This diary is eighth in a series on “excuses for why we can’t have socialism.” Previous entries:
I don’t see “America is a conservative country” being posed as rationalization for “why we can’t have socialism” a lot. More often, it’s posed as a rationalization for why liberals/ progressives can’t have what they want from government. But since both liberals/progressives and socialists tend to want at least some of the same things, the argument that “America is a conservative country” serves as a general pretext for denying the Left its wish-list. This is of course significant for those who view socialism as something on their wish-lists.
Here’s how it works: generally the mainstream of opinion-formation, the folks who engineer what Walter Lippmann called the “manufacture of consent,” regard America as a fundamentally conservative country. This particular Gallup Poll, taken from early 2012, reflects how consent is manufactured in today’s political climate:
PRINCETON, NJ — Political ideology in the U.S. held steady in 2011, with 40% of Americans continuing to describe their views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 21% as liberal. This marks the third straight year that conservatives have outnumbered moderates, after more than a decade in which moderates mainly tied or outnumbered conservatives.
This kind of consideration is usually used at DailyKos.com to accuse liberals of wanting something from government of being “purists.” After all, liberals are statistically measured to be in a significant minority (21%, then), or at least they are if you believe Gallup, and so we can expect them to be in an even more extreme minority when it comes to the occupation of the White House and of Congress. Never mind that if 95+% of the American public self-identifies as “liberal,” “moderate,” or “conservative,” that leaves how much room for the socialists? At any rate, the important fact is that liberals are consistently asked to compromise their beliefs and take what they can get from government by those arguing for “realism” in American politics.
Now of course there are some rather severe limitations to the assessment presented by Lydia Saad, the Gallup author of the above 2012 poll. I see three main weaknesses: first off, the poll does not reflect the extent to which the moderates and conservatives might agree to (or at least acquiesce in) portions of an agenda often championed by liberals. Now that we have two states that have voted to legalize marijuana, we can at the very least say that the pro-marijuana-legalization agenda is not the exclusive domain of the Left. So indeed there are aspects of a “liberal agenda” (if you want to name it that) that can get across-the-board support. You can also, for instance, find broad support for “Medicare for All” across America. Socialists would probably view Medicare for All as a step forward, because it would take “medical insurance” out of the hands of financial elites. I’ll bet you could get a lot of what counts as “socialism” approved even by conservatives, if it were promoted in an appropriate way.
The “leakage” of the liberal agenda, as such, is the best thing going for American politics, now, under what Antonio Gramsci would call the current hegemonic formation. It’s the best we can do absent what David Graeber calls a “revolution”:
Revolutions are thus planetary phenomena. But there is more. What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate (page 275).
A revolution, as such, is without doubt a prerequisite for any future social change, or for that matter any change drastic enough to produce lasting solutions to our world’s most pressing problems: global warming, economic poverty, and so on. For Graeber, the world experienced revolutions in 1789, 1848, 1917, and 1968.
Secondly, the Gallup poll cited above does not distinguish between different types of conservatives. This is a flaw of separating out Americans into three and only three categories, “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative,” with no alternate categories considered. In this diary (“What If Barack Obama Weren’t A Leftist?”) I argue that Federal-level American politics is a battleground between two different types of conservatism. Most everyone here is familiar with anti-public conservatism — the Tea Party Republicans embody it just fine, and it gets plenty of press coverage. But then you also have corporate conservatism, which I describe in the diary as follows:
Corporate conservatives — conservatives who are mainly interested in “saving capitalism” (Obama’s primary mandate) and who do so by maintaining corporate hegemony but who are also interested in buying off the mass public to the extent necessary to preserve the social order… Such a breed of conservatism, then, attempts to preserve the status quo (or perhaps to return it to its pre-recession form, say perhaps America in the Clinton era) through acceptance, rather than denial, of the existence of society.
Now of course many of the corporate conservatives may not identify (for the purposes of instruments such as the abovecited Gallup poll) as conservatives. They nonetheless are conservatives, though in a different sense than that in which the antipublic conservatives of the Tea Party are conservative. It makes no sense, either, to identify them as “centrists,” because there’s no “center” to Federal-level American politics outside of the government’s use as a conduit by corporate interests for the sake of increased profit, which is a fundamentally conservative position — keeping society “the same” with an eye toward preserving the economy of 2006. There is, as I pointed out in my diary on why I am not a progressive, nothing toward which we are progressing, so there is nothing about which we can be “moderate,” either. My point in bringing all of this out is to show that conservatism is divided in America. There is no monolithic unity among American conservatives. This fact may not do us much good if we hope for socialism, but it does make socialism seem a little less impossible.
