Category: The Left

2019 In Writing

I did a lot of writing this year. This is a brief list of some of my favorites. My book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, came out. It got some pretty great reviews. You should buy it. I began writing for The New Yorker Online, which has been a joy. My first piece was on political converts, men and women who make the journey from one ideology to another, and why the move from left to right has mattered more, over the course of the last century, than the move from right to left. My second piece was on Eric Hobsbawm, a Communist and a historian, and how his failure at the first made possible his success at the second. […]

They Came From Everywhere

Last night, my wife Laura organized a terrific debate watch party for Bernie Sanders supporters at a local bar. About 40 to 50 people showed up. The best part of it was that while most people were firm Bernie supporters, a fair number were not. They were Bernie-curious, but undecided. They came because of friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and so on, who brought them there. So it felt like a base-expanding moment. Even better, I had an interesting conversation with one woman, who is a definite Bernie supporter, and her boyfriend, who is less certain about Bernie. They’re both nurses. Her parents immigrated from China about 30 years ago. She lives in Sheepshead Bay. So she told me she identifies with […]

When Politics Becomes Professional: From the Obamanauts to the New Deal

The historian Josh Freeman has an excellent review of Michael Walzer’s Political Action, which came out in 1971 but has been reissued by NYRB Books. Freeman compares Walzer’s short pamphlet to the Manual of Practical Political Action, another how-to political guide, prepared in 1946 by the labor movement’s National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC), one of the first modern PACs. Both texts were written at moments of political deceleration, when the velocities of change were about to alter dramatically or already had. But here’s what Josh says about that earlier moment that’s relevant for today: For NCPAC…organizing requires strategies that are not inherently progressive. Somewhat apologetically, the Manual suggests borrowing techniques from commercial advertising, presenting detailed guidance, much of it derived from standard business practices, […]

On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian: Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: […]

Neoliberal Catastrophism

According to The Washington Post: Former president Barack Obama gently warned a group of freshman House Democrats Monday evening about the costs associated with some liberal ideas popular in their ranks, encouraging members to look at price tags, according to people in the room. Obama didn’t name specific policies. And to be sure, he encouraged the lawmakers — about half-dozen of whom worked in his own administration — to continue to pursue “bold” ideas as they shaped legislation during their first year in the House. But some people in the room took his words as a cautionary note about Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, two liberal ideas popularized by a few of the more famous House freshmen, including Rep. […]

Thoughts on Russiagate, Mueller, and Trump’s Prospects for Reelection

I find myself in a peculiar position with regard to the Mueller report (assuming—big assumption, I know—that we have a good enough sense at this point of what’s in it). On the one hand, I was part of the Russiagate skeptic circle. I didn’t doubt that Russia had attempted to influence the election, but I didn’t think that attempt had much if any consequence; those who did, I thought, were grasping at straws. Nor did I think there was a strong case for the claim that Trump actively colluded with that effort and had thus put himself and the United States in hock to Putin. The evidence of all the active anti-Russian measures on the part of the US since […]

Do You Believe in Life After Hayek

Sorry about the title; advertisements for The Cher Show are all over New York these days, so the song is in my head. Anyway… In the Boston Review, the left economists Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrick, and Gabriel Zucman offer an excellent manifesto of sorts for a new progressive economic agenda. I was asked to respond, and in a move that surprised me, I wound up returning to Hayek to see what we on the left might learn from him and his achievement. Here’s a snippet: Far from resting neoliberalism on the authority of the natural sciences or mathematics (forms of inquiry Hayek and Mises sought to distance their work from) or on the technical knowledge of economists (as Naidu and […]

Beer Track, Wine Track, Get Me Off This Fucking Train

Yesterday, on Twitter, I tweeted a version of this claim: Beto, Harris, Klobuchar, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker: The basis of their candidacies is ultimately them, their person. That’s what they all have in common. Sanders and Warren are the only two candidates whose basis is a set of ideas, well worked out over the years, about the economy and the state. The tweet was one part of a much longer Facebook post, in which I elaborated the point. Here’s a short excerpt from that post: Among the many reasons that I have no time for the first set of candidates is that I’m so tired of these quintessentially American campaigns that are so wrapped up in the personality of the candidate, […]

Neo-Nazi Fathers, Jewish Mothers, and Political Converts

I’ve got a piece in The New Yorker—my first—on political conversions. I look at the case of Derek Black, a white nationalist who is no longer a white nationalist, and Max Boot. With the help of Burke, Arendt, Isaac Deutscher, and Daniel Bell, I try and make sense of why it is that you so often see converts from left to right—and why they have such an impact on the right—but don’t often see converts from right to left with nearly the same impact. (Incidentally, that was a topic—converts from right to left—that I wrote about nearly 20 years in Lingua Franca.) Anyway, here’s a taste: Derek Black didn’t become a white supremacist. He was born one. His father, Don Black, […]

