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Liberals Still Don’t Get It: A Review of “What We Do Now”

Matt Wasserman Jan 27, 2005

p9 still dont get itWHAT WE
DO NOW
Eds. Dennis Loy Johnson
& Valerie Merians Melville
Melville House, 2004

Despite differences between Bush and Kerry, not a single major issue was truly up for grabs in last year’s election. From the environment to the distribution of wealth to gay marriage to the war in Iraq and foreign policy more generally, the differences between the two candidates were of degree, not kind. One would continue the attack on the New Deal and sane public policy while the other would, maybe, roll back some of the last four years of erosion.
Nonetheless, the presidential election of 2004 sparked more interest and resulted in more anguish than any for many years. What We Do Now, a collection of 22 essays written and published on the fly, emerges from this grief. Kerry supporters from Howard Dean and Martha Nussbaum to Greg Palast have contributed to a volume intended to give the faithful “a sense that there is something they can do right now.”
That the authors are well intentioned cannot be denied. But that doesn’t always result in usefulness. While interesting and occasionally insightful, What We Do Now is inadequate. If the problem the left is faced with is merely how to get John Kerry or someone like him into office in four years, a better volume than this one could not be desired but it is not.
With significant exceptions, the recent history of the U.S. left is one of submission and defeat. It was Clinton, a supposed liberal, who passed the legislation that makes up most of the Patriot Act, who with the U.K. bombed Iraq and whose gutting of welfare was the precursor to Bush’s agenda of Social Security privatization. And it was that confirmed reactionary Nixon who, under pressure from an insurgent left, created the Environmental Protection Agency and tried to institute a guaranteed minimum income. The problem is not the last four years but the last three decades.
The left has been out-organized by the extreme right. It will take more than registering voters in swing states or contributing to MoveOn to change this. Unfortunately, none of What We Do Now’s writers acknowledge this larger context. Even ignoring Nicholas Kristof, who suggests that the Democrats should ape New Labor and compromise on principles – does he think Kerry is Paul Wellstone? – few essays advocate anything more drastic than a “revitalization” of the Democratic Party.
Even the book’s token radicals Leslie Cagan and Medea Benjamin suggest little more than continuing to hold mass demonstrations and press local anti-war resolutions. Feb. 15, 2003 was the largest protest in world history, but did it change anything? “Power concedes nothing without demand,” said Fredrick Douglass. It’s time to start demanding.