Who's Who in American Politics on the Left

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, December 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

Who's Who in American Politics on the Left


Rust, Michael, Insight on the News


The rise of conservatism has forced the Democrtic Party to undergo an ideological makeover that may leave liberalism irrelevant, as disparate elements of the left scrap among themselves for control.

This year, Ralph Nader accepted the presidential nomination of the Green Party only after distancing himself from the party's platform. He then proceeded to mount a campaign that seemed to eschew funding, tactics and strategy. Nader ended up with more than a half-million votes, ahead of the Libertarian ticket but substantially behind Ross Perot. Those looking for a metaphor to explain the current state of the U.S. left might look at the 1996 Nader campaign.

Part of Nader's troubles came from the candidate himself. "I take Nader's policy analysis on issues very seriously; I don't take any of his political analysis seriously, ever," says Bob Carolla, communications director of Americans for Democratic Action. At the same time, the left is divided over what to be for, how to obtain it and who should do the leading. Even so, this state of flux could be an opportunity for new leadership and tactics.

"There's a lot of changing of the guard going on within different institutional elites," Carolla tells Insight. "It just happened in the labor movement. It's also happening in the lower ranks." Just as Bill Clinton, a member of the baby boom's first wave, occupies the White House, the tail end of that postwar generation -- people in their late thirties and early forties -- are beginning to acquire authority in such traditional liberal/left bastions as academia, prestige journalism and mainline church denominations. However, just what sort of politics will emerge remains to be seen.

The politics of race, ethnicity and gender have become increasingly important in liberal circles. Groups such as the National Organization for Women and Emily's List exercise increased power in the selection of Democratic candidates. On Capitol Hill, the Congressional Black Caucus while missing some of its leading lights such as William Gray -- departed to the United Negro College Fund -- and Kweisi Mfume -- now heading the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- has great influence within the Democratic caucus. Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, regarded as a rising light among House Democrats, is the only Latino Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and almost certainly will be elected chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus.

But others say that the division-laden politics of ethnicity is holding down the party. New Democrats -- the centrist liberals gathered around the Democratic Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute -- take credit for the newly centrist Clinton's victory in the presidential election. Their probusiness, free-trade agenda could appeal to moderate Republicans, a group considered to be vulnerable to Democratic recruitment.

Before the election, political scientist Curtis Gans said that the two leading disenfranchised groups in U.S. politics were the underclass and moderate Republicans. Republicans put off by their party's social conservatism probably will "solidify, in terms of public opinion, in support of the Democratic Party," says Carolla.

However, others on the left believe that the prime political target should be Reagan Democrats -- blue-collar voters, often ethnic Catholics, who do not share the social liberalism of the latter-day Democratic Party but may respond to a program of economic populism centered around protection of Social Security benefits and opposition to corporate downsizing.

The populist elements of the progressive movement are centered around the Campaign for America's Future, or CAF, and the Economic Policy Institute, or EPI. Robert Borosage, the onetime head of the Institute for Policy Studies -- regarded as one of the bastions of hard-left foreign policy during the Cold War -- now codirects the CAF. …

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