Bridging the Gap Between Liberals and Leftists: Where Douglas S. Massey's New Liberal Vision Falls Short
by G. William Domhoff
It's big news when one of the leading demographers in American sociology, Douglas S. Massey, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and a past president of both the American Sociological Association and the Population Association of America, suddenly decides to put aside his scholarly research and write a fighting liberal manifesto. It's called Return of the "L" Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century and it's meant to inject new ideas and passion into the Democratic Party. Mainstream academicians such as Massey, who studies international migration, race relations, and housing discrimination, with a Ph.D from Princeton in 1978 and then tours of duty at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania before returning to his alma mater as a distinguished professor, usually don't do things like that. When they do, the results are not often published by Princeton University Press, let alone in combination with Oxford University Press. It says a great deal about Massey's standing, not to mention his clout, that these two scholarly presses would combine to publish what is a decidedly unacademic book.
Massey says he wrote Return of the "L" Word in a white heat because he was "mad," as in very angry, about the ineptness of the Democrats in 2000 and 2002, allowing Republicans to steal the 2000 election and then providing no inspiring alternative vision in 2002 in the face of an obvious right-wing takeover (p. ix). He also was driven by a "lingering irritation with liberals who continued to support Ralph Nader" (p. ix). He was so frustrated, he tells us, that he couldn't work fast enough, reading widely in the spring and summer of 2003, then writing the whole thing in the fall of that year. His goal is to provide Democrats with a new liberal program . He wants those who are accused of being liberals to stand up and be counted, not "shrink and dissemble," and to say "Damned right I'm a liberal and this is what I stand for" (p. xiii).
So what's the result? It's a mixed verdict. There's a very informed, spirited, and convincing argument for markets as pathways to real advances if they are properly shaped by government and managed in the public interest. Massey also presents a strong case for reorganizing, extending, and fully financing education from pre-school through high school. He provides ample justification for national health insurance as a "public good" and for other programs that protect all citizens against a variety of "market failures." Markets are a "public resource" to be managed by a government that also makes large investments in the capabilities of all Americans (e.g., p. 88).
But aside from accurately pinpointing racism as the key wedge issue in the success of Republicans after 1965, his analysis of the rise of the right is not very strong because he does not fully analyze the complex nature of the New Deal coalition. More importantly, he actually claims that liberal mistakes were a major factor in the rise of the right, second only to the Republican use of racial appeals, which is surely a form of victim blaming. The indictment is even more off base because it doesn't always focus on actual liberals. Aside from those liberals who were supposedly too concerned with the environment or moral politics, or were soft on the Vietnam War for too long, his criticism is mostly directed toward the corporate-based foreign policy establishment that took the country into the Vietnam War or the socialists, Naderites, anti-globalization activists, and postmodernists he doesn't agree with on much of anything. But the Vietnam warriors were centrists at best and those to the left of Massey don't think of themselves as liberals and usually don't support the Democrats. For example, it was not liberals who supported Nader, but leftists. In essence, Massey has defined "liberals" far too broadly, simply as people who want to use government to promote the "common good" and give everyone the same "opportunities," which leads him to underestimate the gap between liberals and leftists and therefore to ignore the issues that would have to be addressed to overcome that gap (p. 11).
Most unfortunate of all, many of the liberals and leftists Massey criticizes probably won't be able to hear his message because of the way he presents it, as if he is telling them off, getting some things off his chest. He just says they are all wrong, citing his social science and historical evidence, and that's the end of it. His scathing critiques of rightists may be useful in helping liberals to define who is us and who is them, but calling postmodern theory a "neo-fascist ideology," for example, is not exactly the way to start a conversation with fellow "liberals," however misguided they may be, especially when he ends up overemphasizing the shaping power of the media shortly after he makes light of talk about "hegemonic discourse" (p. 31). However, his style of presentation probably won't matter that much because he has nothing to say about the key problem for creating a wider left-of-center coalition: how to build bridges among the rival liberal and left factions so that they might be able to pull in the same direction for a change. In particular, he does not explain how and why the rules of the American electoral system make it necessary and possible to work within and transform the Democratic Party, a fact that he seems to take for granted.
