The real meaning of “populism”

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Indentured liberals & independent progressives

Sam Smith, 2009

Barack Obama didn’t kill liberalism; he’s just doing a nice job of burying it. The end of liberalism as a meaningful ideology came with the nomination of Bill Clinton. The argument was – although hardly phrased so accurately – that it was far better for liberals to dump their policies and become the indentured servants of an elected Democrat than to continue to press for their beliefs and miss out on all the power and the parties.

This same willingness to go with icons rather than ideas drove liberals quickly into the Obama camp, especially since he had the added advantage of looking the way he was supposed to believe.

It was apparent from the start, however, that Obama wasn’t what the liberals thought. During the campaign, for example, I listed over two dozen positions and statements of Obama’s that clearly were in conflict with what liberals once believed.

But of course, belief was no longer the issue. Liberalism had long ago become more of a secular church than a cause, and based more on socio-economic demographics than on actual politics. To the extent it had issues, these issues were, like abortion and gay rights, ones that appealed to its core demographics. Long gone was the liberal concern for doing the most for the most; economic issues had faded; and the base that had helped build the New Deal and Great Society were now dismissed as red necks, racists, gun nuts and crazy church goers.

The factor of class was both immense and silent. But you could tell it by listening to liberals talk. The little folk had simply disappeared from their concerns.

Thus it is that we came to have a Democratic Congress and president that pressed a bailout for bankers with virtually no help for homeowners, who promised to leave one war but then escalated another and who couldn’t bring themselves in majority to support the sort of universal healthcare the rest of the western world had long adopted.

As Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report put it the other day: “The first Black president has racked up some impressive victories. Barack Obama has quarantined single-payer healthcare advocates, crushed dissent against the war in Congress, and transferred more money to the finance capital class than at any time in planetary history. Not bad for just five months in office.”

Liberals became part of the new center right; they became the modest conservatives the Republican reactionaries had kicked out of their own party. Instead of going to hell noisily in the manner of Rush Limbaugh, you were to proceed thoughtfully, cautiously, and in a measured manner inspired by a thoughtful, cautious, and measured president. But we are still going to hell.

Tom Hayden caught a moment of the measured madness, noting in the Nation:

“MoveOn.org resumed its historical antiwar stance this week, symbolically breaking with the Obama administration for the first time.

“After being criticized for abandoning the antiwar stance that won it millions of activist supporters, the organization sent targeted mailings supporting the demand for an Obama administration exit strategy report contained in HR 2404, by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. . .

“Despite its modest nature, MoveOn’s entry into the debate could be an important factor in legitimizing antiwar criticism of the Obama policies among Democrats. Antiwar sentiment at the grassroots is smothered by the unwillingness of several organizations to openly oppose the war escalation, despite their roots in the antiwar movement against Iraq.

“The silent organizations thus far include Democracy for America and its founder, Howard Dean, Ben Cohen’s True Majority, and the Obama campaign’s offshoot, Organizing for America. The Feminist Majority even supported the $80 billion war supplemental with an amendment supporting women’s programs in Afghanistan.”

This lethargy, cowardice and compliance to the top dogs has been repeated with issue after issue. The sell out on the bailout and single payer perhaps top the list, but the failure of liberals to defend public education from control freaks like Arne Duncan or Obama’ replication of the Bush war on civil liberties, while getting less attention, are just as bad.

If liberals had paid more attention to what the far right was up to, rather than just using it as a punching bag to make themselves feel better, they might have noticed that the GOP reactionaries hardly ever caved into their party’s mainstream. Instead they redefined that mainstream. Liberals, on the other hand, surrender before they even enter the ring.

Our political labels are largely assigned for us by the media. There is thus hardly an inch of space allowed between center right liberalism and socialism. Proposing policies of the sort that gave America its greatest days over the past century is dismissed as radical.

But that doesn’t change reality, which is that the liberal power brokers are essentially following traditional conservative policies, that Obama is the most conservative Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson, and that there is a growing gap between what liberals are today and what they were when they were truly making a better America.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternative. It would help if we made a clear distinction between indentured liberals and independent progressives – a major difference being that the latter understand that ideas are still more important that icons.

To an independent progressive, the issue is not support of Obama but a set of policies that Obama may or may not support. My scorecard, for example, finds me agreeing with Obama about 30% of the time, which is pretty dismal, especially when you consider that it is among the alienating 70% that much of American history will be written. And why is Obama so alienated from the progressive path (and so much more so then when he was just representing Illinois in the Senate)? Simply because he is driven not by conscience but by calculation. And in Obama’s calculations, liberalism now equals zero.

The media insists that we define what is happening in terms of whoever is in the White House. Here’s how I put it in “Shadows of Hope” fifteen years ago:

“Congress has lost power relative to the White House not merely for various political reasons, but because 535 legislators are simply too many for the media to handle. TV, in particular, treats politics much as it does wide screen movies; it snips off the right and left sides until the frame fits comfortably within the more equilateral shape of its eye. The edges of our experience are lost and we find ourselves staring at a comfortable center — which in the case of politics, means we find ourselves endlessly watching the President while much of the rest of American democracy passes unnoticed.

