SINCE THE latter months of 2013, liberals have been feeling better about themselves and the prospects for progressive change at the ballot box.
Look at the evidence, they say: Objections from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberals kiboshed President Obama’s plan to appoint Wall Street’s man, ex-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, as chair of the Federal Reserve. Bill de Blasio, running a populist campaign against growing inequality and racist police abuse, won a landslide victory to become mayor of New York City. Even Obama is shifting, we’re told—he’s at least made talking about income inequality a centerpiece of his administration’s message.
The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart provided perhaps the most articulate statement for the case that DeBlasio’s election and Summers’ defeat represent “an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left.” To Beinart, these recent political developments are harbingers of “the rise of the new new left,” as the Millennial Generation of young adults—the most multiracial and politically liberal age cohort in the U.S. population—comes to dominate the electorate.
But just as liberals were starting to feel good about their chances again, along comes Adolph Reed Jr. His lengthy cover story for the March issue of Harper’s magazine, "Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals," arrived as the proverbial downpour to rain on the liberal parade.
Reed’s message to liberals—especially those who invest their hopes in the Democratic Party—is stark.
Since the 1980s, he writes, liberals, activists and social movement organizations (the combination of which Reed labels “the left”) have been on the defensive. Instead of determining how to advance a broadly popular and egalitarian vision, this left has narrowed its “social vision” and its time horizon, keying actions to the next election cycle.
"Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection," Reed writes. "For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running." According to Reed, this has increasingly locked the left into a downward spiral, hitching its wagon to a more and more conservative Democratic Party.
To counter the tendency of some liberals today to see the 1990s Clinton administration “as a halcyon time of progressive success,” Reed reminds us with a quick recap of his policies that the Clinton record “demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice.”
When he turns to the Obama administration, Reed is even more scathing. He portrays Obama as something of an empty suit, who managed to gull liberals and leftists into supporting him while faithfully carrying forward the neoliberal agenda. While Reed chides Obama for his “reflexive disposition to cater first to his right,” he also points out that “Obama could not have sold his signature ‘bipartisan’ transcendence” to leftists “if Clinton had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism far enough rightward.” As he concludes:
[I]f the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long, the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred…Because only the right proceeds from a practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.”