The shock and dismay that America’s thinking people might feel in the wake of the electorate’s rightward swing must not be allowed to divert us from the reasons behind the left’s own failure to make democracy a reality here in America. In fact, the over-simplified left-right duality is, itself, a remnant of an earlier, simpler form of governance.
As I see it, it is in the “right’s” best interests to perpetrate this artificially simplistic construction. The Republicans have become the party of intentional ignorance and denial. The justification for sleep. Stay stupid, and you won’t have to think about the fact that our Vice President profited off oil deals with Iraq during the last embargo. Or that, under Bush and co., the rich are meant to get richer while the poor get poorer, environmental protections are unilaterally undone, America’s relationships with nearly every country in the world are made more antagonistic, and the voting rights of minorities and the oppressed are systematically subverted.
The Republicans’ advantage is that, in a world where many things are going wrong, it is less painful in the short-term to blame others and go back to sleep. Those who respond postively to the right’s false optimism simply don’t want to look at what is going on. It is hard to blame them; but we must.
The Democrats, well, they lost because they are busy competing for the center, when it’s a loyal opposition that must be articulated. The whole notion of “moderate,” as defined by the right, is a ruse. Today, moderate means right-wing. A moderate is supposed to believe that the unchecked market will cure all ills. A moderate believes that not all, but merely “some” of a woman’s right to choose should be denied her. A moderate doesn’t like the death penalty, but votes for it. A moderate is still driven completely by campaign donations – but doesn’t vote in favor of cigarette companies; he votes in favor of gun lobbies, instead. So when the “left” attempts to appear more “centrist” instead of “liberal,” they are, in actuality, competing to be on the right. Thus, they lose.
The genuinely progressive candidates and voters have a very different problem. If we (and I’m not counting you in “we” unless you want to be – in which case, welcome!) want to foster serious change, turn America into a force that promotes democracy worldwide, and energize our capacity to assist rather than stifle the struggle for basic human rights, we will need to look critically at our actions and policies. In short, we will need to wake up to some painful truths.
This isn’t currently understood as a fun thing to do. (I would argue that it actually is more fun to do than to deny – but that’s a different post.)
Meanwhile, the proponents of critique will have a harder time in an oversimplified voting space. We are not just critical of our chief adversaries (the advocates of ignorance) but critical of one another. Look at the difference, sometime, between a progressive leaning online discussion and a rightward leaning one. Critical to the end, true progressives parse one another’s arguments in a quest for the very best articulation and implementation of genuine progressive ideals. We eat our own. Compare this with the self-congratulatory tone of conservative list, where participants compete for bedtime slogans.
If we are going to continue attacking one another – and I’m not saying we should necessarily stop – then we need to accept the fact that we are attempting to convey a much more complex and multi-faceted understanding of governance than a simple left-right split will allow. We cannot surrender to this polarity without surrendering the entire progressive agenda.
So, my advice to progressive candidates is to quit buying the premise that Americans are stupid, and get out of the business of putting people to sleep. That’s the “other side’s” job. If democracy stands a chance of emerging this century, it will be because a few brave democrats will prove willing to engage the public in a genuine conversation. Hiding from the truth has already been well taken care of.