But let's start with the positives and work downward from there, concluding with some suggestions on how a program very similar to Massey's could become a common ground for everyone left of center if both liberals and leftists, not just leftists, could accept some ideas and realities they have previously resisted, to their mutual detriment.
Liberalism and Markets
Massey provides a detailed history and sociology of markets based on research and theorizing by economic sociologists, whose key insight, he frequently tells us, is that markets are "not free states of nature" (e.g., pp. 6,40,59,63,117). This starting point is combined with sarcastic comments about the "gospel" of free markets believed in by the economists in and around the University of Chicago ("the Chicago boys") (e.g., p. 126). Contrary to free-market advocates, markets are said to be "constructed," a product of human activity within the context of large-scale urbanized societies, especially over the past several hundred years. They require "private property, buyers and sellers, money, and information" (pp. 40-41). In discussing the evolution of markets in the 18th and 19th centuries, Massey provides a plausible explanation for why some leftists gave up on markets and became socialists, who believe that markets are failed human constructions which facilitate the exploitation and commodification of fellow human beings as "labor." Socialists therefore want to construct an egalitarian non-market economy with some form of planning at its center . According to Massey, this socialist vision, which he thinks is unworkable, mistakenly arose because early markets were unstable, led to a high degree of inequality, and often failed completely (p. 41).
Despite the dark side of markets, Massey stresses their usefulness and argues that they can be made to work for everyone in a society, not just the wealthy few. They can be made fair and transparent, and in fact they will collapse if they aren't improved because people will rebel against them. He repeatedly notes that the rich and powerful, left to themselves, will rig and wreck the very markets that benefit them so handsomely, which makes it necessary as well as morally right that the government shape and police markets for the benefit of everyone. From a liberal perspective, markets are a "tool" chosen by citizens as the best way to produce and distribute goods and services while preserving freedoms (p. 62). Profits, in this way of thinking, are "merely the rewards that a liberal society offers to producers to make markets work" (p. 63).
Massey has a good idea for ensuring fairness, the social science "audit," which involves sending men and women of different skin colors and ethnicities, but with the same educational and social credentials, into a variety of housing, financial, and job markets to determine if there is discrimination on the basis of gender or color. Developed in good part because conservatives in government have done everything they can to keep federal agencies from policing markets, Massey would have the government make much wider use of such audits.
It is within the context of his vision of how markets could operate in a democratic society that Massey addresses those he calls "people of liberal sentiment" who believe that "rational planning would do a better job of ensuring the general social and economic welfare" (p. 37). Such people, of course, are not liberals in the usual sense of the term because all liberals believe in markets. They are socialists, and their belief in a planned economy without markets -- along with the abolition of private ownership of income-producing property -- remains very strong. It also generates a large difference in approach between liberals and socialists that is not easily bridged even though they are on the same side of the political divide.
Massey's first argument concerning the need for markets, namely, the horrendous and murderous nature of the efforts at economic collectivization by Stalin and Mao, is not likely to prove convincing to those who claim that non-market planning could work in a fully developed capitalist economy within the context of a democratic government. Everyone agrees that the Soviet Union and China were neither developed capitalist countries nor democracies, so they don't count according to classical socialist texts. That's one of the main reasons why there are still socialists on the left writing critiques of capitalism and proposing non-market alternatives rather than working on how to transform capitalism while retaining markets (e.g., Hahnel, 2005, for an excellent overview and critique of the range of non-market alternatives). (Massey throws Hitler's regime into his collectivization argument, but Hitler did not abolish private ownership, markets, or profits, instead shaping the economy through supports for farmers, public works, direct commands to specific industries, and a form of military Keynesianism.)
Massey also finds the "socialist" economies in the Scandinavian countries to be failures. They led to large public bureaucracies too often based on narrow claims by particular interests, sapping the entrepreneurial spirit and putting a crimp in markets. In addition, their planning bureaucracies were too slow and inflexible, resulting in the election of center- right politicians "committed to shrinking the size of the state (p. 43). But this indictment seems off the mark in many ways.
