I rarely find myself accused of being insufficiently radical; more often, too radical. Nevertheless, like many academics on the left, in general elections I find myself pulled to the center. In local elections, I select the alternative slate, which, in our voting district, often wins. In regional elections, which often pits a left of center against a center Democrat, I vote left of center or Green or Pink. And, yet, I cast my ballot twice for Barrack Obama and (after supporting Bernie Sanders in the primary) Ms Clinton in the General Election. Lately, however, friends have grown increasingly critical of my moderation.
The latest row was provoked by doubts I expressed over Nancy Pelosi challenger Stephen R Jaffe. For one, I am not all that unpleased with Rep. Pelosi’s record: Votesmart.org. For another, the movement to replace Ms Pelosi is largely being driven by the right-wing of the Democratic caucus (see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/us/pelosi-georgia-ossoff-democrats.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share). I am reminded of the DLC’s take-over of the Democratic Party, made possible in part by electoral failures in 1980, 1984, and 1988. When Ted Kennedy lost in the Democratic primaries to his better organized rival, it spelled the end of a serious pro-working family opposition within the Democratic Party.
Here, Ms Pelosi is a throw-back. Her record on issues dear to organized labor is unparalleled. Nevertheless, she suffers from one serious weakness: she receives high ratings on trade from the Cato Institute for her stance on trade barriers and from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (again on trade). Otherwise her voting record is solidly pro-regulation of business, anti-Militarist, pro-immigrant — her voting record and ratings are public record. So, is it only for her support of TPP that she has become #1 enemy of the left?
I suspect that it is more complicated than that. Although they fall well down the line among her contributors, Opensecrets.org shows some representation among developers, real estate, agriculture, and finance. Nothing that would cause alarm, but also far from Manichean. More problematic — but virtually unavoidable in San Francisco — is wealth in general. Although Ms Pelosi’s support from organized labor is iron-clad, it is doubtful that she spends much of the little free time she enjoys with steam fitters and laborers. (That said, she is a far cry closer to working families than many vaccine-shunning, weekend silent-retreating Greens with whom I am familiar from Marin County.) She is not a socialist. But neither is Mr Jaffe.
So, why is the left joining the already deafening right-wing chorus demanding Ms Pelosi’s head? I have not talked to Thomas Frank but Katie Halper has (see Thomas Frank on the Demise of the Democratic Party). Frank points to the same data that he covered in greater detail in Listen Liberal. He points to the gradual, but quickening drift of the Democratic Party from its New Deal high, to its denouement as the party of wealthy white liberal Americans. Fair enough. Mr Frank is less clear about why, socially and economically — culturally — the New Deal Democrats began to lose market share.
Here the Democrats follow a familiar trajectory. In 1918, in post-war Germany, there were three games in town: the proto-fascists, roving the streets, throwing bombs, assassinating politicians, seeking to force post-war Germany to renounce Versailles and “fight to the death” both against liberal Europe and against “the enemy within”; the communists, who at the time were the only citizens ready to face down the proto-fascists; and the SPD, the socialist party, whose long experience in electoral politics placed it in what many at the time considered a mediating role. (Recalling also that the SPD allied with the proto-fascists so long as they were attacking the communists.) I think it is not unfair to liken the 1918 SPD with the present-day Democratic Party. It was, in fact, only after the Dawes Plan was put into effect — only after Germany won sufficient liquidity to begin paying reparations to France and England — that it was able to bring inflation under control and proved ready to begin to implement a social and institutional program more in keeping with its socialist agenda. When I think about what was best about Weimar, I think of this brief period, from roughly 1925 to 1929. Not surprisingly, this was also the period when support for the nationalist and fascist parties dropped to virtually zero.
The 1929 crash and subsequent Great Depression showed that the nationalists and fascists — and the communists — were far from dead; prosperity merely rendered them mute. In 1929 political extremism sprang back to its feet.
In retrospect, we might argue that the socialists ought to have made league with the communists, setting up a “final battle.” Instead, the socialists splintered into a brilliant, but impotent, array of center-right and center-left parties. The 1932 elections were completely dominated by the extremes.
One could argue — John Maynard Keynes did argue — that 1932 was set up by Versailles. Or one could argue that 1932 was set up by JP Morgan whose bank won a huge windfall from the Dawes Plan, which enabled Germany to pay France and England, who then repaid their debt to JP Morgan, with interest. All of these liquid assets needed some place to land, mostly in unsecured, questionable assets. This overheated and grossly under-regulated market collapsed in 1929: the immediate cause for the revival of extreme politics. Still, more remotely, JP Morgan’s financial scheme was the more distant cause. Without it, it is doubtful JP Morgan could have recovered his substantial outstanding credit to England and France. Or we could also argue that blame rests with all of those governments — the US, the UK, and DE — unwilling in 1932 to heed Lord Keynes’ plea on the pages of the Atlantic Monthly for the industrial powers to spend money “on anything” short of all out war. Tragically, but not surprisingly, it was only preparation for all out war that pulled the industrial powers out of the Great Depression.
