Reasons for the Left to Be Optimistic

Optimistic Left

Being a liberal/lefty/whatever in America has never been easy, and it has seldom involved optimism.  Ever since Werner Sombart wondered “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” the Left has often seen itself as a chronic loser in US history, and especially since the historic routing of the New Left in the 1960s and the right-wing counterrevolution of Reaganomics in the 1980s, progressives could be regularly counted on to outmatch Eeyore in a dolefulness contest. In recent years the triumphs of corporate power and the Christian Right have meant that most on the Left have focused on defending what they’d already achieved rather than imagining anything better—hence the slogan “Another World Is Possible,” which hints at an alternative without going into too much detail.

No doubt liberals have plenty of reason to despair in 2014, from relentless assaults on organized labor and the welfare state to the open faucet of corporate money that has flowed into the political system since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.  Even if Democrats somehow manage to hold on to the Senate this year (a dim prospect), it is widely recognized that President Obama can achieve virtually nothing through legislative means for the remainder of his term.

So why should those on the Left feel that the future might be better than the past? Despite the many gains of the Right in recent years, I’d like to suggest there are trends that augur well for the ideals of equality and justice in America.  In fact, I think 2014 is far more auspicious than 2004 or 1994 in terms of advancing social justice in a country where the forces of big business and social conservatism have long held a heavy thumb on the scales of politics.

Anyone offering a counsel of optimism from the Left is likely to be laughed out of town in America, but here are a few observations anyway:

We are finally talking about mass incarceration.  This issue has been on a long, slow boil in the United States, especially within communities of color that are disproportionately affected by the impact of a system that incarcerates far more people than any in the world.  In the “get tough on crime” era of the 1980s and 1990s, little could be heard about the plight of the imprisoned; if anything, I remember hearing my conservative relatives gripe about how wonderful prisoners had it, what with cable TV and gyms and all kinds of amenities they enjoyed.  The raw violence, despair, and far-reaching social disruption of a criminal justice system that grinds up thousands of lives simply was not something that many people outside a community of progressive activists cared about 15 or 20 years ago.

Yet, thanks in part to the research and public advocacy of scholars such as Heather Thompson and Michelle Alexander, the truth about our dangerous and inhuman system of incarceration—the “new Jim Crow”—has increasingly seeped into public consciousness, as even conservative politicians like Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal have begun to consider alternatives to incarceration as a pragmatic solution for the very real problem of spending so much imprisoning massive numbers of people.  This is an issue that has existed since President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” in 1971, but it did not seem to register on the radar of public discourse until the last few years.

new jim crow

On a related note, we are also finally talking about the War on Drugs.  Peter Tosh’s 1976 anthem “Legalize It” might have seemed like a comical bit of wishful thinking when it first came out, but the movement to decriminalize marijuana has made rapid and startling gains in the last few years.  No doubt popular culture played a role; from Cheech and Chong in the 1970s to That 70s Show in the early 2000s, pot-smoking became increasingly normalized as a funny, non-threatening activity indulged in by a non-trivial part of the population.  But most crucially, the opening wedge of medical marijuana in states like California and Alaska did exactly what critics worried it would do.  By insinuating that pot was not pernicious or dangerous, but rather a form of palliative for the afflicted, the medical marijuana movement laid the groundwork for the sudden acceptance of pot as a more-or-less ordinary product in Colorado and Washington state.

I’d always assumed that marijuana would eventually be decriminalized, but I never imagined that the substance would move so quickly into the mainstream, with a broader relaxation of anti-marijuana regulations appearing to come sooner rather than later.  Pot remains in the same class as heroin as far as the federal government is concerned, but change may come faster than anyone expected.

The movement for gay rights is winning victory after victory.  I remember reading a right-wing publication in the mid-1990s about two women in Hawaii who wanted to marry, and their legal battle struck fear into the hearts of conservatives across the country.  If Hawaii recognized their relationship, would other states be forced to comply?  Was this the domino that would lead to universal bestiality and mandatory man-boy love?  In the intervening years, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 ensured that no such dystopian outcome would occur, and a panoply of state laws, referenda, and constitutional amendments in the early 2000s forbade any recognition of same-sex relationships in states from Ohio to Montana.  Karl Rove and George W. Bush skillfully wielded such measures as a cudgel to beat Democratic candidates over the head in the 2004 election; indeed, as hard as it may be to remember now, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s support for same-sex civil unions was viewed as a liability that would cast him as too liberal to win the general election that year.

Yet in the last few years Congress repealed the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and courts across the country have been forcing local authorities to respect same-sex marriages.  (Even a figure as conservative as former Sen. Alan Simpson came around to the absurdity of denying Americans the right to serve their country on the grounds of sexual orientation some time ago.) As films such as How to Survive a Plague and Dallas Buyers Club have reminded us, it was not that long ago that LGBT people were viewed by the population at large as deviants who deserved to suffer and die, and the stunning progress of gay rights in recent years shows just how rapidly change can happen.

