Need a Map?: The Left

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

October 31, 1999

Consider this question: If the left is dead in America, why are presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore—both widely and accurately described as centrists or, at most, moderate liberals—making a serious play for the hearts and minds of the progressive remnants of their party?

If “left” is a synonym for “lost cause,” why is Bradley making such a conscious pitch for liberal votes with his stands on universal health coverage, child poverty and welfare? Why, then, did Vice President Gore battle so hard to win the early endorsement of the AFL-CIO? And why were both so eager to appear environmentally sound and socially generous in answering questions in their first face-to-face encounter on Wednesday night in New Hampshire?

The standard rap on the 2000 election asserts that the major candidates, the GOP’s George W. Bush especially, are rushing to the political “center” in an unapologetic imitation of President Clinton’s tactical mastery. Ideology is dead, the thinking goes, while “triangulation”—the strategy of taking “third” positions between those of the left and right—is the wave of the future.

This analysis is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. It assumes that the public cares about more or less the same things in election after election—and that finding the optimally moderate position is every candidate’s goal on every issue. But politics never stands still, and neither does the electorate. The Democratic left enjoys an opening now that it did not have 15 years ago because some of the issues that worked against it—”stagflation,” the Cold War, crime, welfare—are either off the table or no longer push voters to the right. The problems that now rank high on the public agenda, including education, health care, child care and Social Security, are more receptive to thinking from the progressive side.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the current discussions about poverty. Front-runners Bradley, Gore and Bush have all made fighting poverty central to the promise of their would-be administrations. Say what you will about the specifics each is offering; the fact is that a war on poverty, if you’ll pardon the term, has not been on the national agenda for 35 years.

Before anyone goes off to mimeograph lyrics from old leftist anthems, it’s important to note that the left is no more stable than the center or, for that matter, the right. The left—or all but its most stubborn parts—has changed, responding to reality in much the same way as shrewd conservatives such as Bush. (One reality is that most Americans reject labels and few call themselves liberal, let alone left wing, when asked in public opinion surveys to describe their views. “Progressive,” on the other hand, gets a much more favorable reaction.)

Responding to reality, of course, is sometimes interpreted as a move toward moderation or blandness. But often what’s involved is simply chucking bad or outdated ideas. “I think the left has moved away from the idea that socialism should replace capitalism,” Paul Wellstone, the most vigorous spokesman for the Democratic left in the Senate, says quite matter-of-factly.

The bulk of the left, says the Minnesota senator, has no interest in “centralized, command economies.” Wellstone, along with many of his comrades, is happy to bid good riddance to an idea most European social democrats rejected, in practice if not always in theory, long ago. Now, the left’s approach is narrower but more focused: not on whether market economies should exist, but on whether the problems and inequities that inevitably accompany capitalism can be rectified, especially in a global economy that often operates outside the rules and protections that governments enact.

And it is fair to point out that Clinton helped create the opening the left has on issues of economic justice. He did so by depolarizing social issues such as crime, and by restoring the Democrats’ credentials on economic management, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank often critical of the left. And if the federal budget wasn’t in balance, Bradley would not be able to propose costly new initiatives without also proposing new taxes.

The intellectual vitality of the center and the right also has altered the left’s thinking. For example, there are few causes more dear to progressives than universal health coverage. So liberals cheered when Bradley announced that he would spend a large sum of money, $65 billion a year, to reduce the growing numbers of Americans without health insurance.

Yet, Bradley’s health-care plan relies on two crucial elements long championed by New Democrats (the centrists who rallied behind Clinton in 1992) and many conservatives: the use of vouchers and tax credits to help the uninsured buy insurance. “Bradley,” says Marshall, a Gore supporter, “offers an interesting mix of lofty liberal rhetoric and New Democratic means.”

Gore, too, is engaged in an intricate dance involving steps to the left and the center. He regularly burnishes his New Democratic credentials by defending the welfare reform that Bradley criticizes; by branding Bradley’s health care proposals as too expensive (as he did repeatedly in Wednesday’s debate); by staking a claim to traditional values with his endorsement of faith-based social initiatives and his talk about the social catastrophes created by absentee fathers.

But Gore also knows he needs to appeal to the Democratic Party’s left and liberal wings. “Al Gore, if he survives, is going to be nominated by the labor vote, and the black vote in the South,” says Robert Borosage, president of the liberal Institute for America’s Future. As a close adviser to Jesse Jackson during his presidential bids (including the 1988 race in which Gore was an also-ran), Borosage offers this view with some glee.

