Near the outset of his interesting “Reflections,” Richard Flacks notes: “Left-wing activists have . . . organized defiance to institutional authority, taken to the streets, boycotted, struck, sat-in — as much as, perhaps more than, they have used the ballot.” That is certainly an understatement. The 60s generated a grand and well deserved disillusionment with a government (and a Democratic Party) that claimed to be creating a Great Society even as it dropped more tonnage on a poor third world country than was dropped on the entire Axis in all of World War II. It is little wonder that many activists (myself included) turned our backs on electoral politics, some never to return. For this reason and others, the left today has less experience in electoral work than it ought to have, and this is crippling in many ways. I saw the effects first-hand when I ran for Congress. Among our campaign volunteers the talent and commitment were extraordinary, but not the experience. And this situation is unlikely to change unless the left can find an electoral enterprise that engages it deeply. For this purpose the very occasional progressive Democratic candidate simply won’t do, because, even in the case of a victory, that candidate’s progressive impulses are smothered by the Democratic Party. And in the event of a defeat, nothing has been built by the effort except perhaps a following for a decent individual, at best, or a deepened despair, at worst. In contrast, a progressive party provides an enduring project that can grow, develop, and learn from experience.

That is why it is disconcerting to read Flacks’ flat declaration that: “The 100-year old effort to create a left party is over and failed.” Even more disturbingly, despite a brief bow in the direction of the New Party, Flacks seems to implicitly equate
progressive electoral activity with the Democratic Party. He says “the 1992 election seemed to promise a new era for the left” because the promises of the Clinton-Gore administration would be a stimulus to grassroots mobilization! That logic escapes me entirely. At another point Flacks seems to lament the defection of blue-collar workers from the Democrats in 1980 even as he acknowledges they had good reason to defect. And, most amazingly, he feels that “the experience of the past three years teaches us that a Democratic administration does not have the power fundamentally to change priorities.” What could possibly make him believe that the intent of the Democratic administration was “fundamentally to change priorities”? And Flacks seems to give a slight nod to the New Party principally because it can endorse progressive Democrats, which might actually be its Achilles’ heel if not treated with caution.

In addition there is an awful irony that results from the failure to develop an
alternative to the Democratic Party.
As Flacks points out, the new left developed a “thoroughgoing critique of statism.” And this critique has its parallel in the cynicism with which the “radical middle” and much of the populace view our government. Instead of allying itself with the strong populist sentiments that are abroad in the land, the left ends up being associated with the political class which runs the Democratic Party and is deeply corrupted by its ties to corporate America. That association may be the biggest tragedy
of all since it taints the programs and
intentions of the left.

There are other criticisms to be made about Flacks’ piece. First, there is little
serious attention to the failure of the left to develop a coherent philosophy in the post-Cold War era. Second, it is by no means obvious that the heart of the problem facing the left is globalization of
the economy. In fact, globalization is a
very small part of the reason for the unemployment and powerlessness facing
the US working class; and it is all too
often used as an excuse for inaction. Third, it is a fairy tale that a Progressive Agenda should “center on national legislation to empower localities,” since there is virtually no one in Congress to support such
legislation and no immediate prospect of such legislators.

A much more likely way forward is to build a party like the New Party from the bottom up, using people, not money, to win campaigns. Finally, since Flacks’ piece deals with the prevailing mood of pessimism on the left, it is worth noting that there is optimism to be found in doing what really counts no matter how difficult. The best way to kick the habits of pessimism that come of vague wishes for “empowerment” is to embark on the road to political power.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review