Fear and Loathing on the Left

Fear and Loathing on the Left
Jacqueline Salit

The left’s ongoing hysteria over Patrick Buchanan’s turn to the Reform Party, and his subsequent endorsement by Reform’s progressive Black leader Lenora Fulani, speaks volumes about the state of the American left. It tells us that beneath the anti-Buchanan and anti-Fulani rhetoric, the left believes itself to be so weak that if it comes in contact with social conservatism, it will be overwhelmed. In order to keep Buchanan at bay, the left insists that even if he has some inescapably populist, anti-globalist positions, like the ones on trade, imperialism and political reform, the fact that he is “right” (i.e., wrong) on cultural issues negates the extent to which he has a constituency which responds to a class politic.

The left’s fear that it will be overwhelmed is comprehensible, but, as a practical matter, impossible. The U.S. left cannot be overwhelmed by the right. Why? Because it has already been overwhelmed by the Democratic Party. It has no separate identity, no distinct principles, no mass movement or tactic to call its own.

The “Buchanan panic” is really not about Buchanan. It’s actually a panic over the prospect that progressives are talking to, communicating with and interacting with the American people. This is an activity that the American left works overtime to avoid. Progressives who violate this axiom, like Fulani, are ostracized. The left prefers to talk only to itself, which is one good reason it has been rendered irrelevant.


Look at the left’s sad tactical position in Campaign 2000. First, they have Al Gore. Okay, so he’s pro-war and pro-global capitalist economic savagery. He was an early architect of the Democratic Leadership Council takeover of the Democratic Party which threw the Rainbow (Blacks and the left) and the old New Deal left (labor) out of power. You can’t have everything. On the plus side, he wrote a feel good book on the environment, thinks gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military (but won’t require the Joint Chiefs to share his belief), and he got the AFL-CIO’s early endorsement (even if it was rammed through as the rank and file headed for Seattle to protest Clinton/Gore support for the World Trade Organization). He invented the Internet … okay, so he didn’t invent the Internet, but he knows how to spell it.

The left says it is just being realistic. It couldn’t produce its own candidate to challenge Gore in the Democratic primary. Jackson wouldn’t run. Sen. Paul Wellstone wouldn’t run. Sen. Bob Kerrey – yes, Kerrey was on the left’s short list – wouldn’t run. Warren Beatty wouldn’t run. Bill Bradley, the only alternative to Gore, is not a left candidate. He’s just an alternative candidate, who calls himself a reformer. Thus, much of the left will embrace Gore as a compañero. Those who are disgruntled will go to Plan B. Ralph Nader.


Nader, who is about to announce that he will run for the presidency as an independent on the Green Party ticket for a second time, is the left’s escape hatch candidate. If you can’t bear to vote for Gore (like some of the writers at The Nation can’t), you vote for Nader. But you make damn sure that Nader doesn’t go anywhere near (a) Pat Buchanan, (b) Lenora Fulani, (c) the Reform Party, and (d) working class America. Ralph is to be a “progressive populist.” That’s leftspeak for “good” populist, i.e., one who talks only to other “good” populists and stays away from the backward, racist, sexist, homophobic, politically incorrect masses, because they’re … well, politically incorrect. Never mind that this leaves the left talking only to itself and leaves the rightwing with a clear path to organize and politicize the bulk of the population.

Nader and I were on a television talk show together recently – the Canadian Broadcast Network’s Counterspin, where we had a dialogue on independent politics and the left/center/right coalition. Nader said the purpose of independent politics was to pull the Democratic Party to the left.

I disagreed. Independent politics should be pulling the left to the American people-all the American people. The left should be organizing a left/center/right base around the need for structural political and economic reform. Nader conceded that left/center/right coalitions on issues like trade are useful. But his tactical perspective on his own candidacy is more narrow; it is designed to appeal mainly to the left.

Nader and his handlers turned down overtures to meet with Fulani’s left wing of Reform on the grounds that Reform is ideologically impure, thus consigning the Nader candidacy to the rarified playing field of radicals, students, enviros and liberal “goo-goos.” Why can’t the left participate with the right and the center in building a new electoral movement and political party? Because it has to hold onto its “principles.” In other words, if the left gets anywhere near middle America, it fears it will lose its progressivism. That doesn’t say very much for the left’s commitment to its core values.

Oddly, leftists seem totally oblivious to the fact that they have for the most part sold out their principles, i.e., the left’s independent identity and its historic mission to organize the working class. It’s as if the left didn’t realize that it has been totally outmaneuvered within and by the party that it believes it is “power sharing” inside of.


