Why is the American Left So Ineffective in Economics?
Anyone who’s still in a state of denial about the thesis implied by the title of this article can stop reading right here. I’ll just assume it’s obvious enough that we can take it as a given. My intention here is neither to bemoan nor to gloat; my job doesn’t allow for partisanship and I regularly work with people on both sides who support serious economic reform, starting with trade issues. Our democracy has two parties for a reason, and if one side has become impotent on an issue as important as economics, we’re in trouble, because neither party, on its own, seems to be capable of producing sound economic policy.
I think there are basically four reasons why the American left has, since the late 1970s, lost almost all of its traction on economic issues, despite successfully imposing on the country for the previous 40 years a basically New Deal economic ideology.
The first reason is the gentrification of the left. If you compare who runs the Democratic party on a day-to-day basis with who ran it in 1932, or even 1962, there’s been nearly a clean sweep of old-school ethnics and working-class people and their replacement with yuppies. Even if the bosses who ran the Democratic party in 1932 were of middle-class or above incomes as a personal matter, their social origins usually were not. This fact usually gets ignored, not least because almost everyone with the wherewithal to comment on it (including yours truly) is themselves a yuppie.
This matters, big-time. One doesn’t have to be working class to care about the economic fortunes of working-class people (FDR certainly wasn’t), but there’s also an instinctive human tendency to care about people like oneself. This tendency operates even in people who don’t realize it’s there.
There’s also today an instinctive squeamishness about even talking about class issues, which people hush up like they used to hush up sex. For a start, most people seem to be in denial about the fact that the demographic center of this country isn’t “middle class” according to the understanding of what term that the political class (and TV sitcoms) have. It’s on the border between lowermiddle class and upper working class.
A major part of the problem here is that 100 percent of the political power in the United States is monopolized by the top 10 percent of the population. I know this sounds odd, but the hard fact is that one can’t exert political power without organization, and all major organizations are run by people in the top 10 percent. So the top 10 percent exercise a veto power over political action by everyone else. At an absolute minimum, anything any group does will be filtered through the media, and all media types are 10 percenters.
So if yuppies don’t like something, it won’t happen. It’s no accident that the American left has tilted since the 1960s away from the boring working-class economic concerns that animated it in the 1930s towards things like environmentalism, feminism, and gay rights—which are all things yuppies genuinely care about on a personal basis. Factory workers and Wal-Mart clerks are not.
This points to the second problem with the contemporary American left: it has exchanged equality as its primary goal for diversity. Now one can argue this either way, and I don’t do culture-war issues, but the hard fact is that one can’t prefer diversity to equality and expect equality to be the outcome. They are simply not the same thing. One can claim to be in favor of both, but strategic choices have to be made, and either one or the other must come out on top.
The real problem with diversity, from a leftist point of view, is not that it’s a bad thing per se. The real problem is that diversity intrinsically tends to reduce human solidarity. Solidarity is the emotion people feel towards others that makes them care about the fate of people who would otherwise be strangers. It is thus an essential basis of any political tendency that would impose policies designed to reduce economic inequality. (It’s no accident this is a word unions talk about all the time.)
Without solidarity, people don’t hate each other. They just don’t care. Not really, whatever they may say. Solidarity comes from having something in common with other people, and the less people have in common with each other, the more American society devolves to a model of pure individual self-interest. Which may be a leftist model in cultural or social questions, but it’s a rightist model in economics.
I live in San Francisco, where there are an extraordinary number of people about who consider themselves liberal on economic issues. And so they are, when they write checks to liberal causes or participate in local political clubs and other organizations. But the other 29 days of the month or 5 days of the week, they go back to work downtown for the same corporate economy they claim to oppose on their days off. And they work hard to become rich, i.e. to acquire a nice juicy piece of inequality for themselves.
One can’t blame a person for having a day job or for working for a living, but one also can’t help wondering why they expect a certain economic outcome when they spend five days pushing one direction and only one pushing the other.
The big problem here isn’t that this contradicts these individuals’ nominal leftism. The big problem is that it doesn’t. Contemporary leftism is easy to decorate into a high-income lifestyle, with all the approved cultural gestures. The fake-decrepit home in a funky neighborhood (Noe Valley here in San Francisco, Venice in LA, Greenwich Village in NY), the expensive vacations to ecologically impressive and multiculturally exotic destinations, a dash of New Age religion and you’re good to go. When leftism has been elevated to a lifestyle, the actual underlying politics becomes almost unnecessary. (People are, of course, cultural animals, so they respond emotionally far more strongly to cultural theater than they do to hard politics, which is boring.)
None of this is to imply that the American right is somehow culturally authentic. They’re engaged in their own posturing with that famous venture capitalist Jesus of Nazareth.
This brings us to the third big problem with the American left. Since the Democrats decided in 1981, under Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tony Coelho, that they could seek (and get) corporate money on the same scale as the Republicans, there has been a yawning gap between the interests of those who finance the party and its nominal ideological commitments. This gap doesn’t exist for the Republicans, who genuinely believe in the pro-corporate policies they impose, and this is a big part of why that party is more effective. It isn’t condemned to talk out of both sides of its mouth at once.
The fourth reason for the economic ineffectiveness of the left is the simplest: most leftists find economics boring. They tell me this all the time when I try to talk to them about things like the trade deficit. There are very few leftist organizations (the Union for Radical Political Economics and Economic Policy Institute are about the only big exceptions) that really do economics in any technically substantial sense. As a result, there’s very little serious intellectual energy invested in the subject.
Worse, most leftists who delve into economics and dissent from the existing consensus (which is sound neither from a liberal nor a conservative point of view, but that’s another story) go overboard and drift into fantasy. There’s a very narrow sweet spot of disciplined radicalism that neither sells out nor indulges solutions that are non-starters. Staying in this sweet spot takes a lot of self-discipline, and since the 1960s, this has not exactly been a leftist virtue.