PART 2—HISTORY TAKES A LONG TIME: “Whatever happened to the American left?”
Michael Kazin may be a history professor, but he asked this very good question in Sunday’s New York Times. For the record, Kazin is a man of the left. But in his essay, he painted an unflattering portrait of the left’s role in the current American debate.
Despite the ongoing economic meltdown, the left has “failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession,” Kazin wrote. The tea party right is much more dominant in the current debate, he judged. Then, he asked his question again:
“How do we account for the relative silence of the left?”
We think that’s a very good question. Today, let’s check the professor’s overview of the way we got into this mess.
(For part 1 of this report, just click here.)
What accounts for the “relative silence” of the left? In effect, Kazin says this: History takes a very long time—and so does building a movement! The left built a movement a long time ago. But in the past four decades, the work of movement-building has mainly been done on the right.
At one time, the balance was different. In this passage, Kazin states his basic premise—and he recalls the time when the left invested decades in movement-building:
KAZIN (9/25/11): How do we account for the relative silence of the left? Perhaps what really matters about a movement's strength is the years of building that came before it. In the 1930s, the growth of unions and the popularity of demands to share the wealth and establish ''industrial democracy'' were not simply responses to the economic debacle. In fact, unions bloomed only in the middle of the decade, when a modest recovery was under way. The liberal triumph of the 1930s was in fact rooted in decades of eloquent oratory and patient organizing by a variety of reformers and radicals against the evils of “monopoly” and “big money.”The groundwork for that liberal triumph had been laid over the course of decades, extending back into the nineteenth century. In this passage, Kazin takes us through the basic history. We’ll let you scan the whole chunk:
KAZIN: The seeds of the 1930s left were planted back in the Gilded Age by figures like the journalist Henry George. In 1886, George, the author of a best-selling book that condemned land speculation, ran for mayor of New York City as the nominee of the new Union Labor Party. He attracted a huge following with speeches indicting the officeholders of the Tammany Hall machine for engorging themselves on bribes and special privileges while ''we have hordes of citizens living in want and in vice born of want, existing under conditions that would appall a heathen.''Roosevelt didn’t take office waving a wand which magically changed his nation’s thinking. The understandings which helped him proceed were decades in the making. “After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith,” Kazin writes. In this passage, he again describes the building-blocks which help a president prosper:
George also brought his audiences a message of hope: ''We are building a movement for the abolition of industrial slavery, and what we do on this side of the water will send its impulse across the land and over the sea, and give courage to all men to think and act.'' Running against candidates from both major parties and the opposition of nearly every local employer and church, George would probably have been elected, if the 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican who finished third, had not split the anti-Tammany vote.
Despite George's defeat, the pro-labor, anti-corporate movement that coalesced around him and others kept growing. As the turn of the century neared, wage earners mounted huge strikes for union recognition on the nation's railroads and inside its coal mines and textile mills. In the 1890s, a mostly rural insurgency spawned the People's Party, also known as the Populists, which quickly won control of several states and elected 22 congressmen. The party soon expired, but not before the Democrats, under William Jennings Bryan, had adopted important parts of its platform—the progressive income tax, a flexible currency and support for labor organizing.
During the early 20th century, a broader progressive coalition, including immigrant workers, middle-class urban reformers, muckraking journalists and Social Gospelers established a new common sense about the need for a government that would rein in corporate power and establish a limited welfare state. The unbridled free market and the ethic of individualism, they argued, had left too many Americans at the mercy of what Theodore Roosevelt called ''malefactors of great wealth.'' As Jane Addams put it, ''the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.''
Amid the boom years of the 1920s, conservatives rebutted this wisdom and won control of the federal government. ''The chief business of the American people is business,'' intoned President Calvin Coolidge. But their triumph was brief, both ideologically and electorally. When Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into the White House in 1932, most Americans were already primed to accept the economic and moral argument progressives had been making since the heyday of Henry George.
KAZIN: After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith. In 1939, John L. Lewis, the pugnacious labor leader, declared, "The millions of organized workers banded together in the C.I.O. are the main driving force of the progressive movement of workers, farmers, professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community." With such forces on his side, the politically adept F.D.R. became a great president.We’d dump the term “welfare state” ourselves. But decades of effort had created the understandings which helped FDR prosper.
Things changed after that, Kazin says. In this passage, he describes a basic change in political energy—a transfer of energy on certain issues from the left to the right:
KAZIN (continuing directly): But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of middle-class whites.As liberals turned toward issues of racial and gender justice, conservatives began to develop a movement whose messaging dealt with economic issues. At this point, Kazin describes the rise of the current conservative world, starting with Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13 in 1979. In Kazin’s account, the right has spent the past thirty-plus years building the type of movement the left long ago:
KAZIN: Like the left in the early 20th century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like Fox News and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to their cause.As we noted yesterday, Kazin’s description of that “impressive set of institutions” is extremely polite. But in his view, the right has laid the groundwork for current economic fights over the course of four decades.
There is nothing especially new about this basic analysis. You can read a similar account of the past four decades in Paul Krugman’s book, The Conscience of a Liberal. But Kazin stresses a very important point—like history itself, movement-building take a long time. When it comes to current issues, the “relative silence” of the left has been a long time in the making.
As Kazin notes, the left was doing some very good things during the period under review. Parts of the left were deeply involved in issues of racial and gender justice; major victories were achieved in those areas. But what should the left be doing today to get itself back in the current game, in which voters are asked to consider basic issues of economic justice?
Kazin has some thoughts about that—thoughts he expressed in Sunday’s essay and in this recent interview. Tomorrow, we’ll look at what he has said—though once again, we will suggest that he has been a bit too polite.
Forty years of intellectual struggle preceded President Roosevelt. Decades of slumber and self-indulgence preceded his current successor. That self-indulgence continues apace. In truth, we liberals just aren’t very smart—and lord, how we love to lose!