“This preoccupation with the presidency not only exaggerates the importance of the position, it distorts the constitutional division of political power, denigrates the significance of state and local government and creates pressures for presidential action when such action may be neither wise nor even lawful. We can not, even out of seemingly harmless celebrity worship, imbue our president with supra-constitutional virtues or powers without simultaneously damaging the Constitution and the democratic system it was established to protect.

“Besides, our presidential fetish badly skews our view of our country and the changes occurring within it — not only elsewhere in government but beyond politics entirely. It trivializes our own collective and individual roles in creating social and political change. And, conversely, it can create the illusion of great change when far less is really happening.”

Independent progressives understand this instinctively and struggle – with sadly little help – to help keep our eyes on the real game, which is the change that is occurring as a result of the political puppet show we watch on the nightly news yet which are usually ignored or treated as of minimal importance. An example: the foreclosure crisis is enormous but you would never know it listening to the news or the Democrats.

You can tell independent progressive groups because they will actually challenge the Democrats in power on their policies. They will oppose imperial wars even if a Democrat is leading them. They will fight the coddling of the welfare fathers of Wall Street even if the chief coddler doesn’t look the part. They will worry about how our politics affect the weak and not just the comfortable, and they will spend more time opening doors for the powerless than in cracking glass ceilings for the few.

No one in the conventional media is going to tell you about these distinctions, but they are real. The independent progressive story is not about how bad some reactionary politician or commentator is, but how good we all could be if we did things differently and if we pursued real policies of true worth rather than worshiping false heroes.

What populism is really about

Sam Smith
2008

There have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs – from FDR’s minimum wage and social security to LBJ’s war on poverty and education legislation – were part of a populist agenda.

Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.

Although current party and media mythology treats Bill Clinton and other Vichy Democrats as symbols of Democratic triumph this is far from the case:

– Clinton did no better than Kerry, Gore, Carter, JFK, and Harry Truman. All of them came within two percent of the midpoint despite markedly different styles and programs. It is fair to say that in each case, party loyalty proved more important than the candidate.

– Michael Dukakis, the unfairly assigned butt of party jokes, did three points better than Clinton in the latter’s first election and only three points worse in the second. Even more striking, Dukakis beat or equaled Clinton’s best percentage in 12 states including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, a record dramatically at odds with the spin of the Clintonistas and the Democratic Leadership Council.

– Democratic losses at the state and national level under Clinton were worse than any seen by a party incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Clinton proved a disaster for the Democrats. What happened in Congress this year was a partial recovery from this disaster.

In short, the only thing that has really worked for the Democrats have been campaigns heavily populist in nature.

American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.

In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle — with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan “Not Now” and its goal of maintaining the timorousness of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.

As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn’t long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It’s not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.

The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another – including young non-college educated whites – until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.

Populism’s hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, found that “Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that’s not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . .

A review of Doppelt and Shearer’s work notes that “In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities.”

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: “The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for.” 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn’t do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we’re talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That’s a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups – farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups – have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes – the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller – has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.

Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women’s groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women’s and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.

Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to driver its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.

Interestingly, populism – despite its bad rap – has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people’s personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.

But you won’t break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don’t do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.

Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn’t think they qualified as Democratic voters.

The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of “cultural creatives” saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as “so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes.” Writing in 1919, Toomer said, “It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.”

So what might a populist agenda look like? Let’s look at two examples – neither a paragon of virtue – yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today’s politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.

The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here’s how Wikipedia describes him:

|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state’s road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .

Long’s free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state’s mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .

As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.

Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans’ benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .

Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long’s Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt’s “turn to the left” in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to “steal Long’s thunder.” |||

The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:

|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson’s presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .

The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.

The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002

The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children’s sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||

It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today’s distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.

What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:

– Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies

– A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.

– An end to usury in credit card lending.

– Pension protection

– A revival of high quality vocational training

– Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing

– Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions

What life would be like without progressive policies

Sam Smith
2006

People who complain about prorgressive policies are like the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran’s hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he’s retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

Here are a just a few of the things America would be without were it not for progressives in the White House:

– Regulation of banks and stock brokerage firms cheating their customers

– Protection of your bank account

– Social Security

– A minimum wage

– Legal alcohol

– Regulation of the stock exchanges

– Right of labor to bargain with employers

– Soil Consevation Service and other early environmental programs

– National parks and monuments such as Death Valley, Blue Ridge, Everglades, Boulder Dam, Bull Run, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton, Cape Cod, Fire Island, and San Juan Islands just to name a few.

– Tennessee Valley Authority

– Rural electrification

– College educations for innumerable veterans

– Housing loans for innumerable veterans

– FHA housing loans

– The bulk of hospital beds in the country

– Unemployment insurance

– Small Business Administration

– National Endowment for the Arts

– Medicare

– Peace Corps

Whose left is it anyway?

