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The Left's Failure to Launch

Why hasn’t the biggest economic crisis in two generations rekindled the political left?

American leftists are not alone in asking this question; the failure of the latest recession to fuel anti-capitalist or at least anti-corporate rage in most of the developed world has European social democrats scratching their heads.  The 2008 financial crisis was, from a left point of view, the perfect storm: greedy bankers in cahoots with corrupt politicians made obscene bonuses while engaging in an orgy of speculation that almost wrecked the world financial system — and then stuck the taxpayers with trillions in losses.

So why didn’t voters turn left? Why aren’t bankers hanging from the lamp posts while unions make record gains? Why did the GOP surge in the 2010 elections, and why aren’t we well into another period of progressive political hegemony? Why is all the talk about the crisis in government debt and the need for government restraint when private irresponsibility was the cause of the crisis?

This morning’s Financial Times offers some insight into that question that is particularly helpful to Americans because the article’s author looks primarily at developments in Europe.  Sometimes it’s easier to see the big picture when you look beyond your own immediate neighborhood.

“I told you so isn’t enough to save a left in crisis,” writes Philip Stevens.  While voters in many countries still like the idea of social democratic benefits and protections in Europe, they are worried about the rising costs of the welfare state and think its benefits, however attractive, are unaffordable.

Stevens doesn’t take the argument this far, but it seems to me that one key problem for the left in the US and elsewhere is it is trapped by its reliance on public sector workers.  The left gets converted (or perhaps perverted) into a lobby for the producers of government-paid services.  It is more interested in more money for teacher unions than in better schools: it focuses on getting more money into government bureaucracies and ignores growing evidence that voters think the relationship between money in and service out has broken down.

A genuine populist left these days would combine Tea Party fury at the waste and featherbedding in government structures with populist rage against the upper middle class nanny state do-gooders who burden the real economy with increasingly elaborate and expensive regulations and then jump on the bankers.  What would differentiate that left from the Tea Party is that it would not be an anti-government lobby per se; it would support many of the things that the New Deal state was set up to do but would demand ruthless reform in the ways programs work.

That kind of movement could potentially be formidable in the US and elsewhere, but the stranglehold of the government producers and nanny state lobbies on the democratic left here and abroad prevents the emergence of a serious left alternative to the politics of retrenchment and right wing reform.

To grow, the American left would have to escape the suffocating embrace of the public sector unions and upper middle class progressives.  Like a thirty something still living at home with his or her parents, the left’s reliance on these two enabling backers keeps it from making its mark in the world.

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  • John

    I think the bigger reason that the Left hasn’t had much success at capitalizing in this crisis is that many people believe that it is at fault for creating the crisis. Of course greedy bankers and traders played a role, but blaming them is, as Thomas Sowell put it, like blaming an airplane crash on gravity.

    What was new and weird was the housing bubble, and that was created at least in very large part by exponentially increasing government housing policies, subsidies, and loan guarantees.

    Indeed, every fiscal crisis that the government faces currently is directly a result of Progressive policies.

    No such policies, no such crises.

    Yet the Progressive solution is to double down, now, before it’s too late!!!–and people aren’t buying it anymore. That’s their solution to everything, even the problems they created: if only we gave us Progressives the dramatically increased money and power they need, these problems would certainly be solved, this time! Repeat for each year, repeat while shouting for each crisis.

  • Neville

    This makes the case for capitalism in a somewhat novel way. Basically, ordinary people (voters) are hopeless at being employers.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “What would differentiate that left from the Tea Party is that it would not be an anti-government lobby per se; it would support many of the things that the New Deal state was set up to do but would demand ruthless reform in the ways programs work.”
    I am surprised that you think the TEA Party is anti-government, it is not anti-Government (this is a straw man of the leftists), it is pro Limited Government. It does recognize that Social Security is here to stay, and that for too many retired and soon to retire, it is too late to make any changes. But a change like what Chile did 30 years ago, to create private accounts for people under 50, worked brilliantly and why reinvent the wheel.
    So much of what the Federal Government does is unconstitutional and comes under the 10th amendment “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Many Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government are not even hinted at in the Constitution, and their powers and authorities have just been assumed by the Government in direct violation of the 10th Amendment.

  • Peter

    “Why hasn’t the biggest economic crisis in two generations rekindled the political left?”