In 1984, after Ronald Reagan, the scourge of American leftists and liberals had served one term, the left cranked up its timeworn machinery and hit the bricks. “Reagan must go!” was the battle cry. The left took to the streets with bright red banners and militant placards. Reagan, the warmonger! Reagan, the anti-poor budget cutter! Reagan the anti-civil rights, pro-life, anti-people “Darth Vader in the White House” devil! We’re gonna take him apart! It’s time for class war! Power to the All People’s Front Against Reaganism! Great stuff. But did the left have a way to get rid of Reagan, other than by electing a Democrat? No.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was torn by intense internecine power struggles. The democratized rules changes wrought by George McGovern after 1968 were rolled back by former Vice President Walter Mondale, who would soon become the party’s presidential nominee. The party’s left wing, including Jesse Jackson who was running for the first time, was being shut out. But the left, in an uproar over Reaganism, was too busy fabricating its revolutionary uprising to notice.

At the 1984 San Francisco Democratic Convention (the one where Jackson made his prime time mea culpa speech to the party’s hierarchs and squashed the rebellion in his own ranks to walk out and set up a national independent Rainbow party that very night) the Mondale Machine took control of the party and the nomination. They didn’t care about defeating Reagan. As the commentator Walter Karp wrote in Harper’s magazine that July:

“Ronald Reagan, in short, could not be opposed; the more extreme his program, the more dangerous it would be to oppose him. Such a collusive policy would make the 1984 Democratic nominations something considerably less than the high road to the White House, but Democratic leaders had no choice. They could not nominate their tame creature and also offer opposition to the counterrevolt of the privileged. What electorate that cared deeply about anything could possibly care about Walter Mondale? For the Democrats, power and popularity had parted company.”

Ever since the popular front with Franklin Roosevelt the left has been a little slow to pick up on what’s going on. In the streets of San Francisco and in the vast parking lot outside the Moscone Convention Center the left was there in all its militant glory. Dump Reagan! For an All People’s Front Against Reaganism!

Naturally, Mondale and his gang of party regulars loved it. There was the American left, pouring its heart out, for who? Walter Mondale, the guy who chased the reds out of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and Geraldine Ferraro, the centrist mob wife-turned-feminist goddess. But the revolution was canceled. Mondale/Ferraro got creamed. And what of the working class? They voted for Reagan.


From then on, the left has been in a state of political dementia. At some level it was aware that its Democratic Party tactic had run its course. Though Mondale’s liberal coalition seized control of the party from the new left, it also set the stage for its own demise and the ascendancy of the centrist DLC: Mondale, and four years later, Michael Dukakis proved that traditional liberalism was no longer viable if you wanted to be competitive in national politics.

In 1988, Jesse Jackson ran as a left wing pro-working class candidate, got twice the number of votes he had in the 1984 primaries, and was entirely shut out of the party’s centers of power. Lenora Fulani ran her first presidential campaign in 1988, getting on the ballot in all 50 states, qualifying for federal primary funds and polling 220,000 votes. She was vilified by the official left during the campaign, which cranked up an aggressive rumor mill against her designed to discourage the left from going independent.

Al Gore ran for the first time in 1988, too, in a kind of test run for the centrist DLC, which was circling the bloodied Mondale coalition like a vulture. Still, Gore’s southern strategy didn’t have enough traction to make it to the party’s nomination. But the 1988 Dukakis debacle and the refusal of the left to go independent was enough to convince the DLC that another southern white boy with a little more sex appeal might be able to do the trick. That was Bill Clinton, who took both the party and the presidency in 1992, riding the implosion of the Democratic Party’s old New Deal center, the explosion of the independent populist movement for Ross Perot and the erosion of the economy under George Bush.

At that point, the left was faced with three choices.

A) It could muster a left challenge to Clinton and DLC in the 1996 presidential primaries.

B) It could submerge itself in the Clinton coalition, grabbing little policy-making sinecures and wait for the mythic pendulum to swing back to the left, all the while engaging in high minded debates on whether Clinton’s “Third Way” was the death or rebirth of American progressivism.

C) It could go independent and begin the long hard road of deconstructing and reconstructing itself, its tactic and its message and try talking to someone other than themselves.


