MISSING MOVEMENT WATCH! As the left slept!


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.''

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.
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:
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!


  1. Good on Kazin to point out that FDR didn't just get in office and start making the country liberal or whatever people want Obama to do single-handedly. FDR could have been an Obama, but the aristocracy of his day was afraid of the country falling into a larger socialist revolution. The left had leverage. Even liberals' favorite economist (whom most of them never heard of until 2007), John Maynard Keynes, sold his ideas as ways to preserve capitalism since there was a real fear that free market fundamentalism had squeezed so much out of the lower classes that socialism was at hand.

    Nowadays liberals and progressives participate in McCarthyism with as much glee as rightwingers, making fun of dirty hippies, brandishing the Serious Cred by saying that poverty can never be solved and state solutions only work to a limited extent, and by playing the "both sides are just as extreme" card.

    Heck, not a day goes by when a famous liberal doesn't make fun of the actual left, tarring them as spoiled college students and feathering them as out-of-touch and crazy. Just look at the responses to Occupy Wall Street coming from Democrats, sneering at how the protestors, unlike our illustrious liberals, haven't been coopted yet.

  2. The liberal left that Alex Blaze blames is also responsible for the problem. Rather than explaining to the real mainstream (as opposed to the SCLM's version) how they're getting screwed by the GOP, they're too busy calling people racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc. to gain any traction. Plus they lionize pea brains like Amanda Marcotte as one of our top thinkers despite the fact that she falsely accused the Dule lacrosse players of gang rape AFTER they were exonerated and after it had been conclusively proven by DNA evidence that they were innocent. Digby, Steve Benen, Josh Marhall, have all continued to uncritically promote her work even though she has never apologized for her behavior.

    The damage done to the left's good name by feminists can hardly be understated. Feminists vociferously promote the crackpot theory that rape and wife beating are mainstream practices that are implicitly supported by men who do it to keep women down. In reality most men are horrified by domestic violence and sexual assault and practice neither. Men and the women who love them (and who notice that men are not trying to beat, rape or terrorize them) make up the largest constiuency on the planet. When feminists do this sort of thing and we let them, we are telling a majority of Americans that, yes indeed, we are crazy and we think they're jerks.

    We have politicians who are more interested in getting reelected than doing what's right on the one hand and a base that discredits good ideas by promoting crackpot ones on the other.

    Bill Buckley, made conservatism respectable by marginalizing the loonies on the very sensible principle that you're not going to win elections by scaring people with your rank and file. I really wish our side would do the same.

  3. Alex,

    It is worth pointing out the FDR also had support among the thinking capitalists/conservatives, such as Marriner Eccles, who is now almost forgotter but probably played the critical role in saving the country during the depression:



    We are beginning to see similar people rise up now, but I totally agree with both you and Bob that the so-called 'left' elements in the press corps are the problem, not the solution.

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