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The Past, Present and Future of the Left in America

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Michael Tomasky, author of “Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America,” discusses what he sees as the recent failures of leftist rhetoric and strategies that seem to only be talking to the already converted. On the current issue of affirmative action, for example, the author feels that perhaps including class politics into the equation might make a larger percentage of the population support it. Barbara Ehrenreich, who reviewed Tomasky’s book in The Progressive magazine review “Why We Are All a Bunch of Losers,” agrees with many areas of Tomasky’s book and feels that various forms of postmodernism and political correctness have been substituting for a credible leftist critique. However, she disagrees with Tomasky saying that the left hasn’t succeeded, and argues that success can’t always be measured in terms of popular public support, as the left has often been, and must continue to be, committed to taking some unpopular stances.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Left for Dead is the title of a new book that will certainly make waves in progressive circles. Michael Tomasky, the author, believes the left has dropped the ball on many of the most debated social issues of the day, including affirmative action, welfare reform and immigration. But not all on the left are taking this critique lying down. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of The Snarling Citizen, dissected Tomasky’s book in the most recent issue of The Progressive magazine. Her review was entitled “Why We’re All a Bunch of Losers.” Joining us to discuss the past, present and future of the left in the United States are Michael Tomasky. He writes for The Village Voice and author of the new book, _Left for Dead, and Barbara Ehrenreich.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we begin with Michael Tomasky? Tell us about your thesis in the book, Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Let me say first what the book is not. The book is not an all-out attack on the left. And it’s not an attempt to say we’re all a bunch of losers, and everything is terrible, and I wash my hands of this movement, and it’s lost. It’s not an attempt to do that. It is, rather, an attempt to say I still care about these movements, and I still care about the success of the labor movement and women’s rights movement and gay and lesbian movement and civil rights movements. I agree with the goals and care profoundly about seeing the left succeed. What I’m saying, though, in the book is, I think we’ve chosen some strategies over the last few years that have not succeeded. And I don’t think anybody can seriously say at this point, unfortunately, that we’re in good position, that we’re having profound influence on government policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you talk about — why don’t you talk about some of those areas where you think progressives in this country have failed?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, I think the basic problem, which sort of is a thread that runs throughout the book, is that, you know, we’re really just talking to ourselves these days. You know, we’re not — you know, the rhetoric we’ve developed, the language we’ve developed, we’re not really doing a very good job. We’re not successfully reaching out to people who aren’t part of the movements and part of the groups that constitute the left. Now, you know, those movements are, to some extent, large and have a reasonably broad base in certain sections of the country. But comparatively speaking, you know, they are pretty small, you know, and we don’t have a — we don’t have a way of reaching out to the people, you know, just sort of ordinary middle Americans, whether they’re Black or white or Northern or Southern, or what have you, that don’t necessarily consider themselves a part of any left movement, but whose sympathy and support the movements need to have success.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you specifically, for example, about immigration. Bob Dole is vowing to take back control of the U.S. border with Mexico, if he’s elected. He voiced support for legislation that would let states deny public education to children of illegal immigrants.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, I think that’s outrageous. And I said in the book that I think that’s outrageous, and that I certainly, if I’d lived in California, would have voted against Prop 187. What I do think, however, is that, you know — and I talk at some length about Prop 187 in the book. What I do think is that our — the left strategies in trying to persuade people to vote against Prop 187 weren’t terribly successful — well, obviously weren’t successful. But the reason they weren’t successful, I don’t think, is that they didn’t show people where their interests lay in opposing Prop 187. Of course, I’m for generous levels of legal immigration, and I’m certainly for, you know, tolerance in respect to treatment of immigrations. And not only —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think the progressive movement went wrong there? What do you think was the issue that they should not have focused on that they did?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, I think, you know, there was a general tone, and one can pick this up in going back and reading through, you know, left-wing magazines and their coverage of the Prop 187 thing. There was a general tone that, you know, if you vote for this thing, you’re racist and xenophobic. And that doesn’t compel people. That doesn’t convince people that — you know, you have to reason with them, and a little bit more compellingly than that.