The Future of the Supreme Court in the Liberal Imagination

Imagine you’re a law student today—remembering how Gorsuch was appointed for a seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland; thinking about how Kavanaugh was appointed despite the obvious truth of Christine Blasey Ford’s claims about his attempted assault on her; and anticipating the very real possibility that Trump may get yet a third appointment to replace Ginsburg. The Supreme Court of your future will consist of a six-person right-wing majority. Two justices of that majority will forever have the stench of credible charges of sexual assault or sexual harassment hanging over them. Four justices of that majority will forever be the appointees of presidents who didn’t win the popular vote (or five justices if you throw in Alito, who […]

The Scandal of Democracy: Seven Theses for the Socialist Left

1. The Supreme Court has always been the scandal of American democracy. How do you justify the power that nine unelected judges—almost all of them, historically, white men—wield in a society that styles itself a democracy? 2. That scandal reached a peak in the last third of the twentieth century, when a combination of hard-right judicial theorists (Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia among them) and nervous liberals started worrying about what was called “the counter-majoritarian difficulty” or the “counter-majoritarian dilemma.” 3. The result of that reconsideration of the Court and judicial review was, among other things, the theory of constitutional interpretation that we call originalism. Originalism held that the only justification for the Court reviewing and overruling the decisions of […]

The Day Zach Galifianakis Saved Obamacare

The website for Obamacare was launched on October 1, 2013. That was the same day the 2013 Republican-led shutdown of the government began. The 16-day shutdown—which was essentially caused by Ted Cruz, who held up the passage of a spending bill because the Democrats wouldn’t agree to defund the Affordable Care Act they had just passed—failed. But one of the reasons the Republicans never paid a price for the shutdown was that it got completely overshadowed by the clusterfuck of the failed launch of the website, which was called Healthcare.gov. The failure of the Healthcare.gov caused no end of tsuris for the entire Obama administration, but especially for Brad Jenkins, who was the Associate Director of the Office of Public […]

Why the argument for democracy is now working for socialists rather than against them

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left. Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive. What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new […]

The Question of Russia and the Left: A response to Ryan Cooper

For the past week, there’s been a lot of discussion on Russia, Putin, Trump, and how leftists are responding to the issue. I’ve been participating in these conversations on social media. This past weekend, the conversation got a little crazy, when Columbia Law lecturer and Harper’s contributor Scott Horton engaged in some wild and irresponsible speculation about how the Russians may be backing certain Democratic primary candidates in the current elections. This morning, Ryan Cooper weighed in on the issue at The Week. I disagree with where he comes out on the issue. I want to say at the outset that I consider Cooper an ally. I don’t know him personally, but I very much admire his work. We follow each other […]

On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Palestine, and the Left

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose candidacy I’ve championed and worked for since May, had a bad moment late last week. Appearing on the reboot of Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez was asked by conservative host Margaret Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The question left Ocasio-Cortez tongue-tied and equivocating. Here was the exchange: MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel? AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this […]

How eerie and unsettling it can be when people change their minds: From Thomas Mann to today

In the wake of the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a number of people have been commenting, complaining, celebrating, noticing how quickly mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—has been moving toward Sanders-style positions. And without acknowledging it. Positions, policies, and politics that two years ago were deemed beyond the pale are now being not only welcomed but also embraced as if the person doing the embracing always believed what he or she is now saying. This, as you can imagine, causes some on the left no end of consternation. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their shift, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And […]

Oedipus in Berlin: How a German television series about the Cold War re-tells an ancient myth

If you’re looking for an excellent television series to watch, I highly recommend The Same Sky, a German production about Berlin in 1974, which you can now stream on Netflix. I had been complaining on Facebook about how amid all the new detective shows from abroad—especially the noirish/Anglo/Nordic TV series —it was hard to find a series that didn’t rely for its suspense and thrills on either the sexual abuse and rape of women or harm to children. The series Fortitude is one of the worst offenders on this score.  At one point I thought I was going to literally throw up and had to run out of the room to the bathroom. I didn’t throw up, but I didn’t go back […]

A Constitutional Crisis? Or Partisans Without Purpose?

You hear a lot of talk on Twitter these days about a constitutional crisis. The thing about previous moments of constitutional crisis in the US is that they were never strictly about institutions and narrowly political questions; they were always about something socially substantive, something larger than the specific issue itself. The crisis provoked by the election of Lincoln in 1860, which led to secession and then the Civil War, was, of course, about slavery. The crisis of FDR’s Court-packing scheme was about the New Deal and whether the American state could be used to bring American capitalism to heel. Watergate was about the Cold War and a murderous US foreign policy. What strikes me about the current crisis over […]

Moon Over Alabama: Elections and the left

My weekly digest for The Guardian, looking back on Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama with the help of Brecht and Weill, Sheldon Wolin, Matt Bruenig, and Eddie Glaude. Some excerpts: Since Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama, when the mild centrist Doug Jones defeated the menacing racist Roy Moore, social media has been spinning two tunes. Politicians tweeted Lynyrd Skyrnyrd’s Sweet Home, Alabama. Historians tweeted the 1934 classic Stars Fell on Alabama. My mind’s been drifting to The Alabama Song. Not the obvious reference from The Doors/Bowie version – “Oh, show us the way to the next little girl” – but two other lines that recur throughout the song: “We now must say goodbye … I tell you we must die.” It’s a lyric for the left, which can’t seem to let go of its […]