If the left wants to win the big fights, we need to step up our game


Photo credit: gabrielsaldana via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA
As a dual citizen of the United States and Canada I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and observe both political systems. One of the things that I’ve found as a constant in both countries, and in the UK as well from what I’ve observed, is that the ‘left’ (for lack of a better term) is losing; some battles are being won but the war is definitely not going well.

In this context, the term 'left' doesn't mean the traditional ideological left. In my opinion, rigid ideology is as dangerous and limiting as religious conservatism. Instead, I’m talking about the ideas and principles that have been the foundations of Western civilization since the Enlightenment. Sadly, ideas like humanism, the social contract, equality, democracy, education, scientific and evidence based reasoning and even truth itself are now considered 'liberal'.

Normally, this might simply be considered a conservative period in human history that would later be remedied by a liberal period. Unfortunately, we can not afford to think that way at the moment. We are currently approaching a crucial crossroads for the future of our species. Down one path lies a Utopian future, free from disease, poverty, war, want and possibly even disease and death. This future is almost guaranteed to the wealthy and powerful, regardless of what happens to the rest of us. For the bulk of humanity, the second path leads to any number of dystopian futures, the failure of the democratic experiment and all that has been gained by humanity over the last thousand years or so. The left cannot afford to keep losing under those circumstances.

Despite the critical nature of this period in history, I keep seeing activists and operatives on the left make the same mistakes over and over again. They frequently are not even fighting the right battles and are losing most of them anyway.

In no particular order:

First: The progressive left has become almost as backward looking as the right. Both sides seem to want to go back to the glory days of the post WWII era and we can’t. There won’t be and can’t be a return to the days when you punched a clock 40 hours/week for 40 years for one company and then retired. Automation, globalization and other geopolitical, economic and technological changes have brought that to an end. We need a new vision for the future, not a vision of a rapidly fading past that we’re trying to return to. Time travel is not possible, particularly for an entire civilization.

Second: It does no good to see where the ball is and chase it. To win in the long term you need to figure out where the ball is going and get ahead of it. We need to start fighting for solutions that fit that new vision of the future rather than solutions that seek to simply address 'right now' problems. Even if we win on these issues it won’t matter for long. For example: progressives are currently fighting for higher paying jobs, which is fine, except that robots and artificial intelligence are coming to take most of the jobs. We could win this battle and in a few years have high paying jobs in a field that employs almost no one. The left is fighting to reduce the cost of undergraduate education at a time when our entire education system, from kindergarten up, needs an overhaul to prepare for the future we’re moving into, a future where people will continually be in and out of school to keep their skills up to date. If this battle is won, we will reduce the cost of a few years of post high school education in a system that still does not prepare people to succeed and in many cases trains them for jobs that no longer exist. We need to fight for progressive solutions, but we need long term solutions for a rapidly changing world, not solutions that will be meaningless a few years down the road.

Third: We need to stop confusing activism with electoral politics. Activism seeks to inform people and change their minds on important issues. Electoral politics seeks to put competent people in office who can be trusted to make intelligent decisions and hold back the forces of fear, greed and hate. If activists haven't won the battle for hearts and minds and laid the groundwork for political change, office holders may not be able to help, but that doesn't mean we want them to lose their jobs to people who will actively work against activists. In other words, you want someone who is basically on your side to put the ball through the goal posts once you get it close enough to the end zone.

Note: What people describe as ‘revolution’ in electoral politics is almost always the tipping point of a movement after years or even decades of activism and incremental progress. The goal of political leaders should be evolution, not revolution.

Fourth: We need to work on our empathy. Progressives and liberals pride themselves on their “empathy” for others. All too frequently though our empathy only extends to ourselves and people like us or people in a similar situation. When we have empathy for a group of ‘others’ we usually end up with how we think they should feel (based largely on stereotypes) or how we would feel, given our background and experiences not theirs but we don’t really try to put ourselves in their situation, understand their life experiences and then ask how we would feel. The solutions or reforms we like tend to look good on paper or sound good in books and Ted Talks. However, people impacted by a proposed change may not have read those books, may not have the intellectual inclination to understand the proposed change or may simply not like the idea because they are impacted in different ways than we would be. We need to dig deep and think about how everyone involved is going to feel and how changes are going to impact them, including groups we don’t particularly like. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be winners and losers or that we can, or even should try to, please everyone. Some people and groups, such as white supremacists, simply have to be defeated regardless of how they feel about it. Some can't be accommodated because, for example, we need to reduce carbon emissions, even if it does cost them their job and dramatically alter their life. With that said, we still need to try to understand who is impacted, how, what they are likely to feel about it and how they may react. The fewer the losers, the lower the losses and the greater the compensation for those losses the greater the chance we have of winning.

Note: As an example of the above, many progressives and populists are deeply opposed to globalization because of its impact on the working class but globalization has been very good for billions of people in the global South. Poverty is in free fall, life expectancy is increasing, public health and education are improving rapidly, democracy is expanding, political stability is improving and fewer people are dying in wars than ever before. Our focus however is on working class people closer to home who are negatively impacted without regard for the impacts elsewhere. 