But it is here that the story moves sideways. In Germany, as we know, economic recovery was predicated on the elimination of left-wing resistance and political opposition more generally; in England and the US, by contrast, war preparation and war boosted support for organized labor and even normalized communist participation in some locals. Everywhere, however, in 1945, organized labor was lionized.
What Thomas Frank remembers of New Deal Washington, DC, was, to this extent, inconceivable without the kind of massive public deficit spending — roughly $1T in the US — spent on winning the war. Theoretically, Lord Keynes was right. Had that $1T been spent on transportation or building or exploration or — “anything” — it would have had an even greater, positive effect. Frank is less ready to remember the political and cultural compromises that made the Marshall Plan palatable — marketing the plan as a war on communism — which sealed the fate of Europe for the next half century.
The lessons of this brief overview (1918 to 1948) are mixed. Ideally, we could wish that the communists had soundly defeated the proto-fascists in 1918, which conceivably they might have done had the socialists joined them; which the socialists might have done, except that in 1918 they were already the party of the bourgeoisie. Or we could wish that the allies had listened to calmer voices at Versailles, which would not only have permitted Germany to regain its feet, but would also have obviated the need for a Dawes Plan. Again, it is possible in the unregulated markets of the 1920s, the market would have overheated on its own, but JP Morgan’s self-serving largesse did not help the cause. Or we could hope that the industrial powers would have awakened to the real need in 1932 to spend money on anything short of war. Or we could hope, once again, if not in 1918, then at least in 1932, that the socialists had joined the communists to defeat the National Socialists.
In the end, none of these more desirable alternatives materialized. And, arguably, they failed to materialize because individuals made self-defeating choices. Indeed, it is possible, at every turn, to cast blame on the socialists, the equivalent in our story to today’s Democratic voters; who failed at every juncture to do the right thing. They did not throw their support behind the communists fighting the proto-fascists; they did not join the communists to defeat the fascists. They instead took up position with various shades of middle-of-the-road mediocrity.
At the same time, it may be equally important for us to note the conditions under which extreme politics retreated; when prosperity was spread most broadly, from 1925 to 1929 in Weimar, and from 1945 to 1972 in the post-war economy. Is it also important to note that absent war, this evenly-distributed prosperity is likewise unthinkable? I think that it is, not only because it indicates how deeply political sentiment is shaped by individual prosperity or poverty; but also how easily broad economic prosperity masquerades as political enlightenment. Thomas Frank’s lionization of the New Deal downplays the central role that war bonds played in the subsequent prosperity of working families and organized labor. It also downplays the role that European economic recovery played in the growing global competition among industrial powers after 1968; and the diminishing rates of profit investors enjoyed subsequently, from 1968 to 1980. Marxist economist Robert Brenner (UCLA) correctly identifies alternative steps that industrial powers might have chosen in the 1970s and 1980s to maintain broad-based prosperity. But, again, this ignores the actual influence reduced real wages had on the voting patterns of working families.
We could wish that economic violence contained within itself an undistorted map for emancipation. It does not. Instead, many who had every reason to support a left alternative in 2016, either opted for the center or the right. (Many, many also supported Bernie Sanders.) This, it should be noted, is not anomalous. It is, instead, what we should anticipate. This is what happens in industrialized nations during economic contractions that deprive working families of real wages and benefits. Indeed, had Bernie Sanders been nominated and elected with a slate of left-leaning congressional newcomers; this would have been anomalous and would have sent all of us scrambling back to our models to see what went wrong.
If I am right and if economic conditions play a far more central role in political outcomes than many of our theories hope for or even allow; then does that mean that we are doomed?
No. I do not think so. But nor are we guaranteed a happy ending. Let us suppose, however, that we are not only interested in slates, but in legislative outcomes, not in ideological victories, but in legislative victories, not in theoretical virtuosity, but in actual possibilities. Those on the left must learn to read candidates less by their colors than by their voting records, less by the metadiscourse than by pragmatic outcomes. We all know by now that there are many Democrats who today stand far to the right of Richard Nixon. (An informal survey of High School students in Berkeley, CA, found Dwight D Eisenhower the most liberal President in the post-war period. Can we imagine any Democrat talking about the “industrial-military complex” today?) But we also know that many Democrats display voting records that place them on the left-wing of actual possibilities; among them Ms Pelosi.
When the alt-right began organizing back in the 1960s, they did so at the most local level: school boards, commissioners, councils. When microeconomic realities turned in their favor — when military Keynesianism spent its wad — the alt-right stood poised to claim their reward. In the mean time, however, they made it a point to support the most conservative of candidates capable of winning (some of whom did not win, but many of whom did). I do not believe that it is defeatist to support left of center mainstream candidates while focusing my energy on vulnerable right of center candidates.
This, to be sure, risks repetition of 1918 and 1932, where a fragmented center gave rise to a polarized right and left; and, where, at least in Carl Schmitt’s taxonomy, the right always enjoys an advantage. Nevertheless, by targeting vulnerable right-wing seats (and by preserving those that are left of center), it might be possible to push the alt-right back far enough to make room for more broad-based organizing. That is my hope. But it is only a hope. We might well end up with 1918 or 1932. And my reservations over rigid adherence to the far left might be a contributing factor. I hope not. But history is not in my favor.
I am therefore, by default, caught in the middle.