AMY GOODMAN: What about affirmative action?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, affirmative action, I’m for, basically. I mean, I think it’s done a lot of good things. And I outline those in the book. But, you know, again, it’s running into trouble, again in California. And this new ballot referendum that’s going to be on the ballot in the fall of this year, it looks like it’s going to pass, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: The California Civil Rights Initiative, CCRI.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, the California — CCRI, another thing that I would certainly vote against. But I say, let’s look at what affirmative action has turned into, and maybe try to figure out ways that we can tinker with it and adjust it to save it. And the main point that I come to is that affirmative action, as currently constituted, has only the animus of white working-class people, because they see it as a program that is directed sort of against them. And the right, you know, God knows, we have to admit, the right has used that very point to, I think, tremendous effect. What if affirmative action were not explicitly class-based? Because I think that would create some problems. But if it had a class criterion, as well as racial and gender and ethnic criteria, that it currently has, if it had a class criteria, and white poor people were eligible for some of affirmative action’s benefits, would that not make them feel as though they had a stake in the program? You know, I’m not — it would have problems, too. I’m not sure it’s the perfect answer, but it’s just something that I’m tossing out there as an idea that might work and that might bring people in a certain category who are very much against the policy now for it.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, wouldn’t that lead to the same kind of attitude that we see towards people on welfare: When you have poorer people, you don’t give them any kind of special benefits? Wouldn’t that be what white working-class or poor people would face if you started saying we must favor them, even if that is a good idea?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, I don’t — no, I don’t think so. I don’t think — I don’t think you would definitely see — necessarily see that happening. Your suggestion is that because it would then be class-based, that it would not have any real constituency to survive the —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I don’t know why it would have any more of one than there is for affirmative action right now.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, that’s an interesting point, except that I do think that the groups that support it now would continue to support it, wouldn’t they? I mean, you know, civil rights groups would support it. Women’s groups would support it, as they should, because they’d continue to be beneficiaries. But I also think that if, you know, the — the example I use in the book, you know, the son of the coal miner in eastern Kentucky, you know, could be a beneficiary of this program, I think that, over time, you know, people in that category might come to see that there’s something in it for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Tomasky is author of a new book called Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America. And we’re joined on the phone from Florida by Barbara Ehrenreich, who reviewed Michael’s book in The Progressive magazine. Barbara, your reaction to some of these thoughts being put forward by Michael?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, first, I have to say, it must be a nightmare for an author to have to confront a reviewer during a book tour. There are, you know, areas which I agree with his book. I think that it’s a ridiculous kind of postmodernism has somehow disguised itself as the left on college campuses, that a certain kind of political correctness or moral righteousness, as he says, sometimes substitutes for real argument. You know, there are lots of areas of agreement, I should say. And those criticisms, you know, I just wish he had acknowledged a little bit in the book that those criticisms have been made by other people who have — you know, who consider themselves on the left.

Where I begin to worry, though — and you’ve already, Michael, said something that brought up my major objection to your line of argument, is, you know, you keep saying, well, the left hasn’t succeeded. You know, we should succeed more. I agree, we should succeed. But I think we can’t always think of succeeding in the same terms, say, as the Democratic Party or the Republican Party does, you know, in terms of sheer numbers and popularity, as measured by polls. We do have to take some unpopular stands. We do have to stick to our guns sometimes — pardon the military metaphor. We do have to — you know, we put principle over easy advantage in any issue we look at. And that means sometimes we are defending something which is unpopular. You know, there were times when almost any issue that we could talk about was totally unpopular, like reproductive choice for women. And it was a pretty lonely business advancing that in the early 1970s, for example. But we did, and we became the majority on it. I think the same is true with many of the other issues you raise now, like immigration and welfare, where we feel totally embattled. But this is — ours is a moral crusade, not just a political head-counting-type crusade.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I agree with a lot of that. And I think it makes — I think it makes a lot of sense. And certainly, we have to stick to our guns on — let’s take, like, gay rights, is probably the most obvious example and the one that, you know, that the right certainly gets some mileage out of. But we can’t — you know, we certainly can’t retreat on that question. And I say in the book that I’m for gay marriage, and this is something that — this is a position that the left has taken. And incidentally, in the book, I mean, I criticize identity politics, but I give it some credit, too, for having accomplished a lot of things and helped a lot of people. We can’t back down on that. My objections are with sort of some of the strategies and some of the rhetoric used and some of the — and some of the ways that we have gone about pursuing the goals, as I said at the top of the show. I mean, I’m completely in agreement with the goals, but my questions have to do with, you know: Are there ways that we can pursue these same goals that maybe, you know, will help us win more people over to our side?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can I quote you both on the fact that we should stick to our guns when it comes to gun bans?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yes, I withdraw my metaphor.

