we are not in opposition?

As recently as the last presidential campaign, I suggested a national progressive confab at which a list of major priorities would be compiled so everyone would know what we wanted, instead of leaving it to Fox News and David Broder to define for us. Again, it fell flat.

I suspect a part of the problem is that liberals behave much like many abused children; they view themselves more as victims than as survivors. This is not surprising given that two of their major constituencies – blacks and Jews – place particular emphasis on victimhood in their political rhetoric. But in the end, it is a choice that even the worst treated make in different ways, which is why some of the most impressive survivors are found in some of America’s worst neighborhoods.

Rather than exhibiting the will to rewrite the story of themselves and America, too often liberals wallow in the mud pits into which their opponents have driven them and, when they can’t take any more, willingly grab the hand of whatever hustler comes their way.

In this way, 2008 already reminds one of 1992 when liberals lined up for Clinton because he looked like he would win and might throw them a few bones along the way. In fact, in different ways, both Hillary Clinton and Brack Obama are modeling their efforts on Bill Clinton.

With HRC it’s a quality that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found in her husband: “It is not the compromises [Clinton] has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise.” With Obama it’s the cynical use of hope – or, as Clinton put it, Hope – treated as though it was the candidate’s personal gift to provide. In fact, in the last days of his campaign, Clinton ran a television commercial filmed from the window of a moving bus. The voice-over said: “Something’s happening out there. A feeling. Call it hope. That a country can move in a new direction. That the future is something to look forward to. Not fear. If that’s what you’re feeling, you may have noticed something else. You are not alone.” Obama before his time.

In either case there is a quality that Christopher Hitchens found in early Clinton Washington as being like that in Peter Pan, in which the children are told that if they stop clapping, Tinker Belle will die.

That pretty well sums up today’s liberalism: you either oppose or you clap.

There are at least three other reasons beyond the psychological why this is so.

First: Major liberal organizations function much like all lobbying groups. Not only are they too far removed from the grassroots and too close to power, they are extremely protective of their own position in among the elite. Thus the mere notion of an effective coalition is troubling.

Second: Since they don’t have as much money as the right, it would seem logical that liberal groups became expert as grass root organizing. They’re not. One explanation for this is that since the advent of television, everyone has played by the rules of virtual communication and part of this reduces the voter to a viewer, petition signer, or contributor. One rarely finds anymore the sort of organizing spirit of, say, Saul Alinsky or the anti-poverty era and – on the left – scarcely ever does one see the multi-faceted organizing of the Christian right. If the left only uses the tools of mass media, they will have their Move Ons to be sure, but the right will just keep moving on.

Third: Much of the power and the money in liberal organizations comes from a new liberal elite – including large numbers of successful urbanites, women, gays, blacks etc. This elite has its own agenda which – regardless of its virtues – tends to ignore or deemphasize agendas of the less powerful and less well off who, incidentally, vote in much larger numbers. This is not an incurable problem but it at least has to be faced.

One big exception to all this is the Democratic populist wing, an ill-formed amalgam that believes Democrats are here to do the most good for the most people. But it, too, has yet to find good footings for a new movement. Even the efforts of John Edwards in this regard will ultimately fail unless people rally to his cause and not just to his candidacy.

Another major exception is the Green Party which, good as its heart is, has yet to tie its platform into a small and neat enough package that the media, let alone America, can grasp.

In short, the American left has a choice. Either it remains the victim of alternative predators – the right on one hand, the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it takes charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on a clear program and then – in the manner of the abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes and civil rights activists – takes this message to every little corner of the land it is trying to change for the better.


  1. Dear Sam,I have been reading Undernews for a few years now and I must say you are a very special and unfortunately lonely voice on the left.Few seem to have grasped the necessity of a patient rebuilding of a coalition with an inspiring agenda that could at last compete with the formidable ideological groundwork the right ermbarked on back in the mid sixties, but you have.I really loved your "protest or clap" wich really is all the left can do these days – and then cry that it's being abused again.Keep it up. Benji in France (where the situation is little better)

  2. This popular "victim" approach to oganizational identity that you highlight is also the major reason that labor unions have become worse than laughing stocks ; moping about & whining for Congress to please make it easier for them to recruit dues-payers , instead of picking themselves off the floor, drying their tears, and showing the public what they're made of… They, like the Democrats, have become completely comfortable w/ their own press releases ( horrible phrase , too ) and are maxed out just holding a pose , which is not he same as staking out a position & fighting for what is right. – John A. Joslin ( embarrassed union member in Detroit)

  3. This is true, but there is another factor that hardly ever gets discussed. The left has blown it.Amen, Sam. How very true.I suggest that the left AND the principled from every point on the left-right bipolar spectrum have blown it. Sadly, most Americans are too busy being distracted by such things as reality TV, or fake "news", or insubstantial speeches by politicians, or general jingoism offered by entertainers in all of the major forms of entertainment media.What I keep wondering is, how do we get and keep the attention of those who sense they're being ignored, and how do we show them that they have the ability to help change the course of events?

