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February 1, 2013

Left 3.0

Obama and the emergence of a newer left

The left side of the American political spectrum has undergone an extraordinary transformation over the past dozen years. Perhaps because it remains a work in progress, the extent of this transformation has gone largely unremarked and seems underappreciated even among those who have been carrying it out. Forty years after the forces of the “New Left” managed to deliver the Democratic presidential nomination to their preferred candidate, George McGovern, only to see him lose the general election to Richard Nixon in a 49-state landslide, the United States is home to a newer Left. Its political hopes repose not in a man able to muster less than 40 percent of the vote nationwide, but in the convincingly reelected president of the United States, Barack Obama. This newer Left is confident in itself, united both in its description of the problems the country faces and in how to go about addressing them. This Left is conscious of itself as a movement, and believes it is on the rise. It has already managed to reshape American politics, and its successes so far have hardly exhausted its promise. Policies are changing under its influence. And its opponents do not seem to have found an effective way to counter it politically.

It’s beyond my purpose here to explore the history of the Left in American and its relation to American electoral politics. One story is its ideological evolution, from the socialists and anarchists of the early twentieth century, through the battles of the communist and anti-communist Left of mid-century, on to the birth of the New Left in the turbulent 1960s, through the quiescence of the Left during the period of neoliberal (i.e., conservative) dominance for the generation following the election of Ronald Reagan. Or one could tell the story in terms of the progressive movement at the end of the nineteenth century, through fdr’s New Deal, to lbj’s Great Society, on through the primary challenge Sen. Ted Kennedy launched against Jimmy Carter, its failure, and Bill Clinton’s emergence as a “New Democrat” distinct from the old liberal partisans of an expansive role for the federal government.

Both stories, however, come together with the emergence of the newer Left — call it Left 3.0, tracing the ideological progression from old Left to New Left to today’s newer Left. Left 3.0 is not only an ideological movement, but also effectively controls (or rather guides) a political party fully competitive at the national level. Left 3.0 is an entity whose internal divisions are minuscule in comparison to the shared convictions that hold it together. Left 3.0 is a creature of its times, well-organized and fully synced to the digital culture out of which it emerged. And Left 3.0 has come into its own at a time, not coincidentally, when its political rival, the gop electoral coalition, already under strain because of shifting demographics, is deeply divided over vexing social issues on which Left 3.0 offers clear answers.

Continuities

Before we take a serious look at what is new with Left 3.0, we should first have a look at its continuities with the Left (or Lefts) of the past. The most important of these, surely, is that its animating passion remains equality — the defining principle of modern democracy, in Tocqueville’s judgment.

If classical liberalism emerged in part as a rebellion against hereditary privilege, modern American liberalism is foremost a rebellion against the privileges of wealth. The most important innovation of the Left, a principle held fast from the time of the French Revolution onward, has been its insistence that political rights could only be meaningful if accompanied by a degree of economic equality that systems based on political rights alone would not automatically create or protect. Thus, the Left finds the most important element on its agenda: the achievement of a greater degree of economic equality by means of politics. It’s an agenda that has proven adaptable over time to various levels of intensity in the passion for equality. Some have insisted that nothing less than a global proletarian revolution will suffice. Others have advocated socialism or social democracy. The mildest iteration (that of Left 3.0) centers on redistribution of wealth through higher taxes on the rich and the provision of public benefits for all, combined with the diminution of dynastic wealth through inheritance taxes.

Implementation of the animating passion for equality requires the power of government. The Left shares the suspicion of government power at the heart of classical liberalism, but only up to a point. Individuals need rights to protect them from overweening government intrusion, true, but government power in the proper hands can do good, and indeed the proper hands must wield the power of government in order to do the good of pursuing equality. The proper hands are the Left’s, it hardly needs saying.

Implementation of the animating passion for equality requires the power of government.

Republicans sometimes complain that Democrats tolerate conduct by Democratic administrations that they would never tolerate from Republican administrations. This is true, but it assumes a neutral standard of judgment should apply. The Left understands perfectly well that it must advance its agenda against resistance, often considerable. It follows, therefore, that progress may be halting, or indeed impossible — beyond the control of the people pursuing it. What matters in that case is precisely the character of those people. They can and must and do prove their virtue in other ways.

