The blogosphere has been swept with talk of this jeremiad on the lack of a true left wing in America’s political discourse. All the most popular lefty bloggers, says Freddie, are neoliberals like Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Jon Chait. Freddie’s essay is long and touches on many themes, but I’d like to put down a few thoughts on the subject.
One concerns this:
All of this sounds merely like an indictment, but I genuinely have a great deal of sympathy for those young rising politicos and bloggers who are constitutionally disposed to be left-wing. What they find, as they rise, is a blogging establishment that delivers the message again and again that to be professionally successful, they must march ever-rightward. That’s where the money is, after all. For every Nation or FireDogLake, there is an Atlantic or Slate, buttressed by money from the ruling class whose interests are defended with gusto by the neoliberal order. I have followed more than a few eager young bloggers as they have been steadily pushed to the right by the institutional culture of Washington DC, where professional entitlement and social success come part and parcel with an acceptance that “this is a center-right nation” is God’s will. I wish they wouldn’t move in that direction, but I don’t know what great choice many of them have; blogging is an aspirational culture, and there is an endless number of young strivers, emboldened by unexamined privilege and the kind of confidence that can only come from having money you didn’t earn, ready to take the place of those who step out of line.
Now, a good neoliberal would acknowledge that people respond to incentives, but I think there’s an assumption about the way careers proceed here that isn’t necessarily justified. I agree that it’s probably hard to make it in the world of mainstream journalism as a hard core labor-leftist. That’s not to say that there are no outlets available; certainly Dean Baker and Harold Meyerson find their way into print with some frequency. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that to rise in journalism one has to edit one’s worldview in a rightward direction. It seems more likely to me that publications select for compelling and sincere defenders of a neoliberal worldview. It’s a harsh criticism to say that writers sell out their beliefs for a better payday. I don’t doubt that this happens, but in my experience it’s far from the norm. One of the most striking things about the circle of journalists I know is how earnest they are.
That is, you can complain about the things people like Matt write, but I don’t think there’s any cause to doubt that they believe it. And at any rate, when I read Matt I see the blogosphere’s foremost defender of the Scandinavian model of social democracy.
It’s also interesting to me that the alternative, “true” lefty persuasion is one dedicated to the preservation of labor rights. This is an ideological position that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of young left-leaning people for a number of reasons. One is that they look at the empirical evidence and disagree, to some extent, with the notion that the destruction of labor was a cause, rather than a consequence, of broad structural transformations in the economy. (But that probably strikes Freddie as the kind of bullshit an on-the-payroll neoliberal would say.) Another is that younger individuals have had their formative ideological experiences in an era in which labor strength is concentrated in sectors that are either public or dependent on public largesse, and these unions often place themselves squarely in the path of reforms sought by left-leaning writers. I’m sure it was easier to be sympathetic to labor when it was winning limits on truly heinous business practices rather than fighting against merit-based pay for excellent teachers.
And I think that current neoliberals think of themselves as more honestly egalitarian than traditional leftists, based on their international view of developments in human welfare. The past few decades have witnessed an unprecedented reduction in global poverty thanks to liberal reforms in China and India. Countries containing twice the population of the currently developed world are now hurtling toward middle-income status, thanks to trade, thanks to deregulation, and thanks to the introduction of market reforms. The neoliberals I enjoy reading pride themselves on fighting for access to opportunity for the disadvantaged, through reduced barriers to trade with America, increased opportunities for immigration to America, and (in Matt’s case) reduced obstacles to living, working, and starting businesses in America’s most dynamic urban centers. The neoliberal platform strikes me as much easier to understand, from a progressive viewpoint, when considered at an international level. And the traditional labor left, to the extent that it has supported trade and immigration barriers, is in fact a defender of an unforgivably regressive balance of global income.
Freddie closes by saying:
I’m a lefty. I wish I could pretend that I have the intelligence and the perspective necessary to divide my beliefs from my appraisal of the situation, but I have neither. All I know is that I look out onto an America that seems to me to desperately require a left-wing. American workers have taken it on the chin for thirty years. They have been faced for years with stagnant wages, rising costs, and the hollowing out of the middle class. They are now confronted with that and a cratered job market, where desperate people compete to show how hard they will work in bad conditions for less compensation. Meanwhile, the neoliberal policy apparatus that brought us here refuses even to consider the possibility that it is culpable, so certain of its inherent righteousness and its place in the inevitable march of progress. And the blogosphere protects and parrots that certainty, weeding out left-wing detractors with ruthless efficiency, while around it orbits the gradual extinction of the American dream.
I think that this dark view of recent history is significantly overstated. At the same time, I do agree that the real hardships of the bottom half of America’s income spectrum deserve more attention. Their status is under-examined in the press and under-heard in Washington. The problem is, I find it hard to blame the lefty blogosphere for this underrepresentation. I don’t know how many posts Matt and Ezra have written on the dismal state of the labor market over the past two years, but it’s an awful lot. A healthy slice of the left-leaning blogging class has spent the last two years alternatively calling, often passionately, for more action to address unemployment and trying to understand why these calls are getting nowhere. Neither have these bloggers been lackadaisical in drawing attention to and musing on the long-term struggles of American workers.
Freddie’s true left wing might care differently about these problems. It might argue that what’s really needed is a doubling in the minimum wage and strict limits on worker layoffs. But it wouldn’t care more. Matt’s not out there saying that equity prices are rising and profits are high so shit must be cool. On the contrary, he’s out there saying that there should be a government run public-option for depository banking, that unemployment is high across America because of too little stimulus, that climate change is bad, universal health insurance coverage is good, and so on.
I’m for more of a voice for the underprivileged, and for a broader argument within the left over the merits of various policy approaches. I think the “professional left” lacks a proud liberal voice and often goes squeamish when defending real liberal values — but I don’t see this applying to folks like Matt, who vigorously defend redistribution, open immigration, a more humane criminal justice system, a tolerant approach to private behavior, a cautious and humane approach to international diplomacy and military adventures, a commitment to quality public education, a commitment to environmental stewardship, and so on. There’s no running from a brazenly liberal view in order to burnish bullshit centrist credentials.
I suppose I see organized labor as a means, not an end. Some traditional leftists believe that a return to widespread unionization will mean a return to the (in some ways) more egalitarian world that went with it. My sense is that neoliberal writers tend not to agree that unions are an effective means in this way. But that doesn’t mean they’ve changed their view of the desired ends.