by G. William Domhoff
Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, 160 pp., $23.95
Reading G. William Domhoff’s latest book, Changing the Powers That Be, How the Left Can Stop Losing and Win was a dizzying experience. In this slim and highly readable discussion about how leftists can finally get their act together, Domhoff bounces between the extremely perceptive and the way-off-base. Just when you think he may have his finger on what makes the left tick, he levels a criticism so wide of the mark that the reader wonders if the author has spent the last two decades living in a time warp. Nevertheless, the book contains enough of value to warrant wider attention than it has received.
Two themes run through each chapter. They are arguments about why the left has so consistently failed to achieve its historic goal of “changing the powers that be” and what the left should do from here on out.
Domhoff begins his discussion of what the left should be doing with a hypothetical account of what Ralph Nader’s campaign of 2000 might have looked like had Nader and the Greens been thinking clearly. In this scenario, Nader would have run a vigorous campaign in the Democratic primaries, all the while channeling the grassroots energy he was generating into the formation of locally based Egalitarian Democratic Clubs (EDCs). When he realized that Al Gore would be the Democratic nominee, Nader would have endorsed him enthusiastically, thus gaining a visible role at the Democratic convention and, more important, helping to ensure Bush’s defeat.
The nationwide network of EDCs would then form “the basis for the future takeover of the party in the same way liberals had taken over the California state party with their democratic clubs in the 1950s.”
Underlying his views on electoral strategy is Domhoff’s unorthodox (on the left, at least) claim that “it is not accurate to assert that the two parties are becoming more and more similar. They actually have become increasingly different over the past thirty-five years.” Barney Frank makes a similar argument, and it seems to me that the left needs to take a much more open-minded, empirically based look at this question.
From his analysis of the disastrous impact of the Nader campaign, Domhoff argues that “egalitarians” (his term for left-liberals/progressives) must work within the Democratic Party, in large measure, to avoid precisely what happened in the last presidential election. He urges “egalitarians” to once and for all stop threatening to support third party efforts-and instead, to join a permanent united front with mainstream Democrats. But this doesn’t mean merging with or blending into the Democratic Party. Instead, he asks us to carry out his imaginary Nader scenario and form locally based EDCs all over the country. His reasoning here is rooted in both political strategy and sociological analysis. And on both scores, Domhoff displays a deft touch.
Strategically, he calls upon progressives, operating out of EDCs, to campaign in Democratic primaries for local, statewide, and national office. As more and more progressive Democrats win public office, he argues, both the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole will gradually move in a leftward direction.
At the same time, he places three key conditions on any such efforts. First, “egalitarian” candidates must emerge from and be accountable to the EDCs. Second, not only should the tone of any insurgent primary campaigns be civil, but more fundamentally, nothing should be said or done that could play into the hands of the Republican Party. Third, “egalitarians” should make it clear from the outset that, should they lose in the primary, they will wholeheartedly unite with the Democratic victor and work like hell to prevent Republican victories.
Domhoff’s sociological analysis of the potential appeal of EDCs is a significant contribution to the effort to strategically guide the kind of political idealism that all too often degenerates into dogmatic (and self-defeating) political purism. And given that Domhoff is one of the most influential political sociologists of the last forty years, as well as the author of the 1967 classic Who Rules America?, progressives would be well advised to take a close look at what he has to say: “The moral outrage that leads in the direction of third parties is understandable and admirable in the face of huge inequalities and unnecessary suffering,” and although this outrage “generates a desire for a distinctive social identity and a space to call one’s own . . . there are better ways to express it and at the same time be more effective in the political arena.”
In contrast to his proposals about what the left should be doing, Domhoff’s critique of what the left has been doing, although it contains important kernels of truth, is a wild exaggeration. He makes the absurd claim that “Criticism of any [emphasis added] aspect of Marxism is second only to third parties as a source of great emotion and division among leftists.” At another point, he asserts that “much of the egalitarian analysis is unappealing to most people-third parties, centrally planned economies, violent tactics, a tendency to rely on charismatic leaders, uncritical admiration of foreign revolutions, and a disdain for organized religion.”
Space limitations prevent me from addressing these arguments in detail, but I have no doubt that any objective poll on these matters would clearly indicate that the number of leftists/progressives who support any of these views represents a small minority of all those who identify with the left.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Domhoff’s critique of the contemporary left is his charge that our stubborn adherence to centrally planned economies is at the heart of our continuing failure to attract more widespread public support. As he puts it, “Why is it so hard for many activists to let go of the unworkable idea of central planning as the key to a more egalitarian social system?” Two pages later, he makes an argument that most of us already accept: “for our purposes, markets can be reconstructed to make it possible to plan for a more egalitarian economic future. It turns out that it is possible for strong governments to use the market system for planning.”
What a novel idea. It is as if the author has never heard of European social democracy nor of the many left-wing variants of it that have been widely discussed on this side of the Atlantic.
Throughout, Domhoff contends that he is proposing “a dynamic new package” and a “whole new approach” for the American left. In fact, he is proposing no such thing. Despite what he may believe, there are countless others who have been making many of the same arguments for quite some time now. However, the one element of Domhoff’s “package” that does represent somewhat of a “new approach” (although the late Michael Harrington and others have argued for it in these pages), is his “party within a party” proposal for creating autonomous structures within the Democratic Party. Original or not, Domhoff’s overall advice about what the left should be doing is quite sound. And that it is why his book-despite its many flaws-has the potential to generate a much needed debate about how we can finally stop losing and start winning.
Ken Brociner frequently writes about strategies for the Left.