from the pages of February 1995



 Mood Swing?

By Barbara Ehrenreich


Circumstances compel me to set aside my usual flippancy and address the mood among my fellow leftists. Here, hastily composed, are a few thoughts occasioned by the Republican re-ascent to national power.

1. This is as good a time as any to abandon all traces of deluded populism, or perhaps the word I want is "majoritarianism." As long as there has been an American left for me to be part of (since the mid-1960s, that is) it has presumed to speak for "the people," the "working people," or at least some vague grouping of "progressive forces." With Gingrich characterizing even the conservative-Democratic Clintons as "enemies of normal people," it should be clear that we on the left are far from "normal." We represent a teensy-tiny minority at best. In fact, the number of Americans who consider themselves "on the left" is probably far smaller than the number who have had contact with extraterrestrial beings.

In the past, this kind of deluded majoritarianism led to all sorts of problems--or what an old-fashioned doctrinaire leftist would have called "errors." Leftists tended to crumble when they realized "the people" were rejecting them yet again or persisting in "false consciousness." Or they tended to drift ever rightward in order to make their (decreasingly principled) views more palatable. They tossed what they saw at the moment as the more controversial issues (abortion at times, or gay rights, or welfare rights) in order to advance what seemed to be a natural winner, like our dear, departed notion of universal health insurance.

But what's wrong with being a minority? The condition of being an embattled minority is an inevitable part of the life cycle of any political movement--any movement with principles, that is. Here we can take a lesson from the right. While the left tends to imagine a near-triumphant majority with or behind it, the right has thrived on the opposite conceit: that they are a tiny band of the virtuous, nearly overwhelmed by the forces of evil. Even when in power, they imagine a greater power--the "liberal elite" that supposedly dominates the media, the academy, and the government. For over two decades now, the political right has adopted the stance of an embattled minority even while enjoying lush corporate support and abundant representation. It hasn't hurt them one bit.

We don't even have to invent a powerful "enemy" force. There is a corporate elite, and it's a lot nastier and mightier than any Hollywood/campus "liberal elite." And there is an increasingly police-like state. So rant. Be the lone voice in the wilderness, the different drummer, etc. You are different--and whatever you say, you're lucky to get a hearing at all.

2. Remember that, no matter how bad things look, everything changes, and in ways that we cannot easily imagine or predict. Bush's war-time approval ratings were exceeded only by those of the deity, but he still crashed in 1991. Clinton won the presidency, but lost the country. And Gingrich? People may come to loathe that malign baby-face in a month or two, and for reasons that have nothing to do with politics or principle. In our media- and poll-driven political culture, expect sudden turn-abouts, instant backlashes, weekend-long "trends."

Of course, the same applies to any victories we may achieve or come in sight of. Look at universal health insurance, once the lovable poster child of the progressive agenda, now transformed into a wicked scheme for "government control" of health care. At some point we're going to have to figure out what propels the chaotic churning which has replaced any thoughtful, deliberative political process. But for now we better learn to surf it.

3. This is also a fine time to abandon any ideas of historical predestination or inevitability. Most of us were nurtured in a political philosophy that assumed some kind of "progress" was hardwired into the historical record. Just as dinosaurs gave way to "man" and slime to dinosaurs, so would cultures of cruelty and repression give way to revolutionary new ones based on freedom and generosity. Even in the worst of times, leftists have been sustained by this bone-deep conviction that we are on the winning side of the evolutionary and historical process. We've progressed away from slavery and human sacrifice, goes the argument--why not also capitalism and militarism?

Well, slavery is making a comeback in many parts of the world, and human sacrifice persists in the form of capital punishment and war. History follows no script, and certainly not an upbeat one. As for biological evolution, check out Stephen Jay Gould's sobering article in last October's Scientific American, where we learn that the only biological "winners" are the bacteria, and that multicellular life in general may be an evolutionary blip. But this should be no cause for political despair. As leftists, we don't do what we do because we have to, according to some genetic or Hegelian master plan. We do it because, in some deep quasi-religious sense, it's right.

4. Finally, can we have an apology from all those who argued that our job, as leftists, was to provide warm support to any Democrat in or near power, because the alternative was so much worse? The Clinton administration turned out to be a growth medium for the maniacal right and a temporary anesthetic for the left. I'm not convinced that a second Bush administration would have been a whole lot worse. I am convinced that we have our own work to do--more than we can reasonably handle--and that toadying to the powerful (whether called Democrats or Republicans) is not, and should never be, a part of it.