Being a Minority

By Barbara Ehrenreich

 

Circumstances compel me to set aside my usual flippancy and address
the mood among my fellow leftists. Here, hastily composed, are a few
thoughts occasioned by the Republican re-ascent to national power.

 1.  This is as good a time as any to abandon all traces of deluded
populism, or perhaps the word I want is "majoritarianism." As long as
there has been an American left for me to be part of (since the
mid-1960s, that is) it has presumed to speak for “the people,”
the “working people,” or at least some vague grouping of
“progressive forces.” With Gingrich characterizing even the
conservative-Democratic Clintons as “enemies of normal people,”
it should be clear that we on the left are far from “normal.” We
represent a teensy-tiny minority at best. In fact, the number of
Americans who consider themselves “on the left” is probably far
smaller than the number who have had contact with extraterrestrial
beings.
	In the past, this kind of deluded majoritarianism led to all
sorts of problems-or what an old-fashioned doctrinaire leftist would
have called "errors." Leftists tended to crumble when they realized
“the people” were rejecting them yet again or persisting in
“false consciousness.” Or they tended to drift ever rightward in
order to make their (decreasingly principled) views more
palatable. They tossed what they saw at the moment as the more
controversial issues (abortion at times, or gay rights, or welfare
rights) in order to advance what seemed to be a natural winner, like
our dear, departed notion of universal health insurance.
	But what's wrong with being a minority? The condition of being
an embattled minority is an inevitable part of the life cycle of any
political movement-any movement with principles, that is. Here we can
take a lesson from the right. While the left tends to imagine a
near-triumphant majority with or behind it, the right has thrived on
the opposite conceit: that they are a tiny band of the virtuous,
nearly overwhelmed by the forces of evil. Even when in power, they
imagine a greater power—the "liberal elite" that supposedly
dominates the media, the academy, and the government. For over two
decades now, the political right has adopted the stance of an
embattled minority even while enjoying lush corporate support and
abundant representation. It hasn’t hurt them one bit.
	We don't even have to invent a powerful "enemy" force. There
is a corporate elite, and it’s a lot nastier and mightier than any
Hollywood/campus “liberal elite.” And there is an increasingly
police-like state. So rant. Be the lone voice in the wilderness, the
different drummer, etc. You are different-and whatever you say,
you’re lucky to get a hearing at all.

 2.  Remember that no matter how bad things look, everything changes,
and in ways that we cannot easily imagine or predict. Bush's war-time
approval ratings were exceeded only by those of the deity, but he
still crashed in 1991. Clinton won the presidency, but lost the
country. And Gingrich? People may come to loathe that malign baby-face
in a month or two, and for reasons that have nothing to do with
politics or principle. In our media- and poll-driven political
culture, expect sudden turn-abouts, instant backlashes, weekend-long
"trends."
	Of course, the same applies to any victories we may achieve or
come in sight of. Look at universal health insurance, once the lovable
poster child of the progressive agenda, now transformed into a wicked
scheme for "government control" of health care. At some point we're
going to have to figure out what propels the chaotic churning which
has replaced any thoughtful, deliberative political process. But for
now we better learn to surf it.

	3.  This is also a fine time to abandon any ideas of
historical predestination or inevitability. Most of us were nurtured
in a political philosophy that assumed some kind of "progress" was
hardwired into the historical record. Just as dinosaurs gave way to
“man” and slime to dinosaurs, so would cultures of cruelty and
repression give way to revolutionary new ones based on freedom and
generosity. Even in the worst of times, leftists have been sustained
by this bone-deep conviction that we are on the winning side of the
evolutionary and historical process. We've progressed away from
slavery and human sacrifice, goes the argument-why not also capitalism
and militarism?
	Well, slavery is making a comeback in many parts of the world,
and human sacrifice persists in the form of capital punishment and
war. History follows no script, and certainly not an upbeat one. As
for biological evolution, check out Stephen Jay Gould's sobering
article in last October’s Scientific American, where we learn that
the only biological "winners" are the bacteria, and that multicellular
life in general may be an evolutionary blip. But this should be no
cause for political despair. As leftists, we don’t do what we do
because we have to, according to some genetic or Hegelian master
plan. We do it because, in some deep quasi-religious sense, it’s
right.

	4.  Finally, can we have an apology from all those who argued
that our job, as leftists, was to provide warm support to any Democrat
in or near power, because the alternative was so much worse? The
Clinton administration turned out to be a growth medium for the
maniacal right and a temporary anesthetic for the left. I'm not
convinced that a second Bush administration would have been a whole
lot worse. I am convinced that we have our own work to do-more than we
can reasonably handle—and that toadying to the powerful (whether
called Democrats or Republicans) is not, and should never be, a part
of it.

Reprinted with permission from Z Magazine, February 1995.  {body}

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