    Silly boy, it’s because, as John said in the posting above, the Left’s fingerprints are all over the economic crisis.

  • Luke Lea

    In the warped universe of contemporary American politics you might just be looking in the wrong direction, Walter (how are we supposed to address you on this blog by the way?). Did you and your readers not see this odd piece about Sarah Pahlin in the NYT of all places?

  • Publius

    Ron Paul fits the bill but gets little attention for consistently opposing big government, over-regulation, and bailouts.

  • Silverviddle

    Excellent analysis, and I agree with your conclusion.

    The broad middle I think sees government as complicit in our financial catastrophe. Making it bigger and even more powerful would just increase our problems and shield the private sector malefactors even more, since they are in bed with big government to begin with.

  • rvastar

    I believe that the answer is simpler than that.

    The reason the Left isn’t being embraced is that, over the past few decades, the average person – whether in the US or Europe – has learned that the Left’s “concern” for them is directly proportional to how willing they are to give over control of their lives to the Left. IOW: there are strings attached to the Left’s “compassion”…and most people are able to sense it on an some preternatural level.

  • Randy

    Dr. M,

    “Why hasn’t the biggest economic crisis in two generations rekindled the political left?”

    It did rekindle them. The problem is that the engine stalled. Remember your word picture at the end of Special Providence? Hamilton and Wilson arguing over where to go with Jefferson snickering in the back seat, all the while failing to realize the Jacksonian engine is no longer responding to the accelerator.

  • Dave

    “Greedy bankers” on Wall St. were among Obama’s biggest campaign donors in 2008 and Goldman Sachs is probably more of a blue institution than a red one.

  • Mogden

    The Left generally does not believe there is anything wrong with the way the government is working now. They have an inflated sense of the nobility of elected leaders and technocratic experts, and an excessive fear of the power of businesses. So what you propose is quite an enormous shift for many of them.

  • dissent

    You appear not to have read the important article in the NYTimes over the summer, “Tuning Out the Democrats” link:

    “That government and the elite appear blithely to promote globalization and economic integration, while the working population loses income, makes the frustration more intense. ”

    The left has sold out to big money, just like the right. The fact that the Dems throw working people a bone now and then does not change our trajectory: down. And the Dems are unwilling to risk their donation base to promote policies that help the American people. No wonder there is a disconnect.

    I suspect globalization will break because of its inherent flaws, not because of its destruction of the western middle class. That may be what is happening now in Europe.

  • Steve

    I agree with your analysis. I think most people’s retail interactions with government (think department of motor vehicles, IRS, school bureaucracy) are uniformly poor. I’m not sure people distinguish between types of government.

    A progressive that was driven by reforming the way government services are provided and enhancing the interaction of public with government institutions could build support for more government. However, as you point out, that would cross the Democratic Party’s paymaster.

  • Ralph

    The Left is unable to break out of its “religious” attitudes. They already “know” what is right, and when their ideas don’t work, they immediately search for a “new message,” rather than any new ideas. Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed is well worth reading.

    When people don’t jump on to the Left’s bandwagon, they think it’s because we’re to dumb to understand their brilliance, rather than even consider the possibility that we might know exactly what they are offering, and have no interest in it.

  • Luke Lea

    Let me quote from that NYT piece on Pahlin I alluded to above:

    “But something curious happened when Ms. Palin strode onto the stage last weekend at a Tea Party event in Indianola, Iowa. Along with her familiar and predictable swipes at President Barack Obama and the “far left,” she delivered a devastating indictment of the entire U.S. political establishment — left, right and center — and pointed toward a way of transcending the presently unbridgeable political divide.

    The next day, the “lamestream” media, as she calls it, played into her fantasy of it by ignoring the ideas she unfurled and dwelling almost entirely on the will-she-won’t-she question of her presidential ambitions.

    So here is something I never thought I would write: a column about Sarah Palin’s ideas.

    There was plenty of the usual Palin schtick — words that make clear that she is not speaking to everyone but to a particular strain of American: “The working men and women of this country, you got up off your couch, you came down from the deer stand, you came out of the duck blind, you got off the John Deere, and we took to the streets, and we took to the town halls, and we ended up at the ballot box.”

    But when her throat was cleared at last, Ms. Palin had something considerably more substantive to say.