Lastly, and most importantly for socialists, the poll does not consider the extent to which the Left has been repressed, and has repressed itself.
Now, external repression is of course not the fault of the Left — it consumes everyone’s resources when we are obliged to “fight back,” and sometimes the Left does not have those resources. The Left, for instance, does not have the resources to run popular mass-media outlets, unless you count MSNBC, which I would count as an ideological ally of the corporate-conservative Obama administration. If you want to see a situation in which there is a Left undergoing plenty of external repression, but no self-repression, check out the situation in Turkey today. At any rate, self-repression seems to emanate from a quirk of America’s electoral political culture — voting for the “lesser of two evils.” Voters decide, for a number of reasons, that they are to select Party A over Party B because Party A is the “lesser of two evils” — even though they don’t really agree with what Party A is doing.
Eventually, however, American “leftists” begin to advocate for Party A — out of the reasoning that if Party B is to be defeated in elections, the positions of Party A need to be promoted regardless of the moral respectability or lack thereof of such positions. In short, they become party tribalists. I suppose one can call this “selling out to the two-party system.” It seems to me that the lack of a serious Left in America is largely due to this “selling out to the two party system” phenomenon. The socialists aren’t immune — witness, for instance, the Communist Party of the USA, which views itself as the vanguard of the Democratic Party and endorses Democratic Party positions regardless of how irrelevant to communism such positions might happen to be.
Books, of course, have been written about the topic I’m discussing here, attempting to explain why America has not developed a strong socialist movement. The most famous of these books is probably Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks’ It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. In this book, the authors give a wide variety of reasons for why a socialist movement didn’t take root here. The unions in America never quite endorsed socialism fully, American workers have been differentially privileged, and thus divided against each other, the socialists and communists in the US pursued bad political strategies, and so on.
Some of these reasons, such as the Socialist Party’s failure to co-operate with other organizations, seem to be peculiarities of the Progressive Era, which I discussed in my last diary. My reading of all of this history is that none of it seems to portend any significant failure for socialism in American politics in the future, outside of the daunting task of cracking the American political system, slanted as it is against minority efforts trying to become majority efforts.
Now, one way America could have a Left in both word and deed if its real leftists decided to form a political party of their own, or to take over an existing political party such as the Green Party. Yes, I’m aware of the objections commonly recited as regards “third parties.” However, a popular leftist third party in the United States would most directly solve the “selling out to the two-party system” problem from the leftist perspective. It might immediately lead to electoral defeat, yet clarify like nothing else what “victory” has actually meant over the past thirty-plus years of neoliberal rule.
The alternative approach would be the Eric Stetson approach, where an organized Left primaries all of the Blue Dog Democrats at once. It hasn’t worked so far, largely for the reasons cited by Lance Selfa — the Democratic Party has at times been a graveyard for Left causes. That fact does not by itself rule out the Eric Stetson strategy as a future possibility. But it seems highly unlikely with so many major political organizations ensnared in what Jane Hamsher calls the “Veal Pen” — which compels most of them to “support the Democrat” regardless of what the Democrat in each instance supports.
My point here is that the “America is a conservative country” excuse is self-fulfilling. As long as the American Left self-represses, you’re going to have polls like the Gallup Poll, above, in which maybe 21% of the polled public identifies as “liberal,” and that’s the best you will get — and socialists won’t be represented at all. Most of the American public just doesn’t want to be part of a group that suppresses its best moral and political instincts. When the American Left decides that it no longer wishes to “compromise” (i.e. sacrifice) its principles on the altar of “pragmatism,” (while at the same time the whole of Congress supports “austerity planning” in one form or another), soon thereafter the pollsters will wake up to discover that America will have become no longer a conservative country. Once you get an assertive Left, you will also make socialism possible in America, because you’ll have opened up the conversation to a Left that isn’t self-repressing. It may take a long time for this to happen. I’m willing to wait, and work.