At the end of a recent post I stated that the “‘The Left’ in America is gone and until it comes back little will change”. The question then becomes, how do we bring back “The Left”? One answer is that to become relevant again politically, first we have to become relevant in people’s every day lives. Much of that has to do with meeting people where they are and not talking policy so much, but instead listening to the needs of the people.
It’s about engaging people who feel left out, powerless, and unrepresented. A recent article by Richard Sennett does a good job pointing this out, A Creditable Left.
The unpalatable fact is that we, the ardent left, count for less and less in the public’s thinking about how to live together. And if that has long been true in the United States, where the left has occupied only a small corner of public discourse, the decay of the left now marks the old Western European homelands, as in Sweden or Britain. The word “progressive” seems no more arousing than “social democracy.” Though progressive think tanks abound in America and Europe, and churn out worthy proposals for social justice, policy-wonkery seems to induce an eyes-glazed-over indifference among the larger public.
As an old lefty, I worry about all this; I’d be sorry if the future consisted just of different shades of capitalism. In the midst of doctors’ appointments and funerals, I’ve wondered how the left could recover its standing in the eyes of the larger society even if the prospects for the left in power are dim. This is a problem, I’ve come to think, more social than ideological in character.
You become creditable when others take you seriously even though they may not agree with you. To be taken seriously, you need to know when to keep silent and how to listen well; you are then extending respect and recognition to others. The philosopher Anne Phillips rightly insists on the importance of “presence” in politics, by which she means being someone an individual or group feels can conduct a discussion on equal terms. Presence is something an outsider has to earn by his or her behavior. Scoring points won’t alone admit you into other people’s lives; winning an argument over them will not include you in their thinking about how to live. Creditability, that is, lies more in the realm of receptiveness than assertiveness.
If this is correct, a certain kind of politics follows. It should concentrate more on civil society than electoral politics—particularly electoral politics at the national level. The community organizer or grassroots activist needs to be honored in his or her own right rather than as a worker bee in the national political hive; he or she is likely to have developed the skills of good listening and discussion that breed respect. In America, Denmark, Finland and Britain the right has colonized effective grassroots politics, building viable and sustained communities even if its goals fail nationally. The right has pulled off a neat trick: though huge mountains of cash stand behind many of its efforts, on the ground right-wing organizers have behaved creditably as speaking in the name of ordinary people. I hope the left will take back this communal territory; but doing so requires a changed mindset on our part.
Political contests revolve around the proposition that if you have a problem, we have a solution. Proposing a solution for another person’s problems—particularly if these have become knotty issues, like long-term unemployment—may not in itself earn presence and respect. Our solution may seem correct in the abstract, but it is just that—far away from the family traumas and demoralization, for instance, that afflict the long-term unemployed. A creditable language of mutual engagement must, I think, transcend the discourse of problem-solving; it has to be more responsive to experiences of ambiguity, difficulty and defeat. [Emphasis added]
Sennett then goes on to explain one of the greatest victories of the right has been to corrupt the public’s view of government. That corruption has made rational solutions, a government helping its people in dire circumstances, irrelevant.
The YouGov research (available at policy-network.net ) paints a pessimistic picture of the public’s faith in government to solve social problems. This faith is weak in all four countries, and the public especially doubts that simply throwing more taxpayer money around can do much. Progressives are, of course, more tax-friendly in principle, but they are nearly as doubtful that bigger government will in itself accomplish much in practice. This finding is hardly news, but the study came up with a surprising fact: a big slice of centrist voters say they are willing to pay higher taxes if the policies are credible—even 17 percent of American Republicans would do so. The creditability issue turns on the behavior of officials rather than the content of policy.
In all four countries, the general public has “a very low estimation of government’s ability to stand up to vested interests.” The numbers here are striking: only 15 percent in the United States think politicians will stand up to powerful outside influence, as do 16 percent in Britain, 21 percent in Germany and 27 percent in the once gold-standard state of Sweden. Nor is the public complacent about those outside interests; all of these countries have massive worries that corporations “care only about profits” (85 percent in Britain think so, as do 83 percent in Germany, 69 percent in the United States and 60 percent in Sweden). President Obama’s behavior in domestic affairs could serve as an emblem for this combination—his progressive rhetoric coupled with a disposition to appease powerful interests.