AMY GOODMAN: We might be making news today.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Oh, you may want to stand by it, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Barbara Ehrenreich, what about the whole debate over welfare? What do you think should be the message being put forward by progressives? And do you think that people have to rethink the approach that’s been taken at this point?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, this is probably the area where I have the biggest sort of substantive and immediate disagreement with Michael Tomasky, is, you know, I don’t think it’s a matter of identity politics or of some sort of screwball leftism to want to defend an entitlement to welfare for poor single parents. That’s what I do, and a lot of feminists are doing, is that, you know, we — I think Michael has bought into a lot of the conservative arguments about welfare, that it just causes dependency, and it causes — perhaps even causes poverty and so on. Here is an unpopular position, which both, you know, morally I am impelled to take and rationally I am impelled to take by a careful study of the issue. And my — I think, you know, Michael, then, would be right, the burden is on me then to connect this to the concerns of a lot of other people, which is what we try to do. We try to talk about how, you know, if you take away welfare, if you take away that bottom safety net for the low — you know, the poorest people, you are basically undercutting everybody. You’re undercutting everybody in the workforce, because that’s the big fear, of course, on the side of the employers, is that welfare could pay some people more than their pathetic minimum wage. So, you know, I think we disagree here, but I think we agree that there’s a need to, you know, cast these issues in a way that a lot of people can connect with.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Tomasky?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, I go along with that. And what you just said about, you know, making working people realize that there’s an eventual effect on them in the welfare debate is something I can support completely. What I do think, though, is that, you know, most people on welfare would rather be working, right? They’d rather have jobs, there’s no question about that.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, they’d rather have jobs, and they’d rather have child care while they go to work.


BARBARA EHRENREICH: And they’d rather have jobs that pay enough so that they —

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Absolutely, absolutely.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: — can pay the rent and buy food.


AMY GOODMAN: But, Michael, many people on welfare are women and have children, and they consider themselves working when they’re just raising their kids.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, yeah, that’s true, too. That’s true, too. But —

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, most, let’s say, the great majority. You know, if we’re talking of AFDC, we’re talking about, like, nearly 100% are —

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, it’s a great majority. Yeah, right, right.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: — single mothers.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, but I do think that sort of, in some ways, the left just kind of got itself into a position, though, of opposing any proposal that has come down the road. And, you know, in some ways, there’s good reason — there are a lot of things to oppose, certainly. I mean, you know, I hold no brief for the much-vaunted bipartisanly, I should say, the Tommy Thompson plan. And, you know, I’m certainly not crazy, obviously, about the Republican rollback to the states. But, you know, I think that our responsibility then is to come up with solid proposals that, you know, are much more compassionate than that, but that do see as a realistic goal, you know, helping people get jobs. And I think that, you know, this has happened in some places in the country. I cite in the book the example of the New Jersey plan. Now, it has that family cap thing, which I don’t know about. And, you know, I mean, the numbers aren’t clear on whether or not it’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by the family cap.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: The family cap is no extra cash benefit when a woman has a second child. And that was the one that got headlines, the aspect of that New Jersey plan that got the headlines. And almost all the debate about the New Jersey thing centered around that, with the right generally saying, “Rah, rah,” and the left generally saying, you know, “This is awful.” But the fact of the matter is, the New Jersey plan had several other aspects to it that were quite generous and that New Jersey is spending more money and that there are signs that things are working a little bit in New Jersey with respect to this plan. It was done by an African American state senator, Democrat, liberal, who represents one of the poorest cities in the United States, Camden, New Jersey. It wasn’t done by somebody, you know, who was out to kill the poor. Just be a little bit more open-minded about these things. That’s all I’m saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara, we’re going to get your reaction in just a minute. We’re talking to Michael Tomasky, author of the new book, Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America. And Barbara Ehrenreich joins us on the phone, author of The Snarling Citizen and many other books, and she reviewed Michael’s book in this past Progressive magazine, the latest issue. You’re listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. And we’re still in the studio with Michael Tomasky, author of _Left for Dead, and Barbara Ehrenreich, on the telephone from Florida. Coming up in just a few minutes, we’re going to be joined by the whole crew, the whole quartet of The Foremen, and we’re going to be hearing some of their songs, from Chicago to San Diego and back again. But we’re going to continue this discussion now. Barbara, your response to Michael’s critique, overall, about welfare and his support for the New Jersey plan, overall?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, those of us who have considered ourselves sort of advocates for welfare have, you know, always talked about reform, meaning that — you know, but it wouldn’t be — it would be expensive, as Clinton, the early Clinton — remember? He was going to —


