There seems to be some debate about whether the left has “sold out” under Obama, or whether leftists have remained principled and critical in light of the president’s continuation of his predecessor’s policies. To explain it the way I see it, I’d like first to outline my views of leftist taxonomy.
What passes for the American left today is a wide spectrum. It reaches from principled radicals to those barely on the left side of the fascist establishment center. I see at least several categories, each of which has a diverse membership but sharp distinctions from other groups, and they all respond to partisan concerns differently. Some individuals and organizations have a foot in more than one camp. Nevertheless, here is my simplified sketch of the breakdown of modern leftism.
Communists and Pinkos: This is a rather diverse but small bunch. For better or worse, they are principled in their opposition to American capitalism as they define it. They are usually reliable on questions of U.S. empire, but not always so, and even though they will never have power in this country, it is probably good that they won’t. Their critiques of American power, corporatism, the war machine, and the prison-industrial complex are sometimes invaluable, but as we know, state socialists are horrible in power, not infrequently the worst. Their isolation from the U.S. power elite is a saving grace, and the Marxist intellectuals among them write good history. Because they follow the money and see politics as a class struggle, much of what people in this group say is more on target than anything heard among the moderates.
Anti-Authoritarian Radicals: I’m thinking of folks like those at Counterpunch. These AAR have an anarchist streak and are more numerous (and in ways more reliable) than the smaller clique of self-proclaimed “anarchists” we typically see on the left. These are some of my favorite leftists. They are very reliable on war if not perfect pacifists. They are great on police state issues and corporatism and recognize that the regulatory state is not our best friend. They have a soft spot for some welfare programs. They are often lefty culture warriors but are much more nuanced than those fellow leftists to their right, knowing cultural bias against cultural rightists can be a weapon of state power. I’m thinking of Alex Cockburn’s excellent take on the Waco massacre. These people are not perfect, but I will take them over 99% of conservatives and probably a third of libertarians.
Civil Libertarian Liberals: Glenn Greenwald is the paradigm case, although he is unusually magnificent. These folks consider themselves liberals on the left, although their radical allies would never use the word “liberal” for themselves. The CLL are principled on civil liberties and often on many questions of foreign policy, transparency, and fairness. They are rarely partisan and have decent priorities. For better or worse, they are less anti-capitalist than the AAR and certainly less so than the pinkos. They are therefore less enraged about questions like intellectual property and less inclined to see public schools as a product of mercantilism—which is bad—but they are more likely to see the modern market, however skewed, as not an enemy in and of itself. Unlike some to their left, they understand you cannot abolish money or private property and expect to feed the population. None of them suffer the illusion that the USSR was preferable to America or that Mao’s Workers’ State was anything short of a totalitarian hellhole. Whereas the commies and even some of the AAR sometimes have a soft spot for foreign regimes but are reliably critical of the US, the CCL are sometimes too tame on the US but are more grounded on the problems of “far-left” statism.
Self-Styled Progressives: The Daily Kos-Huffington Post crowd, progressives can be the most frustrating, but they are in ways the largest lefty group that is not irredeemably evil. These people are Keynesians by default. They support gay marriage and drug liberalization, but probably would prioritize the first above the second. They tend to embrace the center-left culture war narrative, seeing the far right as the scariest camp, followed by Republicans. They want taxes on the rich to be higher, public school teachers to be better paid, wars to be internationally sanctioned, torture to be outlawed (or at least Republican torture). They put a lot of stock in the fact that Obama is the first black president. They are better on foreign policy and police issues than all but the very best conservatives, but are weaker on authoritarianism than the AAR and CLL. They hate Walmart but, if pressed, would defend eminent domain. They are probably the most statist left group on the issue of gun rights.
Democratic Partisans: These people simply embrace the DNC line. They are so statist, however, that they will side with Republicans over uppity Democrats for the sake of preserving bipartisanship, and thus serving the long-term interests of the state. But they tend to be loyal to the Democrats in the face of most political questions, no matter how inconsistent that makes them. The only issue on which they’re reliably in favor of less intervention than conservatives is abortion. There are a vocal if small minority of conservatives I prefer to these people. Krugman is their God. They love Woodrow Wilson. Chuck Schumer would count as one of these types, and no one on earth is more loathsome. Their only redeeming quality is they are not Republicans.
During the Bush years, all these groups sounded rather reasonable compared to the neocons, with the exception of the Democratic partisans, who at times sounded more hawkish in an internationalist, JFK sort of way, and who often chided progressives, liberals, and radicals for rocking the boat too much.
The biggest shakeup on the left during Bush was how good the progressives got. They became more radical. They became moderately interested in war revisionism, whereas usually they care little about this stuff. They came to question some political issues somewhat deeply, rubbing shoulders with the AAR, becoming almost indistinguishable from the CLL, and only allying with the Democratic partisans insofar as the latter was a brake on neocon warmongering.
Under Obama, most of the progressives have swung back to ally with the Democratic partisans, some enthusiastically and shamelessly, but most in a sort of schizophrenic way, trying to pretend they haven’t sold out at all. This explains all the emphasis on the torture issue of the Bush years, which they can blame on those evil Republicans while taking a nuanced position toward Obama—praising him for “banning torture” while criticizing him for not investigating or prosecuting the truly evil Bush people.
The fact that Obama is a black president and his conservative enemies are often so crude allows the progressives to mask their partisan cheering for the emperor behind a facade of Civil Rights activism, even radical humanitarianism. They do criticize Obama around the edges and do tend to oppose the war in the abstract. Maybe some are even truly upset about it and feel betrayed. But they will never admit to themselves, much less the public, that if Bush was a warmongering criminal who deserved to be impeached and prosecuted for violating the Bill of Rights and international law, so too is Obama. Their criticisms of the president are always going to be much like the criticisms conservatives had for Bush—he is a “disappointment” on domestic spending, but surely not a “socialist” like Clinton or Obama.
If we are talking about commies, anti-authoritarians, and civil libertarians, the left has been very consistent in criticizing Obama. Since they are not libertarians, they might, to varying degrees, wrongly credit him on some issues, thereby not judging him as harshly as they should. On the other hand, many of these three groups appropriately see Democrats as a greater threat to true leftism than Republicans are, because they taint their rhetoric of leftism with the reality of war crimes, Wall Street corruption, and mass imprisonment. If these three constitute the “true left,” then I will say these people’s critiques of Obama are far better than most of the rightwing critiques of Obama.
But the “false left” are not only partisan Democrats. They also include the somewhat more ideological self-styled progressives, a very large group that vacillates between principle and politics, a group that we might have considered on the “true left” under Bush and that today, on paper, still seems to be the “true left” based on its responses to what it thinks of war and civil liberties. But this camp has not held Obama nearly to the same standard as Bush, although it has strictly speaking been critical. It has decried the marijuana raids, Guantanamo, and the Afghanistan war—but it will still vote for Obama, in many cases with some sickening degree of enthusiasm.
The movement of the progressive camp from an anti-regime stance to a pro-regime stance, even as it claims to stand for peace and civil liberty, is a very real phenomenon that has transpired under Obama. This is the reason I might agree that the left seems to be giving the president a pass.