One can, of course, be rich and Left: Once again, it’s a matter of attitude — what you are for and what you are against. In the view of the Left, rich conservatives are conservative because they want to defend the privileges of wealth; they are therefore solely self-interested. Rich men and women of the Left, on the other hand, want to ensure that all people have health insurance regardless of their means; once this and other basic egalitarian imperatives have been fulfilled through political action, the rich are free to use their money as they please (including by finding themselves the best doctors).

The Left’s passion for equality begins with the pursuit of greater economic equality, but it doesn’t end there. The Left has also long been in pursuit of equality in the matter of identity. “Identity” is a concept that substantially modifies the principle that individuals have rights. An identity is something one has in common with others. Identity puts people in groups, and societies have long assigned status on the basis of identity — in many instances, in the view of the Left, improperly so. Some statuses have been improperly privileged, for example, white males in racist and sexist societies. And some statuses have been improperly denigrated, for example, gay men in homophobic societies. The Left has long sought to bring down the status of the privileged and elevate the status of the denigrated. This, too, is the pursuit of equality.

The pursuit of greater equality of identity is very much a matter of the particular circumstances of a society. The Left, from its earliest days, has had a knack for knowing where to press. Suffrage in the United States was once limited, de facto and de jure, to white adult male property owners. The requirement of property went first; then the franchise was extended formally to blacks; then to women; then in fact to blacks, with the civil rights movement; then to eighteen year-olds. In the United States, it’s hard to see how that sequence could have been rearranged. Similarly, for generations, gays remained closeted and underground to avoid persecution. Then came the successful demand for an end to enforcement of and repeal of laws prohibiting homosexual (and certain heterosexual) acts; then the (largely) successful demand for respect for uncloseted homosexuality; then the demand for “domestic partner” rights equivalent to those enjoyed by married couples; then the demand for gay marriage, or marriage equality, per se.

The Left has often styled itself as “progressive,” which implies not only improvement over time, but a progression.

The Left has often styled itself as “progressive,” which implies not only improvement over time, but a progression: Correct the perceived injustice most immediately at hand, then move on to the next one. In some cases, the next injustice comes into focus only once a previous injustice has been removed. During the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, generally regarded as the birth of the gay rights movement, it seems doubtful that participants had the goal of marriage equality in mind. The community had more immediate needs that, once satisfied, would in turn reveal its next-most immediate needs.

It’s noteworthy just how “conservative” the statements of progressives of the past often sound today. Sometimes the progressive cause has been served by progressives specifically repudiating in advance positions that progressive successor generations will openly embrace. If a conservative critic of gay rights in the 1970s claimed that codifying protection for gays would one day lead to a demand that gays be allowed to marry, no doubt many gay rights advocates at the time would have scoffed at the alarmism and foresworn any such possibility.

Critics have often claimed the Left supports “group rights” over the rights of individuals — for example, affirmative action programs offering special consideration to members of minority groups or women in employment or contracting or for college admissions. The Left’s contention, however, is not typically that blacks deserve special consideration because they are black, for example, but that an individual black candidate applying for a job may deserve special consideration because white applicants have benefited from improper privileges in the past. You could say that the unselected white applicant was denied on the basis of his or her race; but you would then be obliged, in the view of the Left, to take into consideration all the ways in which being white has provided and still provides advantages. Special consideration for minorities or women in employment or admissions is not, in this view, the point at which discrimination starts, but the point at which broader social discrimination begins to be remedied.

One of the most important developments in the thought of the Left in the past century was its newfound appreciation for “difference.”

The Left does think in terms of groups in the sense of “cultures”: hence multiculturalism. This, too, represents a kind of pursuit of equality, in the sense of recognition of the worth of cultures different from one’s own. Multiculturalism is the newest major element of the “old” Left carrying forward into Left 3.0. The Left in its earliest years believed in universal history: one story about movement in one direction toward one endpoint, or if not an endpoint, at least toward one goal — greater equality. One of the most important developments in the thought of the Left in the past century was its newfound appreciation for “difference.” Ironically under the influence of the most anti-progressive philosopher of the modern era, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Left began to flirt with and eventually largely embraced a relativistic view of the world, according to which judgments presupposing the superiority of one culture over another were no longer acceptable.

The Left’s multiculturalism is connected to its older tendency to think in terms of rectifying injustices based on identity. But the presumption in the case of the latter was that the overcoming of these injustices would lead in one direction only, that of equality. With multiculturalism, it became necessary to think in terms of equalities as the final result or goal. No culture has the right to impose its standards on another.

