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When in Doubt, Go Left

Dennis Fox

December 3, 2002

I first heard the phrase more than thirty years ago. My friends and I were lost one night in Asbury Park, New Jersey. One of the comrades offered advice as we approached an intersection : When in doubt, go left. And so we did, eventually making it back to our convention, schedule and political identification intact.

Today the phrase resonates. Most of us have never lived through Republican control over every branch of government, a gloomy prospect even for those of us who sometimes see little difference between Republicans and Democrats. Going left still makes sense. But how far must we go, and how do we get there from here, and how do we persuade those who think "the left" sounds hopelessly quaint?

Democratic factions now battle over whether to boost the party's appeal to suburban voters, return to its supposed roots, or somehow do both at the same time. Some see San Francisco Representative Nancy Pelosi's replacing House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt as evidence liberals are gaining strength. Yet Pelosi is already nearing the GOP position on war with Iraq and other issues, tacitly accepting her party's fight-for-the-middle pragmatism. There's little evidence the still-dominant Democratic Leadership Council will meet her halfway.

A similar debate preoccupies the Green Party. Slow but steady growth encourages its members but confuses those who find some liberal Democrats worth supporting. Once they're explained, Green policies appeal to large segments of the population, but those segments less often vote. And when they do, they confront the spoiler charge.

Significant reforms might help Greens and others to the left of liberal attract voters fearful of the greater of two evils. Instant runoff voting would also help liberal Democrats, who presumably would gain progressive votes in the automatic second-round count. Proportional representation would give third parties a formal role; if the Greens get ten percent of the vote, they'd get ten percent of legislative seats. So reform is a likely progressive priority.

But the odds aren't good. Today's legislators, successful under the current rules, have little incentive to change them. And never-absent corporate influence and our constitution's rock-no-boats provisions make significant reform unlikely. Still, some Greens will support progressive Democrats committed to the effort; that might lead to useful alliances.

More broadly, though, progressives must break the fight-for-the-middle morass by moving in two directions at once -- but unlike the chameleonic Democrats, we have to retain our leftward gaze, emphasizing rather than hiding our distance from conservative prescriptions. We should also acknowledge that the left isn't always right. Indeed, our heterogeneity often makes describing "the left" inexact at best. Too many Americans accept tired media stereotypes of left-over hippies, politically correct limousine liberals, and lazy union members. It doesn't help that sometimes our actions make criticism credible, or that we too often react to conservative pressure by protecting only our own turf and define others as competitors for scarce resources.

But along with some needed self-reflection, our primary task is to galvanize and organize the most obvious constituencies: environmentalists, poor and working poor, people of color, gays and lesbians, anti-war folks, civil libertarians, and the rest of those "special interests" that make up the country's majority. We need more multi-issue coalitions, like the Massachusetts merger of the Green Party and Rainbow Party.

Second, as improbable as it might sound, we must bypass the Democratic Party by giving those suburbanites we too easily dismiss a reason to go left. That doesn't mean emulating Democrats posing as Republicans. It does mean making our analysis clear and reasonable so that the vast majority of Americans understand that the left aims for equality and justice even when we stumble over the method.

Middle-class suburbanites may seem too wedded to American-Dream fantasies and too conventionally successful to find left analysis relevant. But many of them understand how healthy communities and healthy lives are complicated by the right's ideological appeal to pure self-interest, based as it is on a distorted view of human nature and human organization. They, too, will be appalled once the Republicans control Congress if George W. Bush's new federal judges reverse half a century of constitutional law.

Things are grim, but let's not give up. Divided as the Republicans are between corporate shills, nationalist hawks, religious fundamentalists, libertarian entrepreneurs, and yes, those suburbanites, internal contradictions may prevent the rout we fear. Maybe weakened Democrats will work with moderate Republicans to stall GOP ascendancy. Maybe the left alliance will finally arise.

In any case, let's aim for the society we really want, far different from the tepid goals of most Democrats. If we're right, our vision should appeal to the vast majority. If it doesn't, let's find that out too, and determine together how to go left more effectively.

Column I wrote after the 1984 election...

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