True, there have been some cutbacks in the welfare states across Scandinavia since the 1980s, but that holds for every other country, including the United States, so it is hardly a critique of their particular economic arrangements. Moreover, those countries continue to provide benefits that are far more generous than those in the United States, or even France and Germany, but they remain efficient and competitive capitalist systems with sustained growth and low levels of unemployment. They are still mostly run by social democrats and they have low levels of public ownership and very little central planning in any "socialist" sense, so it is hard to see how Massey's system of democratic markets would differ very much from them unless it is a more stark and individualistic form of liberalism than his book seems to suggest. (These countries still have plenty of political disagreements, but mostly because the well-to-do conservatives are unhappy, a situation that Massey knows his own program would face in the United States from the same set of people using the same sorts of rationales.)
Massey makes his argument against non-market planning more specific by claiming it has two fatal defects. First, it does not provide sufficient individual motivation to engage in work, an assertion that may underestimate the cooperative side of human beings in egalitarian social settings (Boehm, 1999). Second, and more importantly in Massey's view, non-market planning cannot work because planning bureaucracies require a great concentration of power to be effective. They have a way of becoming oligarchies if they are not checked from the outside.
Although I agree with this second argument, I would start at a more basic level by questioning whether even the most powerful planning bureaucracy could be effective. This is the key point that has been made by economists who have studied the issue: effective planning is impossible without various kinds of markets because it is not possible to compile or process the vast amount of necessary information on consumer preferences, raw materials, and production schedules, or to adjust fast enough to unexpected economic changes. These information failures lead to huge inefficiencies, which then trigger corruption because planners and factory managers begin to cut corners, hoard supplies, adulterate products, and buy on the black market in an effort to meet planning goals. It is this process that destroys morale and reduces any desire to work for the collective good. Waste and lack of innovation are soon added to the list of problems. Unrestrained bureaucracies certainly have their problems, but lack of information and other economic issues are even more important in explaining why planned economies have failed (Lindblom, 2000; Nove, 1991; Pierson, 1995).
Thus, I would argue that non-market planning would not work even in democratic polities because the information problems are too great. (For a contrary view that sets out a version of democratic planning without markets called "participatory economics," see the thoughtful analysis by economist Robin Hahnel (2005).) I would further argue, in agreement with Massey, that there are potentialities for greater equality and fairness through markets in a democratic society. I believe that markets have the virtue of being a relatively decentralized form of cooperation in which people can obtain what they need with a limited amount of information and without endless planning meetings. This perspective is consistent with those economists who have outlined a program for "economic democracy," which is based on past American experience, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, as well as on economic arrangements in other democratic capitalist countries, including the Scandinavian countries (Archer, 1995; Carnoy & Shearer, 1980).
I therefore think Massey's call for "democratic markets" that are "managed" by government makes sense. "Democratic markets" vs. "free markets" is also a good political match-up (p. 63). As for the many socialist doubters, democratic markets may not end exploitation in the classical Marxist sense, but they could greatly lower the rate of exploitation. But I also would go a little further than Massey in suggesting "planning through the market," which is based on incentives and penalties created by elected representatives, a possibility I take up in the final section when I discuss potential bridges between leftists and liberals.
Massey's Domestic Liberal Vision
Within his market-based context, Massey calls for massive government investment in a variety of human capacities, which include good health and the ability to imagine, think, and reason, so that everyone has a fair chance to enter markets and benefit from them. He couches his argument in terms of human capital formation, claiming that all citizens need to have the fullest possible capabilities if the American economy is to continue to develop and compete in the world. As one piece of evidence, he notes that the nation's world-class universities have to rely on students from other countries to provide enough technicians and scientists, which means that the United States is a "free rider" on other countries' superior K-12 schools (p. 85).
Massey's emphasis on human capital formation may be a little too economistic for many leftists, who stress that education is a human good in and of itself, but if it is not overdone his approach might make for a more compelling argument to centrists because it can appeal to competitive and nationalistic sentiments. Perhaps his deeper goals are revealed by some of the capabilities he thinks it is necessary to foster, such as the ability to form emotional attachments and a conception of what is good and moral, which do not seem to have mattered much to market advocates in the past, and by his insistence that everyone needs a good education, even though most jobs, perhaps as many as 75-80%, do not seem to require it.