Lack of trust in the public sphere has been sharpened by arbitrary inequality in everyday life. The YouGov researchers found that a majority agree that “who you know is usually more important for getting on in life than hard work and playing by the rules” (even 46 percent of the US public subscribe to this view, despite our country’s historic optimism about getting ahead). People apply the fear of arbitrary inequality to themselves and their children when they discuss the value of a university education; most think it has little long-term value (save the Swedes, who have a robust labor market). The larger frame of this fear is the contraction of middle-class fortunes throughout the West—the famously “shrinking” middle class. One consequence of that shrinkage is the desire to avoid risk, which calls for structural reform only seem to aggravate. Among left-leaning survey respondents, YouGov found that only 4 percent of the British, 10 percent of the Americans, 7 percent of the Swedish and 11 percent of the Germans say they would risk job security for the sake of “a greater voice in my employer’s decision-making.”
A corrupted state, an economic system indifferent to social goods, a society in which equal opportunity and educational achievement count for little, a pervasive worry about job loss: four beliefs that combine to produce feelings of dread—the most paralyzing and isolating of emotions. In Oslo, however, the political and academic luminaries had other things on their minds; they spoke of the social market economy, social democracy beyond the nation-state, green jobs and economic growth. Nothing was on the agenda about community organizing; nor were grassroots organizations invited. Indeed, no “unimportant” people spoke at the event. [Emphasis added]
What all of that says is what most of us already know. Our political system is corrupt. Most people still believe government can help them, they just don’t trust those that are elected to use government to help them, because the politicians are bought by special interests. And when a government supposedly of, for, and by the people can’t be trusted to help the people, especially when they need it the most, then something is really wrong.
What much of this boils down to, especially in the US, is that there is a large segment of the population – at all levels, local, state, and federal – that are disaffected, disinsterested, and don’t turn out to vote. The don’t vote because they no longer believe those that get elected cant be trusted. And who can blame them?!
He ends with his ideas for how to remedy the situation.
What I’ve been mulling over is a change in temperament on the left. Throughout the twentieth century the political left held sway over the social left, the political side seeming more potent in its solutions and policies. It scorned touchy-feely politics, politics as therapy, social engagement as an end in itself. That scorn has proved self-destructive; politicians on the left have proved more adept at arguing and explaining themselves than at connecting to other people. Perhaps solidarity is the nub of the divide. The desire for solidarity seeks to transcend differences; the mess that is ordinary life appears as an impediment to political action. Meanwhile, the social left, from the old “new unionists” to community organizers like Alinsky, has wanted to engage with ambiguity, difference and incompleteness. I don’t believe such engagement can be reduced to touchy-feely good will. Engaging well with others requires skill, whether the skill be that of listening well or cooperating with those who differ.
A shift in temper doesn’t mean rejecting politics—how could we? In principle, renewal of left civil society should restore faith in activism. The YouGov research cautions, however, that the public is skeptical of how politicians behave, whatever their programs. Regaining trust means, paradoxically, acknowledging the limits of political action and emphasizing the inherent worth of action within civil society. The right has colonized this territory; the left has to take it back. In practice this means putting more energy and cash into local issues than into national electoral politics. The Democratic Party has largely taken the votes of the left for granted; a more robust localism would put greater pressure on our national masters—just as has occurred on the right. For ourselves, though, I think it’s a matter of putting the social back into socialism. [Emphasis added]
As we head into the 2012 election season we need to keep all of this in mind. There are literally tens of thousands of registered, and unregistred potential voters, in Williamson County that could change who governs our county if they came to the polls. They don’t because they no longer see any reason to vote for corrupt politicians that do little in anything that makes a positive difference in the daily lives of them and for their families and friends.
What Sennett is saying is that we may be able to re-engage these people socially, rather than ideologically. It’s worth a shot, the ideological approach hasn’t worked so good. Engaging them with empathy, or as King said using “…wisdom, justice, and love..” as our guiding principles, would be a better way to bring people to our side. It’s going to take a while to get a more fair, equal, and just society then we have now. Who knows, it may not even be possible. But we never know unless we try and the alternative in unthinkable.
We must fight for the impossible.
“It’s OK if it’s impossible; it’s OK! Now I’m going to speak to you as organizers. Listen carefully. The object is not to win. That’s not the objective. The object is to do the right and good thing. If you decide not to do anything, because it’s too hard or too impossible, then nothing will be done, and when you’re on your death bed, you’re gonna say, “I wish I had done something. But if you go and do the right thing NOW, and you do it long enough “good things will happen—something’s gonna happen.”
– Former farmworker and labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez (As quoted by Bill Moyers – “Welcome to the Plutocracy“).