    She made three interlocking points. First, that the United States is now governed by a “permanent political class,” drawn from both parties, that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of regular people. Second, that these Republicans and Democrats have allied with big business to mutual advantage to create what she called “corporate crony capitalism.” Third, that the real political divide in the United States may no longer be between friends and foes of Big Government, but between friends and foes of vast, remote, unaccountable institutions (both public and private).

    In supporting her first point, about the permanent political class, she attacked both parties’ tendency to talk of spending cuts while spending more and more; to stoke public anxiety about a credit downgrade, but take a vacation anyway; to arrive in Washington of modest means and then somehow ride the gravy train to fabulous wealth. She observed that 7 of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States happen to be suburbs of the nation’s capital.

    Her second point, about money in politics, helped to explain the first. The permanent class stays in power because it positions itself between two deep troughs: the money spent by the government and the money spent by big companies to secure decisions from government that help them make more money.

    “Do you want to know why nothing ever really gets done?” she said, referring to politicians. “It’s because there’s nothing in it for them. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed — a lot of corporate lobbyists and a lot of special interests that are counting on them to keep the good times and the money rolling along.”

    Because her party has agitated for the wholesale deregulation of money in politics and the unshackling of lobbyists, these will be heard in some quarters as sacrilegious words.

    Ms. Palin’s third point was more striking still: in contrast to the sweeping paeans to capitalism and the free market delivered by the Republican presidential candidates whose ranks she has yet to join, she sought to make a distinction between good capitalists and bad ones. The good ones, in her telling, are those small businesses that take risks and sink and swim in the churning market; the bad ones are well-connected megacorporations that live off bailouts, dodge taxes and profit terrifically while creating no jobs.

    Strangely, she was saying things that liberals might like, if not for Ms. Palin’s having said them.

    “This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk,” she said of the crony variety. She added: “It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest — to the little guys. It’s a slap in the face to our small business owners — the true entrepreneurs, the job creators accounting for 70 percent of the jobs in America.”

    Is there a hint of a political breakthrough hiding in there?”

  • Scott

    The Left launched a long time ago in the U.S. We’re far more socialist than China:
    social security, medicare, medicaid, food stamps, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, housing subsidies, k-12 public education, secondary education subsidies, Pell grants, solar subsidies, ethanol subsidies, disaster relief, cash for clunkers, caulk your windows tax credits, first time home buyer credits, mortgage modifications, TARP, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, etc.

    Marx would be proud at the amazing progress the Left has made in the U.S. In just 80 years we’ve created a government that spends more money redistributing wealth via social programs than 90% of the world’s countries produce in annual GDP.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea —

    Excellent points, excellent posts!

    The reason the TEA Party went from an Independent movement to breaking so heavily Republican in 2010 is that Obama and the Dems demonstrated that they were more interested in nanny-stating Wall Street than in taking it down a few pegs.

    Let the drums roll out
    Let the trumpets call
    While the people shout,
    “Break up the banks!”

    THAT would have gotten the Democrats votes in 2010. But no, they preferred government-centric hubris — bailouts and stimulus and piles upon piles upon piles of new regulations.

    Palin may well be the champion of the common man that The Nation wishes it could be.

  • Randy

    What Ralph said (#14).

  • Gene

    Dissent, you’re going to have to explain exactly what you mean about globalization “breaking,” and what that would look like. And you’ll have to explain what an “unglobalized” but still successful world would look like. I’m afraid that seems like a mythical creature to me.

  • christopher hubbard

    this is the reason that leftists of many stripes are so angry and upset these days. they saw their idealogy and agenda as ascendant, and that of the capitalists/corporatists/conservatives as not only declining but intellectually bankrupt. and they had their knight in shining armor to bring it about. it was to be their moment. this, more than anything paul ryan, the tea party or conservatives in general explains their increasingly shrill, and desperate behavior. sad.

  • sub

    the left will never be fiscally responsible, they will never recognize the essentially nature of american competitiveness, they will never cease their class warfare rhetoric, happy to pit one group of americans against another. most people agree with their more reasonable positions on social issues. but that’s not enough to ignore that stunning cluelessness re all things economic, all things business. this country has been powered by unrelenting business success since it was simply a colony. we don’t want a european social democracy (working really well over there right now). we want people to work hard, and fend for themselves. we don’t want to be vilified for our success.

