Towards a Viable American Left

By Timothy Y. Fong

The United States need a viable left wing movement. Historically, the American left has pushed for justice, equality before the law and economic opportunity for all. A viable American left must be inclusive and have the following characteristics: patriotism, embrace of the suburbs/exurbs, economic sustainability, and an acknowledgment of limits and respect for individual conscience. For the purposes of this essay I will equate the left with socialism and use the definition advanced by Ehrenreich and Fletcher: “the human capacity to solve our common problems collectively in an egalitarian, participatory and democratic fashion.”

It seems that many people are now looking for alternatives to neo-liberalism. Some have argued for a return to Roosevelt-era policies with respect to organized labor and the economy. However, times have changed, and the United States is no longer the manufacturing powerhouse it once was. The majority of Americans no longer work in manufacturing. Moreover, the right has become very adept at crushing organized labor. Clearly, the mainstream of organized labor has a role to play, but it alone does not represent the progressive left in the United States. The purpose of this essay is to lay out the conditions necessary for a viable American left that includes people from all walks of life.

First, a viable left must be clearly and strongly patriotic. This is distinct from nationalism, i.e. “my country right or wrong.” Rather, patriotism implies a love of place and country. Patriotism may sometimes require us to strongly criticize our nation. Patriotic criticism is motivated by a desire to improve the American situation. An important and deep failing of the academic left in the United States has been the ease with which conservatives were able to paint it as “anti-American.”

This is primarily because many on the left have made their appeals primarily on the basis of universal values and internationalism. While those are laudable ideas, it is also a rhetoric that has limited appeal. This is because it asks people who live a daily life centered on place and locality to imagine themselves as participants in a wider, abstract struggle. While a wider, international effort is something that makes practical sense to a person with extensive overseas travel experience, this is a fundamentally privileged condition.
Only about 25 percent of US citizens hold a passport. (See 2007 population data here and number of Americans with passports here.) A majority of Americans have never travelled overseas. Thus, any movement which makes appeals primarily on the basis of universalist/internationalist rhetoric is likely to have an audience significantly smaller than the majority of the US population.
Telling Americans that they are bad people who should be ashamed to live in the United States isn't going to win the left any friends, at least within the US. There is a segment of the left that looks to Europe as the model, and is disdainful of what it views as an unsophisticated mainstream American culture. This is extremely foolish, because it alienates the left from the vast majority of Americans who have never been to Europe, and are rightfully proud of their identity as Americans. A viable American left will articulate its demands on behalf of the American people, and will challenge people to make good on the stated ideology of the United States. 