In theoretical terms, this relativist perspective has considerable difficulty explaining itself: What is the ground of the judgment that one must not judge other cultures? How could such a prescription not itself be cultural-bound, if everything is culture-bound? But that would make non-judgmentalism no more than a cultural prejudice — and no better than a cultural prejudice groundlessly asserting the superiority of the particular culture.

Theory aside, the Left’s practical solution to the problem of multicultural relativism has been to opt for a “soft” multiculturalism that centers on affirming the value of the contribution of other cultures to an ongoing civilizational dialogue. It’s a multiculturalism tamed to accompany the Left’s overarching vision of universal progress.

The Left’s critics have often claimed derisorily that the Left believes in the “perfectibility” of human beings. If that was ever true, it hasn’t been for a long time. Utopian transformation is not on the Left’s agenda, and the Marxist proposition that dialectical materialism would eventually achieve what utopian socialism could only imagine is no longer a serious element of the Left’s calculations about the future. The Left now gets by on the more classically liberal faith in improvement — in the habits of individuals and in the justice of society as a whole. There is no certain endpoint, whether “perfection” in the form of universal satisfaction with perfect equality or something short of that. But a permanent condition of the potential for improvement seems reasonable to the Left, even if it occasionally or often entails two steps forward followed by one step (if not two steps) back.

Few on the Left are willing to grant that their critics are reasonable — in other words, that the Left has anything to gain from taking its critics seriously.

The Left also has long held a low opinion of critics of the Left, not least as impediments to the improvement of society the Left wants to engender. The Left regards its evolving egalitarian agenda as self-evidently reasonable. Few on the Left are willing to grant that their critics are likewise reasonable — in other words, that the Left has anything to gain from taking its critics seriously. That leaves the Left in search of an explanation for why it hasn’t won over its critics. The Left has three main explanations. The first is ignorance, in the sense that its critics lack sufficient knowledge of how society could be improved and why what the Left seeks would constitute improvement. For this category, there may be hope in the form of remedial education. The second is stupidity; its critics are simply unable to understand superior wisdom when they face it. There is little hope for them, alas. The third is venality — that its critics know better but seek to defend their position of personal privilege anyway. The only way to deal with these critics is to defeat them politically.

Having traced the principal continuities in what it has meant and means to be Left, we arrive at the inescapable conclusion that the Left regards its desire for greater equality as the source of the moral superiority of its position and therefore of its members. Although this sense of superiority may seem out of keeping with a passion for equality, it is not. The first reason is that equality is a work in progress. Perhaps there will come a day when people are sufficiently equal and content in their equality that the demands of justice will no longer require anyone on the Left to speak up. At such a time, everyone will be on the Left (in the view of the Left), meaning there will be no further resistance to improvement. But that’s far-fetched, if it is achievable at all. In the meantime, leadership is necessary. The Left provides it, and the fact that a quality of superiority attaches to leaders over their followers (not to mention their opponents) need not constitute an offense against equality.

In a deeper sense, however, the Left’s view of its own superiority serves notice that a passion for greater equality has limits. Rare is the vision of equality that requires its adherents to debilitate themselves in order to achieve it. To pay more in taxes, certainly, but not to render oneself abject in the sense of the poorest of the global poor, nor of those so mentally ill they require institutionalized care. The Left mostly chooses to leave the limits of its egalitarianism unexamined, perhaps because so much more in the way of the promotion of equality can be done and needs to be done before society even begins to rub up against those limits.

The Left and the Democratic Party

Though largely unspoken, the Left’s implicit acceptance of limiting principles for its egalitarianism now constitutes one of its key strengths and is the first element that distinguishes Left 3.0 from its progenitors. The acceptance of limiting principles allows the Left to avoid the temptation of radicalism. It keeps the Left in “the system.” The Left’s ambition is to obtain majority political support — no more, no less. The Revolution has been canceled. “The system is the solution.” The Democratic Party is the sole legitimate representative of the aspirations of Left 3.0.

There are, no doubt, a few aging radicals who still dream of sweeping the whole capitalist system away and starting over. But never in the history of the Left have such views been so marginal. Once the vanguard of the Left, the radicals are now its pets.

