Time for a More Militant American Left?

one nationAre 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.

Sylvia MooreEuropeans 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.

Sylvia Moore

Reposted with permission from the LA Media Reform.


  1. Richard says

    The answer is yes. I don’t even like the interrogative framing in the headline. The left needs to be declarative, imperative. And more militant.

  2. kirk says

    Thinking in the long term is terrific, but you can also think yourself right ouf ACTION by doing that. So focused on the Future, whatever it may be, the Present is virtually ignored or rendered impotent.

    What happens Now, affects After, doesn’t it?

    Many millions are frustrated and know they’ve been burned by corporate intrigues of various flavors. And even if they are repulsed by the ideologies, whatever they are, of groups like The Tea Party, they can’t help but admire that these people are at least willing to get their butts out there and shout. Nevermind how stupid and ignorant they may be or how easy it is to mock them.

    Mockery of the other party will get Democrats nowhere. Trying to shake hands with people who have knives in their palms is absurdly Utopian thinking. Which is one thing Liberals get accused of all the time, and sometimes rightly.

    The Left has to stop caring about what the Right has to say about them. They have to stop talking themselves out of action.

    Action breaks out police dogs, batons, smoke bombs, and hoses. Reference the 60’s, when people were willing to risk never working in their own town again for showing their faces at a freedom rally. Reference the hippies willing to go to jail and get their heads cracked. THAT is the Left we need again.

    Pontificating about how we’re different than them, or more ‘modern’, or can use blogging ( really? seriously? Do you think the Koch brothers worry about liberal bloggers??? ) and cell phones is totally talking around the problem and is totally deflating the impetus…the EMOTIONAL IMPETUS…that people need to organize in the streets.

    Rationalizations about our relative historical youth, comparisons to Europe…it’s like dropping a cup of coffee and then thinking about gravity instead of how to avoid dropping the cup again…

    Although, I do agree that we have been infantalised, willingly by the way, as a society.

    But you have to convince people that, and this is true right now really, they have more to lose by NOT protesting. That jail is a meaningless concept as a punishment if one is already suffering the punishment of being homeless, jobless, and their families divided.

    People are waiting for an economic turnaround in our country, because they keep getting the message it will happen. No, it won’t. And the rules of the game weren’t changed after the banks went tits up. They had been set in place long before. But this trifling on my part as well.

    What the Left needs to do is say,”If you think it’s bad NOW, just keep waiting and it will get worse. The ONLY way to get the attention of Penn Ave is to make a nuisance of yourself. Once you have their attention, they have to be willing to hold court with you and hear your demands.” But none of that, NONE of it, is ever going to happen while Liberals ‘discuss’ History and make comparisons and try to approach this all with an untenable intellecutal objectivity.

    When it comes to certain kinds of change, there is only one way to get it: ACTION.

    The Revolutionaries that started this country were disobedient. Technically, you could even call them traitors as they threw off and rebelled against King George. Technically, they were criminals.

    Speaking of Europe, they had many internal wars. We’ve had some civil conflicts too. But we’ve never had a 400 years war. Nor a Pope to contend with. And, as a young country, and using History as a guide, we are due, probably overdue, for more internal conflicts. But so be it. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than the abject apathy of citizens in this country of both parties.

    Another party ot entre? Indeed. But that idea threatens so many financial interests it ai’nt gonna happen without an actual fight, without people actually going to jail, without people taking to the streets, without people striking…it’ll never happen. Write all the papers and articles you like, but what people need now, those who cherish Liberty FOR ALL, is a face; a leader. We need a Ghandi, an MLK…and whoever it is must be wiling to risk suffering exactly what those two great leaders did.

    It takes the courage of One to unify many, to motivate them, to give them the battle cry they need.

    The Right has not forgotten this.

    The Left ignores it.

  3. says

    A thoughtful article, and some good comments too.

    Sufficiently militant tactics are needed, but they are only means: what counts is gaining effective results toward important ends.