Some commentators have argued that that the United States is fundamentally a conservative nation. (For a mainstream overview, see There is conservatism as a temperament, and then there is conservatism as a political program. Conservatism as a temperament is something that can be found across the political spectrum — indeed, it is the simple attitude that one should be slow to change an established system or way of life.
This is distinct from the traditional blood-and-soil, rule-by-hereditary-aristocracy conservatism found in other countries. In fact, since the United States at its inception was founded as a republic, we expressly rejected rule by a hereditary aristocracy. In practice, at the foundation of the republic, there were wealthy merchant and political families, many of whom, like the Adams family, rose to positions of prominence.
However, unlike the United Kingdom, this prominent position was not enshrined in law, i.e. the House of Lords. Thus, the conservative movement has always had to appeal to the Constitution as a source of legitimacy, and not to a non-existent nobility. The significant flaw of the original US Constitution is that it allowed for the continued enslavement of African-Americans and did not recognize the political rights of women. The conservative movement in the United States fought to prevent recognition of equal rights for both groups especially African-Americans and non-whites. It also fought hard to effectively preserve the prerogatives of the very wealthy.
In the past, the right favored slavery and the power of Standard Oil and the railroads. In the modern era, the mainstream conservative movement has decisively demonstrated its commitment to racism and oligarchy. This is evident with the antics of some of Sarah Palin's supporters and a continued enthusiasm for eliminating any semblance of financial regulation.
In actuality, if one takes the words of the Declaration of Independence to apply to people of all genders and ethnicities, then it becomes clear that it is a left wing document. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As outlined above, it is the left that strongly pursued the implementation of the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence, specifically the pursuit of social equality. The Constitution is also a leftist document. In the Preamble, the drafters wrote that the people of the United States established the Constitution to, among other things to
“…promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…”
What could be more collective than promoting the general welfare under a democratic framework? The general welfare is that which improves our lives and solves our common problems. The framework of the Constitution allows for widespread democratic participation in the political system.
Ultimately the United States is a leftist nation because the founding documents embrace democratic and egalitarian participation to collectively solve common problems. The only things that stopped the United States from fully implementing its leftist ideals were sexism and racism. Now that we have embraced gender and racial equality (at least normatively) then we can truly embrace the leftist nature of America's ideology.
Second, a viable left will have to appeal to the majority of people in the United States. Only a minority of Americans live in central cities. The majority of Americans live in either suburbs or in rural/exurban areas, which is also where the majority of population growth has taken place. (see: The Next Frontier: A Study of Exurbia, by Ruy Teixeira)
Thus, a viable left must include suburban dwellers. The right has aggressively organized suburbs through churches. There is an argument that the left has successfully organized suburbia already through the Obama campaign. However, there is a difference between an election campaign and an ongoing political program. An election campaign focuses around a particular political leader. An ongoing political program addresses long term goals like education, shifting the political discourse and providing political goods to the members.
Some people will claim that suburban dwellers are too atomized and individualistic to be interested in leftist politics beyond so-called lifestyle leftism. The argument is that people living in suburbs are mostly interested in themselves and their immediate family. At best suburbanites can be asked to support lifestyle leftism– things like recycling, hybrid cars and buying items marketed as sustainable, in stores such as Trader Joes and Whole Foods.
Lifestyle liberalism has become popular because it appeals to people's desire to feel that the items they buy express their ideals. Filmmaker Adam Curtis explored the rise of lifestyle liberalism in his documentary series “Century of the Self.” Curtis argues that marketing gurus co-opted the countercultural movements of the 1960s and used them to sell consumer products. One reading of Curtis' film is that people satisfy their desire for leftist political self-actualization through consumer purchases rather than organized political action.
The success of lifestyle liberalism as a marketing tool to suburban dwellers shows that there is a desire in people to express their ideals. While the channel of expression might not be effective, the basic desire exists.
A viable American leftist movement will provide a vehicle for such political self-expression in suburbia. Although the internet can and does mediate many communities, there must also be leftist organizations in suburbia that bring people together in person. This is because some issues are inherently place based, among them, clean air and water, housing, crime, transit and education. Place based issues require place based organizing.
Furthermore, the basic need to have in-person social contact remains as strong now as it ever has been. A common complaint is that the geography of suburbia leaves people feeling isolated to a small circle. A viable leftist movement should fill this vacuum of isolation and replace it with engaged community.

Third, a viable American leftist movement will require economic sustainability to support an engaged community. For the purposes of this article, economic sustainability is an economic arrangement that is not subject to easy distortion by shifts in government, large employers or the charitable foundation world.
The need for sustainable economic arrangements crosses all geographic areas.
There are leftist organizations, often in the form of non-profits (including churches). Many of them provide direct social services to those at the margins of society, such as the homeless or new immigrants. These organizations often do excellent ameliorative work, and are constantly scrambling for funding. Funding often comes in the form of grants from charitable foundations, as well as from government. 

All of the above funding sources are valuable resources that far too often fall short of meeting funding requirements. Furthermore, dependence on government and foundational money also brings leftist non-profits up against the golden rule — those with the gold make the rules.