So, while Bradley proposes serious spending for health care, Gore offers a liberal big-ticket program of his own when he promises universal access to preschool programs. (Both Gore and Bradley, by the way, are earnest promoters of after-school programs for kids.) Gore’s long-standing defense of the right of workers to organize made it easier for AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to push through the labor federation’s endorsement of the vice president earlier this month. And note that when Gore attacks the cost of Bradley’s health care proposal, he does so in the name of protecting Medicare and the social safety net—monuments to liberalism.

Wellstone, a strong and early Bradley supporter, says it’s not the least bit surprising that both candidates are looking left. “To find people who can organize, Democrats always look to progressives,” he says. When it came to putting people on the ground and pumping money into the 1998 campaign, two liberal constituencies—labor and environmental groups—were at the forefront.

The left’s largest problem lies in the continued dominance of market language and market metaphors in politics. The traditional task of the left—moderate and liberal, as well as socialist—has been to offer a critique of the market, to focus attention on those left out of affluence and to suggest organizing strategies and government programs that would correct for market failures and excesses.

But in a time of prosperity when the market system seems to be working well (and when so much attention is paid to the private wealth being amassed by a widening percentage of Americans invested in the stock market), that message is, to say the least, muffled. “There is no challenge to the market, no critique,” says Arnie Graf of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group that supports neighborhood organizing. Graf argues that today’s liberal politicians are reluctant (as they were not during the New Deal) to grapple with inequities created by low wages and the reduced bargaining power of less-skilled workers in the new economy.

While Democrats offer programs to lift or subsidize the incomes of the working poor—the earned income tax credit is perhaps the most successful—Graf says Democratic politicians often shy away from stronger measures to provide “living wages,” jobs with benefits and access to credit for homeownership. His group is preparing to mount a campaign to require that companies receiving federal subsidies deliver better pay and benefits to the people who work for them.

If that is one frontier of the left’s organizing plans, the other is the global economy. Its efforts will be visible in the demonstrations likely to engulf next month’s World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. The issues at stake are more than ideological abstractions. They involve threats to the environment, human rights abuses, poverty wages and bad working conditions, as well as problems of child labor. Note that many of these issues are, in a global context, what united earlier generations of social reformers at home.

For many on the left, the key issue for the next several decades will be whether companies operating in the global economy will be able to evade labor, environmental and financial rules that democracies have enacted over generations. The argument is that democracy operates within national borders, but there are few global institutions in which citizens’ voices can be heard, let alone followed. “We’re creating this global economy without a Constitution,” says Jeff Faux, president of the liberal and pro-labor Economic Policy Institute. While global institutions are necessary for managing and regulating the global economy, Faux says, they also “can undercut local democracy.” The question—not an easy one to answer, Faux acknowledges—is how to make such global institutions democratic.

There is one clear sign that the left’s movement to “front and center” in the Democratic presidential primaries—as a New York Times headline put it last week—is about more than pandering by Bradley and Gore. On trade, the country’s triangulator in chief has started to embrace many of the left’s favorite themes. “Those of us in the wealthier countries have a heavy responsibility to try to put a more human face on the global economy,” Clinton said in his lengthiest answer at an Oct. 14 news conference. “And that means you have to bring labor interests and environmental interests into these deliberations.”

He even gave a kind of endorsement to the left’s tactics. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that all these people are coming to Seattle to demonstrate,” he said at the news conference. “These folks feel as if they’ve been shut out. They think the WTO is some rich guys’ club where people get in and talk in funny languages and use words nobody understands and make a bunch of rules that help the people that already have [wealth] and stick it to the people that have not.”

Many on the left are skeptical of what Clinton is up to. But the president’s support for new labor and environmental standards—at least on a rhetorical level—is a direct response to the role of labor and environmental groups in defeating Clinton’s 1997 effort to win “fast track” authority to negotiate trade treaties. Marshall, a strong free-trader and New Democrat, concedes that fast track’s defeat forced his side to deal more forcefully with how to protect workers. “There’s been a more focused effort to have dialogue and not shout across the chasm between labor and New Democrats on this issue,” he says.

In other words: If the left is not exactly winning, it has gained ground and is reshaping the argument.

For many on the left, that’s far from enough. There is still such restlessness and displeasure in the Democratic Party that some in its ranks have been willing to ponder the highly problematic prospect of Warren Beatty as a left-wing protest candidate. Moreover, to say the left today is, on the whole, more moderate than the left of the 1930s or 1960s is to state the obvious. But that may also explain why center-left parties have been winning elections in so many European countries.

And with George Bush feeling obligated to talk about poverty and compassion, Al Gore sounding like a union organizer and Bill Bradley unapologetically touting big new programs, something is stirring that cannot be captured by facile talk of focus-grouped moderation. The left is not on the verge of seizing power, but it is—to use that ’60s word—relevant” again. Gore and Bradley admit this by their actions, even if the word “left” never passes their lips.