Fifth: We need to learn more about our issues. There is a tendency to write off people who don’t agree with us as stupid and uninformed. In my experience though no political group has a monopoly on being thoughtless and uninformed. I’ve sat with self-described democratic socialists who listed programs that would have government spending three times the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but without impacting their own personal taxes or income in any way. I've listened to environmental activists propose "solutions" that are have no scientific basis whatsoever. We need to do our homework, we need to read a variety of opinions and we need to fact check our friends as carefully as we do our foes. We need to search out hard evidence and not simply rely on web sites and publications that share our point of view. Before asking government for a program, we need to do math and have at least a rough idea of how much it would actually cost and where that money might come from. We need to think through the ideas we support, understand the costs and benefits (including who it costs, who benefits and how much) and push for the solutions that make the most sense, not just rhetorically or ideologically but financially as well.

Note: Big numbers tend to confuse people. Bill Gates is the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1%. He has an estimated net worth of $83 billion dollars. If we took all of that money and divided it up among only the bottom 40% of Americans, it would fix a lot of problems right? Well, each person would receive a one time payment of $619, so a family of four would get almost $2500. I’m sure they would all appreciate it, and it would provide some short term relief but it probably wouldn’t solve any long term problems and the largest private fortune in the world would be gone. The Gates foundation which has done a great deal of good work in improving public health and education in Africa (among other things) would also be gone. Can wealthy people pay more in taxes? Absolutely. But we need to be careful, know what we’re talking about and actually do the math if we’re going to solve problems. Even the bank accounts of “the 1%” and “big corporations” are not a bottomless well. Also remember that if you make more than $32,400 (US) you are part of the 1%, globally speaking. 

Sixth: Learn to prioritize, compromise and negotiate: To listen to many on the left, there are hundreds of issues to deal with, they are all equally important and there is no room for compromise on any of them. That is a recipe for bad political strategy. All put together it represents a level of change that will make many uncomfortable. What is likely to lead to is burning out activists, rapidly exhausting financial resources and accomplishing little or nothing. Leaders on the left need to set priorities and be willing to compromise and negotiate in order to gain ground and win on the most vital issues. Obviously there are some core values you can never sell out. The current Republican party doesn’t stand for anything anymore except white supremacy, guns and protecting the very wealthy. However, it is OK to not get everything you want all at once. It is OK to take an easy win, even if it’s a small one and come back to fight for more another day. One step forward is always preferable to holding still or moving backward.

Seven: Keep the infighting civil. When the left fights amongst ourselves we lose. In Canada this is characterized by the split between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. When the two sides are too evenly divided, we end up with Conservative governments. In the US it is fighting within the Democratic party that sometimes leads to a 3rd party candidate. In 1980 when Jimmy Carter “wasn’t liberal enough” it resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan. In 2000 when Al Gore wasn’t considered Liberal enough it led, by the narrowest of margins, to the election of George Bush for two terms and a “War on Terror” instead of a serious battle against climate change and in 2016 it led to the election of Donald Trump. When the left fights amounts ourselves it leads to conservative governments and social and economic progress are set back by decades. In Canada roughly half of the population considers themselves to be “small-l liberal” but when divided, we still lose. In the United States only 24 percent of the population considers themselves “liberal” (a number which includes ‘progressives’ and ‘social democrats'). By comparison 35 percent of Americans consider themselves moderate and 37 percent conservative - so the idea that the country is on the verge of a social democratic revolution is ridiculous. The left needs to be about ideals, inclusion, civil debate and evidence based policy. We need to have robust, but civil and respectful, debates and then pull together so that we can continue to make progress at whatever pace it is possible to do so.

Eight: The left needs to show up. The left frequently loses simply because people don’t show up when it matters. This is not just federal elections but state/provincial elections, local elections and any other time decisions are being made. Local elections have a greater impact on most people’s lives than federal elections do, but voter turnout is always down when anything less than the president or prime minister is on the line. We simply can’t win by staying home.

Ninth: We need to switch up our tactics. When the left is upset about something, the response is fairly predictable. We hold rallies, we sign petitions and if there is a company involved we organize a boycott. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, then it is little wonder we lose. Protests are good for letting off steam, they are good for building a sense of solidarity but they don’t convince anyone of anything unless they were convinced or inclined to be supportive already. It has been used too frequently by too many people for too many things. Petitions may have some impact, they at least show that significant numbers of people are paying attention but unless signatures number in the millions they may have the opposite effect. Ten thousand signatures on a national petition suggests that you're bad at petitions or that not many people care about an issue. Boycotts, in most cases, accomplish nothing at all. There are obvious exceptions of successful boycotts such as the one against Chick-fil-a but I can’t count the number of boycotts I’ve seen launched against Wal-Mart, Nestle and McDonalds over the decades and none of those companies seems to have noticed. I’m not sure what the new list of tactics need to include. It’s one of the many things that is up for debate. Maybe it includes more phone calls to representatives; maybe it includes more fund raising; maybe it involves more canvassing even when there isn’t an election or informational town halls (preferably involving names that will draw a crowd) but the current bag of tricks isn’t getting the job done.

This list may not be perfect. It may be incomplete, it may even be wrong but these are my observations. It is certainly hard to deny that, for whatever reason, the broad left is losing too frequently of late and we have to stop doing that.

To use another sports analogy, it’s getting late in the season, we’re in last place and we need to win the World Series. What’s at stake isn’t a pennant or a trophy or a ring but the future of mankind. Over the next few decades we’ll decide whether humanity has a Utopian or a dystopian future. If we want humanity to win, we have to start winning and we have to do it consistently. They don’t have to be big wins, our progress can be incremental but we must make progress. The election of Donald Trump is going to set humanity back decades. If we have many more such setbacks we lose, permanently.
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