In previous generations, the leftist organizations with the most gold tended to be organized labor. Organized labor reached its zenith in the 1940s after decades of hard-fought legislative and street battles. Nonetheless, organized labor in the manufacturing industry essentially depended on the existence of manufacturing jobs in the United States.
An entire professional specialty arose known as “labor-management relations” that put rank and file workers on one side, and the managers of the enterprise on the other. Since management ultimately controlled the direction of the enterprise, it was often able to move manufacturing offshore and thus lower the union membership numbers dramatically.
Service sector unions have tried to make up the difference, using the logic that service jobs cannot be off-shored. Unfortunately, the hostile legal environment has made that a difficult task. Thus, it is important to think about ways of organizing citizens that avoid the problems suffered by the union movement in the second half of the twentieth century.
Service jobs are not enough– the United States must get back to an economy where people make things. The strong middle class that characterized the US in the mid-Twentieth century was built on a solid manufacturing base, and not on financial chicanery and speculation.
There is a strong argument that the US emphasis on financial speculation has driven the boom and bust cycles that characterize our current business climate. A nationally sustainable economic base requires smoothing out boom and bust cycles. A viable leftist movement then, must build an economic base that cannot be off-shored, which means that that the the economic base must be aligned with values such as democracy, egalitarianism and widespread participation. Widespread participation in a leftist economic base is important because a healthy American left must include people from all walks of life.
In recent years the American left has expanded through online organizing, which is a welcome and positive phenomenon. Many of the key players are naturally web developers, programmers, architects, graphic designers and other members of what Richard Florida has referred to as the “creative class.” This is because of familiarity with online tools, as well as substantial leisure time.
The leisure time comes from the flexible working conditions and good pay enjoyed by this group. Participation by the creative class is good, but not enough. A viable American left must include janitors, shop clerks, and restaurant workers too. For that to happen, the American left must build workplaces that support political activism by their members, which will require reasonable pay, benefits and hours. If organized labor has proven inadequate, we must consider other models of workplace organization (such as co-operatives, employee ownership and workplace democracy) that we can use to achieve this goal. That discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.

Fourth, to minimize the damage of future crises, it is imperative that a viable American left recognize the limits to knowledge. There are historical reasons for making recognition of limits to knowledge part of the leftist platform. In the past, the Marxist left embraced the idea that it held a definitive scientific knowledge of history. The certainty of the Marxist movement abroad led to innumerable abuses in the name of “historical forces” and “inevitable” revolution.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, and widespread revelations about the brutality of the Communist system in Eastern Europe discredited Marxism, and with it, the rest of the left. At the same time, many trumpeted the victory of the neo-liberal economic model.
Throughout the 1990s, deregulation and financialization were supposed to usher in a new era of prosperity, where complex mathematical models would minimize risk and create a prosperity for all. This failed. One of the origins of this failure, according to thinkers such as Nassim Taleb, was that certain types of financial risk were simply unquantifiable and fundamentally unknowable.
Failure to appreciate the limits of risk analysis led to a vulnerable financial system and the current crisis.

Thus, a viable American left should learn from the failures both of Marxism and neo-liberalism. In place of arrogant certainty, we should instead understand that there will be limits to our ability to predict the future and change human nature. This is not an excuse for acceptance of the status quo. Far from it– it is an understanding that no matter how much we understand, or how much we improve the lot of humanity, there will always be room for improvement.

Fifth, the viable left must have respect for individual conscience. Respecting individual conscience is a function of understanding that our knowledge has limits; in other words, we will make mistakes. Since it is always possible that any decision will be flawed, we must respect individual conscience even when it speaks out against the prevailing majority.
One of the places that the Marx-Leninist left went wrong during the 20th Century was in the unwavering demand for party discipline. This demand originated in the view that the Marxist world view had all the answers, and thus once the answers were found through the dialectic, then the right thing to do was to fall in line and obey. Naturally this led to totalitarianism and much suffering by those who had differing views. There are clear historical examples of this in Eastern Europe and Asia.
In the United States, ironically, the clearest example of “party discipline” has been on the right. The neo-con right during the most recent Bush administration relentlessly pushed an ill-conceived and fantastically wasteful “War on Terror.” Even those on the right with misgivings were pilloried as disloyal Americans. A viable left must recognize that respecting the individual's right to dissent is important because we understand that the majority may sometimes make mistakes. 
American society is questioning the previously dominant neo-liberal consensus, because it has so dramatically failed during the economic crisis. No less a figure than Alan Greenspan has admitted that he made a mistake in his assumptions.
Just as importantly, there is also crisis in the political elite because of the widespread revelation that the Vice President's office conspired to violate federal laws forbidding torture. The mainstream media too has suffered a shock to its credibility, since the major networks, magazines and newspapers all failed to do their job to investigate the run-up to the Iraq War, as well as the financial shenanigans on Wall Street.
The mainstream media failed so badly that a comedy show hosted by John Stewart played a pivotal role in exposing financial journalists from CNBC as highly culpable in the financial meltdown. The neo-liberal status quo has failed. The left must present an appealing alternative political program if it wants to become a viable mass movement.

Timothy Y. Fong is a plaintiffs' attorney based in Northern California. He graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Law. Timothy spent his undergraduate career at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied the politics of North East Asia.