In keeping with these goals, Massey wants dramatic changes in schools so that they are utilized year around and at night by everyone from pre-schoolers to adults who want to retool or enrich their understandings. He notes that the major school rebuilding program he has in mind would also be good for the economy as a form of public works spending. He shows that a comprehensive education system would be far cheaper and more productive than locking millions of young males into prisons. Educate, not incarcerate, could be one of his slogans:
Massey also uses his emphasis on markets to criticize the continuing discrimination against women and minorities in housing, lending, and employment markets. He thereby hopes to turn "market access" into the "keystone of a new campaign for equality," making it possible to downplay the set-aside and compensation programs resisted by large numbers of white Americans, especially white males. (p. 73).
When it comes to health care, Massey starts with the fact that it is a public as well as an individual good that has been massively subsidized and improved by government-sponsored research and other subsidies. He excoriates conservatives who overlook this fact in their zeal for private medical care, suggesting that "diehard libertarians" must be convinced of the need for public health care on the basis of "overcoming a market failure for self-interested reasons" (p. 76). Not many idealistic individualists will be able to protect themselves against a flu epidemic, for example, so access to guaranteed health care is necessary because it even helps "the selfish libertarian from succumbing to an infectious disease agent" (p. 76).
All this adds up to a return to a materialist politics that has two general goals: better management of markets and greater investment in the capabilities of all Americans (p. 88). Politically, it is aimed at four potential constituencies: professionals, women, minorities, and workers, which seems to include just about everybody except white male owners and managers of small and large businesses, middle-level white-collar employees, and the dwindling number of farmers. Liberals need to enter into "class warfare" because it is not a "sin" to represent "the material interests of one's constituents," especially when the Republicans have been practicing a vicious form of class warfare for the past 35 years (e.g., p. 159).
The Rise of the Right: Are Liberals of Any Stripe to Blame?
Massey says loud and clear that racial appeals were the key wedge issue in creating the new Republican majority. I couldn't agree more. However, he doesn't make it clear enough that it was the actions of the Civil Rights Movement that forced the Congress -- controlled by Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans on racial issues through the filibuster -- to finally pass civil rights legislation, and doesn't explain how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed the entire American power structure in such a way that racial resentments could be used by the Republicans.
Such an analysis begins with the fact that the Democratic Party back then was first and foremost the party of the Southern rich, not of liberals, who used their position in it to keep African-Americans powerless. Moreover, the Southern whites' determination to exclude African-Americans was tacitly supported by machine Democrats in large Northern cities. These machine-based Democrats, about 50 in all in the House, often had liberal voting records on legislation that made it to the floor, but they usually helped the Southerners to gut such legislation behind the scenes and in committee. They also upheld the tradition of seniority, which put the Southerners in charge of a disproportionate number of Congressional committees. Most critically for a full understanding of the Democratic Party, they had no real appetite for encouraging African-Americans to register and vote because they already had large voting majorities in their districts and were likely to lose their seats to African-Americans if more of them voted.
Thus, the liberal-labor coalition, with fewer than a majority of Senators and only 100 or so seats in the House, had far less power within the pre-1964 Democratic Party than Massey implies. When it came to domestic spending, the coalition had to agree that the South received more than its share of the pork and that the Southern whites could exclude African-Americans if they so desired (Brown, 1999). On the occasions when the Northern liberals could convince the urban machine types to support them on an issue in opposition to the Southerners, the Southerners joined with Northern Republicans after 1938 in a highly successful conservative voting bloc to stop any legislation they did not like, which usually involved issues related to control of labor markets in both the North and the South (Clausen, 1973; Patterson, 1981; Shelley, 1983).
In short, the Civil Rights Movement dynamited the whole power structure of that era, which rested on the acceptance of African-American exclusion by the liberal-labor coalition and the machine Democrats as well as by the Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats. Once that tacit bargain was exploded by in-the-streets activism that forced Northern Republicans to desert the Southern Democrats on a filibuster of civil rights legislation, racism could be used by conservatives to forge a new dominant power coalition. In the process, moderate conservatives in the corporate community joined with their ultra-conservative counterparts, who had remained resistant to the reforms of the previous 30 years, to support political candidates who could bring everyday Southern whites, racist whites in the North, religious fundamentalists, anti-feminists, and the rest of the conservative right into the Republican Party.
