Monday, October 3, 2011

The left co-opted itself

I don't exactly disagree with anything in Yglesias' most recent post, but I don't think it quite connects all the dots, either.
The problem at that point was the fundamentally paradoxical attitude of the Democratic Party leadership. On the one hand, they want to be in the center of American politics. On the other hand, they’re viciously opposed to the emergence of any kind of mass movement to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. This combination of preferences is simply not viable. I’m not saying it would have been smart for Barack Obama and Harry Reid to lead radical protest marches, but it would have been smart of them to see it as beneficial if someone was doing so. The dynamic in the House GOP where the Tea Party caucus sometimes annoys John Boehner but also repositions him as a moderate and reasonable guy and gives him leverage in the process. The giant puppet people protests against “globalization” in the late-1990s were, I think, always helpful to Bill Clinton.
He's right that it's counterproductive for governing Democrats to attempt to simultaneously occupy both the left and the center of the political spectrum. I think "simply not viable" overstates the case somewhat -- Republicans are still the primary barrier to action, and there's no reason to think that Republicans would suddenly ease their opposition to moderately progressive initiatives if a mobilized left springs out of the ground -- but an independent progressive movement would place an extra set of constraints on legislative and executive action and, at least, hopefully prevent congressional Democrats from always caving to the right. For any Democrat left of Ben Nelson (a group that notably includes Barack Obama) that's good news.

But Matt implies -- without ever saying outright -- that the absence of a mobilized left during the early years of Obama's term was a product of the administration's political agenda. While I don't doubt that the administration preferred to avoid criticism from the left, I also suspect the existence or non-existence of a mass progressive movement was almost entirely out of its hands. It's not like Obama made a big show of aligning himself with organized progressives. To the extent that co-option or suppression occurred, it didn't happen by design so much as it just... happened.

So instead, I think the left's general lethargy between January '09 and January-or-so '11 is more likely to have been a byproduct of the left's own perception that it was being adequately represented -- a perception that Obama and congressional Democrats did very little to rhetorically cultivate. Despite all the accusations of hippie-bashing and the like, progressives basically clung to the idea that its interests were represented in Congress up until the midterms, when left-leaning legislators actually were wiped out. Some of that is political tribalism, and some of that is probably because, whatever defects you might find in his positioning or his horse-trading, Obama really has done a decent job of shepherding progressive interests around Washington against some pretty steep opposition.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to add that the election of Obama himself was seen as a great historical moment for the left (first black president, end of the Bush era, etc.). There was probably a feeling of euphoria that lasted in the wake of his election that made those on the left a little tentative to criticize his administration publicly.