The failure of the American left is a failure of nerve. It has been neutralized and rendered ineffectual as a political force because of its refusal to hold fast on core issues, from universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans, to the steadfast protection of workers' rights, to an immediate withdrawal from the failed occupation of Iraq to a fight against a militarized economy that is hollowing the country out from the inside.
Let the politicians compromise. This is their job. It is not ours. If the left wants to regain influence in the nation's political life, it must be willing to walk away from the Democratic Party, even if Barack Obama is the nominee, and back progressive, third-party candidates until the Democrats feel enough heat to adopt our agenda. We must be willing to say no. If not, we become slaves.
Political and social change, as the radical Christian right and the array of corporate-funded neocon think tanks have demonstrated, are created by the building of movements. This is a lesson American progressives have forgotten. The object of a movement is not to achieve political power at any price. It is to create pressure and mobilize citizens around core issues of justice. It is to force politicians and parties to respond to our demands. It is about rewarding, through support and votes, those who champion progressive ideals and punishing those who refuse. And the current Democratic Party, as any worker in a former manufacturing town in Pennsylvania can tell you, has betrayed us.
"The mistake of the former left-wingers, from Tom Hayden to Todd Gitlin, is that they want to be players in the Democratic Party and academia," said John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, speaking of two prominent 1960s activists. "This is not what the left is supposed to be. The left is supposed to be outside the system. The attempt by the left to take control of the Democratic Party failed with [Eugene] McCarthy and George McGovern. The left, at that point, should have gone back to organizing, street protests, building labor unions, and the mobilization of grassroots activists. Instead, it went for respectability."
The rise of a corporate state, and by that I mean a state that no longer works on behalf of its citizens but the corporations, is as much a part of the Democratic agenda as the Republican agenda. Sure, every four years Democratic candidates pay lip service to the old values of the party, but then they head off to Washington and do things such as ram NAFTA down our throats, throw 10 million people off welfare, and peddle health-care proposals acceptable to the HMOs, huge pharmaceutical giants, and for-profit health-care providers who are, after all, the very sources of our health-care crisis. What we as citizens need and work for in a corporate state is irrelevant.
The working class has every right to be, to steal a line from Obama, bitter with liberal elites. I am bitter. I have seen what the loss of manufacturing jobs and the death of the labor movement did to my relatives in the former mill towns in Maine. Their story is the story of tens of millions of Americans who can no longer find a job that supports a family and provides basic benefits. Human beings are not, despite what the well-heeled Democratic and Republican apologists for the free market tell you, commodities. They are not goods. They grieve, and suffer and feel despair. They raise children and struggle to maintain communities. The growing class divide is not understood, despite the glibness of many in the media, by complicated sets of statistics or the absurd, utopian faith in unregulated globalization and complicated trade deals. It is understood in the eyes of a man or woman who is no longer making enough money to live with dignity and hope.
"The other side has religion, and we need some," said the Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. "We need a more robust understanding of the role of religious values, values that prevent us from compromising the sanctity and dignity of human life. The left, because it is largely secular, did not do enough as the working class was finished off. And now the same thing is happening with the middle class. It is the loss of the left's spiritual resources that has crippled the movement. The left forgot that nations, like individuals, have souls. Once you sell your soul, it is hard to get it back. History is not linear. History is about constant struggle. It is the struggle, if you come out of faith, which matters."
The failure of the left is the failure of well-meaning people who kept compromising and compromising in the name of effectiveness and a few scraps of influence until they had neither. The condemnations progressives utter -- about the abuse of working men and women, the rapacious cannibalization of the country by an unchecked arms industry, our disastrous foreign wars, and the collapse of basic services from education to welfare -- are not backed by action. The left has been transformed into anguished apologists for corporate greed. They have become hypocrites.
"The loss of nerve by the left comes down to this lack of faith," Thistlethwaite said. "Having a soul means there is coherence between our actions and our values. The left can no longer claim this coherence. It has no moral compass. It does not know right from wrong. It has, in its confusion, lost the capacity to make moral judgments."
Hope, St. Augustine wrote, has two beautiful daughters. They are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and the courage to see they do not remain the way they are. We stand at the verge of a massive economic dislocation, one forcing millions of families from their homes and into severe financial distress, one that threatens to rend the fabric of our society. If we do not become angry, if we do not muster within us the courage to challenge the corporate state that is destroying our nation, we will have squandered our credibility and integrity at the moment we need it most.