If Massey's analysis of how racial appeals came to matter in Republican politics is incomplete, his claim that the "other reasons for liberalism's decline are internal to the movement itself" is flat-out wrong (p. 26). He says that after 1965 liberals made mistakes on (1) race, (2) class (3) war (4) peace and (5) ideology. To take an especially strong example, he accuses them of "using courts and bureaucracies to force unpopular and coercive measures -- school busing, public housing, affirmative action -- down the throats of the middle and working classes" in support of African-Americans (p. 71). But were these liberal choices or simply what was possible after conservatives exerted their power? And wasn't affirmative action a product of worried corporate elites and the Nixon Administration? Massey shifts his ground slightly when he explains that liberals were hesitant to confront "exclusion and unfair treatment within housing, lending and job markets" because they were afraid of "losing the South" (p. 71). Here he edges up on the central issue discussed earlier, the power of the Southern rich within the Democratic Party. It wasn't liberals, for example, who stopped federal agencies from policing markets in order to eliminate bias and discrimination, and thereby obviate the need for the policies Massey decries. As he shows, that could have been done through federal courts and social audits if liberals had had the power he attributes to them.
Massey grants that the oil shocks had a major impact on inflation, but says liberals should have managed the problem better starting in the 1960s. His analysis first of all overlooks the fact that the conservative voting bloc in Congress would not allow much by way of tax increases. The conservatives certainly understood that tax increases would help dampen inflation, but they had bigger fish to fry in a power sense: they wanted to force cutbacks in government spending for social welfare programs and try to contain the power of labor unions. And what about the actions of that supposedly neutral technocrat, economist Arthur Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under Nixon, who lowered interest rates in 1971-1972 to insure Nixon's re-election, even though that was sure to fuel inflation? Finally, by the time the oil shocks came along, liberals had even less influence on monetary and fiscal policies than they did in the late 1960s.
Massey also criticizes liberals because they came to focus too much attention on the environment, but the environmental movement did not grow out of post-materialist and lifestyle politics. In fact, it was started by local growth coalitions concerned that pollution was going to undermine urban land values (Gonzalez, 2005) and by the moderate conservatives who direct the Ford Foundation, Resources for the Future, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other conservation, population, and resource groups. Young environmental activists certainly contributed greatly to the equation at this point with their research reports and the use of strategic nonviolence, but the fact remains that it was moderate Republican environmentalists within the Nixon Administration who set up and staffed the new environmental agencies (Domhoff, 2006, pp. 83-84; Mitchell, 1991; Robinson, 1993).
Massey hits his lowest note in his mistaken bill of particulars when he claims that "the same liberals who promoted civil rights and social welfare also prosecuted a costly foreign war on the basis of lies, deception, and subterfuges that once again abused the faith and trust of the working class" (p. 28). He echoes the right-wing revisionists of the 1970s when he says that "liberal lawmakers" were for the war "as long as someone else's children were serving and dying as soldiers..." (p. 29). But liberals inside and outside the government were opposed to the war from the time serious escalation was contemplated in 1964. Vice president Hubert Humphrey, perhaps the most visible liberal in the United States at the time, argued in a memo to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that any escalation of the war, which he did not favor, would lead to problems with Democratic liberals, independents, and labor. Liberal Democrats in the Senate also were opposed to escalation (Logevall, 1999).
What liberals can be accused of in the face of Johnson's determination to persevere in Vietnam -- he excluded Humphrey from discussions of the war for a year because of his dovish views -- is timidity (Logevall, 2004). However, most of them soon came to be outspoken critics well before the draft ended, contrary to another one of Massey's inaccurate accusations. (And if we look at the leading pundits and politicians of today, far fewer liberals than conservatives avoided military service during the Vietnam era.) Massey even blames liberals for the Vietnam war itself, but the people who made foreign policy, and decided to escalate the war, with the exception of Johnson himself, were centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans from think tanks, foundations, and corporations, such as McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John McCone, hardly the same crowd that was for economic and social liberalism at home.
