How the Left lost but can win again

Summary: So far the Left has talked of forming a resistance to Trump, a first step to pushing back the power of the 1% and rolling back the GOP’s gains in State and Federal governments. But they have shown little interest in building the broad coalition needed to do so. Here is a brief recap of how the Left got here, and how it can reform to win.

“United we stand, divided we fall.”
— From Aesop’s fable, “The Four Oxen and the Lion“.

Hand shake in alliance

The response was fascinating to my post The Left becomes a cult rather than gather support to oppose Trump. Most validated my observations about the Left. Contempt for workers, factionalism, in-group jargon (my favorite: I’m a “performative centrist“) — and a remarkable drop from the high intellectual standards formerly commonplace on the Left.

What went wrong?

The 1% has grown powerful since their renaissance began in 1964. Worse, as many people warned, American workers have drifted from the Left to Right as the Left shifted its focus from economic growth and income redistribution to them to the priorities of social justice warriors (starting the bathroom wars during the campaign was almost suicidal). Thomas Frank wrote several books about this, most recently Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Also see Michael Hirsh’s “Why Trump and Sanders Were Inevitable: It was only a matter of time before we had a populist backlash to 30 years of flawed globalization policies that both parties embraced” in Politico Magazine, February 2016.

Most on the Left prefer not see the overlap in views of Trump and Sanders. Also see this insightful report by Working America: “‘Front Porch Focus Group’ Explores Appeal of Trump’s Right-Wing Message to working-class voters.”

All of this appears to have had little effect on the Left. The response to Trump’s election has been to double-down on failed tactics — obsession with the rumors about a Trump-Putin conspiracy plus lots and lots of name-calling.

The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics
Available at Amazon.

The solution

There is only one path forward with reasonable odds of success. We must look to our past for inspiration. Only an alliance of progressives and populists can defeat the 1%, as it did in the New Deal. Jefferson Cowie explains this in his new book “The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics”. From the publisher …

“The New Deal: where does it fit in the big picture of American history? What does it mean for us today? …Jefferson Cowie tackles the big questions in The Great Exception. Beginning in the Great Depression and through to the 1970s, he argues, the United States built a uniquely equitable period that contrasts with the deeper historical patterns of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.

“During those exceptional decades, which Cowie situates in the long arc of American history, the government used its considerable resources on behalf of working Americans in ways that it had not before and has not since. …Cowie shows how any renewed American … battle for collective economic rights needs to build on an understanding of how the New Deal was won…”

We did it once, and can do so again. But will it require a large shift in thinking on the Left, especially adopting new priorities and replacing factionalism with a drive to build a broad coalition.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about ways to reform America, about the Left, about Trump and the new populism, and especially these…

  1. Populism arises amidst American workers abandoned by both Left & Right.
  2. Trump and the 1% lead America back to its past, to its roots.
  3. See the warnings about Trump’s infrastructure plan. It’s betraying populism.
  4. The headlines show America being dismantled. It’s time to act, not just watch.
  5. Trump is the next logical step as America becomes a plutocracy.
  6. What to expect from the Trump years, and why.
  7. The Left becomes a cult rather than gather support to oppose Trump.
  8. See what Trump has wrought so far, telling us what to expect next.
  9. The GOP might impeach Trump, changing our politics forever – for the better.

11 thoughts on “How the Left lost but can win again”

  1. IMO, The Left is making a huge mistake and missing a big opportunity by focusing totally on what Trump has done wrong. They should also look closely at what he did right and how he flipped blue, working class counties red. In the past, the democrats could count on that solid base and play identity politics to tip the balance. Without that base, identity politics won’t be enough.

    One thing the left can take heart in is that the right seems determined to ignore the same thing.

    If President Trump is able to deliver anything to improve the lives of this class and should the Republican Party recognize and embrace it, it could signal a significant political shift. If not, if it’s mainstream republican priorities, they’ll turn blue at the next election.

    1. Del,

      That’s an important point, and largely ignored on the Left. Surveys showed during and after the election, Trump won by making highly specific promises about actions he would take as president — running under the theme “make America great again”. Many people pointed this out during the election, as I did in these posts. As was (I thought) obvious, he had no intention of keeping those promises. But many people found them compelling.

      1. Trump wins because he says some sensible things which journalists can’t conceal.
      2. Trump says interesting things about foreign policy that scare our elites.
      3. What Trump means by putting “America First”.

      In contrast, Clinton’s ads were overwhelmingly policy-free — largely insulting Trump and claims about her virtue. Many warned about this during the election, as I did here: Clinton’s ads show her weak strategy: purely tribal, no content..

