Are American liberals too meek? I don’t mean the Democratic Party leadership not having enough balls. I mean is our group too timid as a whole? Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the American left, I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time, and my thoughts solidified in the affirmative when I read journalist Danny Schechter’s critique of the One Nation Working Together rally on October 2 (I attended the Los Angeles satellite event). The essay featured a companion video interview with economist Richard Wolff comparing American protests on the left with those in Europe that have erupted in recent weeks. Those of us on the American left constantly wonder why we aren’t getting the results we want from Democratic administrations, and why we and our ideas aren’t taken more seriously by the wider public. We might want to take a page from the European left and become more bold in demanding change.
You can’t help but notice the stark contrast in attitude between the American liberals at the One Nation rally and the European leftists. As Wolff points out, whereas Americans make hopeful appeals, the Europeans are much more confrontational and make clear demands of their governments. Europeans are more willing to disrupt civil society and risk arrest (American protesters blocking a major highway is rare. Generally, Americans are more willing to cooperate with law enforcement (does this have something to do with our law and order mentality, or simply fear?). The Europeans were more willing to openly denounce the corporate behavior that led to the global economic crisis, and the austerity measures their governments backed. According to Schechter, the One Nation organizers were more concerned with muzzling any criticism of the Obama administration and the Democrats, and corporate malfeasance wasn’t put front and center. Most interestingly, Wolff says that while the Europeans highlighted class differences, class in American society was ignored at the One Nation rally.
I think the differences in attitude and effectiveness between the American and the European left might be explained by our respective political cultures and our economic situations — something Schechter only lightly touched on. For example:
- Schechter remarked that Europe has a more sophisticated political culture than the United States. There is certainly a more competitive and accountable news media in Europe, with many more news outlets to choose from. In addition, Europe’s public broadcast stations are primarily funded by their governments, compared with the paltry financial support U.S. public broadcasters receive. The programming on the European public channels is far more robust, and they don’t having to rely on the largesse of private donors. Unlike in Europe, we Americans are simply uncomfortable talking about politics amongst ourselves. We consider it impolite to bring up politics with strangers, and even friends and family members. We’re also politically segregated. I’m not sure where this aversion to discussing politics comes from, but since our news media isn’t adequately informing us, and people just don’t have the time to follow current events, maybe people don’t feel like they can add much to the debate.
- The parliamentary system in Europe gives more power to third parties. Because leftist third parties can gain seats in the government (and sometimes share power: see Britain’s Liberal Democrats), leftists aren’t necessarily wedded to one party, like we are in the United States. Third parties are guaranteed a certain number of seats in a parliament if they get a certain percentage of the vote. Therefore, they can gain some leverage. In the U.S., the Democratic Party is the only choice for leftists because our winner-take-all electoral system prevents the Green Party, or any other liberal third party, from gaining even one seat in Congress. We either vote for a flawed Democratic Party or not vote at all. Because image is important, it seems that many left-wing organizations would rather not be seen publicly fighting with the Democratic Party, for fear that liberal voters will stay home — handing power to the Republicans.
- Europeans enjoy a more comprehensive social safety net, in large part because of the power of their labor unions relative to American labor unions. A larger portion of European workers belong to unions, who are more able to mobilize millions of people to get out into the streets and protest government-imposed austerity measures, as we have seen them do. It’s easier for a European – who doesn’t have to worry about losing health insurance, unemployment benefits, or childcare — to make the decision to participate in a strike.
- Americans have higher expectations of their government and society than do others around the world. Throughout history, Europeans have had to put up with various incompetent monarchs and bloodthirsty despots before they got democracy, so they’re used to disappointment and failure. And they’ve had to learn patience while enduring centuries of hardship. Compared with Europe, America is a young country, established on the idea of freedom and built with a can-do spirit, and so, that sort of positive thinking comes through even when we protest. You’re likely to see a lot more “Jobs and Justice for the People” signs at an American protest than the more confrontational “Down With the Corporate Regime!” Even the speeches that protest leaders give are sprinkled with “can-do” attitude (Si, se puede!). We still believe that our society can do better and that our best days are ahead. Those high expectations not only explain the softer demeanor of the One Nation participants compared with the European protesters, but also why so many American liberals are upset that President Obama has come up short on the issues they care about.
So, what does all this mean for American progressives? Is the time fast approaching where writing letters and making phone calls to our representatives, knocking on doors and lobbying just isn’t enough? The concentration of wealth has given the powerful and well-connected such an overwhelming advantage in the political process, that the vote of the average person is becoming more and more meaningless. And, the traditional news media are so tilted in favor of the powerful and well-connected, that when the American left protests, it scarcely gets a mention.
It would be amazing to see in American cities the same kind of large scale general strikes that European workers routinely pull off, but that would take better grassroots organization and infrastructure that Americans don’t yet have. Conservative administrations have done so much damage to the American labor movement. If corporate influence continues to obstruct progress, we may have to engage in mass civil disobedience. Bill McKibben, founder of the site 350.org, wrote in a recent op-ed that environmentalists need to start getting tough in their efforts to slow global warming, and he even brought up the prospect of non-violent civil disobedience.
The barriers to change are becoming so insurmountable that I believe its time for the American left to acknowledge that it has to become more assertive, combative and tenacious in dealing with the destructive right-wing forces that are threatening to take down our society. As we attack right-wing ideology, we also need to go on the offense in promoting progressive values to the wider public. Just like America can learn some things about solving problems from other countries, the American left should look across the pond for lessons on how to confront power. We should also look to the political movements of our own past – when people didn’t even have the Internet! – for guidance.
Europeans know how to put on a good uprising simply because they’ve been at it much longer than we have. Their governments have reason to fear the people’s wrath. The American left must be feared and respected by the politicians — instead of ignored and insulted. The way to do that is to be defiant in who we are as liberals and what we stand for. It shows weakness to give up and retreat from the political process when things don’t go your way. It shows strength to pick yourself up and continue fighting for what you believe in.
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