Violence on the Left seems largely confined to scuffles during demonstrations, and indeed, the Left is now heavily vested in the proposition that the real danger of political violence comes from the extreme right. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, casts a longer shadow now than any remnant of the Weather Underground. The last thing Left 3.0 would wish to be thought is dangerous.

Meanwhile, the publications to which one might once have turned for radical social criticism and edgy political judgments now seem largely indistinguishable from Democratic Party propaganda sheets. The “counterculture” of the 1960s is now the culture as such, and no one thinks anyone has “sold out.” Pop stars vie with one another for gigs at Democratic Party soirees. Kelly Clarkson killed it at President Obama’s second inaugural. Hollywood celebrities are no longer blacklisted members of the Communist Party but guests of Vanity Fair at the White House Correspondents Association dinner afterparty.

The Democratic Party’s oneness with Left 3.0 is a new phenomenon. Political scientists tell the story of the great “sorting” of the political parties. There used to be such creatures as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats; considered as a whole, the parties were less ideological. That in turn meant accommodating diverse interests, which led to dissatisfaction on both Left and Right. On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton staked his political fortunes on his claim to be a “New Democrat,” by which he meant: not a left-wing Democrat. Although everyone on the Left loves him now, it’s not because he continues to draw a distinction between himself and his party’s left wing. On the contrary, in 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination promising to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — an explicit repudiation of Clinton’s “Third Way” centrism and triangulation between the gop-controlled Congress and old-school liberal Democrats. Running for president in 2007–08, Hillary Clinton was certainly not representing herself as “New Democrat” redux. When she lost to Barack Obama anyway, whatever remained of the “New Democrat” sensibility dissolved harmlessly into the mainstream of the party. Obama’s appointment of her as his secretary of state was (among other things) an insurance policy against a “New Democrat” resurgence around the figure of outsider Hillary Clinton.

The disappearance of a powerful, avowedly centrist element was essential in making the Democratic Party congenial to Left 3.0.

The disappearance of a powerful, avowedly centrist element was essential in making the party congenial to Left 3.0. Conservatives have long claimed that the United States is a center-right country, and for many years, many Democrats believed them. Efforts to reach the center of the electorate often alienated the Left, giving rise to such phenomena as Ralph Nader’s 2000 third-party candidacy for president — which arguably cost Al Gore the election in Florida. When the party in 2004 nominated John Kerry, a candidate sufficiently congenial to the Left to avoid consequential defections from the Democratic cause, he came up short in the center.

The notion of an invincibly center-right electorate was anathema to the emerging Left 3.0. A key moment in its reconciliation with the Democratic Party was the latter’s abandonment of policies designed with a center-right electorate in mind. For the foreseeable future, the party would lay claim to the center not on the basis of adopting positions to appease moderates and independents, but on the basis of winning more than 50 percent of the vote on election day for candidates congenial to Left 3.0 and garnering majority public support for positions congenial to Left 3.0.

The role of Barack Obama in this transformation can hardly be overstated. His 2008 campaign was intentionally vague, promising post-partisan transformation and renewal in a time of economic crisis highly conducive to the hopes of a challenger to the incumbent party in the White House. But in the primaries, he was also the candidate untainted by the whiff of anything “New Democrat.” He was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, and his voting record in the Senate, though short, did nothing of consequence to displease “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” And if there was not much content to his 2008 message, neither did he give the Left any particular reason to worry about his intentions.

Obama staked his legacy on patching the largest remaining hole in the New Deal social welfare safety net.

Obama staked his legacy on patching the largest remaining hole in the New Deal social welfare safety net. Guaranteed lifelong access to affordable health care has been at the top of the Left’s policy agenda since fdr. Bill Clinton tried, failed, gave up for good. Obama would not give up. Despite an economy that continued to sputter contrary to his own expectations and those of his advisors, despite public opinion polls that early turned against the reform effort, despite ominous electoral signals, and despite having to abandon the Left’s cherished “public option,” he persisted. And he prevailed. It was a political risk on the order of the one Ronald Reagan took in cooperating with Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s successful effort to wring inflation out of the economy in 1981–82 at the cost of a brutal recession. Obama lost Democrats their House majority in doing so. Not that they thought it would happen, but in the view of many on the Left, health care reform on the scale Obama was able to achieve, though imperfect, would be worth losing a House majority. The remainder of Obama’s first term would be a domestic policy desert if not worse, entailing various capitulations to the gop, at least in the eyes of many on the Left at the time. But he had his signature achievement, subject to validation by the Supreme Court and the ability to sustain enough Democratic political power in Washington to prevent its repeal.

