Why America Needs a Left

The U.S. fight against slavery generated the first powerful constitution of an American Left. This painting, The Anti-Slavery Society Convention by Benjamin Robert Haydon, depicts Thomas Clarkson addressing American and English abolitionists in 1840. Credit: Creative Commons/Benjamin Robert Haydon.

The United States today should be engaged in a great debate, not so much over who the next president will be, or over the role of government in economic life, but over the very identity and future orientation of the country itself. On the one hand, powerful right-wing voices argue that America is an essentially conservative country. On the other hand, other voices, led by the president, argue that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America!” implying that we are an essentially centrist country. Strikingly marginal to the election—though clearly present on TV (Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow), in poll numbers, and in opinion surveys—is an American Left, proudly self-identified as such.

The relative marginalization of the Left in American politics is not new. From the beginning of the republic, many of America’s thinkers and political leaders have argued that the country neither has nor needs a significant Left. In the 1950s, the so-called liberal consensus school—including Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz—argued that the country has always enjoyed agreement on such matters as private property, individualism, popular sovereignty, and natural rights. Others claimed that America did not have a leftist working class or peasantry as other nations had, a claim often termed American exceptionalism. Still others claimed that the country didn’t need a Left because it already believed in, or had even achieved, such goals as democracy and equality—goals that other nations were still striving to achieve. This view has been associated with cold-war liberalism and neo-conservatism. Thus when Barack Obama described the conflict between Left and Right as a “psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago,” he was in the mainstream of American political thought.

The Left’s Role in Times of Crisis

In spite of these claims, the country has typically had a powerful, independent Left. The indispensable role of the Left has come during periods of long-term crisis, by which I mean turning points in the country’s history. The country has had three such crises in its history: the slavery crisis culminating in the Civil War, the crisis precipitated by the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism, culminating in the New Deal, and the present crisis (the crisis of “affluence” and global power, which began in the 1960s). Each crisis generated a Left—first the abolitionists, then the socialists, and finally the New Left—and together, these Lefts constitute a tradition.

Each Left arose through challenging the liberal conception of equality—the formal or procedural equality of all citizens before the law. In place of that understanding, each Left sought to install a substantive idea of equality as a continuing project. In the abolitionists’ case, the issue was racial equality, specifically as a prerequisite for the republican form of government. In the socialists and communists’ case, the issue was social equality, specifically the insistence that democracy required secure guarantees of such basic necessities as health care, housing, and jobs. In the case of the New Left, the issue was participatory parity in every sphere of society, including social movements themselves. Central to our history, then, is a struggle between liberalism and the Left over the meaning of equality.

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