These last few months have provided ample evidence that the American Left may not, in fact, really exist -- at least not in the way it is billed in the media and at various progressive political conferences. There is certainly a lot of high-profile Democratic Party infrastructure around today. From Moveon to Organizing for America to the Democracy Alliance, Democratic partisans have done a good job of capitalizing on a desire out there for a real American Left -- but, alas, we've been taught over and over and over again that (with the rare exception) there's a difference between parties and movements.
What are the signs that there isn't the American Left we think there is? Obviously, the Emanuel White House shunning movement progressives from its team was a good signal -- as was its reflexive firing of the few movement progressives it hired in low level positions (see Van Jones and now Yosi Sergant). The Professional Beltway Left's willingness to be corralled into the veal pen, as Jane Hamsher aptly calls it, is also a big sign that often times "progressive" organizations are all too happy to subvert movement goals for access to the perks and privileges of the D.C. cocktail party circuit. As the Wall Street Journal reported this weekend, the Professional Beltway Left is now being given orders every Tuesday by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina -- the same Jim Messina who was chief of staff to Max Baucus when Baucus helped President Bush ram through almost every one of the Republican's signature initiatives (with the exception of Social Security privatization).
But we can't just blame President Emanuel for -- rather predictably -- being President Emanuel. It goes much deeper than that.
What has prevented an American Left from existing is a deeper "trust" ideology among activists. Maybe it's because we are more optimistic, maybe because we want to see the good in everyone, or maybe it's because we're as innately wimpy as the Right says -- but it's clear that progressives are far more willing to "trust" celebrity politicians and others perceived to have Establishment power than pressure or even question those icons. You hear this all the time -- in the demands by self-proclaimed liberals for progressives to STFU and "trust" the president; in the inevitable claims that when Democrats betray their progressive promises, they are actually implementing a Super Secret Pony Plan to fulfill those promises; and most prominently, in the silences.
It is what you don't hear that, more than anything, tells you the American Left does not really exist (or is, at minimum, absolutely FUBAR). And one of those deafening silences just happened.
Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts legislature did not merely make a mockery of election law by going back and forth and then back to allowing its governor to appoint Senate replacements. Gov. Deval Patrick (D) then appointed former pharmaceutical lobbyist, insurance executive and corporate lawyer Paul Kirk to fill the seat of Ted Kennedy -- right in the middle of the legislative endgame on health care. Patrick passed over the three-term former governor and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis to appoint Kirk -- a person who has never held public office.
It was appalling to watch Kirk's appointment be publicly justified by his friendship with Kennedy -- as if Senate seats are something to just be passed around to buddies. But it was telling that almost voice on the Left made a peep about what this really says about American politics and the Democratic Party.
Had Republicans filled a Senate seat with a former pharmaceutical lobbyist and insurance executive, all the groups and media institutions calling themselves "progressive" would have automatically thrown a public shit fit (and if you think they would not have, then you haven't been paying attention to politics). But because this appointment happened on the Democratic side, these same groups and media institutions were almost completely silent.
Obviously, this is one small anecdote, as Kirk is only going to be in the Senate for five months. But its a microcosm of a larger phenomenon. The two standards -- freak out on Republicans when they do something awful, say nothing about Democrats when they do the same thing -- is the canary in the coal mine. It tells us that The American Left largely sees itself as The Democratic Party. That is, the party is the ends, not the means.
As I've written before, a party is not a movement (and neither are cable networks, magazines or think tanks that serve only to promote a party). So when you are wondering why the Democratic Party proceeds to sell out the public option or environmental policy or anything else, you have your answer: It's because the "American Left" has made the party, not the policy, the objective. Only when that formula and outlook is reformed will we have any prayer of turning "hope" into "change."