Obama seemed quickly to understand that the only way to vindicate his decision was his reelection. And possibly out of a necessity but certainly out of personal preference and choice, he decided that a Clintonian pivot to the center was completely out of the question. What he needed to obtain a majority was a coalition that consolidated the Left and built from there. The decision he made was, in effect, to propose himself as the greatest liberal president since fdr. He would not run as a liberal Democrat, but as a voice of reason and common sense whose every utterance would happen to be pleasing to the Left of 3.0. The capstone of this may have been his decision that the time had come to endorse marriage equality for gays. Obama was the vehicle for the mainstreaming of the Left.

And it turned out that Left 3.0 needed him as well. It will come as a surprise to some conservatives, but until now, the Left has lacked a sense of itself as a political winner. The legacy of George McGovern was large. Before Obama, the Left never really got its first choice among aspirants for the Democratic presidential nomination (to say nothing of those on the Left who would have been unable to bring themselves to support even the most liberal Democrat). Walter Mondale in 1984 was an orthodox, liberal “old” Democrat —  but hardly an inspiration for the Left. The Left made its peace with Kerry, who did nothing to offend, but the real reason the party picked him was his supposed electability against George W. Bush. But with Obama’s against-the-odds nomination in 2008, the Left got a taste of victory. When Obama won in November, it was intoxicating. With Obama’s reelection, victory has become a bit of an addiction.

Policy ambition

With newfound success for its political ambitions, the Left has correspondingly attenuated its policy ambitions. This is the second major feature of Left 3.0. The Left has not changed the direction it wants to go, but it has changed its timeframe for expectations of success. When a Democratic president and Democratic congressional leaders are doing as much as they can to advance a Democratic agenda sufficiently progressive to satisfy the Left, these politicians will have the support of Left 3.0 even if they do not succeed. Democratic leaders by and large understand and accept this bargain.

With a gop-controlled House, there are limits to what a Democratic president can do. Left 3.0 is not unsympathetic. But it demands a fight. And there is an emerging corollary of considerable interest. Health care reform is once again the decisive precedent.

The next time a Democratic president has a Democratic Congress to work with, Left 3.0 will expect major achievement to show for it. Performance on the level of what Bill Clinton achieved with a Democratic Congress (or for that matter, of what George W. Bush achieved with six years of gop control of Congress) will not be acceptable. When government is divided, you must fight as best you can; when government is yours, you must win.

It’s impossible to say what the Democratic Party/Left 3.0 agenda will be when Democratic political control returns to Washington (which could happen as soon as 2015). But anyone with a decent political imagination can list some possibilities: In the view of Left 3.0, a value-added tax would certainly be worth losing another Democratic House majority, for example. So would a move to a single-payer health care system. (Republicans might then find themselves in the position of defending the state exchanges Obamacare created.) Mandatory paid parental leave, perhaps? Ambitious but achievable policy reform when the political circumstances are ripe — and it’s Left 3.0 that will adjudicate ripeness — is now the sine qua non for the Left’s full and unhesitating support for the Democratic Party. If it’s unforthcoming, the deal will be off, and the era of Left 3.0 will come to a close.

It is possible that there is an unsustainable premise at the heart of Left 3.0/Democratic Party solidarity. Hitherto, it has seemed as if the American economy has been able to deliver high rates of economic growth relative to most other advanced economies, thus supporting high levels of job creation. One wonders if an economy growing at a decent clip won’t also be necessary to sustain the ambitions of Left 3.0 — and whether success in acting on those ambitions might have an adverse effect on the economic growth that is its precondition. If this is so, the Democratic Party could actually do itself a favor by losing from time to time, ushering in brief periods of market-based reform. The alternative would seem to be stealth reform by Democrats in power themselves, a phenomenon not uncommon in the advanced welfare states of Europe. The willingness of Left 3.0 to tolerate such stealth market-based reform has not yet been fully put to the test — although one must note that the unhappiest moment for Left 3.0 to date came when Obama quickly cut a deal following the Democratic losses in the 2010 election to extend the Bush-era tax rates for two more years. (Obama, for his part, was far-sighted enough to understand that he would get his way on an increase in top tax rates following his reelection — on which, once again, everything depended.)

