Why are progressives and liberals lame and ineffective?

Naked Capitalism has a long, thoughtful piece titled Progressively losing by Richard Kline pondering why liberals and progressives are so ineffective. He explores the history of the left, explodes some myths about the right, then basically concludes that liberals and progressives have no fire in the belly.

I would go further than that. Most of them are upper middle class and above, happily burrowed into the state apparatus in one way or another , and thus don’t really want change. But perhaps most importantly, their inherent class biases make it difficult for them to organize in any effective way.

Kline says:

There has been another and more radical trend on the left-liberal end of the spectrum previously. That trend derived from radicalized, Continental European, immigrants, it sourced much of labor activism, and is largely extinct in America as of this date. It is the atrophy of this latter muscle in particular which has rendered progressive finger-wagging impotent.

As Wobblie organizer Big Bill Haywood famously said, “a liberal is the guy who leaves the room when a fight starts.”

Big Bill Heywood was no liberal (Poster available from Just Seeds Artists Cooperative)

One thing we should look to for inspiration is the Populist uprising of the 1890’s. It was mostly Midwest farmers who were getting gouged on crops and losing farms. The first thing they did was form co-ops so they could sell crops at a fair price. They they organized politically and controlled several legislatures, had a couple of governors and a senator.

But they thought surely the Democratic Party would work with them on reforms and got backstabbed for their troubles instead. There’s a lesson there.

Populism is 100% all-American. It requires little explanation and appeals to people across the political spectrum.

However, progressives have accomplished some things. But much more is needed.

Progressives have successfully stamped Big Capital as ‘anti-us’ historically, and they need to return to this. Those active for social reform have to forget about the electoral cycle. They have to forget about what the lunatic Right is doing as much as possible and concentrate on what they themselves are in process of accomplishing. They need a compact reform agenda (yes, bullet points and not more than ten of them). They need a defined activist strategy, no matter how large the difficulties or time horizon appear. They need to build genuinely activist organizations with specific plans to achieve a core set of goals. And they have to reclaim militancy as a word, and deed, of pride. If they do those things, they will make real progress, and moreover they will be ready when the moment comes for breakthrough amongst the wider society.

Susie Madrak in the comments sums up the real problem:

It’s my observation that progressives aren’t radicals because they don’t believe in power-sharing with those they consider beneath them in intellectual power and credentials. (I might have missed it, but I’ll say it if you didn’t: Credentialism is a hard-wired belief system for most progressives.)

Hence, the relentless undermining of any really useful coalition-building: This group’s too extreme, that group’s too working-class (and thus, it’s implied, racist — note the derogatory undertone of the term “Hillary voters”), nativism and isolationism is inherently evil because it’s a tool of the far right, etc. No other group ever quite lives up to their high standards.

So of course, nothing truly meaningful is ever accomplished.

It’s always about economic and social justice. But if your leadership is comprised of people who , all things considered, are doing pretty well, see how far you get.

Liberals and progressives aren’t really interested in dealing with actual working class or rural people. Instead, they assume others should listen and do what they’re told by them, their betters. Good luck with that elitist attitude. And you bet working class and rural whites know when they’re being talked down to and insulted and they resent it. These are the same folks progressives think they’ll organize.

I’ve lived in big cities and currently live in southern Utah. Plenty of people here across the political spectrum are increasingly angry at the government and the direction of the country.They know they’re being screwed but aren’t sure what to do about it yet. Sounds like prime organizing ground to me. But most liberals would be horrified if they actually had to talk as an equal to a redneck wearing a John Deere cap.

As Joe Bageant somewhat apocalyptically said some years ago:

With Micheal Savage and Ann Coulter openly calling for liberals to be put in concentration camps, with the CIA now licensed to secretly detain American citizens indefinitely, and with the current administration effectively legalizing torture, the proper question to ask an NRA member may be, “What kind of assault rifle do you think I can get for three hundred bucks, and how many rounds of ammo does it take to stop a two-hundred-pound born-again Homeland Security zombie from putting me in a camp?” Which would you prefer, 40 million gun-owning Americans on your side or theirs?

One big problem with the left is an elitist attitude that prevents it from organizing those it wants to reach. The other big problem is a belief that big government is basically good and that things can be fixed by them, the technocrats. Such a view precludes the possibility of real change because it doesn’t involve everyone. Not only do you genuinely need the masses on your side, they must have major leadership roles too.

Another problem is, I think, that liberals and progressives mistrust power and are thus leery about wielding it. Conservatives have no such qualms.

PS What I’m really talking about is the Alinsky model. Don’t organize with an agenda about what should be done. Ask the people what they want done, help them start a group, and most importantly, let them run it.


  1. I don’t we’ve “lost our muscle” so much as, with all else unsuitable to the agenda, these histories have been written out of our mainstream history. I’ve spent much of the summer reviewing high school and first year college history books and as with the genocide of the First Americans if mentioned at all it is mentioned because it absolutely must be and always painted to the reichwing picture. It’s not just the media, or the media/drug complex, but the text book editors as well, not to mention those that use those books to teach a less than accurate history.

    It’s not that we are failing to learn the lessons of history, but that we haven’t the opportunity to learn them.

    • And the huge and successful struggles by labor from about 1900-1940, which were sometimes bloody, have been written out of the history books too. The history is all about capital and not about workers.

    • Point well taken. After Kent State, Jerry Rubin said, look, people just aren’t willing to go underground and fight armed battles against the establishment., we got to figure out a new way.

      OTOH, Big Bill Haywood had to flee to Russia to avoid twenty years in prison here for speaking out against WWI.

  2. What you say about the entrenchment in the system is 100% correct. It’s easy to say that we should be in solidarity with the poor, much less easy to give up one of your $500 a month car leases to help them. It’s easy to say our economy should not exploit others, much less easy to give up the benefits that exploitation gives all of us. The median income of the U.S. is about $50K, the median world income (PPP) is about $850. That’s scandalous! But I’m not willing to give up the difference between my income and theirs, are you?

    It was once observed about NGOs that deal with poverty that they can never let themselves actually eliminate poverty, or they’d be unemployed. Self interest will [almost] always trump morality.

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