Alex Blaze

Why isn't there a strong, ideological left in America?

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 02, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Afghanistan, Ann Friedman, Barack Obama, health care reform, linda hirshman, women

Linda Hirshman has an interesting post up at Salon about what the women's reproductive freedom movement can learn from teh gayz. I'm not going to blockquote it, just summarize it, so feel free to go read the whole thing and come back. (While you over there, ignore the title and photo, as something tells me Hirshman probably wasn't responsible for that. It's annoying, isn't it?)

She's basically saying that women should replicate the gay/LGBT (those folks were never really clear which it was) boycott of the DNC, the Obama campaign, and Organizing for America. Her argument is about as strong as the gays': the Democrats' Stupak-Pitts Amendment is the biggest roll-back of women's reproductive freedom since the Hyde Amendment, which was also passed by a Democratic Congress. Since the Dems clearly don't value women's rights, seeing them as an expendable and powerless special interest instead of the inviolable rights of over half the population, women shouldn't be donating to them.

Not to be nitpicky, but, unlike how Hirshman writes about it, it's not the gays who are boycotting, but a a small coalition who called for and endorsed it with an unknown (right now) number of people participating. It's also not a complete boycott of the Democratic Party - just three of its organizations. These are important distinctions; fundamental loyalty to the Democratic Party can still be read into the boycott.

But the main problem with what she's proposing, that women learn from the gay rights movement, is that we're bereft of results to convince others to follow in our footsteps. Sure, we're winning some important victories at the state and local level, but that boycott hasn't borne any fruit yet. If anything, with ENDA getting knocked out of the agenda this year, the situation has worsened, not improved.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be learning from each other. But the women's rights movement has been around longer and has had some bigger victories, including winning the right to vote after not having the right to vote at all. Think about it: they didn't have votes, their letters to Congressional representatives would have gone unanswered since they were no electoral threat, and they didn't have the money to be making significant campaign donations. By the political metrics we use in 2009, that's more than a triumph, that's a miracle. The biggest victory we have is winning a Supreme Court case against draconian laws that no one but Antonin Scalia and some sophomoric Texans liked anyway.

Ann Friedman has an interesting column about the connection between social justice movements in this month's American Prospect. I largely agree with her conclusion - we've gotta be working more closely together. But let's be honest: it's not like we haven't heard the call "We're all in this together" for ages now. Yet we manage to forget it 90% of the time.

The organization of identity movements as discrete, me-first, affluence-dependent demands for "equality" and "representation" and "my rights" is what's tearing us all apart. Instead of being about advancing an overall framework, a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of governing, they're about advancing the interests of a specific group of people. And it's not that easy to change them. Just look at the flack HRC caught when they spoke out for racial injustice in the case of the Jena 6, one of the rare instances where HRC took up arms for a cause that couldn't be interpreted as LGBT. It just wasn't their thing, they were a gay rights organization, why should they worry about these other issues? The arguments in the identity politics framework to be made against HRC speaking on behalf of the Jena 6 are stronger and more numerous than those that can be made in favor of it.

We don't see the connections between lifting up various groups because each is just a demand that they can buy into the full inequality that is America so long as discrimination along their specific axis of identity is eliminated. As such, there's no overarching political ideology that says that homophobia is wrong, that racism is wrong, that transphobia is wrong, that sexism is wrong, that anti-semitism is wrong... not because they render life unfair for a specific group-of-people-that-doesn't-include-you, but because they're an affront to our own interests because they allow too much power and luxury to fall on a small group of people.

But that's leftist talk, and, as was patently clear yesterday, America still doesn't have anything resembling a large-scale leftwing movement. I'm referring specifically to the reaction among many liberals to Obama's Afghanistan plans, which I wasn't at all shocked by. There's no betrayal there - Obama campaigned on Afghanistan being the good war and moving troops over there. Anyone who didn't see this coming just wasn't paying attention or thought Obama was telling the right lies to get elected in a toxic political climate that only allows manly, militaristic leaders into high office.

No, what was shocking and betraying was the mass support for escalation from the very people who opposed escalation and war in Iraq when it was Bush doing it. Many blogs and journals were filled with liberals justifying why escalating conflict in Afghanistan is necessary, how we need to build a democracy there with our Freedom Bombs, and how killing a few babies there today will save American lives in the future.

