The New New Left: How American Politics Works Today
by Steven Malanga
A review by Christopher Hayes
It's hard to summarize the argument in Steven Malanga's book, The New New Left: How American Politics Works Today because it doesn't really have one. Instead of an explanation of "How American Politics Works Today," Malanga launches a series of broadsides against anyone and everyone foolish or venal enough to interfere with the "magic of the market." This includes: living wage campaigners; university labor studies programs; anti-Wal-Mart activists; writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich and David K Shipler, who write about the working poor; urban development guru Richard Florida; New York City's Working Families Party; the New York City Council; and Malanga's favorite bugaboo, public employee unions who are the "eight-hundred-pound gorillas of policy debates in statehouses and city councils." To Malanga civil servants are simply "tax-eaters," on the wrong side of the defining political battle of our times between "those who benefit from an expanding government and those who must pay for it..."
Malanga's a smart guy and a decent enough writer, but the tone of the book is so sneering that anyone not already disposed to agree with him is likely to be too distracted by his hyperbole to give his arguments a hearing: There are few progressives and liberals in this book; instead, those who disagree with Malanga are "radical," "Marxoid," and "leftish," adjectives which make Malanga's own arguments sound risible, paranoid, and weirdish.
But despite Malanaga's acid contempt for anyone he disagrees with (whom he never, by the way, actually takes the time to interview) he is onto something. There is a new kind of urban-progressive coalition that has won significant victories in the past decade or so, and The New New Left is useful largely because it lays out the rhetorical strategy that right-wingers are likely to use to try to defeat it.
Author and erstwhile Republican strategist Kevin Phillips has noted that liberalism fell into decline when it went from being perceived as representing the interest of the many against the interests of the few to representing the interests of the few over the interests of the many. The New Left's focus on identity politics and distrust of bourgeois virtues was deftly capitalized on by Nixon, whose "silent majority" rhetoric has provided the backbone for three decades of Republican critique of the left as representing the interests of the few: homosexuals, welfare queens, radical professors, limousine liberals, etc.
In labeling the broad coalition of unions, community organizations, and students "the New New Left," Malanga is trying to tar them with the same brush. But what's striking is that the groups he attacks are in some senses the exact opposite of the New Left. Instead of representing narrow ethnic or cultural concerns, they are attempting to stitch together large coalitions of poor, working- and middle-class people who share a common interest in higher wages, affordable health care, and a social safety net. Malanga admits as much himself when he notes that the living-wage campaign manual put together by ACORN "echoes the organization theories of legendary radical Saul Alinsky:" While Alinsky was a contemporary of the New Left, his vision, tactics, and methods were completely anathema to the hardcore New Left activists. He had no tolerance for culture wars or subversive freak shows. Instead he leaned on the most conservative institution imaginable, neighborhood churches, to build cross-racial coalitions of working class people to fight for their collective interests. Gale Cincotta, the late, great community leader in Chicago who spearheaded the national fight against banks redlining poor neighborhoods was exactly the kind of ethnic small-business owner (and registered Republican) who Malanga so admires.
In a later chapter about labor-studies programs, Malanga, surprised at the cooperation between university students and the labor movement, writes that "back in the sixties and seventies ... labor bosses were culturally conservative, supported pro-growth policies, and sent their hardhats to battle long-haired students over the war in Vietnam." Here he reveals the bankruptcy of his own analogy. Whereas the hardcore New Left acolytes were too drunk on radicalism to form effective coalitions with culturally conservative workers, today's community and labor organizers including ACORN, SEIU, AFSCME, and the Working Families Party successfully avoid cultural, racial, and ethnic wedges. In fact, that's their whole point. They are a reaction to the excesses of the New Left, not a reincarnation of it.
The movements these groups have helped to organize present a challenge to conservatives because they don't fit easily into the special-interests-versus-silent-majority narrative that has been at the center of the right's faux-populist message. If Malanga's book is any indication, the right's response is to redefine special interests as any group that, get this, pursues its own interests through politics. Since public-sector unions pursue policies that will help their members, they are "special interests masquerading as a populist movement." Under this definition, of course, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a "special interest" since the black southerners on whose behalf they advocated unquestionably stood to personally benefit from the end of Jim Crow.
Meanwhile corporations who ferociously pursue their own economic gain in the political sphere are deftly reframed by Malanga as altruistic institutions that exist solely to create jobs and serve the customer. In Malanga's telling Wal-Mart is practically a philanthropic enterprise: "Every time Wal-Mart spends one dollar foolishly," he quotes Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton as saying, "it comes right out of our customers' pockets." The fight, then, to unionize Wal-Mart and make it a more responsible business, in Malanga's retelling, is one in which Wal-Mart, its loyal customers, and happy workers are pitted against outside agitators, left-wing radicals, and "special interests."
The political lesson here is that special interests are in the eye of the beholder: Malanga thinks that janitors who clean buildings for eight dollars an hour are a special interest, while I tend to think that middle-age white guys whose cushy sinecures at conservative think tanks nicely insulate them from the vicissitudes of the same free market they so fetishize are a special interest.
Maybe, though, it's not just me. Lately there've been some promising signs that the right's attempt to redefine special interests is breaking on the hard rocks of reality. In California, the multi-millionaire Arnold Schwarzenegger ran a populist campaign, promising to stand up to the "special interests." But over the last several months something incredible has happened: The special interests have fought back and it turns out they're a lot more sympathetic than the well-tanned, cocktail-party-circuit governor. The nurses and firefighters, whose pensions the governor would like to cut, have started running TV ads and showing up at Schwarzenegger's $100,000 fundraisers. It's hard to think of an image that more thoroughly discredits the right's faux-populism than the image of the movie star cowering in his limo while nurses and firefighters stand outside and protest. At one such event, police tried to arrest one protestor who was blocking Schwarzenegger's entrance into the fundraiser, but when the protestor told them he was "fighting for their rights, too," they let him go and put the cuffs away.
Thirty-seven years ago New Left student protestors clashed with working-class police officers at a time when the New Deal coalition was being ripped apart. If today's police officers are joining in solidarity with nurses, firefighters, and senior citizens against an anti-union Republican governor, it shows just how far the left has come. Malanga has laid out the right's rhetorical framework for attacking this coalition, but if California is any indication, the "silent majority" isn't buying it.
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