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Vanessa Carmichael Headshot

Why the Left Fails

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Once upon a time in America there was plenty of talk about revolution. And the vision was grand, the first truly multi-cultural, multi-racial, egalitarian meritocracy on Earth. But, this being the USA, revolution has amounted to little more than a cute quixotic zeitgeist in our nation's history that Madison Avenue and Hollywood evoke to move product. Between COINTELPRO, a very real FBI counterintelligence outfit whose sole purpose was to infiltrate and disband radical political groups, and gallivanting hippies who got distracted from the anti-war movement by the free love movement, revolution in this country never really got off the ground. In fact, most of the next generation--my generation, Generation X--appears to have had an adverse reaction to our Baby Boomer parents failed attempt at a paradigm shift. The result, what seems amongst my friends to be a sort of Family Ties effect: one in three kids supporting liberal ideals, one in three being completely apolitical, and one in three being pretty obnoxiously conservative. Yet not until this moment in history has it been so clear just how and why, time and time again, the Left fails.

The failure of the Left is bewildering because the last forty years look like victory for liberalism. With rock 'n roll, birth control, marijuana and Madonna, Americans have crafted a world-renowned image as "progressive." But that's just pop culture. The reality is in the last 40 years a Democrat has inhabited the White House only 12 of those years. And while Democrats have held a majority in Congress for most of those forty years, they have primarily just treaded water when not embroiled in a frantic campaign to hold on to that majority. Today, the Progressive Caucus consists of 83 members (of a potential 535) with only one senator in its membership. Conservative coalitions, on the other hand, pretty much consist of everybody else. Since Roosevelt national healthcare has been bandied about in government and yet a black man is elected to the White House before a semblance of a national healthcare system is passed through the lower legislative branch--and that took compromise on abortion. The fact is in the last 40 years, comparatively, little policy has been accomplished by the Left, certainly not the essentials like healthcare, ERA, gay civil rights, or an international workers union. Even more telling, 36 years after its passing, Roe v. Wade is still under attack.

The Left fails to win these key battles because most Americans don't understand the very basics of American democracy, especially that we do not have a parliament. Any political comparativist will tell you, a U.S. president, unlike a prime minister, has very little power to get anything done automatically. In our cumbersome check-and-balance system, a president merely has the power to persuade. Case in point: the last time a U.S. president signed policy into law without consensus, the United States broke out in a Civil War, which is probably why the beloved John F. Kennedy didn't sign Civil Rights into law during his two years in office. Added to that our presidents are required to make over four thousand appointments to policy-making positions.

In Britain the prime minister has barely one hundred political jobs to fill. And once the executive branch decides on proposed legislation they have to face the real giant, the equally powerful United States Congress. With the exception of wartime, this process for a president is a brutal melee up a side of a hill in a torrential downpour, a bloody fight a prime minister doesn't have to worry about in a parliamentary system. So even if President Obama was a closet radical--Malcolm X reincarnate who regularly had Noam Chomsky down to Camp David, it would still be impossible for him to push legislation through Congress that would satisfy the expectations of the Left. That's largely because the United States is a country where working-class people, the majority of the electorate, tend to vote their aspirations and not their interest and accordingly have filled our Congress with conservative Democrats and Republicans who successfully advance a conservative agenda.

In 1966 Stokely Carmichael spoke at UC Berkeley and appealed to white students to go into white communities and build a movement there. Perhaps there was confusion about the working-class aspect of his charge because this didn't happen to the extent it perhaps should have. In every other Western country the working-class wants some form of socialism to maintain standards of living and the wealthy, perhaps because they are outnumbered, practice noblesse oblige. In the United States the opposite occurs. Liberal attitudes did permeate throughout upper middle-class communities because those students at UC Berkeley and colleges across the country grew up and became the upper middle-class. But after unions lost their authority to outsourcing and insourcing the only thing liberalism represents in white working-class communities is the aftermath of free love--broken homes, drug abuse, moral turpitude, which does not bode well for the Left's cause. The failure of the Left to win the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Americans, white working-class Americans, is at the heart of the string of defeats and disappointments it has seen over the past year.

As 2009 draws to a close, many on the Left look back at the past year and see failure of a young president and a Democrat-majority Congress, in both of whom they have invested so much faith. This holiday season many on the Left are shaking their fists at televisions and going nuclear on Leftist blogs in reaction to the president's decision to send 30,000 more American soldiers to Afghanistan. (This reaction despite the fact that candidate Obama never promised to leave Afghanistan. On the contrary, campaigned on the premise that victory in 'the war against terror" requires concentrating our military efforts there.) To many liberals the death of the Single Payer Healthcare in the Senate this week and Stupak-Pitt Amendment represent yet more examples of unacceptable compromises on healthcare reform. And to the more radical set the whole TARP fiasco is evidence Obama is little more than a shill for big banks. Apparently, some of us voted for a president expecting a revolutionary and now we feel betrayed. However, in their disappointment or disillusionment the Left fails to recognize two crucial facts. The first, in the culture wars that have been waged since the 1960's, the Left lost. And secondly, that loss was a game changer.

History will surely repeat itself and the Left will continue to fail, squandering its political will as it desperately clings to power unless it takes note of the reality on the ground: This ain't no France. If the Left is to produce a movement more substantial than the ephemeral cultural shifts of the past, it must come to grips with the fact that the United States, for the most part, leans Right. One need only consider the recent gay marriage bans in California and New York. There are vital lessons to be learned in both defeats. Here you have two of our nation's most stalwart liberal states with its largest population concentrations of gay and lesbian citizens and yet the electorate and local government voted to deny fellow taxpaying Americans their civil rights. It is time the Left recognize they are culpable in their own demise, then come together like never before to ratchet up grassroots outreach in local communities and quick! Because America, clearly, we have a problem.