So all the opposition to building democracy in Iraq, which is a much easier task than building one in Afghanistan, all the rhetoric about restoring America's image to the world, and all the talk about establishing a more morally tenable foreign policy was all just a barrel of partisan criticism launched against Bush because, well, he's a Republican.

I've said before, and I'm holding myself to it, I'm not going to judge the Obama Administration until health care reform gets passed. That fight isn't looking good either. Single-payer was chucked before the campaigns even started, the public option was watered down for months, and now there's even talk of the very basics of health care reform - stopping insurers from discrimination and banning rescission - being cut from the bill. The CBO says that the bill probably won't do much to reduce the laughably outrageous premiums Americans are currently paying for health care.

But still, nothing's been passed yet.

The problem isn't just that Congress has no respect for women. That's just the beginning. The problem is that there isn't a left in this country, and even those professional liberals and diehard internet leftists who we thought were on our side turned out to be even more confused than the ones we knew would betray us.

We have two parties in the US because there are basically two types of Americans when it comes to culture. And it's becoming more clear that if you're a part of one America, you're going to vote for the party that represents your culture, outside of small pockets of less-informed and more ambiguous voters. My argument isn't that there is no difference between the two parties - there is - it's that there is really only one party for most people. To me, the choice is between a conservative party and a party that's plain offensive, and the teabaggers probably don't feel like they have much choice either.

And, without competition, power sets its own terms, so even with these boycotts of the DNC I don't see what could come of it.

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Michael @ | December 2, 2009 9:59 PM

Your essay forgets, or possibly never recognized, what came of the first talk of closing the GAYTM, more specifically of the very public LGBT boycott, both by high profile individuals and LGBT groups, of the rubber chicken dinner LGBT Democratic Caucus fundraiser June 25th with the Vice President.

Granted, it wasn't as much we would have liked by far, but I am convinced that the following were the direct result.

1. The White House Tea for the Gays er Celebration of Stonewall 40 on June 29th. My evidence: no one gay seems to have heard of the event two weeks before, and, the best evidence that it was last-minute is that it was held the day AFTER the Stonewall naked an indicator as any that by the time they realized they had to do something for damage control POTUS' dance card for the days before was already filled.

2. The reveal to the press the NEXT day by Secretary of Excuses er Defense Robert Gates that, ooops, contrary to what he had insisted just three months before, they weren't too busy to address DADT after all. In fact, Baby Jeebus had appeared to him in a dream and told him to look for some kind of "more humane way" to decide which of his beloved children should be discharged. OK, I made the Jeebus part up but Gates was making the rest up as, five months later, he's still insisting that his best Pentagon legal advisors can't really find any way in DADT's details to do that despite the fact that any 12-yr. old with no more than a PC, a dial-up connection, and familiarity with Google could find it. Like Ragu, it's in there if ya really want to see it.

Gates is still bullshitting because of the quickly obvious success of Result #1 which had little gay boys and girls wetting themselves and speaking in tongues at the White House when their Lord & Savior Barack Christ recycled his promises. What an easy lay some girls are.

3. The only thing of substance was the announcement one month later that BO was exploiting er giving Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yes, there was that June gay glossolalia, but a little extra insurance never hurt any barn roof. Of course, it was great PR for our community in any case, but the obviousness of it being a last minute shiny crumb on a ribbon meant to further narcotize us is that he chose "box office" Milk over the historically more deserving but unglam Frank Kameny who hadn't had a movie made about him but whom BO was very much aware of, had stood next to him and received the pen at that signing of the gay crumbs memo, had been given some other tiny award and an apology for being fired 50+ yrs. earlier, and he had given a shout out to at La Tea. E.g., when Kameny was picketing the White House for gay rights in 1965, Milk was still mourning the fact that Barry Goldwater wasn't its resident.

And, finally, if anyone doubts that Obama announcing barely a week before the annual HRC dinner that he'd be gracing them with His Presence wasn't a direct result of recognizing that the National Equality March the next day was going to be bigger than they'd previously believed [which could well translate into calls for less money for the DNC], I have some leftover shares in the Brooklyn Bridge with a nice view of Madonna's penthouse for sale.

