In this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, Adolph Reed wrote Nothing Left. Sadly, it is behind a paywall. I went and got a hard copy when I heard about it. And it is a great article. Unfortunately, my well marked copy has set idle because I haven’t had much to add to it. It is very much what I think. But this morning, I read an article by Ed Kilgore where he largely dismisses it. That’s not a surprise. Kilgore is a New Democrat and Adolph Reed’s sights are set on the New Democratic movement.
Reed’s argument is that the Democratic Party doesn’t really stand for anything anymore other than winning elections. What he says is what I say around here all the time: economic issues are what matter. My favorite example is that it is more important for a gay man to be able to find work than to marry. It’s a Needs Hierarchy thing. But the Democratic Party has pretty much turned in all their economically liberal ideas and now depend almost exclusively on social issues as the basis of their claim to be liberal.
This is the critical passage from the article:
The response from the Democratic elite and the Obama worshipers is always that Obama (or Clinton, or whoever) really is liberal, but the political realities dictate being more conservative. Give him the House and 60 members of the Senate see what he does! Of course, we did give him that. And what did we get? The Republican healthcare plan! A supremely watered down stimulus. And this wasn’t the result of resistance from the Blue Dog Democrats. Obama never even proposed liberal policy. As he is quoted in The Obamas, “I’m a Blue Dog at heart.” Indeed he is.
But it isn’t just the economic issues. Reed does a good job laying out the supposed necessity of Democratic politicians to have a Sister Souljah moment. It’s interesting that there is never such a requirement for Republican politicians. In fact, it is rather the opposite. But what it mostly comes down to is Democratic politicians criticizing powerless constituencies. Reed notes how it is always portrayed as being a show of strength when it is just the opposite. After all, beating up on the weak is what we would call bullying if it happened on a school yard.
An excellent example of this was Obama’s “Popeyes Chicken” speech where he chastised a mostly black audience about feeding their kids junk food. “You can’t do that,” Obama said. “Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.” Apart from the fact that of all the issues facing minority children, the eating of friend chicken is pretty minor, the comment is simply offensive. As Reed notes, “Perhaps, but it’s noteworthy that Obama didn’t give the Popeyes speech to groups of investment bankers.”
Another way to put the problem is, “Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to anti-discrimination.” This goes along with the neoliberal idea we don’t have to do anything about inequality as long as the inequality is color blind. As long as 5% of billionaires are gay and 10% are black, everything’s okay. Except that it isn’t. Such a society is still unfair.
I also think that the New Democratic attacks on Reed are unfair for another reason. He isn’t saying vote against the Democratic Party. He has a long-term vision of building a truly liberal movement. It is absolutely the case that the Democratic Party will not be doing it. But as a liberal movement grows it will take over the current Democratic Party. Regardless, he isn’t saying that Bush and Gore were the same, only that they weren’t much different when it came to economic issues. And it is no way forward for the Democratic Party to be Republican Party Lite.
If there is a liberal demographic tidal wave that it coming, the Democratic Party will squander it if we liberals just allow things to continue on as they have been. It will be 2009 all over again with Democratic super-majorities. If the Democrats continue to provide the same watered down liberal policies and super-strength neoliberal policies, people will back away. They’ll stop voting. And I can’t see that there will be any reason to blame them.