BARBARA EHRENREICH: — put money into child care and job training and all those things. Then he backed off, because it’d be much more expensive than welfare as we know it now. But in addition to that kind of reform, to make it possible for people, women to move into work if they want to, we realize that this is — this has been a program which is an amazingly important emergency stopgap for so many women, women fleeing abusive relationships, for example. What do you do? You go to the shelter, and they sign you up for welfare, because you’ve got to have some way of feeding your kids in the interim. What we see is that we are about to lose the entitlement to that kind of that emergency safety net. And that is — you know, that is really worth opposing. And it’s an issue which, I think, Michael, you’ll see that if you read, say, the NOW literature, the NOW newspaper, it’s something that women of all classes potentially see as their issue. So, I don’t — you know, I think in this case, you’ve fallen a little bit too much for the very conservative critiques, rather than looking at what women, feminists, sort of feminists somewhat or the liberal or left-wing band are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, actually, I think that that’s a big change for NOW, the National Organization for Women, in the last year or so, really taking on the issue of welfare in a way that they haven’t over their 30-year history.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah. I mean, we’ve had a terrible time getting anybody to take this issue seriously. You know, I really disagree with Michael that the left sort of is mindlessly pro-welfare in its modern form, in its existing form. It’s been very hard to get people in the sort of traditional left to say, “Yeah, this is our issue, too,” because I think the left traditionally in this country, at least the part of the left that I know and tend to interact with, is very much focused on the more sort of wage issues, which are extremely important, too, have been associated with the labor unions and so on. It’s hard to get the unions and that part of the left to really focus on an area which is poor women’s needs. And if we’ve made a little progress, I’d like some applause for that.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, I do applaud it. I think that’s good. But, I mean, historically, though, it was the case, in the 1960s, that, you know, a big impetus of the left’s attitude toward welfare, a big part of the movement, was welfare rights and was was to put more people on the rolls to precipitate some kind of urban crisis, which — well, you know, which happened, but not quite in the way that its proponents hoped and planned. So, you know, there is, I think, some historical blame there. I would concede that today that’s not, you know, happily and thankfully, the strategy. But, you know, it’s sort of —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean that welfare was created to put — that the people who pushed for it was to create an urban crisis?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, Frances Piven and Richard Cloward were writing this in The Nation in 1966 and 1967, and I quote one of the passages at great length in the book. And the idea was that, you know, an expansion of the welfare rolls, a planned doubling of the welfare rolls would precipitate an urban crisis that the Democratic — capital D — elites that ran the urban centers would be unable to deal with, really, and that, therefore, it would compel the national government to — finally, to concerted action on fighting poverty. Well, they were half-right: The welfare rolls did double. But, unfortunately, the reaction was not quite what they had in mind.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, but the welfare rolls didn’t double just because there were welfare advocates like Cloward and Piven —


