How Relevant is Left v Right?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is so widespread because disillusionment with our economic and political system is widespread. Occupy Wall Street will continue to grow because the disillusionment will grow. The Huffington Post even ran a piece today saying incomes have gone down despite being in a “recovery”. In this situation, it is only natural that the people who join OWS come from all political stripes: Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists, etc. One of the most common exhortations at Zuccotti Park and on the internet is that we must forget the “old’ politics of left v. right and redefine the political spectrum. While I sympathize with this message I am torn over how I feel about it.

After all, it has been the political left that has been silenced over the past 35 years. The left lost control of the Democratic Party in 1980 when they failed to get the nomination from Jimmy Carter and give it to Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick had a lot to with this of course). This paved the way for the conservative populism of Ronald Reagan that the Republicans have since perfected and the Democrats have done back flips to imitate. As a result, we have moved so far to the right that today’s Democrats would have been conservative Republicans 40 years ago and today’s Republicans would have been labeled either fascists or anarchists (depending on whether you are a corporatist or libertarian). This has effectively made what used to be known as the “left” a fringe group on the political spectrum. FDR Democrats are now labeled socialists (“liberal” seems to have lost some of its bite recently) while real socialists and Marxists are left howling somewhere in oblivion. If there is such a thing as Siberia in the United States, you would find the old left there shoveling coal.

This explained why old leftists like me were inspired by Occupy Wall Street. Finally, people were speaking out against the wealth inequality, privatization, deregulation, corporate welfare and imperialist wars that have gotten out of control over the past 35 years. The left seemed to be finally exhaling after 35 years of repression. It made me proud that I had never considered going over to the dark side of the compromise Democrats, despite their continuous game of getting leftist votes out of fear that the Republican alternative always promised to be much worse. We sat by during Reaganomics, Clinton’s welfare reform gambit, the stolen election of 2000, the Patriot Act and the Tea Party. After watching our nation move to the right of Franco, Occupy Wall Street held out the promise that this was our time. We were going to let the country know that the left never left, that we had been right all along about pretty much everything and the nation was going to come around to our point of view.

As a history teacher, I should have known that a sea change like this was too good to be true. The sheer size of OWS meant that people who might have supported the Tea Party before would be marching with us now. The left, once again, is being told to pipe down. We constantly see people who fancy themselves as enlightened consensus-builders tell us that the old “left v right” divisions are irrelevant now. The only problem with this piece of advice is it does not say what IS relevant now. Is it unity? What does that really mean? I do not really know and I doubt anybody else does either.

The fact is, you can call things whatever you like. It does not detract from the point that what is called for from OWS are solutions that are more “leftist” than “right”. Universal healthcare, full investment in public schools, closing the wealth gap, regulation of Wall Street are all ideas that have been touted by the invisible left for the past 3 decades. The Tea Party rank-and-file voted many Congressional candidates in during 2010 who took strong stands AGAINST all of these things. What do we do now? We either continue to push for those same policies and call it something else (how about “up”?) or we compromise with the Tea Party and push for half-assed measures, which means we will actually receive quarter-assed measures after Congress gets through with it. Either way, I am in this movement to push for things the LEFT has traditionally pushed for and I make no apologies for that.

In my mind, Tea Party voters had their chance and they blew it. The Tea Party represented the most extreme form of the rhetoric our leaders have been feeding us over the past 3 decades: “small government”, “free enterprise”, “states’ rights”, etc. They represented the last dying gasp of the Conservative Revolution. So many Tea Party voters are hurting just like everyone else. They are the 99% too. My only hope is that they come around and stop swallowing the tired bromides of the Koch Brothers and come to terms with the fact that THEIR political activism had a major hand in making our situation worse. If you want change, you have to come with something new. OWS promises that. Do not water it down.

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