Newsham: Compromising on our identity

Better Dead Than Red

I’m a Democrat. I’m a Leftist. And I’m torn.

I really shouldn’t be. Though the Democratic Party and the principles of the Left seem to ideologically align, these two big tents overlap less than I once thought. Most of us are already to some degree familiar with the Democratic Party simply by watching the news. Let’s begin by asking, then: what is the Left?

It’s an important question, but there is no single correct answer; responses from Leftists on our campus will be based upon everything from empathy and a Rawlsian interpretation of liberty to a repudiation of conservatism and an embrace of the agents of change. The question of beliefs and fundamental axioms, of the meaning of one’s identity, is one every politically-minded person should ask of himself or herself — yet one that all too often goes unasked.

Looking back over the past three years, Barack Obama’s Democratic Party has chronicled the importance of fundamental axioms and political identity. Though we may not have seen it as such, his campaign was all about beliefs and principles. Hope, Change and Progress: the famous series of Shepard Fairey posters told us what the man was about. The candidate Obama called for an end to our nihilistic despondency as we realized that we had been sucked into a redux of 1929, while simultaneously fighting two wars, with the promise of “change we can believe in.” He won us over by connecting Leftist principle with liberal policymaking.

His presidency began in the spirit of his campaign. Several media outlets even likened it to FDR’s “First Hundred Days” of restructuring and reform. As the first symbol of the past administration to go, the prison at Guantanamo Bay was ordered to be shut down. A stimulus package to strengthen the economy with benefits for blue-collar Americans was drawn up to counterbalance the TARP bailouts signed by the past administration. Health care reform was next on the agenda, with a public option in the works designed to cover the millions of Americans uncovered.

We know how all that turned out.

Here we stand today. Guantanamo Bay still holds prisoners. Just as George W. Bush was “assured” by the “most senior legal officers” in his government that we did not torture, Barack Obama has been “assured” by the Pentagon that the catatonia-inducing seven months of solitary confinement and strip-downs of suspected Wikileaker Bradley Manning “are appropriate.” We maintain troops in Iraq and have escalated our presence in Afghanistan to the point where some conservative commentators have unflinchingly referred to the conflict as “Obama’s war.”

Economically, we have taken the position of halfway to whatever the Republicans want, promoting a mere temporary extension of tax cuts for the richest Americans, and only some cuts to the public services that benefit working and middle-class Americans. All this is to address a fictional crisis of deficits — only, as soon as we compromise on the point of discretionary spending, to have Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell demand action to cut Social Security and Medicare, lest he and his Republican allies force a government shut down. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has completely neglected the problem of unemployment since extending benefits in December of 2010, and even then only managing to do so at the cost of over $700 billion in “temporary” tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Democratic Party leadership has shown itself content to accept the GOP’s narrative and lose its connection to Leftist identity that had been so strong after the 2008 election.

What does it even mean to be a Democrat anymore? The painful ambiguity of “hope,” “change” and “progress” has become apparent with time, and our resolve has weakened accordingly. Our agreement to play on the right’s terms has made it apparent that our ideology has morphed into a weak sort of “Republican-lite.” We have grown so enamored with the fantasy of bipartisanship that we have lost our own sense of partisanship — subsequently letting the minority GOP continue to dictate the action (and inaction) of government.

So while the Democratic Party continually shifts ground and gravitates toward compromise, Leftism is an identity. Though it is perhaps too broad to be universally defined, conceptions of Leftism are still concrete; they are based on principle, not policy — more than I can say for my party. I believe in a social safety net, yet my party seems to have accepted the mantra of unconditional small government. I abhor torture, but it’s not off the table for my party. I believe in truth, but my party is ready to compromise on that point.

I am a Leftist. I believe, but my party doesn’t.

Jack Newsham is a freshman in Morse College.


  • coldy

    I agree with almost all of your points.

    However, per your talk of cuts on medicare/social security….

    Simply not sustainable.
    Entitlement reform is obviously and clearly the only way to work ourselves out of this black-hole of debt. Yet neither party seems to have the will to take necessary measures. Both parties know that should they make a move, the other will make them pay dearly for it. That fact, plus the linked chart, means that we are screwed.

