A lesson for the left: Go to the aid of the party

Michael Tomasky is executive editor of the American Prospect.

When politicians come out for or against something -- when a president signs a piece of legislation, say -- they invariably couch their positions in moral terms ("This is a great step forward for the American people," or some such). In truth, we know that the moral calculus is usually slight. Imagine if a president signing a piece of legislation were more frank: "Well, I'm signing this because I think it's the right thing to do, yes -- but I'm also signing it because my pollster tells me it's OK to sign it, because the senator who wrote it is from an important state, because it'll quiet down a constituency that might cause me trouble otherwise and because I persuaded my key donor who opposed it that it wasn't so bad." The governing elites and the editorial pages would go into neurasthenic shock if a president spoke in such a way. And yet everyone knows that this, in fact, is how most decisions are made.The lesson here is not that politicians are dissembling scoundrels. Rather, the lesson is objective and nonjudgmental. Politicians take political actions, not moral ones. Moral activists take moral actions; it is their great task to try to work the system so that moral clarity and political expediency coincide. If moral activists enter the arena expecting a politician to make virtuous decisions, vast disappointment will ensue.

In today's America, the right understands this reality far better than the left does. The Christian Coalition, to progressive eyes an organization of intransigent zealots, is in fact a shrewdly pragmatic assemblage. Its members are loyal Republicans. They vote en masse, ensuring their clout. They support the GOP nominee; when he disappoints them on issue X or issue Y, they tend not to hold marches or make a fuss to the newspapers; they issue their complaints privately, remembering always that their man is better than the alternative and that the enemy should be handed no ammunition. And by now you are so prepared for the paragraph that begins, "The left, on the other hand," and so sure of what it will say, that I don't even need to supply it.

But as another presidential election approaches, the left is wrestling fitfully with the question of how to exert its influence. There is much division within the ranks, so perhaps it is fitting that, of these two books by veteran leftist thinkers (who are also longtime colleagues; each thanks the other in his acknowledgments), one has a bracingly firm grasp on the realities of the political world and offers a startlingly fresh analysis, while the other mostly chooses to administer well-worn lectures.

The fresh entry is "Changing the Powers That Be," by G. William Domhoff, a sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz. This slim, galvanizing volume has two singular virtues: First, accepting the fact that politicians think politically and not morally, Domhoff counsels partisans of the left to accept it too and to plan and act accordingly; second, he boldly instructs them to offer arguments that make regular sense to regular people, which leads him in refreshingly heterodox directions. Here's his summation of his chapter on economics: "The heresy of this chapter for egalitarians" -- his term for leftist-progressives -- "is to admit that markets can have the virtue of being a decentralized form of coordination and control that does expand opportunity for most people." Regarding foreign policy, he notes that "the past defense of communist countries has left present-day egalitarians with a one-dimension stance toward foreign policy issues: There should be no American interventions of any kind." He finds it a "problem" that "some ... egalitarians, who are disproportionately secularists, have a strong tendency to engage in needless conflict with organized religion." Far from seeing in the Seattle free-trade protesters a paradigm for future leftist activism, he scorns them as petulant children whose violent streak is counterproductive. And finally, he urges leftists not to blame the corporate media for ignoring or misrepresenting their message: "Media power becomes an excuse for not considering the possibility that much of the egalitarian analysis is unappealing to most people." OK, we get it!

But Domhoff is no leftist sheep in wolfish Democratic Leadership Council clothing. He wants to see the left succeed, and he has criticisms aplenty of the Democratic Party. He argues that an objective look at history and at the nature of our system of representative government (winner-take-all, district by district) shows us that the kinds of strategies the left employs today are sure losers.

Domhoff is dismissive of third-party efforts -- he is shocked at "the amazing persistence of a useless enterprise" -- and considerably more than dismissive of Ralph Nader. He notes that progressive insurgencies have worked in the past only when their leaders have operated within the structure of the Democratic Party, which, he insists, is where the left should be placing its chips. The "interaction and mutual reinforcement between egalitarian activists and liberal politicians," he writes, "is the key to a new egalitarian movement." (Here is someone who understands the difference between activists and politicians.) Citing the Christian Coalition as a model, he urges egalitarians to join the Democratic Party and form Egalitarian Democratic Clubs, not unlike the reform Democratic clubs that sprang up in California, New York and other places back when Adlai Stevenson was the reformers' lodestar.

Domhoff lays out no program -- though he is largely in agreement with contemporary left thinking on environmental protection and social justice. He disagrees, as noted, on foreign policy; the book's one major flaw is that in an otherwise rigorous foreign policy discussion he ducks the question of when the use of military force is justified. "Changing the Powers That Be" is thus not a policy manifesto (which, one could argue, the left needs no more of). It is, rather, a strategic instruction manual, whose author calls himself "a power analyst" and has anchored himself in an American political reality that many on the left consider it a point of principle to ignore.

Domhoff's book is intensely engaged in the current political moment. By contrast, James Weinstein, a leftist historian and longtime editor of In These Times, a Chicago-based left-wing magazine, seems to care passionately about many things, but the current political moment, on the evidence of "The Long Detour," is not among them. In a book whose text runs to 264 pages, it is not until page 260 that Weinstein begins his discussion of what strategies the left should adopt.

In fairness, Weinstein's is a different sort of book. A socialist, his interest is tracing the history of socialism (as concept or principle more than as doctrine) in the United States and around the world, charting its progress through successive generations. Given that aim and the book's relative brevity, "The Long Detour" is a survey and a somewhat idiosyncratic one. Weinstein borrows from such works as Nick Salvatore's masterful "Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist" and Theodore Draper's authoritative history of American communism; as a result, readers interested enough in the history of socialism to read "The Long Detour" will already be familiar with much of what is here. But he writes with an elegance and a light touch uncommon among historians of the left. His early sections on the Christian socialists of the 18th century remind one of the movement's pre-proletarian roots, and it is interesting that he extols the Louisiana left-wing populist Huey Long, a man whom others on the left consider the only crypto-fascist to have achieved any meaningful degree of political power in this country.

Disappointingly, Weinstein does not relate these vignettes of the socialist past to today in a compelling way. "The social basis for a viable left politics exists," he writes, "but it is diffuse, directionless, and leaderless." Too diffuse, apparently, to be described by the author. Where he begins to build a case -- and where he agrees with Domhoff -- is in evaluating Nader's Green Party candidacy. He notes that it was "a bad idea" and suggests that today's leftists, building on traditions he has described in previous chapters, should join the Democratic Party and change it -- for a start, by running candidates in carefully selected congressional districts.

It is an age-old question on the left: Do leftists really want to take the palace or do they, somewhere deep in their psyches, actually prefer standing at a distance from it and critiquing it? You sense, throughout "The Long Detour," Weinstein's anxieties about power, while Domhoff, who has no such anxieties, grabs you by the lapels and hollers "Charge!" That many on the left will disagree with his arguments says far more about them than it does about him.

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