Massey thinks that personal fulfillment and rights were overdone by liberals. He claims that a switch to moral politics "achieved many legislative successes, owing to a well-organized network of citizens groups working the halls of Congress, but it also triggered a fundamentalist backlash and brought about the desertion of the Democratic party by the white working class" (p. 159). But what would he have had the liberals and feminists do differently? The reality is that the anti-war and feminist movements accelerated the fragmentation of the New Deal coalition because there were genuine differences of opinion on highly emotional issues that could not be easily compromised. Southern whites in general and some Northern working class whites went one way because of their racism, sexism, support for the Vietnam War, and/or the desire to hold on to their skilled blue-collar jobs by keeping African-Americans and women out of them. African-Americans went a separate way because most whites wouldn't open up their neighborhoods or unions, and because the Democratic Party would not deal more forthrightly with the racist Mississippi delegation at the 1964 convention when it was challenged by the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The ghettos began to explode in 1964 with no prodding by liberals or civil rights activists, and the majority of whites started to call for "law and order."
Meanwhile, white liberals, feminists, many college students, anti-war activists, and strong environmentalists went still another way, although remaining sympathetic to the civil rights cause, because they wanted equal rights for women, an end to the war, greater religious and sexual freedom, and greater regulation of industries that were causing increasing environmental pollution. In addition, young white leftists joined African-Americans in rejecting the Democratic Party after the 1964 convention, a decision that foreclosed any consideration by them of working within the Democratic Party for a good many years to come. The only thing the various types of liberals and left activists could have done to hold together the coalition was to pull back on all their issues, which they weren't about to do. They also knew that African-Americans had been counseled by nearly everyone to take things more slowly, which had not worked.
The most surprising charge against liberals, although relatively minor in the context of his overall indictment, is that "affluent liberal planners created urban renewal programs" (p. 27). As I show in "Power at the Local Level", this claim is greatly overstated. Urban renewal was a product of the landowners and developers who dominate downtown growth coalitions. Liberals were able to achieve some of their housing policy initiatives in the Housing Act of 1949, but the conservatives stalled any real implementation until they modified the act during the unexpected and temporary Republican control of Congress in 1953-1954. It was this revised act that led to the urban renewal and downtown redevelopment that Massey rightly deplores. From that point forward urban renewal was a federally funded battering ram to displace low-income (especially African-American) neighborhoods from land needed for downtown and university expansion, with very little replacement housing in exchange, which was another reason for the ghetto riots and uprisings in the 1960s. The one grain of truth in Massey's claim is that some liberals swallowed their qualms about the revised program and supported it too enthusiastically, but the programs remained in the control of the local growth elites.
Massey believes the liberals split in two directions in the face of the rising right-wing challenge. Some went with the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, whereas those in and around academia became postmodernists who fought culture wars within the universities. But the members and staff of the Democratic Leadership Council were always conservative; they were mostly from the Southern wing of the party, which was able to play a key role in electing Clinton in 1992 (Baer, 2000). As for the postmodernists, who come in for an intellectual trouncing from Massey, they are leftists, often Marxists or former Marxists, or advocates of one or another high-level French theorist. They do not see themselves as liberals and rarely are now or ever have been supporters of the Democratic Party. Massey ends his brief summary of this large body of academic work by saying "ultimately it is a neo-fascist ideology that seeks little more than to replace one tyranny for another" (p. 31). For a person who says that "patient argument and sympathetic understanding are more effective than strident sermonizing" in dealing with those who resist changes in attitude and policy towards "minorities, women, and gays," Massey is remarkably harsh in dismissing fellow "liberals" that he does not agree with, once again underestimating the size of the gap between most liberals and most leftists (p. 4).
To my way of thinking, the changes forced on the white South and the Northern white working class by presidential executive orders and congressional legislation in the first five years of the 1960s, along with divisions over the Vietnam War, were the main factors in the initial rise of the right, which appealed to racial resentment and super-patriotism to gain support. Shortly thereafter the gains made by feminists and the gay-lesbian movement further alienated traditional and highly religious whites inside and outside the South. To the degree that I would assign any blame to a "liberal" of any stripe within Massey's overly general category, it would be to the proponents of property violence or armed struggle within the anti-war and civil rights movements, who did contribute to the turn towards the law-and-order Republicans by dismayed liberals in the Democratic Party and by many centrists who usually supported the Democrats. If Massey had developed this kind of analysis, he would not have made it more difficult to gain acceptance for his program by lambasting so many of his potential allies.
But Why Should Liberals Be Democrats?