Organization and media culture

Left 3.0 also differs from its previous versions in terms of organization. Apart from the Communist Party, and there even so, organization has not really been the Left’s strong suit. Private sector union membership has been declining for decades and stood at 7.2 million in 2011. Public sector union members are more numerous, at 7.6 million. But organization and mobilization on a mass scale have been beyond the Left’s reach.

But perhaps the 2012 election changes that. The Obama campaign in Chicago was a masterpiece of political technology in terms of identifying voters and ensuring they got to the polls. The challenge here was considerable. The Obama campaign knew that its candidate’s support had declined from his 2008 levels. It knew that he was going to lose among independents. There was margin for error in the size of the Obama victory in 2008, but Obama would need to become the rare incumbent reelected with less popular support than he won with four years before.

The Obama campaign’s success appears to have been comprehensive: The campaign knew with precision what kind of turnout it needed to generate; knew in real time how well it was faring in reaching voters; and had an effective strategy for delivering their votes, whether through early or absentee voting or election-day operations. The Obama campaign spent unprecedented sums polling, even drawing ridicule from some observers, not all of them Republicans. Yet the result seems to have been knowledge of the electorate’s intentions and habits on an unprecedented scale.

To better appreciate the level of success, let us briefly examine failure on a comparable scale. By all accounts, Mitt Romney awoke on election day in the firm conviction that he was going to be elected president. Nor was this said to be some inner delusion he was suffering. He was apparently well-briefed by his Boston campaign staffers, who apparently did indeed believe they were working to “expand the map” of his electoral college victory in the campaign’s final days. Florida and Virginia had long been in his column; Ohio was all set; Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and perhaps even Pennsylvania were in play.

Romney lost all those states. His campaign was completely wrong about where it stood with voters in states he had to carry, and was accordingly unaware of the levels of turnout it needed to generate. Chicago understood what was going on and was therefore able to master events. Boston never had a clue.

Chicago understood what was going on and was therefore able to master events. Boston never had a clue.

But perhaps we should question whether the one-off success of a political campaign is sufficient evidence of a new capacity for mass organization on the part of the Left. Perhaps. But it wasn’t just one successful campaign; it was two — three if one differentiates the 2008 primary and general election campaigns. And by all accounts, the political technology of the reelection campaign built on that of the 2008 campaigns. The continuity of the data base and of the data mining operations was noteworthy. Why would anyone dismantle such a resource? On the contrary, the real question now is what else it can do. How does one modify it for use in congressional elections, for example? Mid-term elections are even more dependent on turnout than general elections. Will it now be possible for the Democratic Party to reach every Obama voter in swing congressional districts with targeted messages explaining the importance of Democratic control of Congress? The Romney campaign left no such legacy. It’s unclear that Republicans understand how far behind in political technology they may be falling.

On other fronts pertaining to organization, Left 3.0 has caught up. More than a decade ago, senior Democratic strategists and funders deliberately set out to replicate some of the structures and practices the Right has long employed to advance a conservative political agenda and conservative electoral prospects. New non-profit think tanks sprouted on the Left, some specializing in particular policy areas, some striving for general influence. In addition to the traditional 501(c)3 educational institutions funded by tax-deductible contributions, the 501(c)4 category of non-profit allows for explicitly political activity, including lobbying and electioneering, so long as it is connected with the promotion of social welfare in some fashion. Contributions are not tax deductible, but neither do organizations have to disclose their donor lists.

Left 3.0 funder networks now gather periodically to strategize where best to deploy resources. Money for the cause appears to be abundant. Activists meet to share information and coordinate plans. Opinion journalists offer up articles and blog posts and tweets. None of this is unique to the Left, of course. But to the extent that the emerging Left 3.0 considered itself lagging efforts on the Right — what the Left likes to call the “right-wing noise machine” — Left 3.0 has now fully caught up.

Interestingly, conservative institutions the Left has now replicated generally tell the story of their own founding as an effort to counter a dominant left-leaning culture. The first generation of neoconservatives of the 1970s liked to call it the “New Class” — the post-industrial category of white-collar professional workers whose labor consists almost entirely of the manipulation of symbols, from Hollywood to Harvard Yard, from Madison Avenue to the newsroom floor, from the Ford Foundation to the network anchor desk. This culture was distinctly left-leaning; it came to include many alumni of the New Left now gone mainstream. Conservatives concluded that they would never get a fair hearing through the filter of the New Class, and so they set out to create their own institutions for the development and promulgation of their ideas. With Left 3.0, the counter to the dominant culture has now been countered. Meanwhile, though the “mainstream media” no longer have oligopolistic control over the flow of information, they retain considerable influence, and are if anything more openly left-leaning than they were thirty years ago.