And, of course, Judy er Barack had all the little bluebirds in attendance on their feet screaming as he sang "Over the Rainbow" one more time er repeated his hollow promises yet again.

What I do agree with is the fact that gays, as well as most progressives [a term much more digestible to the moveable middle than "left," thank you], are not just wandering in the political desert but in different directions.

Enough of us give enough money to the DNC in various ways that if we can close the GAYTM a little tighter as the 2010 midterms approach, we might get more this time than a tea, smile fucked, and a medal. We have nothing to lose by trying.

I enjoyed your thoughts.

I would invite the consideration of the source of both the anti-LGBT and anti-Womens Rights crowd - religion. Not all religion, it's mostly that one-third - the "literal" conservative Christians.

While me may not be able to provide many positive "results" from our movement, we do share the same adversary. That alone, is reason enough to help each other.

For women it's freedom. For us it's equality.

Lots to mull over here, so a few thoughts.

Hirshman presents a classic straight liberal's notion of what counts as queer/gay political concerns: slightly to the left of HRC. Which is probably why she just doesn't get it about funding for AIDS when she asks, naively, "Can you imagine the response from gay political activists if the House voted to strip all money for AIDS treatment from the healthcare bill?"

We ARE losing money for AIDS treatment and prevention strategies, even if not in the draconian and dramatic way she envisions it (which is surprisingly simplistic, given her background in Law). In Maine, for instance, organisations like "Western Maine Community Action Health Services, AIDS service organizations like Down East AIDS Network, Eastern Maine AIDS Network, Maine AIDS Alliance" are struggling to stay afloat.

Hirshman usually provides provocative food for thought in these essays of hers, as she did in her famous essay on the opt-out revolution (one of a few such), which she then turned into the book Get To Work. I liked much of what she had to say in her shorter pieces, and was glad (and still am) to have her critical voice out there, but the book was a disappointment. Controversy and daring only take you so far in a book. There's a lesson there for all of us bloggers who fondly dream of turning our work into books (insert smiley face here to indicate self-deprecating irony and humour for those who cannot deal with subtlety).

Point being: Hirshman's article is an interesting piece, which wants to be daring and brave. But it's not undergirded by the reality of gay politics because, as you so correctly point out, it's a "boycott called for by a small coalition who called for and endorsed it with an unknown (right now) number of people participating" and so on. I believe this is part of her forthcoming book on the gay revolution. Which one, it remains to be seen.

I'm with you on "America still doesn't have anything resembling a large-scale leftwing movement. ...There's no betrayal there - Obama campaigned on Afghanistan being the good war and moving troops over there." And "what was shocking and betraying was the mass support for escalation from the very people who opposed escalation and war in Iraq when it was Bush doing it."

Friedman's less interesting, although perhaps more typical than Hirshman. I think the problem isn't that we haven't learnt to work together but that we haven't really had honest conversations about whether or not we consider all these causes "left" to begin with (although, to be fair to Friedman, she only wants liberals/progressives around, it seems). Those philosophical dissensions are being swept under the carpet, but they inevitably bubble up and boil over, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphors. My anti-war and anti-capitalist friends remain puzzled by the DADT and gay marriage discussions, for instance. A lot of people would like to dismiss us as "ultra-left" (as opposed to what, I sometimes wonder, "ultra-light left?"), but the differences are not going to go away and the increase in poverty is only serving to radicalise a lot more people.

And to bring that back to feminism, it's also interesting, isn't it, that a significant section of mainline feminists are still insisting that war in Afghanistan is good for Afghani women, completely ignoring Afghani feminists like Malalai Joya? If anything, this section, having been mostly silent during the Bush years, seems to have renewed itself in the last 10 months.

Really, what's left?

Rick Elliott | December 3, 2009 1:40 AM

How is the title descriptive of the contents? I don't see the reproductive freedom movement as the measuring stick of whether or not there's a strong ideological left.

Great article. This kind of stuff from you Alex is why I read every one of your posts.

