A Thought Experiment for the Left

A Thought Experiment for the Left

Here is a thought experiment for the left. It requires a bit of historical imagination, something for which the left is known. Its political implications are weighty. So weighty, I think, that the answer-your answer, Comrade Reader-to the question I pose at its end might well reveal if you can say to fellow citizens that you have the wherewithal to hold political power on their behalf (yes, I assume representative democracy, for all its flaws).

Imagine that you have become president of the United States in a particular set of circumstances. Let’s call these circumstances the Historical Original Position, or HOP for short. HOP situates you in the Year of Our Relativity, 1981. As I construct it, you will perceive readily that HOP entails fantasy as well as events that occurred that year and before. In fact, the more you know about those pre-1981 events, the better. Later, when you step into the HOP, I will ask you to drop a veil over your memory for the sake of my argument. I will ask you to pretend that you are ignorant of all post-1981 history. Forgive me if I do not entirely do so. For the sake of our purposes here, I must integrate into my design some hints, just a few, about later decades. I think-hope-it will make sense since we are all reasonable historical creatures.

So here’s the HOP. Due to an unexpected constellation of events, an insurgent movement called Democratic Equality wrests the Democratic presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter in 1980. You replace him. Let’s give “you” a persona: you are Eugenia Norma Harrington, a distinguished civil rights attorney, long an eloquent advocate of social and economic fairness in America. You assemble a broad center-left political coalition against the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. Remarkably, you win the election and become the country’s first woman-and first truly left-wing-president. The Democrats sweep both houses.

Reagan heads back west in a wagon train (he aims to live out his days encouraging Republican movie stars to act as if they are suitable for public office). Jimmy Carter seeks to be an effective ex-president, leading observers to suggest that he should have sought this job in the first place. Walter Mondale joins the new cabinet as secretary of the treasury. You have appointed him-the “centrist” on your team-to reinforce the coalition that enabled you to defeat Reagan. You ignore sniping that his appointment turns your administration into “a grotesque sellout to the priorities of the ruling class.” (See Alexander Cockburn, “Stooges Yet Again: You can always tell an objective social democrat,” in the Nation, November 32, 1980.)

In fact, you assemble a first-rate cabinet. Almost all its members read-and some even write for –Dissent. As might be expected, you place great emphasis on social and economic policy. “By the end of my presidency,” you d...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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