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

Changing the Powers That Be: How the Left Can Stop Losing and Win; G. William Domhoff; Rowman & Littlefield: 144 pp., $23.95 The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left; James Weinstein; Westview Press: 286 pp, $26

November 09, 2003|Michael Tomasky | 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.

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