I want to point out, though, that I'm not so sure your point about the two parties is really terribly unique to America; after all, the tendency towards a two party system in plurality voting is a long known phenomenon, thus Duverger's Law (with all the caveats that accompany it; if you have access to JSTOR I can give you a citation for a much better review of Duverger's Law that examines those caveats in more depth).

I'm wondering the same thing, Alex.

I broach this subject as a straight, aging leftist - of the kind that I think are too often MIA today. (Of course age doesn't matter except for historical experience). I used to think that the left wing of the Democratic Party had a little bit of juice in it, only to find out it was Kool-Aid.

I've been around a loooong time, and haven't seen a Leftist with balls since I.F. Stone died.
And I haven't seen an American Left with any real power maybe ever.

An interesting psychology-lite piece came in my email through Scientific American about the personality traits that separate liberal from conservative with the premise that one could administer any of a number of scientific peer-reviewed personality tests on morality and make some very accurate assessments of who would be politically liberal or conservative. A link led to a study with the opportunity to take a number of tests - was included.

So I took some tests.
Traits evaluated included harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity.
It seems I came up as a very liberal soul:) with morals and values that, when applied to the political arena, put me far to the left of the average 'liberal'; who of course came out much more liberal than conservatives, duh.
Liberals scored high on care and fairness, conservatives on ingroup, authority, purity.
(Feelings about sexual issues and homophobia came under the 'purity' scale: the almighty ickk factor.)

What I've intuitively always known, and these tests validated, is that the Left is less likely to both form tight, loyal ingroups and respect authority figures.
An atheist, I found this similar to Richard Dawkins' quote: "organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority."
Perhaps it applies to leftists as well.
Anyway, these are some of my 'mindfarts' on why we leftists don't pull together as much as would benefit us all.

When I first lobbied the NY Senate (do NOT get me started!) for GLBTQ Rights in April with Empire State Pride Agenda, I ran into a group of energetic young queer people from my area who invited me to join their organization, ISO, when we all returned downstate.
While I am the straightest and oldest person in the meeting room, I felt more at home there, with shared values and shared multiple agendas (focusing mostly on gay rights), than anywhere else in a long time.

The drawback is that ISO stands for International Socialist Organization: and I can't imagine herding too many people into that, as socialism has somehow become a dirty word.

There's a certain air of bewilderment and resignation in Alex's comments that come, I suspect, from the lack of a historical perspective about the explosive and exponential growth the left undergrows in crises. Anyone who isn’t well read about the radicalizations of the 1910-1925, the 1930s/40s and the 1960s/70s ought to begin reading as much as they can.

And no one should make the fundamental mistake of confusing liberals and leftists.

A more accurate assessment is that the basis for the growth of a mass working class socialist movement and for the development of a leadership to guide it exist in embryonic form.

Their growth will be automatic and massive as the radicalization caused by economic collapse originating with Clinton-Bush deregulations and the Clinton-Bush-Obama wars begin to shatter decades of social stability and produce a pre-revolutionary situation.

Mass unemployment and underemployment and homelessness are on a steeply rising curve. New unemployment rates will be announced tomorrow and are expected to exceed the 17.5% ‘real’ rate announced in October, a rate well within the range of unemployment during the last Great Depression.

This morning the BLS announced that “In manufacturing, productivity increased 13.4 percent while unit labor costs fell 6.1 percent.” Those figures were produced by speedups, layoffs, exporting jobs and union busting, all key parts of the Obama economic program.

Yesterday Obama announced a steep escalation in his illegal pro-business wars against Afghanistan and Pakistan while continuing his attacks against Iraq and Palestine and menacing Iran.

Those factors and the fights for equality are fueling a new radicalization which will in turn fuel the renewal of the hard left, the Marxist left. (As usual, the left fell apart when the radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s failed to produce a pre-revolutionary situation.) Now we’re seeing the proliferation and growth of left groups coalescing out of the remnants of the last radicalization but with a few key differences.

The radicalizat5ion of the 60s and 70s was led by newly radicalized layers on campuses, on military bases and among African American youth. It also included a new layer of young and militant feminists and for the first time, openly GLBT militants.

But it never broke into the unions because of LBJ’s very deliberate ‘guns and butter’ policies. This time the radicalization is beginning and strongest in unions spurred by economic collapse, attacks by management and Obama’s government and new organizing drives reminiscent of the rise of the CIO.

