In the previous issue of The Triangle, a student wrote an op-ed about achieving world peace. It was an anecdote about meeting a woman on a bus, having a heartwarming moment, and then somehow this meant that world peace is achievable in our time and we can all learn to get along if we just try to understand each other and a lot of other idealistic nonsense that sounds great, makes you feel good and ultimately achieves precisely nothing.
Certainly, we can have heartwarming moments and be happy with them, but can a heartwarming moment increase wages? Can a heartwarming moment turn around neighborhoods in North Philadelphia? Can a heartwarming moment save a West Virginia town from being inundated by a coal ash retention pond failure? Can a heartwarming moment reduce income inequality, build hospitals, provide power and running water to developing nations, end poverty and hunger, curb out-of-control defense spending, end our numerous expensive and unnecessary foreign wars, or restore SEPTA service to Reading and Bethlehem?
The answer is “no.” We need actions to change the world, not feelings.
Some people would contradict me on that one and say that feelings can change the world, man, and that like, whoa, we should totally legalize marijuana and like, dude, the drum circles at Occupy Wall Street were groovy, right? Those same people have never actually achieved any of the political or social change for which they advocate.
This brings me to my real subject: the American Left. It’s wishy-washy, it’s disorganized, it’s ineffective, and it’s generally disgraceful. Nowhere else on Earth could we have a political movement as contradictory and hypocritical as the American Left. How hypocritical is the left? Well, for one thing, its members tend to vote for Democrats.
Democrats, you know, those people who escalated the war in Afghanistan? Those guys who reformed the Glass-Steagall Act so that banks could make more money by crashing the economy, and then 10 years later passed a stimulus act that gave the banks even more money as a reward? The guys whose great “Affordable Health Care for America Act” was designed by the Heritage Foundation 20 years earlier? Those guys who are touting natural gas as “green” energy, and support fracking as an “alternative energy source”?
Yes, those guys. Neoliberal shills. Literally no different than Republicans, other than that they pay lip service to environmental concerns and occasionally make noises about raising income taxes on the very wealthy, though they’ll never actually do it. Granted, they do espouse and implement policies that are socially leftist. They have an excellent track record on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and women’s rights, for instance. Economically, however, they still bow before the almighty dollar. This is our “left-of-center” party, which, anywhere else in the world, would be considered downright reactionary. The Democratic Party is not a left-wing party.
There is no political representation for the far left in Congress today. No one has come out in Congress and said “I am a socialist” or “I am a Communist.” No one will bring up Marx during a legislative session. Even if you’re a moderate leftist, in favor of nothing more than a strong social safety net, these facts should be disturbing to you. The Republican Party has Libertarians, disciples of Ayn Rand, crypto-fascist Tea Partiers, and people who honestly want to turn the U.S. government into a Christian theocracy in positions of power. If the Democratic Party doesn’t have extreme leftist elements like the Republican Party has extreme rightist elements, then the overall narrative of politics in this country can only drift toward the right over time!
Because of our bizarre and obsolete “first-past-the-post” election system, we can’t hope for a third party to take charge or even to gain some miniscule amount of representation. Even third parties with wide support like the Libertarian Party cannot get a single candidate elected to the House or Senate, despite garnering a full 1.12 percent of votes to the House in 2012 (in a parliamentary system, this would have given them four to five seats). Fundamentally, the system is still skewed toward the two established parties and the two established parties have no vested interest in changing the status quo.
So how can the left get representation? If the left can’t get a third party elected, can it at least get the Democrats to advocate for more far-left policies? Yes, it can. It will have to make some changes, though.
First it has to focus on media presence. The much-maligned “liberal media” is a myth. Fox News has the highest ratings of any news organization. CNN and NBC are arguably vaguely right-wing, and they frequently throw left-wing movements in a negative light. MSNBC is “progressive” but fired liberal commentator Keith Olbermann and is funded by General Electric and Microsoft. Most of MSNBC’s “progressive” reputation comes from favorable coverage of Democratic policies, which, as stated above, just aren’t that progressive.
There is no Rush Limbaugh of the left. There is no off-the-hook, insane Marxist radio commentator we can tune into on our evening commutes. There is no Fox News of the left, either. The left is completely without a propaganda machine, which apparently is a valid way to gain votes in this day and age.
Furthermore, no one’s out there advocating for socialism; in fact, they’re distancing themselves from the word. You frequently hear self-defeating statements from casually leftist people, like “I support better regulation and a better social safety net, but I’m not a socialist!,” “I support women’s rights, but I’m not a feminist!” or “I want peace, but I’m not a hippie!” Statements like these only serve to weaken the causes they represent, by making them seem illegitimate. They also serve to further legitimize the right-wing narrative. Imagine the ridiculousness of someone in 1850 saying “Well, I support freeing the slaves, but I’m no abolitionist!”
These labels are perfectly fine to have, and they have enormous power from being demonized by the right for so long. The right has complained about and demonized Obama’s “socialist policies” for years; what will they do if socialism becomes a legitimate and popular political position?
Secondly, the left has to get organized. There is no “Tea Party” on the left. We had Occupy Wall Street, but that was equal parts honest-to-God Ayn Rand freaks and anarcho-capitalists as socialists. No concrete goals were made, no legislation was endorsed, and almost no social change came out of the movement. Ultimately, what Occupy Wall Street became was nothing more than a large homeless camp in the center of major cities, disrupting commerce and people’s commutes, all for essentially nothing. Also, the camps smelled bad, which certainly didn’t help. Some kind of Tea Party-style movement, arguing for leftist policy, which gets all required permits and is relatively clean-shaven, would do wonders for invigorating the left.
Thirdly, the left has to follow a simple mantra: “Don’t be stupid.” There are movements out there that are associated with the left but don’t need to be. I’m talking about things like PETA, the movement to get fluoride out of the water supply, or people who seriously believe in homeopathy.
Furthermore, the left ought to start getting permits for protests. OWS was convinced that the only way to legitimize itself was for entire camps to become martyrs to riot police. History shows that if there’s one thing America loves to see, it’s cops beating up hippies. The Tea Party got permits for its protests, and look how successful it has been! It has gotten actual legislators elected on “Tea Party” platforms.
Finally, the left needs to stop voting for the Democrats. The left will realize, eventually, that Democrats do not represent the left’s constituency. But get out there and vote anyway, for third-party candidates. They won’t win, but you’ll at least have the moral high ground.
The fact is that the far left is underrepresented in American politics, and the electoral system is set up to keep it that way. Today’s world is one where “leftist” parties are increasingly turning to privatization and deregulation as valid economic policies. If the left doesn’t sit up and take notice that the world is falling to neoliberalism and austerity, it’s likely to be rendered irrelevant.
Justin Roczniak is the op-ed editor of the Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected]