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The American Left Has Left Us by Don Monkerud
The American Left Has Left Us
by Don Monkerud
 

THE WIDENING income gap in America points to a distressing aspect of the close of the 20th century: the lack of a viable, organized and coherent left in this country.

Traditionally, the left takes up for the little people, the dispossessed and nonrepresented, against economic forces that grow wealthy at their expense. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., reveals that over the past 20 years, from the 1970s to the late 1990s, the poorest fifth of the families lost 6.5 percent of income while the richest posted a 33.3 percent gain. The richest 1 percent spends as much as the poorest 100 million of our citizens.

One might think such a redistribution of the wealth would cause an uprising, but not here, where there's been a radical shift of the political spectrum to the right.

As president, Ronald Reagan organized extremely conservative and wealthy forces to turn America back to the 19th century, when laissez-faire capitalism ran hegemony over the public agenda. As a result, the public today more often champions opposition to government than to the multinational corporations that control every aspect of our lives and redistribute wealth to the rich.

Our political climate is held hostage to advertising that convinces us that corporations have our interest at heart, while they control our economic life. Wealthy individuals in these corporations bankroll groups who oppose taxes and propose selling all government property. They also fund the National Rifle Association, the Moral Majority and so-called Christian forces that attempt to institute a moral system to keep the public in its place and control our personal lives.

This wasn't always the case. In the last century, a number of organizations challenged laissez-faire capitalism. Millions of people joined groups to oppose the concentration of capital and economic power in the hands of giant trusts. The Socialist Party had an active membership of 70,000 and polled almost 600,000 votes for its presidential candidate in 1916. The Progressive Party garnered almost 5 million votes for president in 1922 on a platform that included the right to organize unions, an excess-profit tax, public ownership of railroads and utilities, graduated income tax, women's representation and expanded public education.

There's a reason there's no left in America today and it goes back to the corporations and wealthy individuals who opposed these progressive social programs in the early days of the century.

These corporations calculated that if they could push the United States into the first world war, they could unite Americans behind patriotism and destroy their opposition. In addition to employing legions of strikebreakers, they turned to the government for assistance.

The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act outlawed freedom of speech and association. Raids on Communist offices in 1920 led to the arrest of 4,000 ``subversives.'' Leaders were jailed, groups shut down and publications banned.

According to David Kennedy in ``Over Here; the First World War and American Society,'' patriotic groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National Security League, the American Defense Society and the American Legion backed the ``Great Red Hunt.'' The tactic paid off for big business and the wealthy. Not only were the reforms stymied, but wealth was transferred from taxpayers to the wealthy, who gobbled up war bonds at triple the interest rate in the commercial market.

``The Solid South'' protected its Jim Crow laws, capitalists protected their interests and industry reined in labor unions. The backbone of the progressive, socialist movement was broken, only to be revived briefly with the Depression and stamped out again with ``witch hunts'' for so-called subversives in the 1950s led by Joe McCarthy.

When President Clinton pursued a mild reform of the health care industry that threatened to remove excessive profits from the system, the proposal was soundly defeated with cries of ``socialized medicine'' and ``government control.'' Proposals to raise the minimum wage are attacked as ``government interference'' while Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, reports that since the start of the Clinton administration, 40 percent of the increase of the value of the stock market has gone to the top 1 percent of families and 85 percent to the top 10 percent.

Where are the leftists today? Where are those who call for free health care or demand that the gasoline and telephone conglomerates be broken up so the Bay Area can stop paying 10 to 40 cents more per gallon than the rest of the country?

Where are those who call for appropriating land for nature preserves, demand economic equality, a 30-hour work week, a six-week vacation, a ban on firearm sales and an end to dumping toxic chemicals into the air every year in the Bay Area?

The political debate in the United States today is restricted and conservative. Unless people begin to see their interests as different from the interests of the corporations that control our economic and social lives, America will be held hostage to corporate interests well into the 21st century.

Don Monkerud is a high-tech writer and novelist living in Aptos.

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2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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