  • penny_lane

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  • ignatz

    Ach, it’s fine to have principles, but when you have all the wrong principles, you’re in deep trouble. Yes, the Democratic party today is “the Left.” It’s the party that had no use for Joe Lieberman, and it’s the party that would have no use for either JFK or RFK if they were alive today. It’s the party of Kerryesque limousine liberals who redistribute OUR income but give none of their own to charity. It’s the party of turtle-necked energy wonks who want US to use less but whose own carbon footprints are enormous. It’s the party that condemns violence but won’t take action to avoid it or end it. And it’s the party that kisses up to Islam while cleansing the lexicon of hurtful words like “jihad.” Newsham, the Republican party awaits you whenever you decide this country is worth fighting for.

  • jnewsham

    I had an epiphany, not a lobotomy.

  • justayalemom

    Mr. Newsham,

    Sounds like you need a new party, one that doesn’t lie to you or the rest of Americans.

  • ignatz

    newsham, old chap, when you equate becoming a Republican with undergoing a lobotomy, you exemplify the difficulty of arguing with a liberal. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, the liberal resorts to saying “well, you’re stupid,” or some variant of that trope. This is the way a 6-year old child might argue.

    But you — you’re a college student, with lots of opinions, and no lack of self-confidence. So perhaps you could take the trouble to defend your positions — assuming there is something to be said in their defense?

  • jnewsham

    Yes, as though I’m the only one who comments here with a lack of seriousness and respect. But, as per your request, I will respond to your only point: The Democratic primary voters of Connecticut rejected Joe Lieberman, not the Democratic Party, which has been all too eager to bend over backwards for his support–maintaining his committee placements, putting the nails in the coffin of the public option, etc.

    The rest is a childish caricature of your political opponents, to which I responded in kind, and a facetious parley.

  • River Tam

    To summarize Mr. Newsham: “yes, I called you a poop-head. but you started it.”

  • NoLabels

    @ignatz, jnewsham, River:

    Elevate the discourse! Don’t you care about civility?!? Bipartisanship!?!? Buzzwords?!? Why can’t we all just get along?!?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Julian Assange, Daniel Ellberg, Dr. Spock and I.F. Stone are my idea of leftists.

    Liberals are washed out, fabric-softened leftists. They smell good but give you a skin rash.


  • Cabrini

    As unpleasant as it is to contemplate, you surely must realize that elections are not won on the basis of astute policy positions but rather on the narrative spun out by the election-industrial complex. Our man Obama understood this like nobody’s business, taking that electoral puck down the ice with such authority and aplomb that even the puerile, gossipy press corps swooned for him. After winning, he actually started to govern rather than gazing at his own Shepard Fairey portrait. He’s won where it mattered, and punted where he had to. Many of his pre-election supporters felt he was defining them and are heartbroken to learn that the hard work of knowing and defining oneself is not a simple matter of filling out a checklist. He’s not a guru; he’s a durn good president though.

  • Madas

    Jack Newsham in September: “Well, Republicans lost and they need to compromise.” (OK, not actually)

    Jack Newsham: “We lost and screw anyone who says losers need to compromise.”

    Jack, you’d be so much less insufferable if you at least pretended to see things someone else’s way once. In your world, everyone else is evil and you’re great. Your political leaders should never compromise your principles cause they’re awesome. I hope you’re smart enough not to really mean that. IF it’s just rhetoric, way to fan the fires of anger in modern politics. Course you’re not capable of that, are you? Your party is bringing civility back into politics, right?

    Tell me, Jack, if there’s no room for compromise in your platform, how can you even participate in a democratic system?

  • ignatz

    Newsham (the condensed version): “Anyone who doesn’t see it my way is a poopy-head.”

    The real question is: Why does the YDN keep giving him all those column-inches?

  • jnewsham

    Name a single big issue the Republican Party has compromised on and has not maintained lock-step opposition to in the past two years. More often than not, Democrats have ceded ground–tax cuts in the stimulus, a public option, tax cuts *again*–and the GOP hasn’t given an inch.

    I certainly think there is room for compromise–but we Democrats shouldn’t come to the table having compromised with ourselves.

  • Madas

    What opportunity did the Democrats even need to offer? Here’s a counter question: how many legislative issues did the Demcorats completely steamroll the Republicans with? Here’s two big ones: healthcare and the stimulus. Notice how they stopped getting things entirely their way once they got their clock’s cleaned? That’s called losing.