carter peace not apartheid

Discussion of the Israel/Palestine issue is finally opening up in a big way.  Back in 2000, I saw an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer that talked about how the Palestinians were innately fixated on bloodlust—a piece that prompted an anthropology professor at UNCC to write a letter to the editor taking the unpopular position that Palestinians were ordinary human beings like everyone else.  Christian conservatives and groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have long worked to discourage dissent in the United States about our Middle Eastern ally, decrying criticism of Israel’s treatment of occupied territories or its own Arab citizens as evidence of anti-Semitism. In the last ten years, though, a new space appears to have opened up for frankly discussing the injustices that Israelis impose on Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself.  As ToM’s Adam Gallagher recently argued, the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement has gotten the American public to begin considering the negative implications of Israeli policies, much as anti-apartheid activists brought to light the systemic injustice of South Africa’s government in the 1970s and 1980s. Even ardent supporters of Israel such as Peter Beinart have recently begun to speak out against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  In short, the discussion of Israel and Palestine is far more open and robust today in America than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Americans are becoming less religious, especially younger people.  Around the end of the Cold War, I remember reading an article that crowed that Jesus Christ had outlasted Karl Marx—in other words, godless communism had proved the false idol while Christianity endured, especially in the unusually religious United States. America has long stood out as among the most pious and observant of industrialized countries, and evangelical Christians entered the political fray as a major force for conservatism in unprecedented ways during the 1970s and 1980s.  However, 2004 may have been the highwater mark of evangelical influence, when voters concerned with “moral values” put George W. Bush back in the White House and anti-gay marriage amendments into state constitutions across the country.  Today, fewer and fewer young people report being religiously observant; while religion in itself is hardly a bad thing, this trend at least suggests that the influence of the Christian right is likely to wane over time.

Workers in fast food and retail are organizing.  In the last year or so employees of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and other companies have shown incredible courage in fighting for just representation.  Their actions show the potential for new forms of organizing in industries that have long been nearly impossible for the labor movement to reach.  Indeed, prior to the 1930s the labor movement had mostly focused on workers in skilled trades and had done little to organize the “unskilled” workers of mass production industries such as automobiles, but amid the Depression these workers took drastic measures to fight for representation and established powerful unions such as the United Auto Workers.  While the likelihood of McDonald’s workers gaining formal representation and collective bargaining rights under existing labor rules remains dim, campaigns such as Our Walmart have charted a path for a new form of labor struggle for a group of workers who had been widely presumed to be powerless before.  The methods of the 1910s and 1930s might not work today, but there are the makings of a new movement among the worst-paid and most-exploited members of the American workforce.

Katrina Gilbert HBO
Katrina Gilbert and her three children, the subjects of the HBO documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck”

Poverty is no longer a “dog bites man” story.  For years, the poverty and misery of millions of Americans has gone unnoticed and unreported by most of American media.  The story of a working mother who has to go hungry so that her kids can eat has simply not been news in the way that a missing airliner or a ridiculous Oscar speech might be.  But poverty and inequality are increasingly part of mainstream discussion in ways they have not been for years.  No doubt the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent depression played a huge part in putting these issues in relief, but the Occupy Wall Street movement and President Obama have also helped to reframe the debate.  When John Edwards launched his second bid for president in 2007, he made poverty one of his signature themes, but the subject fell deaf on the ears of most commentators.  Few at the time thought that poverty was an actual issue on the menu of issues that politicians and pundits were supposed to care about.  Had any Very Serious People™ thought about this since 1965?  Today, issues of inequality appear to be back on the agenda, thanks in part to the activism of countless groups across America, such as Occupy Our Homes, that have forced the problem into public discussion.

White America is soon to be a thing of the past. In the wake of the 2012 election, too many pundits were quick to predict that the “demographic transition” (i.e. the declining proportion of whites in the general population) would mean the long-term political demise of the GOP.  In fact, there is no reason to believe that Asian-Americans, Latinos, or other groups will continue to cast votes for Democrats in the future, especially if Republican candidates can get beyond pitching their campaigns to an increasingly narrow, xenophobic group of GOP primary voters.  However, the looming end of the white majority in America does mean that politicians will no longer find it as easy to use “dog whistle” politics to play on racist fears and anxieties to win votes. Indeed, Barack Obama lost heavily among white voters in both of his elections, but still coasted to victory; if the demographic makeup of the electorate had been the same as in 1988, he almost definitely would have failed to win the White House.  The America showing up at the ballot box today appears to be a browner one than we’ve known in the past, and the millennial generation is likely the most diverse in American history.

The fortunes of the Democratic Party are not exactly the same as those of the Left, of course, but we can only read the electoral tea leaves for trends and prospects that might make future change possible.  Democrats have, in fact, won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections; the combined center-left vote of Al Gore and Ralph Nader in 2000 was over 51%, and only in 2004 were Republicans able to eke out a bare majority by invoking the twin specters of terrorism and gay marriage.  While the GOP will probably win big in this year’s midterm elections, it does not look likely to repeat the success it enjoyed in the age of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.


It remains to be seen whether progressives today can match the mass social movements of the 1930s or 1960s.  Today we see agitation for immigration reform, workers’ rights, Medicaid expansion, marriage equality, and a host of other causes, but these efforts have seldom been articulated as parts of a greater whole.  And just because a few progressive activists are talking about a problem does not necessarily mean that the problem will be resolved—to say the least. Some of the issues I’ve raised here, especially those regarding racism and poverty, may be exhaustively discussed by liberals without translating into significant social change.

But the overall environment in the United States looks very different than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.  In the 1990s, it appeared that free-market capitalism had won an indisputable victory over communism and socialism, as if any ideas of the Left were thoroughly and widely discredited, while the Christian Right looked like an unstoppable juggernaut in American politics.  Soon after, the tragedy of 9/11 gave Republicans a virtual blank check to slash taxes and wage war wherever they pleased.

By comparison, I find 2014 to be far less depressing than the period of 1994-2006.  Perhaps the experiences of war and economic collapse in the 2000s reminded some of us that the so-called free market does not always produce the best outcomes on its own.  This is the same lesson we learned in the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, when Americans came to terms with the need to curb private economic power and ensure the welfare of fellow citizens.  It is possible we could be in another such interlude in our history, and that Barack Obama’s 2008 election was the beginning, not the end, of a progressive resurgence.  But we need to be able to connect the dots—a broad range of social struggles are already unfolding within the United States, and if we can see how they relate and interconnect to each other then far greater change remains possible.