Politics is a Means To an End

So in the context of a column I’ve written for TPM Cafe (which will appear tomorrow), I finally came to grips with Adolph Reed’s much-discussed piece for Harper‘s (unfortunately behind a paywall, but you can certainly get a sense of it from its critics here and here and here) arguing that liberals have betrayed the historic Left out of concern for the electoral prospects of a Democratic Party that is complicit in a “neoliberal/conservative” policy consensus.

I don’t have much to add to the critics’ demolition of Reed’s not-a-dime’s-worth-of-difference assessments of the two parties; his dismissal of conservative radicalism as nothing more than an excuse for a Democratic “shift to the right;” his disgust for ObamaCare; or his thinly-veiled contempt for culture-war issues, reminiscent of the Old Left’s contempt for “bourgeois freedoms.” I don’t have a lot of patience with his dismissal of the prosperity of the Clinton years–the first and only time since the 1970s that average real wages actually rose–as merely the product of tech and financial bubbles. Reed’s apologia for Ralph Nader’s 2000 candidacy is no more compelling now than it was before we experienced the Bush presidency. And his tendency to blame the Democratic Party for the decline of the labor movement misses some rather vast and obvious historical forces.

Having said all that, I tend to agree with Harold Meyerson’s assessment that Reed shows it is “possible to get the big picture right even when you can’t see the small pictures at all.” His essay serves as a reminder that politics is ultimately a means to an end, that the efficacy of political action must ultimately be measured by its real-life consequences, and that “electoralitis”–a snail’s-eye obsession with the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party–is indeed a dangerous temptation for progressives. And he is correct in asserting that progressivism as a social movement is as essential to actual social and economic progress as all the electoral victories you could hope for.

It is a very bad time, however, to despair of political action, or to hope that abandoning the “illusion” of progressive politics as we know it today will somehow heighten the contradictions and produce a vibrant and radical social movement capable of challenging the reactionary economic and cultural forces that are so close to achieving their extremist goals.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.