Sam Smith
2002

News that Christopher Hitchens has discovered his inner imperial self was greeted exuberantly by the Washington Post, which gave him Kissingeresque space to lash out at his former comrades on the left.

As I read Hitchens’ piece, two things came to mind. The first was Elmer Davis’ comment about those on the hard left who had taken a hard right turn: it never seemed to occur to them that they might be wrong both times.

The second thought was of a Sunday long ago when one of my sons was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church so he would not later, as my friend Warren Myers once said, miss the exquisite pleasure of losing one’s faith. The bishop did his job perfunctorily and then turned towards the altar.

Just a moment, our minister said, “We also have one to be received.” The bishop suddenly brightened because those simple words signified true triumph: he was about to grab for his church a former servant of the Pope.

It is one thing to get little boys to pretend for a morning that they understand the Apostles’ Creed; quite another for a real Catholic to defect. The editor of the Post Outlook section probably felt the same joy.

I, however, was troubled by a matter that lay beyond Christopher’s view on Iraq, arguable as that was.

Once again “the left” was being defined by the habits, opinions, and proclivities of a tiny minority with whom the author had some familiarity. This tendency, predominant among writers at either end of the New York shuttle, is so misleading that it brings into question the other matters being discussed.

In fact, there are a number of lefts.

There is an ideological left centered in New York City, which seems barely aware that the socialist factionalism of the 1930s and 1940s is no longer relevant. If these leftists were baseball announcers, they would spend their time debating the relative virtues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams rather than describing what was happening on the field. They tend to be tedious, trivial, and anachronistically tendentious. They are also, no matter what Hitchens and the Nation magazine say about it, largely irrelevant.

The intellectual left, in its academic variety at least, has also dried up, similarly a victim of too much discussion of archaic matters that leaves little time for today’s work. It is probably not accidental that the best idea to revive black politics that some professors could come up with was the reparations issue; it is just so much more comfortable discussing slavery rather than the mass imprisonment of young black males, housing discrimination or the role of the black soldier in imperial America.

There are exceptions such as Howard Zinn and those medical professors working on national health care. But the campus has been corporatized and specialized like everything else and to the extent that there is a living left, it is one that has yet to graduate.

The institutional left, much of it headquartered in Washington, is largely engaged in sterile, ritualistic reiteration of what were once vibrant mechanisms for hope.

Then there is then what might be called iconographic left, which uses the power of images, sounds and words. It can be as useful as Rage Against the Machine and as stupid as Barbra Streisand. But it is rarely more than the semiotic quartermaster corps of a larger movement.

The most important exception is when the images, sounds, or words serve as a catalyst – a writer offering a new idea, a rock musician catching just the right lyrics, and so forth.

Even at their best, these lefts – ideological, intellectual, institutional, iconographic – represent but a fraction of what is needed for significant social and political change.

The really important left – the idiomatic, colloquial left of people who never read the Nation, let alone have a column in it – is what really makes things happen.

And unless you happen to be Betty Friedan or Martin Luther King Jr. saying just the right words at just the right moment, the truth is that the left to which Hitchens alludes simply isn’t that important.

I have always been far closer to the idiomatic, colloquial left than to the more elite varieties. In fact, I missed much of the conventional 60s because I was working with SNCC and running a newspaper in a community on the edge of riot, and helping to start a progressive third party that would actually elect people to office.

I have never gotten on that well with Hitchens’ former pals in the elite left because I never could find the time to straighten out my paradigm.

It turns out it wasn’t all that important anyway, because the people who made the difference were not the famous talkers but the little known doers, ordinary people, who in Conrad’s phrase, for one brief moment did something out of the ordinary.

They were people who had not studied Marx and Hegel and couldn’t tell a Trotskyite from a troll. But they knew, in Pogo’s words, when to “stand on the piano and demand outrage action.” These are the people of whom Carl Sandberg wrote:

I am the people–the mob–the crowd–the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of this world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. and
then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns. . .
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red
drops for history to remember. Then – I forget.

When I, the people, learn to remember, when I, the People
use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget
who robbed me last year, who played me for
a fool – then there will be no speaker in all the world
say the name: “The People”, with any fleck of a
sneer in his voice or any far off smile of derision.
The mob – The crowd – The mass – will arrive then.

Consistently, the east coast shuttle left from which Hitchens has departed has been indifferent about, ignorant of, or even in opposition to the issues of the idiomatic, colloquial left.

The people who are changing the way other people think about things are found scattered around the nation. And when some of them came together in the most effective progressive political organization of modern times – the Green Party – they were not only not welcomed into the club, they were frequently excoriated.

As for the critics of an Iraqi invasion, they are typically just ordinary citizens who have learned without the help of Ramsey Clark to be scared to death of what their leaders are about to do to them.

Hitchens and his ilk will continue to have their little debates, all carefully framed in a manner that excludes most of the people they claim to care about and most of the people who actually produce change. It worked at university and it works now. But it has little to do with either America or the left as it really is.