Because of McCarthyism, the Cold War, the long economic expansion following WW II, and a resistence to think anew, the Left has been on the edges of politics for more than a half century. During this time, our ability to impact on broader political processes in the country has been narrowly circumscribed – nothing like the 1930s, nothing like the Left in many other countries.
While we stubbornly fought the good fight and made undeniable contributions over the past half-century, we were not a major player; we didn’t set the agenda or frame the debate; we didn’t determine the political direction of the country; we were not a decider.
But the past doesn’t have to be prelude to the future. Because of the new political landscape, the Left has an opportunity to step from the edges into the mainstream of U.S. politics. It has a chance to become a player of consequence; a player whose voice is seriously considered in the debates bearing on the future of the country; a player that is able to mobilize and influence the thinking and actions of millions.
Whether we do depends on many factors, one of which is our ability to shake off a “mentality of marginalization” that has become embedded in the Left’s political culture over the last half of the Twentieth Century.
How does this mentality express itself? In a number of ways – in spending too much time agitating the choir; in dismissing new political openings; in thinking that partial reforms are at loggerheads with radical reforms; in seeing the glass as always half empty; in thinking that our outlook is identical with the outlook of millions; in turning the danger of cooptation into a rationale to keep a distance from reform struggles; in enclosing ourselves in narrow Left forms; and in damning victories with faint praise.
In this peculiar mindset, politics has few complexities. Change is driven only from the ground up. Winning broad majorities is not essential. There are no stages of struggle, no social forces that possess strategic social power, and no divisions worth noting. And distinctions between the Democratic and Republican parties are either of little consequence or disdainfully dismissed.
Unless the Left – and I include communists – sheds this mentality, it will miss a golden opportunity at this moment to engage and influence a far bigger audience than it has in the past six decades. Where do we begin? The fight for a public option is a good starting point even for those of us (and I include myself) who prefer single payer.