There’s been a union led and funded Labor Party on the books for over a decade but the AFL-CIO leadership refuses to unleash. As the union radicalization and new people are organized that question will be taken out of the AFL-CIO leaderships hands.

The keys to building a mass socialist and revolutionary movement are in uniting the remnants of previous radicalizations and organizing the growing layers of militant workers, GLBT folks, antiwar activists and others as they enter the arena. As that process continues the left will see an influx of ex-Democrats.

We’ll welcome them with open arms.

Right On, Bill!

Linda Hirshman | December 5, 2009 12:21 PM

I appreciate this site and the discussion including this piece. As I am spending a fair amount of my time on this subject no doubt our paths will cross. I disagree with your analysis, particularly about the feminist history, but that comes fairly with the territory, and I would be happy to argue it out. But I cannot figure out how to respond to this:

"unlike how Hirshman writes about it, it's not the gays who are boycotting, but a a small coalition who called for and endorsed it with an unknown (right now) number of people participating. It's also not a complete boycott of the Democratic Party - just three of its organizations. These are important distinctions; fundamental loyalty to the Democratic Party can still be read into the boycott"

You are right. So, I opened my article by describing exactly which "gays" were inolved. In my first sentence, I quoted directly from the instigator of what you call the boycott:
Two weeks ago gay activist John Aravosis asked the readers of his popular AmericaBlog to stop giving to the Democratic Party:

"Until the Democratic Congress passes, and President Obama signs, legislation enacting [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], repealing [don't ask, don't tell], and [recognizing gay marriages], we ask you to join us in pledging to postpone contributions to the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America, and the Obama campaign."

As you say, it was a group, however small, so I then quoted the list of the group members:
"Within hours a host of gay or liberal activists endorsed the move -- Daily Kos, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, Dan Savage, Michelangelo Signorile, David Mixner, Andy Towle and Michael Goff of Towleroad, Paul Sousa of Boston's Equal Rep, Pam Spaulding, Robin Tyler of the Equality Campaign, Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project."

The group did not include all gay activists and organizations, so I then noted the difference between the small group and a major player who was not identical in their engagement:
"Even the more conservative forces among gay politicos, like the establishment Human Rights Campaign, responded not by distancing itself from the activists' effort but by saying that donors should always think carefully when spending scarce resources."

I did not add the later statement by Aravosis regarding the additional agencies of the Democratic Party, because i had made my point. Buy fyi:
"NOTE FROM JOHN: Joe and I limited our DADG campaign to the DNC, Organizing for America, and the White House since each entity has, in one way or another, turned its back on the gay community We didn't specifically include the DSCC and the DCCC, but we're certainly not going to stop anyone from sending a loud and clear message to those party organizations as well. (As always, if there's a truly good pro-gay candidate, do give them to them - once you're sure that this time they actually mean it.)"

I know I'm wading into waters much populated and turbulent. I want to get it right, factually, which is why so much of the opening is simply quotes from the public record. I'm having a hard time figuring out how this got to be a factual dispute.

Hi Linda.

As far as I can tell, there is no factual dispute. What I was responding to was this:

What women could learn from how the gay rights movement plays politics

Right around the time the gays took their hands out of their wallets...

But that didn't stop the gay activists from raising the ante on him when they thought he was screwing them over.

Gay leaders can threaten the Democratic Party with a few paltry million-dollar donations.

Which are all strange ways to describe the actions of a fringe group of two gay men who speak for no one but themselves (they're not an org) and a small group of endorsers who probably won't have much of an effect on the gays who actually do donate in bulk.

But bigger that those specific quotes was the theme of your post: that "women" should stop donating to the "Democratic Party," with citations of women, any woman, who donated to pretty much any Democratic entity. I don't think that's a factual dispute, but you were trying to set up a parallel and it makes it seem like what Aravosis & co. are doing is bigger than it actually is.

Although I should have credited you in this blog post for not describing Aravosis in any way, shape, or form a voice of the "LGBT community," a concept and group of people he quite publicly denounced a few years ago, but, for some reason, straight media insists on describing him as.

And feel free to school me on feminist theory.