Thursday, February 15, 2007


Sam Smith

IF nothing happens to change things, it looks as if Hillary Clinton will be running against Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Let's hope something happens to change things because it is hard to imagine a more depressing choice, the final triumph of money and media over democracy and sanity.

Yet, even on the left, one doesn't get much sense that we seem to be moving from frying pan to fire. Six years bitter experience has left many liberals and progressives convinced that exorcising the demon in the White House and finding a Democratic replacement is all we need for happiness.

It doesn't work like that. It is a reasonable bet that after eight years of the next administration - of whatever party - the overwhelming majority of the sins of the Bush years will remain, quietly institutionalized either because of lack of will, lack of votes or an excess of inertia.

The primary reason for this is that in politics we get the presidents we deserve and a Clinton-Giuliani race would reflect the fact that in neither party is there sufficient will to do things differently - to rebel against the corrupt, cynical anti-democratic spirit that these two power-obsessed leaders represent.

As the right has demonstrated over the past quarter century, the creation of a new popular paradigm is a complex, expensive and lengthy business. One can argue that the right had a grossly unfair advantage by controlling the hearts of corporations, mass media and evangelicals who happily and mindlessly spread its message to an unwitting electorate.

This is true, but there is another factor that hardly ever gets discussed. The left has blown it.

In fact, since the beginning of the Reagan administration there has not been a single mass movement on the part of the left that has made any significant impact on the country.

Part of this has been a matter of priorities. Under Reagan and the Bushes, the left was happy to do what it seems to like best: protest. Under Clinton it switched gears and quietly and obediently complied. In either case - dissenter or drone - the left did little to offer Americans an alternative vision, platform or movement.

Twenty years ago, as a member of the board of a national liberal organization, I found words for my concern as we discussed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Defeating Bork, I noted, was a necessity but it was not a policy. And we needed more policies.

I could tell from the room that I had said something alien. Who are we, I sensed around me, if we are not in opposition?

As recently as the last presidential campaign, I suggested a national progressive confab at which a list of major priorities would be compiled so everyone would know what we wanted, instead of leaving it to Fox News and David Broder to define for us. Again, it fell flat.

I suspect a part of the problem is that liberals behave much like many abused children; they view themselves more as victims than as survivors. This is not surprising given that two of their major constituencies - blacks and Jews - place particular emphasis on victimhood in their political rhetoric. But in the end, it is a choice that even the worst treated make in different ways, which is why some of the most impressive survivors are found in some of America's worst neighborhoods.

Rather than exhibiting the will to rewrite the story of themselves and America, too often liberals wallow in the mud pits into which their opponents have driven them and, when they can't take any more, willingly grab the hand of whatever hustler comes their way.

In this way, 2008 already reminds one of 1992 when liberals lined up for Clinton because he looked like he would win and might throw them a few bones along the way. In fact, in different ways, both Hillary Clinton and Brack Obama are modeling their efforts on Bill Clinton.

With HRC it's a quality that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found in her husband: "It is not the compromises [Clinton] has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise." With Obama it's the cynical use of hope - or, as Clinton put it, Hope - treated as though it was the candidate's personal gift to provide. In fact, in the last days of his campaign, Clinton ran a television commercial filmed from the window of a moving bus. The voice-over said: "Something's happening out there. A feeling. Call it hope. That a country can move in a new direction. That the future is something to look forward to. Not fear. If that's what you're feeling, you may have noticed something else. You are not alone." Obama before his time.

In either case there is a quality that Christopher Hitchens found in early Clinton Washington as being like that in Peter Pan, in which the children are told that if they stop clapping, Tinker Belle will die.

That pretty well sums up today's liberalism: you either oppose or you clap.

There are at least three other reasons beyond the psychological why this is so.

First: Major liberal organizations function much like all lobbying groups. Not only are they too far removed from the grassroots and too close to power, they are extremely protective of their own position in among the elite. Thus the mere notion of an effective coalition is troubling.

Second: Since they don't have as much money as the right, it would seem logical that liberal groups became expert as grass root organizing. They're not. One explanation for this is that since the advent of television, everyone has played by the rules of virtual communication and part of this reduces the voter to a viewer, petition signer, or contributor. One rarely finds anymore the sort of organizing spirit of, say, Saul Alinsky or the anti-poverty era and - on the left - scarcely ever does one see the multi-faceted organizing of the Christian right. If the left only uses the tools of mass media, they will have their Move Ons to be sure, but the right will just keep moving on.

Third: Much of the power and the money in liberal organizations comes from a new liberal elite - including large numbers of successful urbanites, women, gays, blacks etc. This elite has its own agenda which - regardless of its virtues - tends to ignore or deemphasize agendas of the less powerful and less well off who, incidentally, vote in much larger numbers. This is not an incurable problem but it at least has to be faced.

One big exception to all this is the Democratic populist wing, an ill-formed amalgam that believes Democrats are here to do the most good for the most people. But it, too, has yet to find good footings for a new movement. Even the efforts of John Edwards in this regard will ultimately fail unless people rally to his cause and not just to his candidacy.

Another major exception is the Green Party which, good as its heart is, has yet to tie its platform into a small and neat enough package that the media, let alone America, can grasp.

In short, the American left has a choice. Either it remains the victim of alternative predators - the right on one hand, the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it takes charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on a clear program and then - in the manner of the abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes and civil rights activists - takes this message to every little corner of the land it is trying to change for the better.