Uniting the Liberal Left

Part of being a left-wing liberal is having to deal with disparate movements, each of which not only has its own agenda but also is sure that its agenda is the only thing that matters – NOW, NARAL, the NAACP, the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and so on; political organizations have acronym soups that would do computer geeks proud. Even when they claim to support one another’s goals, they tend to do little more than pay lip service to them.

That said, the internal disarray liberal movements are in now is nothing compared to what happened in the 1970s, when egalitarian fervor caused schism after schism. While individualism is worse than egalitarianism at promoting cooperation, it is better at maintaining it, as long as everyone acts in good faith; and in social movements, acting in good faith is relatively easy. Liberal movements can cooperate and form a united front – but ironically, to do that the rank and file people need to understand that it’s okay to disagree about things.

The most common calls for unity are rightly individualistic, but they are based on issue triages or on scrapping traditional activism in favor of something newer, such as netroot activism. While I have no doubt that people who do just that, like Kos and Jerome Armstrong, can be effective, I have plenty that they’ll be pursuing the right goals because of that. Instead of bringing liberals together and demanding that the Democratic Party listen to their concerns, they bring Democrats together and causing liberals to jump on a bandwagon that is unnecessarily too right-wing.

That said, Kos had it right when he said in the Yearly Kos convention that it was okay that we argued, okay that we liberals disagreed about things often vehemently but still had the same overall agenda. It may be counterintuitive, but the more you require solidarity and consensus, the more you will see schisms. Democratic countries are more stable than authoritarian ones, even though authoritarian ones have enforcement mechanisms that neither democracies nor high-solidarity social movements do.

It’s in each liberal group’s interest to cooperate closely with the others. No overall solidarity is needed, beyond the basic understanding that excessive atomism is hurtful. No special replacement, such as Internet-based activism or even a strong party that triages issues, is necessary; traditional groups can do it on their own, and avoid being subjected to a platform committee that excludes their oppressions.

When there isn’t the expectation of solidarity, things work better. If I am invested in a feminist organization and, more importantly, identify strongly with my feminist allies and adopt the agenda we set by consensus, then I am going to be hurt when they strongly disagree with me on an issue, however minor. Indeed, if there is a schism, then to show my commitment to my side, I will support leaders who are especially radical on the schism-causing issue, and concentrate on attacking former allies, even when they are powerless compared to the common enemy.

A broader movement will be more successful if people feel that they don’t have to hound their allies whenever they disagree, however strongly. Disagreement is fine, and attacking for example religious fundamentalism in the black civil rights movement or racism in the feminist movement has its place. But unless the feminist movement is a primary hurdle to racial equality, or black Christians are a primary hurdle to religious equality, there’s no need for disproportionate attacks (I hope I don’t come off as sanctimonious when I say black feminists are more prone to this than secularists, largely, I think, because atheist movements are incredibly individualistic for reasons I don’t want to go into now).

It’s common for resistance movements, which obviously require plenty of solidarity, to turn on one another instead of fighting the oppressor: the pro- and anti-Soviet partisans of German-occupied Eastern Europe in World War Two come to mind, as do the various anti-American insurgents of Iraq. Less violently, in the 1970s many feminists disproportionately concentrated on sexism in the civil rights movement instead of in general society, while many antiracists focused their criticism on racism in the feminist movement.

My dream of a left that does not do that is not detached from reality. As difficult as scrapping a deeply ingrained mode of action is, it can be done given proper stimuli – for instance, a conservative hegemony that visibly alienates various groups of people who have different motives and fails to split its enemies with good wedge issues. While different groups have different interests, they can agree to work together simply to become more powerful.

In that case, saying that abortion is not a core value, or that unions should be thrown out of the progressive movement, will be entirely unnecessary. Any alliance of the major liberal interest groups will not only naturally not ignore any group’s problems, but also have the political capability to do that and still succeed.

Neither excessive solidarity, which promotes schisms, nor excessive atomism, which precludes cooperation, is necessary for a progressive organization to succeed. There is no need to concentrate on disparaging atheists, or feminists, or unionists, or whichever group the writer dislikes. The model of enlightened selfishness, or, if you will, the view of liberalism as an alliance, can work better. If Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin could do it, then so can the various fragments that constitute American liberalism.


13 Responses to Uniting the Liberal Left

  1. SLC says:

    What I think you are trying to say in this somewhat incoherent statement is that liberals should eschew litmus tests. Easier said then done.

  2. Kian says:

    Or what he’s saying is that liberals need to suck up their nitpicking issues that make them seem weaker and stand together on the issues that matter. …Also, easier said than done, especially for a group that hasn’t stood together in so long.

  3. It is not too unfair to say that liberals favor big government on the backs of corporations, and conservatives favor big government on the backs of individuals. Keeping a sharp eye out for negative applications of these ideas (where common sense must be correctively applied) then it isn’t too hard to extract core principles. Abortion, for example, is not a core principle; it is an application, whichever way one falls.

    This is why libertarians are so tangential to the whole liberal/conservative polarity. They’re for smaller government, damn the consequences. Against them both liberals and conservatives agree upon the value of government, even if their rhetoric says otherwise.

    Of course in any matrix it is possible to occupy points between extremes; this is where we need to cut one another some slack if huge issues arise.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Not having litmus tests is one thing that might help to some extent. But it’s still a strategy that requires more compromise than is needed, because then liberalism becomes a very small set of issues – for example, Kos’s health care, education, domestic spying, and Iraq.

    Rather, I’m asking for something else, namely that leftists not concentrate on attacking other leftists just because they were once allies. For example, it’s legitimate for a sex-positive feminists to attack sex-negative feminism; however, the sex-pos feminists should keep in mind that the main threat to sexual liberation comes from conservatism rather than sex-neg feminism.

    I could just say “Stop acting like the People’s Front of Judea,” but I don’t want to give the impression that I think the liberal left should speak in one voice, because the one-voice idea is what led to many of the schisms in the first place.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Decrepitoldfool, no modern political philosophy is really reducible to simple principles. There are overarching values – tradition for conservatives, equal rights for liberals, general equality for the socialists, free markets for libertarians, and so on – but even these are filled with caveats and specifics you can’t predict from general principles.

    When Kos said abortion is not a core Democratic value, he meant specifically that liberals should support everyone who had left-of-center positions on the four issues I mentioned in comment #4, and ignore other issues, such as abortion and gay rights. It was more a statement of political strategy than one of political philosophy.

    Now, you’re of course right when you say liberals and conservatives both have little problem using government for specific purposes. That’s because the main principles they espouse don’t include small government. In similar vein, for centuries, conservatism’s main shtick was complaining that all other ideologies tried to change society instead of sticking to tradition; liberalism’s has always been attacking ideologies that sacrifice human rights on the altar of traditionalism or religion or the free market.

  6. SLC says:

    The late publisher of the Knight newspaper chain, Jack Knight said it best back in 1970. When it comes to spending, there is no difference between liberals and conservatives. Both are spenders. The only difference between them is what projects they choose to spend on.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, there are differences. In the US, generally a Democratic President will spend a few percentage points of GDP less than a Republican one; comparing a real liberal to a real conservative is likely to reveal even greater discrepancies. In Europe, where military spending and corporate welfare are lower, the left spends far more than the right overall; right-wing uses of government are more regulatory – sodomy laws, more stringent immigration controls, religion in public schools – than fiscal.

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