      Studies after the election have documented this. For example, see “Study: Hillary Clinton’s TV ads were almost entirely policy-free” by Jeff Stein at VOX, 8 March 2017 — reporting on a new study by the Wesleyan Media Project.

  2. From a Review in Amazon:
    “By exploring the political culture of that era, Cowie forcefully argues that the New Deal is exceptional legislation, but for exceptional times, and thus not well suited as a model for action for today. Cowie regards the mid century period of relative income equality as an exception to the rules of American politics, and weaves a wealth of social context to make his point.”
    From this Post:
    “There is only one path forward with reasonable odds of success. We must look to our past for inspiration. Only an alliance of progressives and populists can defeat the 1%, as it did in the New Deal.”

    What is a progressive?
    A handshake, a cooperative orientation? A mutuality recognizing the wisdom of mutuality? Thus a coalition with the other. Negotiation extending over a long time frame arriving at mutual benefit?
    When I see a small hint of that arising in the American political life; point it out to me if I miss them. Surely those sane and wise trends can as you say arise again, as rare as they were even in the era prior to and during the New Deal.

    1. Breton,

      “What is a progressive? A handshake, a cooperative orientation? A mutuality recognizing the wisdom of mutuality? ”

      Try Wikipedia, or any of a hundred other sources for simple answers to such questions. Progressives advocate, then and now, rational and professional efforts to improve the conditions of all Americans, especially those suffering from political and economic inequality. The specific doctrines have, as with all political movements, changed over time.

      “In the late 19th century, a political view rose in popularity in the Western world that progress was being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor, minimally regulated laissez-faire capitalism with out-of-control monopolistic corporations, intense and often violent conflict between workers and capitalists, and a need for measures to address these problems.

      “American progressives rejected Social Darwinism, believing that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace. The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States, from the 1890s to the 1920s. The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government.”

  3. Good education, environment and workplace remain core issues for the voter, so agreeing on the goal is not the problem.
    The challenge is for the left to demonstrably deliver on them, before going the extra mile promoting other appealing social causes. That puts the burden of performance on the more progressive polities such as California or Colorado.

    1. etudiant,

      Great point! The States are traditionally the laboratories of public policy in America. The New Deal resulted from application of successful policies developed and proven by State governments.

      Unfortuantely, the Democrats have few such successes from the States they control. Public loss of confidence in their rule is a large factor in the GOP gaining control of State governments during the past decade.

  4. Surely that is the heart of the problem.
    Hillary had to run a non specific campaign because she had few successful examples to point to where progressive policies were shown to perform at the state level. Unless more examples can be developed soon, the prospects for any improvement in 2018 and 2020 will depend entirely on possible revulsion against Trump.

  5. I’ve been moderately heavily involved with the Left for the last year or so and they’ve lost their brains. The lessons the Left have taken from Trump are:
    1. The big lie is always the best, even if it is easily disproven
    2. Always seek to stir up trouble and generate headlines, even if it causes problems for your cause
    3. Treat your followers like sheep and shear them as frequently as possible. I get so many requests for money every day I’ve taken to deleting them without opening them
    4. Do not seek to build a consensus. If possible, keep your followers in the dark and off-balance
    5. Do not cooperate with other Left-wing groups, always pretend you are the sole bearer of the truth
    6. Never have a plan, always shoot from the lip and keep piling on the lies

    There are some reasonable people trying to do some useful things but they are drowned out by the rest of the activists. This is not 4 GW, it isn’t an open source insurgency, it isn’t even political science 101. It’s a bunch of 3 year olds in a pushing match.

    Contrast this with the Republican response to their defeat in 2008. The Republicans frankly sulked and came up with a bunch of stupid reasons that they lost the election. But they also unified, organized, fund-raised in a coherent fashion, and became the party of No, which eventually paid off in Congress and in the state legislatures.

  6. In politics, corruption wins almost every time. “Progressive” may be well defined in encyclopedias, but whatever the label, the elected official tends to be at the beck and call of the 1%, regardless of the level of hypocrisy involved.

    Trust no one. The number one rule of realpolitik.
    Trust everyone to act in his own perceived self interest. The number two rule which overrules number one.

    1. Alfin,

      “In politics, corruption wins almost every time.”

      That’s quite false. The Progressives helped bring down the powerful urban political machines. Before that, civil service and other reforms broke the massive patronage systems that crippled American governments in the 19th century. Our government today is a miracle of efficiency compared to that of the post-civil war era.

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