    Yes, sprawl and other noted factors do impede mass events in the US, but even huge demonstrations go nowhere unless in persistent pursuit of clear important messages and – pursuant to those messages – of specific demands (whether for specific job-creation measures; for specific anti-warming measures; for ending substance prohibitions; for utter equality in state recognition and treatment of life-partnerships; or for anything else.) Once given a message or a demand, there may be more ways to communicate it than just mass downtown demonstrations or mass-votes pro-or-con politicians or propositions.

    So, while we need sufficiently militant tactics, it’s even more important to take care in choosing and prioritizing the intended messages and demands. After all, every one of us but has finite time and energy for any effort, militant or otherwise.

    Some effort must go toward more immediate TACTICAL changes. In the long run, however, much future effort will be aided and saved if we also invest some effort toward STRATEGIC change – change in how public decisions are made – so as to ease future efforts to stop bad decisions and to promote good ones.

    Public decision-making still is done (under the well-intentioned but long-inadequate US federal constitution and its state and local copies) by long-term-entrenched all-powerful republican officer oligarchies, operating by whim under non-existent or pre-scientific standards of deliberation and reason. We badly need higher standards of reason, deliberation and democracy. These must include decision-makers’ use of sufficient information and rationale in a modern-day decision analysis, and precautionary review – with veto power – of every decision (and of its proposed rationale) by a deliberative citizen jury.

    As of now, just about the only required public information or rationale on a proposed publicly funded (or tolerated) project is on ‘environmental’ impacts and goals. The only ‘deliberation’ required is that the project be rubber-stamped by a few long-term-entrenched (and therefore readily corrupted) all-powerful official oligarchs or by a non-deliberative mass of mainly uninformed or busy and readily propagandized voters. (Unfortunately this inherent problem of republican oligarchy, with populist veneer, would not be changed even if we had NON-winner-take-all multiparty systems. We simply need to get away from republican oligarchy altogether.)

    In my opinion, the needed changes in public decision-making amount to implementing key if insufficiently recognized citizen rights, and on that basis can be presented and fought for. A citizen inherently has the right to participate (if she desires) as fully as any of her fellow citizens in making public decisions which concern her. She has the right too to expect public decisions to be made – and in precaution be reviewed – on the basis of sufficient information, reasoned deliberation and clear rationale.

  4. says

    Don’t get mad, just get the job done.

    The details of tactics and strategy, and the realities and practicalities of power, are very tough for us kibitzers to fully comprehend. We must somehow find the right path between destructive shooting at each other when we really need to pull together, and neglecting the constructive questioning and criticism that are essential to finding a way out of our sea of troubles, in very complex and murky circumstances.

    After half a century of being spoiled, entitled, and infantilized, is the American public too enfeebled for us to be able dig ourselves out of the hole we are in?

    There is no guarantee it is even possible, but we need to do our best. Bitterness and despair will not help.

  5. Eugene James Connor says

    Excellent article by Ms. Moore. Her discussion of the problem of the two party state was spot on and makes a fundamental point that I have been making for years: a long as there is a two party state, progressive policies stand little chance.

  6. Adam Eran says

    Very nice. One thing not mentioned: Sprawl disempowers protesters. Where do protesters gather? Where are the public squares? Where is the public realm? Nowhere, that’s where.

    Europeans also have far less sprawl than the U.S.

  7. Steve Lamb says

    Un no kidding. But isnt this the SAME LA PROGRESSIVE that attempts to shut down all criticism of the Democratic Party when for example it refuses to even discuss a public Option for Health Care? Oh it is…

    Isnt this group full of folks who sought to deradicalize the Pasadena DFA chapter and get rid of all the controversial real left activists? Oh it is…..

    Finally figuring out you cant win without a spine?


  1. […] The President is urging Democrats not to lose hope. Others in the Democratic Party maintain that the media may be overstating the GOP advantage. We’ve carried a few articles here in the LA Progressive that counter the doom and gloom predictions coming from the GOP. But, in the wake of Citizens United, with corporations pumping in unprecedented amounts of money through front groups – like the  US Chamber of Commerce, the Koch Brothers’  Americans for Prosperity, and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads – we need to do more than hold on to hope.  As reporter Sylvia Moore asserted in her piece of the same name, it’s “Time for a More Militant Left“. […]

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