If America had a Left, it would be falling apart right now

A protester shouts slogans against BP during a...

What do leftists always do with their surplus indignation? Image by AFP via @daylife

Columnist David Sirota recently “laid bare the myth of the Left” by dusting off the old insight that there is no Left. His column has been passed around the lefty press like a flask at an AA meeting–as alluring as it is destructive.

Sirota begins by trying to distinguish Left from Right:

“I’m always amused by popular references to the allegedly all-powerful American ‘Left.’ The term suggests that progressives today possess the same kind of robust, ideologically driven political apparatus as the Right — a machine putting principles before party affiliation.”

Instead, Sirota argues, progressive institutions often put politics before principles, acting as “propagandists for Democrats, regardless of what Democrats do.”

But Sirota misreads the difference between Left and Right.

Both experience the same conflict, inherent to democracy, between principles and politics. Principles belong to campaigns. Politics belong to governing. Principles get you elected. Politics get things done. Principles should guide your actions. But should principles prevent you from participating in politics, which make actions possible?

Sirota seems to think so:

“Surveying the hypocrisy, CNN’s Roland Martin wrote that ‘The Left’s’ organizations ‘need to decide what matters: their principles or their politics … their convictions or chicken dinners in the White House.’ He’s too late: They’ve already made their decision, which is why — regrettably — a powerful Left does not exist in America.”

If only the Left would stick to its principles, Sirota contends, it would exist. But which principles?

Sirota criticizes Barack Obama for announcing, three weeks before the BP disaster began, that he would allow more offshore oil drilling. But when Obama took that step, he was choosing between competing progressive principles.

New offshore oil drilling was a trade–that’s politics–for an energy program designed to shift the United States off of a carbon-based economy–that’s principle. More oil drilling in return for a program to render oil drilling obsolete.

Obama made that choice only after every other effort to stop greenhouse gas pollution failed in the Senate.

Having reached a stalemate in which two progressive principles were in conflict–the principle against offshore oil and the principle for a carbon cap–Obama chose the one he believed would produce long-term progress.

Notice that, in his quote above, Sirota does believe in “progressives.” If progressives favor anything, it’s progress. Isn’t it?

Obama’s choice was an ugly choice. I hate it. But I try not to let my hate blind me to its purpose. In the wake of BP’s disaster, it’s easy to say it was the wrong choice. Too easy.

Which principle should we adhere to: the principle against offshore oil? Or the principle for a carbon cap? Both, obviously.

But what if we have to choose?

The difference between Right and Left is not that Right puts principle first and Left doesn’t. At least since Reagan the Right has enjoyed more cohesive, unifying principles, while the Left has clung to a writhing mass of competing principles.

In crude terms, the Right represents an unholy alliance between money and Christian fundamentalism. The Left represents everyone else: the poor, the worker, women, minorities, gays, immigrants, animals, trees…

This is the original meaning of the dusty old insight that “there is no Left.” As In These Times founder James Weinstein once said, “There is no left. There are little groups of leftists. But there’s no Left in the sense that there’s any coherence or commonality.”

The Right can almost always unite behind profit. And because money produces security, the Right benefits from appeals to fear.

Whenever the Left succeeds, as it did in November 2008, it is through the temporary unity of little groups of leftists and centrists. And as soon as the Left faces conflict and compromise, the choices begin to divide the coalition. Should we come out against the automobile or for the auto worker?

In that example, Obama has tried to reemploy auto workers by building electric automobiles. But not every conflict between progressive principles has such a rosy compromise, and many progressives vilify Obama for making choices that cannot be ideologically pure.

They also vilify those leftists who remain willing to work with him, calling them propagandists or sycophants. And that’s where Sirota’s twist on the old insight becomes destructive.

For if there is no Left, there is nothing to preserve, no reason to try to get along with anyone else, no reluctance to eat the head of a former ally with whom you recently shared a tent. And oh how the Left loves to eat its own.

Leftists should, and must, criticize Obama. But their criticism should be tactical, dammit, and not blind. Progressives should apply pressure without destroying the coalition that elected–in spite of his impure compromises–the most progressive president since 1976.

They should press for an end to offshore oil drilling. They should not, however, categorically withdraw support for Obama because of BP’s disaster, or blame the Obama Administration for doing nothing when the nothing only exists in their heads, thanks largely to the nothing in their media.

And progressives could reach for a unifying principle: progress.

For decades environmentalism has offered a test for progress to the larger Left. The first obligation of an environmentalist is to consider the consequences of your actions.

Photo by Jeff McMahon - True/Slant

When progressives cling to principle without regard for consequences, they empower the Right. They cease to produce progress. They become reactionary. Like the protestors at Copenhagen who ended their march with bonfires, they indulge their outrage without noticing the carbon they’re contributing to the atmosphere.

When progressives push for their principles with an eye to the consequences, they retain the flexibility to make progress.

So what should progressives do? Work for progress, even if it means working with Democrats they consider whorish. Accept the gains. Then work for better. Without eating your ally’s head.

The demand from writers like Sirota is that progressives stick to their principles, each and every one of them, compromise be damned. With the Left composed of competing principles, that won’t even work in a leftist dictatorship, much less in a democracy.

Amid images of fouled beaches, oiled birds, dead dolphins–the vile consequences of filthy energy lashing the world’s eyes day and night–the Left has an opportunity to end offshore oil drilling forever. It won’t succeed by falling apart.

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