Saturday, January 03, 2004

Sigh. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the Poetics list hasn't exactly risen in defense of my post from Thursday, where I was just trying to express my frustration with the tendency, even in the most ostensibly liberal circles, to regard the political voices of minorities and women as "separatist," demands for special treatment that distract from more important political goals. I guess this has to be a legacy of the late 1960s, when the new left saw itself coming apart and when many must have chosen to lay the blame at the feet of movements like black power and feminism (forgetting that the civil rights movement was one of the primary moral forces behind the new left).

But in any case, Mark Weiss suggested that perhaps I didn't get the point (though his response--universal health care is "more appealing to the majority" than, say, subsidizing low-income schools--suggests that I did), while Haas Bianchi seconded his position.

Some good sense did come from Walter Lew, who noted that allegedly "small" groups are usually just seeking the basic right to survive.

My response:

Walter Lew is quite right: if the most vulnerable programs were those that benefited the smallest groups, then the most vulnerable program of all would be the Bush tax cut, which hugely benefits only the wealthiest. Yet the Republican Party has successfully sold the nation on the idea that these tax cuts are good for--you guessed it--"the whole of society."

My argument here isn't that one should never focus on policies like universal health care and protecting Social Security, which are crucial goals for the American left. But I do take profound issue with the tactic of blaming the left's weakness on "separatist" groups that are too "small" to be representative; this sounds suspiciously to me like Bush's dismissal of millions of anti-war protesters as a "focus group."

The environment, feminism, civil rights--these are not small issues, nor do they have small constituencies. The Democratic Party is perfectly willing to exploit these constituencies at election time (e.g. the unwavering loyalty of most African-American voters to the Democrats), even if it doesn't do much for them the rest of the time.

Haas notes that "the goal on the left should be extending rights to everyone." Exactly--and last time I checked, the poor, women, people of color, and gays and lesbians were included in "everyone." Or, to put it a different way: the left has to be defined by its belief in the most inclusive possible definition of "everyone," in seeing what is left out of policies ostensibly pursued for the good of all.

The left at its best is not monolithic politics but coalition politics. I can't imagine a group concerned about civil rights or providing medication to low-income elderly that isn't also concerned with universal access to medical care. The American right has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that scares the mainstream left into shedding its more "radical" elements--the attacks by both Republicans and fellow Democrats on an anti-war candidate like Dean are only the latest example, but Dean's success ought to be the perfect riposte. I'd like to think that the left could pursue both universal health care and civil rights, both Social Security and protection for the poorest citizens. What disturbs me in this discussion is the confidence that the interests of "the majority" is going to be served by renouncing the left's commitment to speaking up for the most vulnerable elements in society--a group that's not so small as it might appear.

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