Monday, July 12, 2010

"One Nation" or, Why the Right can Unify and the Left Cannot

Spooked by the Tea Party, a coalition of progressive, labor, and civil rights groups have founded their own umbrella organization called "One Nation," as the Washington Post reported today. The coalition is designed to unite the disparate agendas of the Left for the midterm election battle and to hold the Obama Administration to its progressive campaign promises.

Apparently, even coming up with a name like "One Nation" took some heavy lifting. It gives just a subtle whiff of a national rallying cry -- and, unfortunately, echoes unintentionally the name of a right-wing nationalist party in Australia. The challenge of uniting the American Left around an activist or electoral agenda has a history as deep as the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th century. The United States has no labor party for a reason. The periodic assembling of the armies of reform has a similar history -- pick your favorite Progressive Party, for instance.

Putting aside the potential for success or failure of this latest round of coalition building, the explicitly antipodal nature of the One Nation effort in response to the Tea Party demonstrates some interesting differences in the political imaginations of the left and right. One of the most striking things about the Tea Party is its invocation of representing "the people." What holds it together is less an ideology (at least one that can be broken down into bullet points) than a feeling of community. The "We" is less about people interested only in gun rights, or taxes, or immigration but in restoring the political primacy of a particular kind of American -- suburban or rural, middle or lower-middle class, white, non-mainline Protestant.

Americans on the Left find their community in a more fractured. They gather around particular issues with similarly impassioned activists. Environmentalists or free speech advocates or those looking to Save Darfur may all think and act the same way in the election booth, but they are not good at thinking collectively as a "we." I found this to be true even on the local level of left-of-center politics during my graduate student days. We were trying to organize a response of students to the Daisy Lundy hate crime incident and the usual cast of characters assembled to talk strategy. The kid from the Living Wage campaign insisted that his cause was fundamental to racial harmony and should be made a priority of the response. We tried not to slap our hands to our foreheads.

Why the modern Left is so bad at claiming it speaks for the best interests of the nation, or that its political tradition represents the best of American democracy is a question too big for a Monday morning blog post. It would rather invite people to its cause to defend the specificity of their needs and wants (good wages, equal opportunity, gender equality) than to be heard as the "real" America or as "the people." Meanwhile, the Right drifts from the specific to the general and generates if not grassroots energy than at least disproportionate media attention. We don't need to start a Talmudic study of the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act to counterbalance the Tea Party's nationalistic embrace of the Constitution. But, as the Obama campaign so grandly demonstrated (and the Hillary campaign did not), something more evocative would help.

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