Massey provides a detailed argument for why everyone left of center should favor markets, but he does not explain why liberals and leftists should be Democrats. He does stay that "Insisting on the right to vote for Nader was like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," but that is not an argument derived from the cross-national and historical literatures on the effects of electoral rules on the nature of party systems (p. x). Instead, he takes it for granted that liberals and leftists should be Democrats, whereas most leftists would heartily disagree.
I think Massey is right on this issue, but it needs to be demonstrated using the literature showing that the American electoral system -- a single-member-district plurality system, or first-past-the-post system -- sets up a series of winner-take-all elections in which a vote for a third party of the left -- or right -- is a vote for your least preferred party. (It is striking that the right wing in the United States has learned this lesson well, and thereby transformed the Republican Party, but the left wing has not.) As comparisons with other countries show, this system, along with the election of a president in what is in effect a giant winner-take-all plurality election in a district called the United States, makes third parties all but impossible for any extended period of time. (This analysis is presented in "Third Parties Don't Work: Why and How Egalitarians Should Transform the Democratic Party.")
Nor does Massey explain how liberals and leftists could have an impact within the party. He seems to assume that Democratic candidates should adopt his very liberal program right now as the way to win elections, but there's no way candidates vying for major offices in regular elections are going to run as out-and-out liberals any time soon. They are going to mix and match, and tailor things around the edges, in order to eek out enough votes in the center to win. If it takes a trim on liberal social issues, as it apparently does in most Western states, then they are going to trim on social issues. If it takes centrism on economic issues, then they are going to run as centrists. The Hillary Clinton of 2005-2006, positioning herself for a run for the presidency in 2008, is the ideal case in point when it comes to Massey's strategy: centrism all the way.
But there is a way to enter the debate and move it in the liberal direction Massey advocates, and that is to run candidates on strong liberal or leftist platforms in the primaries, a strategy for which there are many good precedents (Domhoff, 2006, pp. 143-144). I return to this point as part of the final section, where I discuss how liberals and leftists might find ways to work together while still arguing about their differences.
Potential Bridges Between Liberals and Leftists
"If liberals are to win," Massey says, they must stop their "internecine bickering" (p. 9) But he does not suggest how the differences among the factions within his liberal-socialist-leftist-Naderite category might be overcome, except through the implication that adopting his program would solve just about everything. Unlike Massey, I think some new understandings would have to be developed among the various left-of-center groups before liberalism could become a winning creed. Without such understandings, the internal battles will hamstring the attempt to win the center, robbing the effort of the shared vision, vital energy, and hope that are needed. But what might such bridges look like?
For the various leftist orientations, there need to be three essential changes in their thinking. First, the left has to abandon its vain hopes for a third party, which cannot succeed and cannot help but be divisive because a vote for a third party of the left is a vote for the right. Second, there has to be an explicit rejection of the use of violence that is implicit in any call for "revolution" or in comments about "by any means necessary," and in the concept of "diversity of tactics" adopted by the anti-globalization movement. I do not want to get sidetracked into the large and complex argument about whether armed struggle and the destruction of property are wrong under all circumstances, but I don't think they make any moral sense within the context of representative democracies with the level of freedom that has been reached in many highly industrialized nations, including the United States. Moreover, there is no hope that any form of violence could advance the cause even if it could be somehow justified: violent means alienate the great majority of Americans and play into the hands of the powers that be, who can easily marshal superior force. Cesar Chavez used to summarize the moral and political issues involved in the use of any form of violence in the United States by saying it was "wrong and stupid." (I present my full argument on this issue in "Social Movements and Strategic Nonviolence".)
Third, the socialists on the left have to realize that non-market planning cannot work. It is a flawed basis for building the kind of alternative economic vision of an egalitarian society that is needed to revive leftist hopes and propel socialist groups past the dead end of "anti-capitalism."
Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have to make some adjustments in their thinking as well. First and foremost, they have to recognize that demonizing or ignoring the various people to their left is not a smart strategy, if only because the left can sink them via a third party, as the Nader campaign of 2000 tragically showed. On a more positive note, liberals should come to recognize that the energy and dedication leftists bring to the battle could be of great help to the Democrats if there was no possibility of them deserting to a third party at the last minute.