The new media environment has been very favorable to Left 3.0. Vibrant websites abound, some of them extraordinarily influential: The “netroots” have been a formidable force. The sorting of the political parties into left and right has an analogue in the sorting of the consumption of political opinion. It has never been easier to avoid encountering opinions with which one might disagree. The effect of this on the Left side of the political spectrum has helped promote the solidarity of Left 3.0 and the Democratic Party: The victors in the internal political debate were those advocating for “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Left 3.0 is sophisticated technologically and entirely at home in the digital age and its wikiculture of affinity-based social networks. The Right enjoys no less vibrant a media culture, but as the respective experiences of Chicago and Boston demonstrate, lags in the ability to exploit the new environment for political gain.

The divided gop

Thus left 3.0: a newer Left in solidarity with the political aspirations of the Democratic Party; realistic about fulfilling its policy ambitions but insistent on obtaining the most that a given correlation of political forces can deliver; organizationally sophisticated and fully funded; and part and parcel of the digital age.

As the broader process of the sorting of the electorate has made the Democratic Party more liberal, so too has it made the Republican Party more conservative. Unity, however, has eluded the gop. The conservative movement’s alliance with and alienation from the gop is a longstanding to-and-fro that shows no sign of abating any time soon.

At this writing, the nexus of talk radio and the Tea Party is making life miserable for “establishment” Republicans, who for the most part consider themselves to be staunch conservatives in their own right. The party is deeply divided over social issues. Abortion, for example, may be a politically useful issue to Republicans, or at least a neutral issue, when the subject is parental notification or late-term abortions. But if the party persists in nominating candidates who would ban abortion in cases of rape or incest, the political costs will be high. It doesn’t matter that realistically speaking, such candidates have no chance of their views on abortion prevailing nationwide. It’s the thought that counts. The theological justification for the position makes no sense to anyone not already operating within the same theological framework. Democrats in conjunction with Left 3.0 will be unsparing in holding the entire Republican Party to account for such views.

The changing demographics of the electorate are also inauspicious for the gop. The country is less white than it used to be. The Democratic Party has discovered that it can win nationally without the support of white men, a fact which in turn lessens the need to try to fashion appeals to them. This is pleasing to Left 3.0, which views such appeals as unnecessarily centrist.  Republicans, meanwhile, have not yet found a reliable way to make up for the votes lost to demographic change.

Generational differences further complicate the demographic picture. Younger people, it’s well known, mostly don’t have a problem with gay marriage. When Obama switched sides on the issue, it was telling that he cited the influence of the views of his own children. He seemed to be telling people quite consciously that it’s ok to change your mind, to move with the times. His personalization of the issue was perhaps marred by the likelihood that he has secretly been in favor of gay marriage since the subject first came up, but thought political viability demanded opposition. But perhaps then his story serves as a signal from Left 3.0, of which Obama is member-in-chief, that it’s time for other Democratic politicians to drop their feigned opposition as well. Support for marriage equality, on the other hand, is highly unlikely to be an issue on which people change their minds as they get older.

A united conservative movement is unlikely any time soon to find itself at one with the Republican Party in the manner in which Left 3.0 is at one with the Democratic Party. First, one would need a united conservative movement, which is difficult to envision in its own right, leaving aside its potential for melding with the gop.

In a broader sense, though, the Left differs from the Right in knowing where it wants to go: in the direction of more equality. Conservatives mostly know where they want to stay: in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity. Since the push in the direction of equality will sometimes impinge on liberty and on the market in ways that people will notice and object to, conservative reform will once again have its day. But today belongs to Left 3.0.


Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its task force on the Virtues of a Free Society, under the auspices of which he is completing a study of heroism in the ancient and modern world for Encounter Books. He became editor of Policy Review effective with its April/May 1999 edition, succeeding Robert L. Scheuttinger (1977–79), John O’Sullivan (1979–83), and Adam Meyerson (1984–98). This essay appears in the final edition of Policy Review, which is ceasing publication. His appointment as a Hoover fellow is ongoing.