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What's Left in 1980


By Eric B. Fried

THE POLITICAL LEFT has been in steady retreat for almost a decade now. Ever since Nixon took his massacre of Honest George to be a mandate to concentrate power and wipe out dissent, the left has been unfocused, uncertain, disorganized, and increasingly a non-force in national politics. The rise of a well-financed, politically savvy, media-smart New Right has hastened the public's giving-in to mega-corporate power.

As the United States moves into the new decade, the Right looks forward with relish to the prospects of oil and gas decontrol, the MX missile system and massive defense spending increases, tax reform amounting to welfare for the rich, a federally-sponsored recession, social service cutbacks, court attacks on affirmative action, rollbacks of hard-won gains in abortion rights and labor law reform. Most of all, the Right expects that the growing public distrust of Big Government and demands for Washington to get its nose out of other people's business will allow the corporations to step into the vacuum and reassert control in a way undreamed of since the days of Warren Harding.

Part of the reason for the failure of progressive forces in recent years has been the left's misplaced emphasis on electoral politics. In the midst of a Presidential campaign in which all three Democratic non-candidates have been wooing the left--more with images of idealism and hope than with tangible proposals or commitments--the left must be careful not to make the mistakes it has repeatedly made in the past which have cost us our influence on national policy. The left must not be seduced or deluded into backing one of the three in the belief that by electing better, nicer, or more charsimatic politicians it can bring about a society with real political or economic democracy.

Carter, Brown and Kennedy all passed through Boston in the last week. They may have talked of fiscal prudence and strong defense in Peoria, but here in the cradle of liberty, the only state that voted for McGovern in '72, the home of hundreds of thousands of college students and young professionals, the three fell over each other in trying to appear as the real hope of the broad left wing of the political spectrum. Kennedy and Carter campaigned for the JFK nostalgia vote while Brown went for the anti-nuke, anti-corporate inner space forces.

None of them is an acceptable choice. Carter has reneged on almost every important campaign promise he made the last time around, which should come as no surprise since he made contradictory promises, depending on his audience. Remember slashing the fat out of the defense budget? Remember overhauling a tax system that was a disgrace to the human race? Remember full employment? Remember Paul Warnke, ditched after negotiating SALT II to pacify the Neanderthals, and Andy Young, shot down by the Israeli lobby after talking to people of the Palestinian persuasion? Forget Jimmy Carter.

WE TOLD YOU SO, say the Brown fans. Back in '76 we told you not to trust Jimmy because he wavers on the issues, because he's an engineer and a technocrat under his populist rhetoric, because he can't lead a bee to honey, let alone a horse to water. Brown is different, because he's got the vibes, he's attuned to the cosmos, he knows where the flow is going--and is paddling upstream as fast as possible to get out in front and make it look as if he's leading the currents.

Ask a Brown fan for Jerry's stands and, likely as not, they will draw a blank. Brown simply doesn't run on his stands. He's too Zen for that. He was against Proposition 13 until it passed, whereupon he rode the fiscal austerity wave to such strong conservative applause that he got carried away and started calling for a constitutional convention to balance the budget. He's for cutting defense spending and conserving resources--and for a massive new space program. He's for making corporations more responsive to the public--and he is for abdicating governmental responsibility for physical and mental health, affordable education human services. Only in California.

WHICH LEAVES TEDDY. Still not a candidate, still expecting Carter to be nominated, elected, the whole bit. And campaigning his ass off. All across the nation idealistic young workers are leading the Kennedy charge with cries of "Chappawhat? Mary Jo who? Forget S 1." Ted's record in the Senate is one of long and principled support for progressive legislation, from full employment to national health to tax reform. But S1 and its renumbered offshoots make you stop and think again. Nixon wanted above all to stamp out the demonstrators who were impeding his efforts in Vietnam, and the journalists who were leaking state secrets, and the blacks who were rioting and attacking private property--so he sent his most rabid loyalists to prepare a bill to revise the criminal code and beat back Communists who were obviously responsible for all these disturbances--and S1 was born. Why is Kennedy, who bills himself the last hope of the liberals, backing it? If you want to be President you have to appeal to the center and the right--and being tough on crime is one time-tested way. And so what if a few civil liberties get trampled?

Kennedy assumes he will get the support of the left in 1980. After all, who else can the left go for? So he has already begun creeping towards the political center, talking about anti-inflationary crusading and the need for good old American free market competition in many industries. He's even selling his national health program as a privately insured system, a chance for financial corporations to profit from the sufferings of the old and diseased.

Carter pulled the same trick in '76, cynically taking the support of the left for granted while he made overtures to the right. Will the left never learn? The only choice is no choice. Had the left pulled out of the '76 electoral fights and accepted that Jimmy Carter Republicanism is not significantly different from Jerry Ford Republicanism, it would be in a much stronger position this time around.

Our national problems are not failings of the system or unfortunate deviations from the norm, and electing another Kennedy on a white horse will not help. When the system works perfectly--business as usual--the poor, the powerless, minorities get screwed. The left should realize it has little future in presidential politics and throw itself into community organizing.

Clearly a Teddy victory is infinitely preferable to a Connally or Reagan monarchy. But Ted can win without the left and won't feel grateful or beholden to progressive forces if he does win. But resurgent, mobilized grass-roots pressure from the left will make any candidate--no matter how conservative--come to terms with popular demands for democratization of the political arena and the workplace. The left doesn't have to be left out.

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