  4. Here's a package small and neat enough to grasp:1) Tax externalities and unearned wealth (pollution taxes, land value tax, and high severance fees for resource extraction on government land).2) Eliminate government-enforced privilege.3) Radically cut taxes and welfare–but cut taxes from the bottom up, and welfare from the top down. In practical terms, eliminate all forms of corporate welfare and use the savings to raise the personal income tax exemption to $30,000.The unifying theme is to eliminate privilege: stop using government to help the rich and powerful, and use genuinely free markets to break the power of the same rich and powerful.The plutocrats and giant corporations hold their current position of wealth and power because they're sucking on the taxpayer tit. Take them off the tit.It's an agenda that would win the support of left-wingers who hate big bureaucratic government as much as they hate big business, of the Georgist wing of the libertarian movement, and of Greens who are economically literate.

  5. I have a great goal. Please, check it out, and spread the word.Education.Wow, blowing you away, right? But then you start to think about it. It's the epitome of what HRC and her husband and the "third way" people have ignored. But imagine a liberal presidency with an Apollo Moon Mission-scale education initiative rather than an ill-starred universal healthcare plan. Let's get more specific – a goal could be to reduce America's "class size" from 30 to 15 children. Introduce new standards for teachers. Kindly break the union's back, and reform tenure. Make teacher salaries competitive to the point where young talent will seek the job out and compete for it again. And by the way, end the corrupt system that unequally distributes the funding. Do it with federal funds. Deny them to any school which won't adhere to certain standards (i.e. no evolution "debates"). Oh it will cost big. So would UHC have. But the rewards are unbeatable.This fixes an immediate problem: it responds to a huge voter priority. It will be enormously popular. It also is laying stones in the foundation for future years. This is the future of America's economy on the line here. And by the way, education is the natural enemy of Conservatism and all that it stands for. The Conservatives are more than self-aware enough to know this, and will be forced to fight it, and they will shatter under the attempt. Real, working public education is our society's biggest statement ever against the laissez faire economic slavery of years gone by. It is the ultimate show of faith in our democratic society – we are not so unequal or so hereditary as our Calvinist robber barons would have you believe. Education, and our basically liberal, free society, are what made us great before, and if we let it, it will awaken the sleeping masses and do it again. Who'se with me? _This_ is the goal. _This_ is the clear program.

  6. The "American Left" has become fat and lazy and doesn't want to do anything that might risk their jobs or current life style. It's far easier to take a progressive stance and embrace progressive policies when your responsibilities and the consequences of your actions are few. But "bucking the system" has a number of risks associated with it and most on the "left" are unwilling to take these risks.The conservatives in this country are very powerful and "pissing them off" by fighting their policies and pushing for more progressive policies can make ones life a whole lot more difficult. Plus one must be willing to "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk". It looks more than just a little superficial to say ones is working for a greener energy policy and then drive off in a huge SUV. Or to come out for increased education spending when ones own children attend a private institution. It is whole lot easier to work for progressive policies when these same policies do not effect you personally.

  7. When you talk about the working class (and the unemployed), you must realize we haven't got money to throw at the political arena. Our activism must entail the investment of time and action. We are in a marginal economic status; we're quite vulnerable. If we're going to commit ourselves to some political program, we need to feel that we're not a pathetic minority on a kamikaze run. It requires a leap of faith that our action will be a truly mass action, sustainable to the extent necessary to achieve meaningful results. Without some form of communication that will reach the masses, along with a program that will motivate virtually all of us, we will err on the side of caution.

  8. Would someone please help me out?There seems to be a myriad of "institutes" and "foundations" that are constantly presenting the public with their studies.Except for a few, i.e; American Enterprise, I can't ever figure out who's for what and who the backers of these organization are.

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