  • john werneken

    I think I like what Palin said at There is no two party system, there are two interlocking oligarchies of Elected-for Life and of representatives of vested interests, economic ideological ethic linguistic racial religious etc. A rambling solution follows.

    Voting and Government
    Citizens Only and Indirect


    1. Honorable Discharge, Hour years, US Military
    2. PASS High School Citizenship test:
    3. Those graduating from four year college or university and achieving in the upper 1/3 of such graduates on the citizenship test over-all assumed to pass the citizenship test in total
    4. Those in the top quintile of income OR wealth

    Citizenship Test: Mastery (“B+”) in each broad area comprising the following disciplines. For over-all measure weigh 1-4 40% 5-7 40% 8-12 20% 13 is required PASS/FAIL.
    1. Physics and astronomy
    2. Chemistry
    3. Biology
    4. Mathematics
    5. History, 75% US History 1756-forward, 20% last 30 years
    6. Political Science / formal and informal modes of government
    7. Economics
    8. English Communication, reading with comprehension, writing and speaking with organization and clarity
    9. Research: capable of delivering at least an oral presentation with organized written notes and citations, internet or alternative sources, in three of such areas as recent events, popular culture, biography, history, science, literature, art, philosophy and theology.
    10. Public health
    11. Geography and Geology
    12. Comparative Cultures, languages, ideologies, and religions
    13. Basic survival: clothing housekeeping food preparation transportation and purchasing: pass-fail

    1.Referenda may be allowed as to approval of new means or higher effective rates of taxation; constitutional changes; recall from office. Not otherwise.
    2. US Senator: by majority of all state legislators in an entire state every 8 years, half every 4; vacancy by Governor of State
    3. Federal Reserve Board to be Regional Presidents only, stable currency mandate only
    4. Standing to sue: for the enforcements of rights and obligations and the collection of damages under Constitution, Treaty, Property, Contract, and Injury
    5. Elections: Every two years except President 4 US Senator 8; States may allow for terms of office of four years for executive officers and members of less numerous legislative branches.
    6. Judges: By executive authority of the jurisdiction confirmed by simple majority of less numerous legislative branch
    7. Extraordinary majority allowed only for adoption of constitutional changes. Applies to US Senate.
    8. Keep current methods of selecting US President and of Amending Federal Constitution
    9. General Election ballot by top two of primary election. Primary election non-partisan, single ballot.
    10. Electoral Districts: Chief Judicial Body of jurisdiction to appoint Commission charged with setting Districts for each State or sub-division thereof, within 5% of citizen population from the average; reasonably compact and contiguous; community of interest can be considered but discrimination for or against groups of protected constitutional status prohibited
    11. Election Campaign Finance: Public for candidates based on 20 year average of spending for comparable positions throughout the State of subdivision thereof in General, equal for each of two candidates. Primary: Same cap per race (2 x 20 year all-candidate average for like positions in State or subdivision thereof), every candidate polling 5% in primary gets equal share of cap. Each candidate not getting 5% may receive 1/20th of cap anyway if nomination endorsed in advance by convention of 1000 citizens of the district or petition of 1% of citizens of district. Funds to be a general public expense of the government of the District. Individuals may singly spend whatever they please independently and as individuals. NO CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS. Organizations (corporate, business, non-profit, institutional, labor, ethnic, political, etc etc) may make no political expenditures.

    1. Patents copyrights: not more than 70 years total, period.
    2. Individual and class actions for damages and for divestiture for resolution of anti-competitive practices, as to firms unions professional certification bodies etc.
    3. Absent a Declaration of War or a similarly adopted Declaration of Emergency, public budgets shall be in accordance with GAP accounting, unitary as to jurisdiction, and balanced over every period of 16 years. Public bodies except the national Government (and then only under a then –current Declaration) may not create unfunded liabilities of any kind whatsoever. No Declaration shall operate for more than seven years unless renewed.

  • Andrea

    The left did get a big boost in Obama’s early tenure, but then its actions spooked Americans, who are, for the most part, genetically programmed to distrust big government.

    The left cannot focus on improving government because it has to always defend against the republicans, who are trying to shrink it. So the left spends all its time fighting to grow it.

  • redmanrt

    “The left gets converted (or perhaps perverted) into a lobby for the producers of government-paid services.”

    The best word is “corrupted.” Power is the ultimate drug.

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