Within that context, liberals should attempt to recruit the left by calling for far bolder initiatives on progressive income taxes, health care, job opportunities, and other bread-and-butter issues than they have for a long time. Talking about liberalism primarily in terms of equality of opportunity, as Massey does, is not a liberalism that offers very much to the left, or to the working class, broadly defined, for that matter. Liberals also need to accept the fact that non-violent social movements outside the electoral arena have played a large role in social change in the United States, and often made liberal electoral and policy victories possible. I think the historical and social science literatures demonstrate that electoral politics in the United States, due in part to the rules leading to the two-party system, always need a push from social movements to create new agendas and support for them, a fact that liberals often ignore. (Conversely, social movements need electoral politics to enact the policy changes they desire, a fact many leftists have not been willing to incorporate into their thinking.)
If these various understandings were accepted on both sides, it would leave one key issue open for continuing discussion: the degree to which markets can be used to create greater equality. Massey calls for "democratic markets" monitored by government to assure access and fairness for everyone, which is a good starting point. However, the use of markets might be more attractive to socialists on the left if the idea of government planning through markets also could be incorporated. As economist Charles Lindblom (2000, p. 259) insightfully suggests, with an acknowledgment of his own previous shortcomings, "many of us have been on the wrong track in identifying the market system with individualism, as though it could not serve collective purposes or could do so only exceptionally and badly." He goes on to argue that the market also can be seen as the "major administrative instrument of the state," which makes planning possible by using four well-known policy tools as carrots and sticks: subsidies, taxes, government purchases, and regulations. The government's planning agency would remain the same as it is now, the Congress, not some unelected planning bureaucracy, except that the Congressional plan would no longer be set by the corporate community and its associated policy planning network of foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups, supplemented by lobbyists and public relations personnel (Domhoff, 2006, Chapters 4-6).
The concept of planning through the market using well-known and extremely powerful incentives (recall how much conservatives dislike taxes and regulations) widens the horizons of liberalism in several ways that might make it more attractive to socialists and other leftists. The most important of them is the possibility for various forms of business ownership within the context of markets and representative democracy. This could include government ownership of some enterprises, which has precedents in other capitalist democracies, including once again the Scandinavian countries, which have highly successful economies overall. Private property, as Massey says, was one of the historic prerequisites of a market economy, but for liberals like Massey who stress that societies and their markets evolve, it should not be impossible to envisage more public ownership in some economic sectors and even "competitive public enterprises" in many sectors of the economy to keep oligopolistic multinationals on their toes and truly competitive -- pharmaceutical and energy companies come to mind here (Carnoy & Shearer, 1980). (I discuss these issues in more detail in "Planning Through the Market: More Equality Through the Market System.")
However, the likely differences of opinion between liberals and leftists over the degree of government planning and government ownership within a liberalized market system would not have to be resolved beforehand if it could be agreed that they would be discussed and contested within the framework of Democratic primaries. The only necessary prior agreement would be the willingness of the losing side to support the winner in the regular election, which is already implied in the essential agreement to forego participation in third parties under any circumstances.
If these various bridges could be built, which would by no means be easy given the history of acrimony and mutual suspicions, then I agree with Massey that liberals could do much better, even within gerrymandered House districts that now favor Republicans. I think a coherent liberal vision rooted in a "materialist politics" and a commitment to full access to all markets could be successful (p. 10). The potential constituencies are there and a sufficient amount of campaign money would be forthcoming if enough people thought there was any hope of winning. I also think the mainstream media can be counted upon to report any changes in citizen preferences for liberal or left Democrats in a fair way, perhaps treating left and liberal challenges as a David and Goliath story due to the Republican money advantages in a culture that thinks money decides elections.
But without the incorporation of the various types of leftists, or at least a significant portion of them, I doubt that the possibility of reaching the voters in the middle with a liberal message can be realized. Divisions and highly visible shouting matches between liberals and leftists generate tensions among activists and uncertainty among potential supporters. Massey claims that many centrist Americans will vote for candidates who stand up for their liberal principles, but I don't think they'll be willing to bet on a divided and contentious set of liberals and leftists who cannot develop new strategies to work together in the face of their ongoing failures in bringing about greater equality and access to markets.
Liberals cannot do it alone and leftists have to refocus their energies.
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