The left has spilled pages of ink and innumerable pixels wondering why the middle class votes against its interests, debating the effect of the Democratic Leadership Council, and which candidate would be the best presidential contender in 2016 (one of us is guilty ofsuch indulgences). Lefties have harangued Barack Obama, even suggesting that Richard Nixon was more liberal. By doing this, the left has has succumbed to right-wing ideas about social change – that it comes from great men, rather than collective action.
Throughout history, we can find examples of this mythos. FDR, the liberal hero, was not a Nietzschean overman, he was confined by his circumstances. Economics professor Richard Wolff argues that he could only raise marginal tax rates to 90 percent, create a vast array of make-work programs and push through a universal pension because capitalists were so terrified of a mobilized left.
Similar outside pressures also account for the widespread myth that Nixon was a leftist. As Erik Loomis noted discussing Nixon’s environmental record, “Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus.” That is, no matter how conservative Nixon was, he simply could not veto the bills before him without either being overridden or digging deep into his limited cache of political capital. In the same way, no matter how much Obama may want to pass universal health care or gun regulations, he cannot. The central lie of the DLC was not neoliberalism, but the idea that the presidency mattered. By shifting the focus to an almost sacrosanct view of the presidency, the left has forgotten about movement building to fawn on “progressive heroes.”
Consider the press around Bill de Blasio, the newly elected progressive mayor of New York City. For the most part, it has succumbed to the “great man” narrative, and many New Yorkers wait with baited breath for him to single-handedly obviate income inequality. But de Blasio’s success was not his alone, and his governance will not be either. As Harold Meyerson documents, it was the Working Families Party, which spent decades building a progressive infrastructure in and around the city that de Blasio needed to win and it is WFP defense attorneys, city council members and public advocates that will make his time as Mayor successful.
If a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office it may well be due to the tireless efforts of organizations like National Employment Law Project, Demos, Project Vote, Common Cause and others that register voters, build coalitions and sue states just to get them to comply with laws on the books.
The best palliative for this great-man obsession is “The Lego Movie.” In the movie, the “Master Builders,” await a prophesied “special” to destroy Lord Business. When they finally meet the special, Emmet, they find him entirely banal. Eventually, they realize there is no savior, and that they must use their own talents and abilities, contribute what they can to create an emancipatory movement. Such is the debacle of the left. Our hero, long prophesied, has come, and though he is extraordinarily capable, there is simply no way that he can single-handedly end all wars, pass immigration reform, save Social Security, stop the rising oceans and slash rising inequality.
In “The Lego Movie,” the opposition was not only wrong about who would bring change — they were wrong about how change would come about. The Master Builders thought they were going to use their existing institutions and infrastructure. Although they did not use manuals, they still loathed to deviate from the prepared plan. It is Emmet’s insight that the plan is fatally flawed – there is no need for a vanguard party, but rather a mass collective action. His insight is scorned by the council who expected to simply storm Lord Businesses’s offices again, even after Metalbeard’s failed assault. For us as for them, the existing institutions and infrastructures are only part of the equation. Sheldon Adelson votes, like you and me, but he also spent more than the residents of 12 states combined on the 2012 election cycle. In their recent study, Larry Bartels find that the wealthy are not only more engaged in terms of voting, they are also more likely to vote, donate money to campaigns, attend rallies and meet with or call candidates. The left cannot continue storming the Presidency and expecting change.
The right learned the lesson of 1930s and began a mobilization of their own, one which has become so powerful it is almost unseating them from power. The Tea Party is, in nearly every way, a leftist movement. It is based on a perversely egalitarian sentiment, a “makers and takers” narrative, and leftist mobilization. Many may be surprised to learn that the Republican primary candidate who raised the largest percentage of his money from large donors was the most moderate: Jon Huntsman. Like the communists and socialists of the post-depression years, the Tea Party has obliterated the paradigm, pushing change from outside the political system.
“The Lego Movie” is in stark contrast to other “leftist” movies, like “Elysium,” that rely on “great men” to save humanity. “The Lego Movie” is not meant to be communist propaganda, but rather aims to obliterate the “hero narrative” that Joseph Campbell identified in “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In “The Lego Movie,” Emmet is not “the special.” In fact, the the prophecy predicting such a figure was made up by Emmet’s mentor Vitruvius. But Emmet’s adventure over the course of the film still mirrors the Hero’s Journey narrative laid out by Campbell. However, somewhat contrary to Campbell’s outline, Emmet’s journey doesn’t change him. Instead, his journey changes those around him: his allies the Master Builders and the people of Bricksburg.
Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writers Journey” adapts Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to the craft of writing. In it, he discusses the various kinds of heroes seen in storytelling. Emmet fits into the category of “Catalyst Hero”: “A certain class of Hero is an exception to the rule that the Hero is usually the character who undergoes the most change. These are catalyst Heroes, central figures who may act heroically, but who do not change much themselves because their main function is to bring about transformation in others.” Emmet’s journey teaches the Master Builders and the greater Bricksburg population that everyone is special and should use their personal talents to work together.
In this story, the hero is not unwilling, but impotent; he is not called, but rather stumbles upon his fate; and he does not grow, but rather those around him do. This is a far more realistic description of the reality of Obama’s presidency the salvific narrative that surrounded his election in 2008. His failures remind us that it is not “Great men” who act as a force for social change, but rather great movements. Norberto Bobbio recognized that the central feature of the left was the belief in human equality. As Rousseau said, “the destruction of equality was attended by the most terrible disorders.” In a brilliant bit, British comedian Robert Newman diagnoses the problem on the left,
When I first started getting involved with Radical-Direct-action-Non-hierarchical-Eco-autonomous-grassroots organisations, I didn’t understand the concept of no leaders. I thought I did; but I didn’t. And I’d go upto the nearest alpha male or alpha female and say, “Here’s what you should do – Why don’t you do this – It’d be great if you all did this – And when are you going to do this?” And they’d give you this look, that I never understood…
What this look meant was, “Yes, good Idea, why don’t you do it yourself? You print the leaflets, I’ll distribute them; you call a meeting, I’ll attend; you organize an action, we’ll come along”.
And from that moment, I realized that, my whole philosophical outlook changed. And from then on, instead of suggesting things other people could do, I stopped suggesting things altogether, in case they expected me to do them…
Such a problem won’t be found in “The Lego Movie,” where characters are exhorted to “start building” with whatever they have on hand. The left needs more middle class donors, giving not just to political campaigns, but unions and think-tanks. The left needs more writers, artists, policy analysts, historians and scientists. The truth, the one that no pundit will ever write publicly, is that it doesn’t matter whether the Democratic nominee is Warren or Clinton, what matters is whether there is a mobilized worker’s movement, student demonstrations and new and refreshed leftist thinking. McGovern didn’t end Vietnam; hippies did. We, the people, did.