  • ignatz

    newsham: “there is room for [others to] compromise–but [not] we Democrats”

  • des13

    To be fair, hasnt this always been true to some extent?
    Parties will appeal to the far right or left at the beginning of a campaign, but when it comes down to running the presidency, we practice moderation. And honestly, I dont see that as a bad thing.
    I am also very liberal, and I am frustrated with many of the things that you mention here, but when it means that this country has enough political stability to allow individuals within the country to pursue their own interests and passions without the threat of having their possessions taken from them, forced to leave their homes, or constant mass panic I dont see this all as a terrible thing. We, as individuals, also have the opportunity to use our political voice to fight for the changes we want for this nation. And we know that these rights will be protected.

    I have much more of an issue with local politicians who hold their seats in Congress or in state legislature forever because they become symbols of liberal principles, and then forget that need to be accountable to their voters. (Specifically, I am pointing towards representative Barney Frank.) I would argue that more of my concern about the Democratic party is that it does not keep up with its liberal policies should be on the state level, where they have the influence to carry out their proposals and enforcement is what decides what actually happens in these communities.

  • penny_lane

    Newsham– Based on his comments on this and other articles, my guess is that ignatz is either stupid or trolling, so I would stop engaging with him if I were you.

  • Leo

    Mr. Newsham,

    What are the fundamental axioms underlying your brand of Leftism?

  • timemachinist

    Mr. Newsham, why are the Democrats “your party” if they disgust you so much? I allowed myself to vote for Obama as the first Republicrat I’d vote for for Prez in over 20 years, and I regret it and won’t do it again. Obama is very much the face of the Democratic Party, if he disappoints then reconsider whether the Dems are worth supporting. As for Lieberman, the Dems gave him committee chairs and status despite his running against the Democratic candidate Lamont. Lieberman and Obama are the Democratic Party, and they are NOT left. Kucinich was the real left candidate of the Dems, and he doesn’t fit into the Dems because he genuinely is left.

    If by “left” you mean sympathy and advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, I agree. But don’t expect the Dems to make any fundamental break with the Republicans in order to do anything for them. They are NOT the “left.”

    In American politics and ideology, so-called “free markets” have been raised to the status of sacred cow, blinding us to the national cost in loss of manufacturing and jobs, loss of opportunities to create a full employment policy or an industrial policy that promotes domestic manufacturing (and R&D) or a fully-funded social security system guaranteeing a dignified retirement (just eliminate the cap on the SS tax and we’ll fix any supposed fiscal crisis of SS). The Democratic Party has adopted this same market ideology as the Republicans.

    Both parties overwhelmingly rely on the same corporate and wall street contributions, and both represent their funders well, to the detriment of the larger nation. Both parties are captive of the special interests that keep us addicted to fossil fuels and nukes, to an expensive global empire of 750 foreign military bases and deployments in 150 countries, and to the “free trade” policies bleeding our country dry.

    With such a Dem party, there is no victory in “winning” an election. In fact, if we continue to support the Dems we don’t believe in, we’ll get another 100 years of our one-party Republicrat system of corporate cash ruining the country. Better to form a labor-green party that has a genuinely alternative vision for a sustainable society, “lose” a few elections while growing and defining that vision in a 3rd party. As the crisies of economy and environment and inequality worsen, thgere might come a tipping point where either the Dems will co-opt our solutions or else deflate as the people flock to a new party that actually has the future of the country at heart.

  • timemachinist

    Hey Jack Newsham, I came back to this discussion because it made me remember an article by Eric Alterman that exactly addresses your inquiry.

    Kabuki Democracy,0

    Alterman basically says that progressive reforms badly needed for the common good of the country are prevented by systemic obstacles: very undemocratic rules (especially in the Senate) allowing minority obstruction of lawmaking; the 40+ year ideological project of the right to cast doubt and suspicion on government and the state in general; the degradation of journalism; huge flows of money (made worse by the Citizens United decision) into political campaigns and election-influencing advertising; the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal agencies that are supposed to regulate finance and between Congress and those same Wall Street lobbying firms. In other words, he just wrote a whole book to explain what I put in my post just above this one.