What’s Left of the Left

To read Kolakowski and Rorty is to understand that the Left is the party and movement of political progress.  The former had little (if any) patience for national pride; Rorty, however, seems to think that the Left needs it, if it is to become effective again in the U.S.  Can the Left (as it was prior to the “New Left”) regain its role once more in our political lives?  Can it make a place for Cleaver, or someone similarly enraged and alienated?  If not, who will be/become the new agents of political progress?

What’s Left of the Left

Firstly, the prompt assumes that the Left will always stand for political progress. This is not necessarily true, especially in the American context. In the United States, the Left has made tremendous gains in reforming the way we elect our officials compared to how the founding fathers originally intended, the Left ensured all would have the right to vote, and the Left has worked to increase civil rights. None of these gains came easily, but very few on the Right would disagree with their importance today. This brings me to Kowalkowski’s analogy in which he compares the Left to building a house. In contrast, the Right does not destroy the house, it simply does not build another one. The Left in America has constructed many houses, and the Right has no intention of destroying all of them. There are, of course, important exceptions: when the Left builds a house that is so detrimental by the Right’s standards, it will fight to destroy it. Such was the case with Obamacare (but a better house has yet to be built). In today’s political climate, most of the house-building has to do with immigration. And it’s important to note that President Donald Trump is not looking to destroy very many houses here. He’s mostly keeping the system already intact (with of course the ironic exception of building a very large “house” on the Southern border).

This brings me to the question posed in the prompt: how important is national pride in the American Left? My answer, in simple terms, is “very.” I agree with Rorty in condemning the Democratic Party for its shift in what it defines as “progress” and their dismissal of the positive aspects of America. This, of course, is not the case with all Democrats because the nature of the Left involves huge variance among its members. On our mock trial team, we always read a book entitled “Words That Work” by Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who describes how to best convey a message. The reason our coach assigns Luntz is because our coach can objectively appreciate the conciseness and uniformity of the Republican message compared to the Democratic one. When you vote Republican, he says, you always know what you’re getting into. When you see a (D) next to someone’s name, that can mean countless different policy positions. And he’s right about that. Among Democrats, there are those who want to play by the confined rules of the American system, there are those who want to change the rules and then play by them, there are those who want to get rid of the entire system and say away with national pride.

Particularly concerning the last group of members of the Left, they cannot appeal to a national electorate in this country. If the Left continues along this trajectory it cannot regain its role in our political sphere. I agree with Rorty that the “old Left” / the “progressive Left” was an appealing group. They would play identity politics not based on race, but rather based on socioeconomic status. They would play within the rules of the game and look to reform the system from the inside. They would use national pride as a way to encourage their constituents that they could change a poor status quo, that our great nation can provide everyone with an opportunity to better themselves. This is similar to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. He did not focus on race, gender identity, or immigration. He grouped people together based on what was in their bank accounts. His presidential campaign did not lack American pride. Instead, it used it as a means to gather support and inspire hope for his movement. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s 1992 political campaign to unseat president George H.W. Bush merely shifted the focus to the economy. Clinton did so with his famous campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The Democratic Party, the “Old Left” looked to make progress on their core issue of the economy and would debate substantive economic points to appeal to a working class group. Today’s “progressive Left” has shifted the focus from the economy to social issues. And instead of using national pride as a beacon to inspire possible change, they reject the country and point out every single one of its flaws. It is hard for voters to relate to an agenda that appears to put women, minorities, and non-citizens before the majority of voters. These groups’ issues are of great importance and their problems are certainly real and grave, and Rorty does not dispute this. Instead, Rorty merely suggests that the Left can help them in the context of economic change.

National pride is a tricky subject because perhaps the Right has too much of it. The Right refuses to apologize for anything in the country’s past and they are slow to condemn the displaying of the Confederate Flag. According to the Right, the Confederacy and that stage of history should be a source of national pride as well. But that’s not the case. Having national pride does not mean agreeing with everything our ancestors did before us. It means appreciating that the system allows us to learn from what they did and to change it should the majority feel the need to alter it. We don’t need to defend everything America has done in the past because even the best lawyer has to make concessions so as not to lose credibility. The Right needs to tone down its blind acceptance of America’s past and alter the way it frames national pride in a way in which our ideals are kept sacred, to appreciate that our system allows us to change what we don’t like.

To give the Left due credit, just because something is written on our law books does not mean we should follow it. Following an unjust law under the disguise of national pride is wrong.  Fighting unjust laws, even with violence, is at times necessary. As William Lloyd Garrison correctly points out, “that which is not just is not law.” In other words, if something is unjust, it is our duty as Americans to fight it until it is removed from the legal code. Laws are only changed or reversed after they are broken. That’s why there must be a place in the Left for Cleaver, for the Weather Underground, and for the “American Anarchist” William Powell. These people are all necessary components of the Left. Without them, the fight against injustice goes nowhere. Each of these three groups teaches us something different.

Let’s start with the American Anarchist and national pride. Firstly, the very name “American Anarchist” gives me some trouble. Can you really be an American Anarchist? In a country that continuously boasts being one of “law and order,” that name seems contradictory. Based on the interview of Powell, he seems to agree. The defense of his work “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” was weak to say the least. He lives a life full of regret and doesn’t even own a copy of his work. I will say that Powell deserves some praise. He was just 19 when he wrote “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” and he has grown up to double down on the claim that innocent lives lost is not a just way to achieve any cause. It is interesting that Powell criticizes himself so much despite continually saying that his book does not have a call to action. It merely contains a list of recipes for destruction, but it never tells anyone what they should do with it. Therefore, Powell’s book is just what it purports to be: a recipe. You only need to know the recipe when you want to make the dish. And there are times when the dish of violence is necessary to cook.

The Weather Underground used these recipes. They claim “there is no way to commit to nonviolence in a society that has been the most violent in history,” referring to the Vietnam War. They explicitly make clear that their goal was to overthrow the United States government and to do so violently. Their slogan, to “bring the war home,” certainly has a place in the Left. While I disagree with the means by which they look to bring about change, there is no denying that it gets the job done. Violent groups like the Weather Underground are rejected by most of society, but their message becomes a talking point. And that talking point may very well be accepted. So, in other words, they sacrifice themselves (and some innocent bystanders) by going to prison and being called anarchists, but ultimately, their goal is achieved. The change they want happens.

Finally, there is Cleaver, someone who feels the need to rape innocent women for power because he feels he lacks power in the current system. His actions cannot be taken seriously by society because of the prejudice his crimes bring to his movement. In the Federal Rules of Evidence we use in mock trial, Rule 403 says that some evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfairly prejudicing the jury. If I were defending the Left, I would make this objection here. While I can surely understand the reasoning behind Cleaver’s actions, it is difficult for any “jury” (i.e. society) to sympathize with him given that the nature of his crime is too inflammatory to be reasonably considered. Bringing it back to the discussion we had in class about everyone being “three steps away,” I probably agree. I think we’d all kill and rape, it’s just the circumstances that vary. But it’s a hard message for the nation to comprehend. People like Cleaver not only sacrifice themselves to spread their message, they take away from the message’s importance. Therefore, people like Cleaver should have room on the Left, but the aesthetic nature of their actions is too prejudicial for the Left not to condemn it.

As mentioned in class, I agree that there is something between conformity and revolution: negation. This is the Left’s job, whether it be through contrarianism or simply identifying the problems with society. But to actually gather support for change, I do think they need to appeal to an electorate that values national pride. That said, the Right has some work to do as well. They should value patriotism over blind national pride. They should concede that America has flaws but that those flaws can be fixed thanks to our system.

 

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