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April 19, 2004

the "crisis of the left": responses

I'd like to respond to several thoughtful comments that refer to my mini-essay on the crisis of the left.

First, some major points of agreement. I think Mark Schmitt ("The Decembrist") hits the nail on the head when he writes:

Much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare the public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.

In my view, we are not ready to advocate major new programs or approaches--comparable to the New Deal or the Great Society--because we don't yet have enough compelling ideas or concrete experiments waiting to be expanded. While we develop such experiments, we need to preserve the capacity of government to become a force for ambitious reform. That means doing just what "the Decembrist" says--controlling deficits, moving the courts toward the center, and restoring friendships with other democracies--plus promoting broad participation in our public life. Every year, young people are less likely to vote and to participate in many important organizations. Those without college degrees are the first to drop out, and if they have no voice, then there is no chance that government will respond to their needs in the decades to come.

Second, I agree that some blogs are excellent sources of positive ideas for the Left. I rather high-handedly dismissed the whole "blogosphere" in my original essay, and I retract that characterization. "The Decembrist" himself, plus Matthew Yglesias, Crooked Timber, and Brad DeLong are good examples of constructive thinkers.

I do believe, however, there are limits to "idea-generation"--Mark Schmitt's phrase for what bloggers contribute to political life. We need ideas, but perhaps even more we need concrete experiments (preferably rigorously and independently assessed); and we need nascent organizations that have figured out how to mobilize people in productive ways. Of course, there are many such experiments and associations. The charter school movement is just one place to look. But many of the projects that I have examined closely turn out not to be all that successful. So we need more experimentation, more organization, and more critical attention to such work. I'd instantly bookmark any blog that catalogued examples of successful social reform.

Third, I agree with Matt Stoller that there is great value in open, collaborative projects. Matt cites Google, open-source software, Expedia, and Slashdot. I would call all these projects "commons," because they generate free public resources by harnessing the power of voluntary work. They disprove the "Tragedy of the Commons" thesis, which holds that a common resource must always be polluted and exploited until it is destroyed.

I have written enthusiastically and repeatedly about the value of commons as models for progressive politics and new social institutions. But we need to address some tough questions:

1. Can commons work offline, away from computers? Digital goods have remarkable properties. Above all, a digital text or image can be copied and used countless times without degrading the original. Some people see digital goods and online activities as the center of our lives today, in which case we can organize important social functions as commons. But this overstates the importance of computers. Digital goods have marginal significance even for many people on the right side of the Digital Divide (i.e., those with access to computers and the Internet). Progressive politics must be concerned not only with software development but also with bricks-and-mortar industries, elementary school classrooms, forests and oceans, and urban streets. Each of these things can literally be "wired," but connecting them to computers is not necessarily that important. (I posted recently about the limitations of using computers in school.)

2. What's our theory of motivation that explains why really large numbers of people will participate in digital, online projects? Matt Stoller says that "commons" (my word, not his) are "intuitive to the new Creative Class, and young disaffected voters and hip hop fans. Just look at the political issues of the young--p2p, rave laws, privacy, drug legalization--and you'll see, it's not the command-and-control impulses behind New Deal that motivates them, but the social contract underlying the networked systems that they rely on." I have to disagree, at least in part. Our surveys show that young people have similar issue-priorities to older people. For instance, 20 percent chose jobs as the single most important issue, 14 percent selected college tuition, 10 percent cited Iraq, and zero percent chose privacy issues connected to the Internet. We have also found that young people who use and like Internet politics (e.g., blogs and political chatrooms) are very well educated, ideologically committed, and politically engaged. There is no evidence that digital media are motivating large numbers of "young disaffected voters and hip hop fans" to participate politically. On the contrary, the president of your local College Democrats and the leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ are the ones you'll find talking about politics online.

3. Implicit in the previous questions: How do we use digital commons to empower lower-skilled people? For the most part, I fear, the effect of the new electronic media is to increase the power gap between the techno-savvy and everyone else.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, we developed institutions that overcame the motivation problem and, more important, developed civic and political identities among young people. For example, once a union is recognized, every worker must pay the equivalent of dues, so most of them join the union to get a voice. This solves the motivation problem. In turn, unions deliberately develop pro-union attitudes among young workers. What is the functional equivalent of a union in cyberspace?

Now let me pose some questions provoked by the discussion of my essay:

Is the Left hobbled by a lack of resources? Dave Johnson thinks so--and makes some good arguments in support of this conclusion. However, I continue to believe that the lack of money is mainly an excuse that progressives use to avoid taking responsibility for confronting their own intellectual crisis. Johnson mentions the "huge infrastructure of the Right." It is big, and I don't know how to compare it to the Left. But consider that most professors and academic researchers in the humanities, sociology, and political science are left of center, if not radical. (I don't regard this as a scandal, just as the result of a free and competitive market). The American Political Science Association alone has 14,000 members, many of them tenured faculty with substantial salaries, complete freedom of expression, direct access to college students, and a mandate to write about politics. Most are on the Left. They outnumber the Heritage Foundation by 28:1 (a guess). Yet how much influence do they have on public debates? I'd say little, and I'd add that this is their fault. If academic economists have more influence, it's because the intellectual house of neoclassical economics is in better shape than the intellectual house of progressive reform.

Can a presidential campaign develop a positive vision? Mark Schmitt says no, based on his experience in 2000. He's probably right; the best any campaign can do is to choose, refine, and promote a philosophy that's already available within its party. This means that we shouldn't criticize John Kerry for failing to develop the equivalent of the New Deal while he also rushes around the country answering attacks and raising money.

As a matter of fact, I'm not interested in criticizing Kerry at all--I think he holds a weak hand because the Left has failed to develop an array of moving and credible themes from which he can choose. Still, this lack of options is an inescapable problem and he ought to focus on it. At a minimum, I believe Kerry should face the reality that we cannot have a balanced budget, tax cuts for the middle class, and expanded health insurance--all of which he has promised. If he made a choice among those three goals and defended it, this might be the basis of a positive vision. If I recall correctly, candidate Bill Clinton essentially fudged the same choice, indicating that he would be able to provide universal health coverage and a balanced budget while also holding down taxes. He deferred the tough choices until after the election. This is a tempting model for Kerry, since Clinton defeated a Bush. But after his inauguration, Clinton did make tough choices for which the country was unprepared, and I believe that his very rocky start helped to elect a Republican congressional majority that may govern the country for a generation. Mark Schmitt notes that "Clinton's governing agenda ... was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's." I think we need to beware of doing that again.

Can we make a new case for government intervention in the economy? In comments on this blog, Jonathan Goldberg and "Kilroy Was Here" both try to do this. Kilroy argues that we need governments to preserve competition, and Goldberg notes that state spending is often productive. I think both are right, although I'm not sure how much of an agenda this adds up to. We certainly should remind people that tax revenues don't just vaporize; they are spent in the private sector. NIH and NSF make especially efficient investments, but even big entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare put funds right back into private hands.

Gary Sauer-Thompson connects my argument to the thesis of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I can't comment intelligently on that link, since I haven't read Empire yet.

Finally, only one argument has been made with which I strongly disagree. Rich Puchalsky writes on "the Decembrist" forum: "Our civic culture is a sham, and should be destroyed." You can't find our civic culture on television, but that's the fault of broadcast journalists, not civil society. Although it is threatened, it is thriving and impressive. Just look at the wonderful and powerful examples described in Civic Innovation in America, or consider the civic development of cities like Chatanooga and San Antonio, or visit organizations like Campus Compact or Study Circles (and too many more to name).

Posted by peterlevine at 10:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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