The American left hasn’t always been as marginal as it is now. Thirty-four years ago today Bobby Kennedy died. The moment a few hours earlier when he claimed his victory in the California Democratic primary was the American left’s high water mark in the twentieth century. For that brief instant a multi-dimensional coalition was united behind a populist anti-war agenda with the leadership it needed to take power. In the third of a century since then the language of politics has changed profoundly, leaving the American left literally no where to stand. The current era isn’t the triumph of conservatism, it is really the triumph of euphemism. The sooner we start clearing the accumulated detritus of all that right wing renaming, the closer we’ll be to the next magic moment when our next leader can ride popular support for our agenda into power, and we can once again have control over our government.
The Left, Justified
By David Lytel
June 6, 2002
The American left is as marginal as it has been in a very long time, but it hasn’t always been this way. Thirty-four years ago today Bobby Kennedy died. In many ways, the moment a few hours earlier when he claimed his victory in the California Democratic primary was the American left’s high water mark in the twentieth century. For that brief instant a multi-dimensional coalition was united behind a populist anti-war agenda with the leadership it needed to take the reigns of power. But instead of celebrating Robert Kennedy’s inauguration six months later the nation witnessed Richard Nixon take the oath of office.
What might have been a watershed led instead to Watergate.
The third of a century that has passed since then has rewarded the anti-democratic forces that have been a part of the American republic since its origins with tremendous victories. The right has been positively brilliant at figuring out how to use the assets at its disposal to effectively control the public agenda, despite having a narrow constituency limited essentially to wealthy, white suburban voters. While public opinion stands in general agreement with a progressive platform, and national elections confirm a clear preference for candidates of the center-left, the nation is being led by an arch-conservative government that consistently mistakes the interests of top level corporate decision-makers for the interests of the American people.
There are a whole lot of explanations for why this is, ranging from the collapse of a critical and independent news media to the willingness of the Republicans to use vulgar, shameful, unlawful and unconstitutional tactics to prevent citizens from voting and their votes from being counted. But probably the most profound change to American politics over that third of a century has been too gradual and undramatic to even be noticed -- the change in the language of politics. The language of politics has changed profoundly, leaving the American left literally no where to stand. The current era isn’t the triumph of conservatism, which hasn’t really won a national election since 1984. It is really the triumph of euphemism.
Examine the evolution: Special interests. Special privieges. Special prosecutors. Special circumstances. The far right has done such a masterful job pulling the entire political spectrum to the right that what were once centrist positions are now beyond the boundaries of the conversation about politics we are permitted to have in the commercial news media.
Thirty years ago "special interests" meant companies using their profits to buy off politicians and secure legislation to enrich themselves and their shareholders. But thanks to an unrelenting campaign by the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and other right wing groups, financed by wealthy individuals and by the petroleum, pharmeceutical and other ndustries, "special interests" now means any kind of organization that tries to petition its government for a redress of its grievances. Now any broad based movement to bring about change in the public interest is just another pressure group, because of course if every interest is a special interest there is no public interest.
Twenty years ago conservative activists invented the phrase "special privileges" to try to blunt the surge of popular support for civil rights for gays and Lesbians. Since they did not want to be overt bigots they invented this absurd claim that homosexuals wanted the government to give them "special privileges," when in fact all they ever asked for was not to be discriminated against. It was enough of a veneer to cover the bigots’ true intention – to maintain their ability to deny full citizenship to homosexuals.
Ten years ago the term "special prosecutor" meant the appointment of a non-partisan investigator who was given the authority to independently pursue criminal matters involving government officials, in order to ensure the public that government authority was not being abused. Now it means deputizing right wing zealots and giving them guns, badges and subpoenaes so they can harrass and intimidate political leaders who have commited no crimes. The independence of independent inquiries has been so thoroughly discredited that the minor crimes of the Bush administration are being treated as mere embarassments, and the perpetrators of various influence selling schemes permitted to quietly resign and return to private life.
And a little more than a year ago, five right wing political hacks wearing dark robes, too ashamed to sign their names to their decision, invented the concept of "special circumstances" to give the election to their guy, even though it meant suspending the law, reason and precedent that reserve the power to set the rules for elections to each of the states.
The frightening success of the lavishly financed effort to change the language of politics is among the key reasons for the collapse of the left. How do we get it back? By speaking the truth as simply and as clearly as we can.
So when they say they need to give massive tax rebates to the largest and wealthiest corporations to stimulate the economy, when instead they are rewarding their corporate underwriters with your tax dollars, call them liars.
When not a single Republican Senator or Member of Congress is willing to support an independent inquiry into the origins of the tragedy of September 11th because protecting Bush’s popularity is more important than protecting the nation, call them cowards.
When they try to shut down public discussion of America’s preparedness against further attacks through intimidation, mining America’s military secrets for ammunitition to smear the enemies of the regime by calling them enemies of the state, call them traitors.
And when they cover up the bellicose and belligerent tactics used by the Bush foreign policy team to threaten the Taliban with war in the summer of 2001, which instead provoked them to launch a first strike against American targets, call them criminals.
The America of 1968 is still there, buried under layers of lies and disinformation that need to be cleared away. On just about every imporant question of public policy, from protecting a woman’s right to control her own body to preserving the medical and social insurance policies that remain the crowning achievement of public life in 20th century America, the nation’s heart is on the left. The sooner we start clearing the accumulated detritus of all that right wing renaming, the closer we’ll be to the coming moment when our next leader can ride popular support for our agenda into power, and we can once again have control over our government.