BARBARA EHRENREICH: — encouraging people to sign up.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: No, of course not. Of course not.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Poverty was increasing the rolls.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Of course not. Well, I mean, what happened was that the manufacturing base was leaving New York City and the other, you know, industrial cities, you know. And that’s the main reason. And I say that in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it surprise either of you, this report in The New York Times today that during the first two years of the Clinton administration, the country’s top 5%, their income has grown faster than at any time — in fact, faster than during the Reagan era, and that the income gap is increasing now more than it ever has? Is this surprising to you, Barbara?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: No. I mean, Clinton has been a — you know, he’s been a representative of big business. I mean, we have — I have a hard time distinguishing between him and Dole.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: The one Clinton official who tried, when The New York Times did its big series on downsizing, and earlier this year who tried to talk about these issues and bring them to public attention, Robert Reich, the labor secretary, was called on the carpet by Laura Tyson and Robert Rubin and told not to talk that way.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few minutes, and I want to ask you, Michael, since you are critiquing what progressive America has accomplished, if — what your platform would be, what you feel that progressives should take on right now. What should be their strategy?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, I think work and wages, you know, are — and this downsizing thing are the big issues. I think that, you know, that’s something around which, you know, a lot of people from different regions of the country and different races and different classes, working class, middle class and poor, can potentially feel like they can connect to, because a lot of people — a lot of people, I think, are scared right now. And universal healthcare, I think, is another thing. Now, that’s one that will take a lot of hits and will be unpopular, as Barbara was talking about reproductive rights in the '70s earlier, and that's one that will take some time. But it’s one that I think over the course of time we can rally a lot of people to.


MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, by showing them that — you know, what’s in it for them, that it’s good for them. I mean, the particulars of single payer are particulars that poll after poll shows that people support in terms of what they want with their healthcare. You know, so maybe you just give it a different label or sell it a different way or something. But the particular aspects of single payer, the right to use any doctor, the cradle-to-grave coverage, are things that people like. And I also think, you know, taking on two of the biggest lobbies, in this supposedly anti-Washington mood that the country is in, supposedly, maybe, maybe would also score some points.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s possible that the reason for the difficulties on the left is just because of the power of the right and the money of the right? And that doesn’t just include Republicans; it includes a lot of corporate Democrats, as well.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, it includes people who give money to Democrats, as well, yeah. I do mention that in the book. I mean, but, of course — I mean, that’s always going to be one of our problems. We’re always going to be, you know, outfinanced and, you know, outorganized, to the extent that organization is a function of how many millions of dollars you can throw into it.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I’m confused. This is Barbara. I’m confused, because, Michael, you sound like a leftist. I’d admit you to my little socialist cell or whatever.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Why, thank you.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: And I hope that as you publicize your book, you won’t be doing it just on the grounds that you’re the only one with these insights, because you do have a lot of potential people with you. And I don’t think you had to alienate quite so many of us with your book.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, I wasn’t trying to do that. I was trying to get a conversation going. And, you know, so we’re having one right now, aren’t we? So, maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

AMY GOODMAN: *Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. And I’d like to invite our listeners to join in this discussion. You can call us in our comment line, and we’ll play some of those comments, at 202-588-0988, extension 313. That’s 202-588-0988, extension 313. Or you can write to us on email at That’s You can also write to us. Just send us a letter in the mail, and we’re going to be reading those comments. We’re going to be doing this more and more to get your comments in the show. You can write to us, and we’re particularly interested in the direction you feel that progressives should be going in these days. And also, I want to know if you feel that we can — we have the same old dichotomy between left and right. And let me He put that to you two as our final question. And that is, do you think there is a breakdown in the division between left and right, Michael?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: I do. And I think it’s all still kind of up in the air. It’s obviously sort of an offshoot of the collapse of the Cold War, which kept the lines, I think, in much more sort of rigid focus. And I think that, historically speaking, you know, having — it’s only having been six or seven years since that event. I think that it’s still kind of up in the air, and the dust hasn’t settled. But it’s very interesting. You see it sometimes in particular debates like NAFTA, in which, you know, Pat Buchanan and the labor unions are together. And then, you know, you see it in, I don’t know, all kinds of weird little circumstances. So, it might be interesting to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Ehrenreich. Are you finding allies you never realized you had?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: No. No, I don’t think so. I think the right-left polarization gets clearer and clearer. You know, certainly there are issues, like abortion, that can muddy the waters in some cases, but, overwhelmingly, I’ve never seen it so clear. I mean, are you on — you know, which side are you on? The wealthy sort of robber baronry that seems to be running this place or the people that are getting trampled underneath?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note —

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, but I think — just very quickly, there are a lot of people that we would think of as conservative, and they probably are culturally conservative, who also hate those people.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much. Michael Tomasky, author of Left for Dead, and Barbara Ehrenreich, author of The Snarling Citizen and many other books. We’ll continue the discussion.

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