The left chose (B). However, not without some conflict. The women’s movement, for example, afraid that its status would crumble if the sexist southern white boys regime took power, made a brief foray into 3rd party politics. In 1991, leaders of NOW launched the 21st Century Party – with UFW organizer Dolores Huerta as its chair. Fulani, among others, applauded the move and participated in the founding convention. But this effort, dedicated to creating an independent tactical alternative to the Democratic Party, closed up shop within its first year. Why? Not because grassroots women didn’t want to participate. Not because there weren’t plenty of ordinary American women interested in putting the gender gap to work for women, rather than for the two parties. But because Pat Ireland and the NOW leadership bought the Democratic Party’s argument that social conservatives like Pat Buchanan would win the day on abortion in America if women went independent. And so they retreated virtually the moment the 21st Century Party was formed.

However, the much-ballyhooed social conservative juggernaut did not materialize. It unraveled, largely because the majority of Americans support choice, even if they are conflicted on the issue of abortion. The Republican Party recognized it could not win national elections by embracing social conservatism. That’s why George W. Bush will be the Republican nominee this year. And that is why Buchanan left the Republican Party and threw his hat into the Reform Party ring. The American people are fundamentally libertarian on social issues and the social conservatives could not forge a national majority on the rights of the unborn.

But the feminists, like the left from which it takes its cues, have little trust or faith in the American people. They are elitist to the core and believe that they are all that stands between an enlightened secular social policy on abortion and the pro-life Dark Ages.

I was recently interviewed on a PBS women’s affairs show hosted by Bonnie Erbé, “To the Contrary,” on the topic of the Reform Party’s relevance to women. I discussed the connection between restructuring the political system and breaking up the “men’s club” that still controls American politics, noting the fact that only 12% of members Congress are women. She asked me why there were no women candidates seeking the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. I pointed out that the women’s movement had stayed out of independent politics, choosing instead to hitch its wagon to the Democratic Party.

After the interview, Erbé played it for a panel of feminist experts including Ruth Coniff of The Progressive and Julianne Malveaux of the Center for Policy Alternatives. All the panel could do was giggle incessantly over the “spectacle” of the Buchanan/Fulani alliance.

The notion that Fulani, the Black feminist left winger had co-created a new political party to whom Buchanan, the displaced disempowered pro-lifer had come for support, was inconsequential to them. The notion that this was an opportunity for feminism to diversify its political connections and thereby increase its leverage with the Democratic Party was unimaginable. So was any consideration of the possibility that Fulani’s connection to Buchanan might give them access to the masses of ordinary, working class pro-life women, women who a left with principles would want to engage. There was, however, none of that. To the contrary. The show became one more opportunity to belittle (or in this case, giggle about) left/center/right coalition building, which is really an elaborate cover for the left saying it’s too frightened to go out of the house.


It’s not as if there aren’t historical reasons for the left’s paranoia. The Democratic Party – i.e., Roosevelt and later his successor Harry Truman did betray the popular front. Senator Joseph McCarthy did conduct a scurrilous witch hunt with the blessing of the bipartisan political establishment – including notably, the liberal establishment-and the left was badly hurt and isolated as a result. It was the American people who managed to hold on to the substantive gains of the working class movement of the 1930’s and later the social liberation movements of the 1960’s, in spite of the fact that left leadership has become increasingly marginalized or compromised in contemporary US politics.

Sadly, the left’s paranoia in the face of its own defeats, has caused it to become more and more isolated and thereby more and more paranoid. Journalistic voices of the left like the New Republic and The Nation, who were among the most ardent critics of McCarthyism and the anti-communist Reign of Terror, today practice their own brand of McCarthyism. Now it’s directed at progressives like Fulani and her political mentor Fred Newman who eschew the “party line” on the Democratic Party and who have conjoined with politically incorrect antiestablishment partners to build a populist independent party. They aim to use the Reform Party and the partnership with Buchanan to create a new majoritarian class coalition.

The traditional left’s antipathy to leftists seeking extra-Democratic Party alliances with the center and the right is so extreme that The New Republic and The Nation have both run articles to incite government investigations of Fulani. That is sad evidence that the left is terribly corrupt. “Naming names” of other leftists was once the definition of left betrayal. Today it is the mantra of what’s left of the left.

Journalist Justin Raimondo, author of Behind the Headlines on Antiwar.com helpfully summarized the hysteria over the Fulani/Buchanan alliance this way in his recent column, “Fulani, Buchanan, and the Smear Machine”:

“For now, suffice it to say that the smearing of Lenora Fulani is meant to intimidate thinking leftists (and thinking conservatives) into staying safely inside their predetermined and unalterable political categories, like prisoners locked up for life. It’s meant to scare people away from Fulani and Buchanan and mark them as political untouchables. But most of all it is meant to show that the realm of politics belongs to the elites, and is not to be intruded on by the hoi polloi like Buchanan, Fulani, or anyone not likely to be endorsed by the editors of the New York Times or the New Republic.”

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