THOMAS FRANK: The failure of the Left


Richard Moore


September 1, 2006
Guest Columnist

Rendezvous With Oblivion


             Everything I have written about in this space points to the
             same conclusion: Democratic leaders must learn to talk about
             class issues again.

Over the last month I have tried to describe conservative power in 
Washington, but with a small change of emphasis I could just as well 
have been describing the failure of liberalism: the center-left's 
inability to comprehend the current political situation or to draw 
upon what is most vital in its own history.

What we have watched unfold for a few decades, I have argued, is a 
broad reversion to 19th-century political form, with free-market 
economics understood as the state of nature, plutocracy as the 
default social condition, and, enthroned as the nation's necessary 
vice, an institutionalized corruption surpassing anything we have 
seen for 80 years. All that is missing is a return to the gold 
standard and a war to Christianize the Philippines.

Historically, liberalism was a fighting response to precisely these 
conditions. Look through the foundational texts of American 
liberalism and you can find everything you need to derail the 
conservative juggernaut. But don't expect liberal leaders in 
Washington to use those things. They are "New Democrats" now, 
enlightened and entrepreneurial and barely able to get out of bed in 
the morning, let alone muster the strength to deliver some 
Rooseveltian stemwinder against "economic royalists."

Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the 
typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against 
gravity. What our modernized liberal leaders offer - that is, when 
they're not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos - is not 
confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free- 
market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the 
situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate 
ourselves so we will fit in better next time.

This last point was a priority for the Clinton administration. But in 
"The Disposable American," a disturbing history of job security, 
Louis Uchitelle points out that the New Democrats' emphasis on 
retraining (as opposed to broader solutions that Old Democrats used 
to favor) is merely a kinder version of the 19th-century view of 
unemployment, in which economic dislocation always boils down to the 
fitness of the unemployed person himself.

Or take the "inevitability" of recent economic changes, a word that 
the centrist liberals of the Washington school like to pair with 
"globalization." We are told to regard the "free-trade" deals that 
have hammered the working class almost as acts of nature. As the 
economist Dean Baker points out, however, we could just as easily 
have crafted "free-trade" agreements that protected manufacturing 
while exposing professions like law, journalism and even medicine to 
ruinous foreign competition, losing nothing in quality but saving 
consumers far more than Nafta did.

When you view the world from the satisfied environs of Washington - a 
place where lawyers outnumber machinists 27 to 1 and where five 
suburban counties rank among the seven wealthiest in the nation - the 
fantasies of postindustrial liberalism make perfect sense. The reign 
of the "knowledge workers" seems noble.

Seen from almost anywhere else, however, these are lousy times. The 
latest data confirms that as the productivity of workers has 
increased, the ones reaping the benefits are stockholders. Census 
data tells us that the only reason family income is keeping up with 
inflation is that more family members are working.

Everything I have written about in this space points to the same 
conclusion: Democratic leaders must learn to talk about class issues 
again. But they won't on their own. So pressure must come from 
traditional liberal constituencies and the grass roots, like the 
much- vilified bloggers. Liberalism also needs strong, well-funded 
institutions fighting the rhetorical battle. Laying out policy 
objectives is all well and good, but the reason the right has 
prevailed is its army of journalists and public intellectuals. Moving 
the economic debate to the right are dozens if not hundreds of well- 
funded Washington think tanks, lobbying outfits and news media 
outlets. Pushing the other way are perhaps 10.

The more comfortable option for Democrats is to maintain their 
present course, gaming out each election with political science and a 
little triangulation magic, their relevance slowly ebbing as memories 
of the middle-class republic fade.

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