PART 4—IMPROVING OUR GAME: How good is Michael Kazin’s new history of the left, “American Dreamers?”
We don’t know—we haven’t read it. In her review of the book in the New York Times, Beverly Gage offered the following overview. Professor Gage is another of them Yale historian types:
GAGE (9/16/11): The historian Michael Kazin acknowledges that Americans have reached what may be "a nadir of the historical left." But he urges sympathizers not to despair. According to Kazin, the American left has never been much good at building institutions, or getting people elected or seeing its economic programs realized. But it has been enormously effective at shifting the nation's moral compass and expanding its sense of political possibility. The real problem for today's left, Kazin writes, is that its members have forgotten how to think big—how to look beyond the uninspiring present to a more dazzling and egalitarian future. Defending Medicare and Social Security may be all well and good, but what ever happened to utopia?What might the “even newer left" dream of doing in the diminished future? As she closes her review, Gage can’t seem to imagine (text below). Before we offer our own suggestions, let’s consider a few of the ways the left tends to fail, according to Kazin himself.
"American Dreamers" is Kazin's bid to reclaim the left's utopian spirit for an age of diminished expectations.
The left tends to fail? We know—that sounds crazy! But just for a moment, let’s humor the addled fellow:
In what ways could we on the left perhaps improve our game?
As we noted yesterday, Kazin didn’t spend much time on this question in last Sunday’s New York Times essay. That said, Salon published an interview with Kazin last month in which he discussed this question a bit more. To peruse the whole session, click here.
Mandy van Deven popped the questions. In this, his response to her first Q-and-A, Kazin cited a bit of reality the emergent left tends to ignore:
In the book, you argue that the left has been very successful at changing American culture—but not at making real economic or political change. Why?Oof! Kazin mentioned some of the pre-existing views of us, the American people. “The left in Europe arises out of a more traditional class structure,” he says a bit later. “When those societies became capitalist, they retained many of the old divisions both in terms of people's consciousness and in terms of the new social structure.” In this country, traditions were different. Here in America, unlike over there, “socialism and communism were never more than marginal beliefs.”
It's easier to get people to think about things differently than it is to construct institutions that alter the basic building blocks of society. When leftists talk about having a vision of how things might be different, they attract an audience and create a new way of perceiving things. It's a different issue altogether to go up against entrenched structures of wealth and political power. There are few obstacles to talking differently, singing different kinds of songs, or making a different kind of art, but it takes a sustained movement of millions of people to really change the structures, and that is much harder to organize. Also, most Americans accept the basic ground rules of capitalist society. The ideas are that if you work hard you can get ahead and that it's better to be self-employed than employed by the people. They believe that the basics of a capitalist society are just or can be made just with small alterations. Americans want capitalism to work well for everybody, which is somewhat of a contradiction in terms since capitalism is about people competing with each other to get ahead, and everyone's not going to be able to do well at the same time. That's simply not possible.
Oof! As the newer left has emerged from its decades of sleep, practitioners have tended to react with rage to the public's pre-existing views. We rarely consider a basic fact—our own long slumber helped create the playing field on which the game must be played. As Kazin continues, he mentions the way long-standing American views may tend to resist ideas from the left. (“The support Americans have for what could be called ‘moral capitalism’ goes very deep.”) But he also mentions the decades of silence in which we lefties engaged:
You would think that the left would become more popular during a bad economy, but that doesn't seem to be happening right now. Why?Doggone it! All those years of snoring and slumber let those “conservative notions” take hold. One side worked hard while the other side slept. Thanks in part to our own tribe’s slumber, disinformation holds sway. And much of that disinformation is built upon pre-existing American notions.
That idea is based more on what happened in the Great Depression era than anything that has happened since. The left's success in the 1930s was based on a lot of preparation that went back to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era when corporations were seen as malefactors of great wealth. When the Great Depression hit there was immediate support for ideas that people on the left had been talking about, like that corporations are selfish and exploit their workers or that the wealth should be more evenly spread out. For the past 35 years, conservative notions about Big Government rather than liberal ones about Big Business have been dominant. When the economic crisis hit in the 2008, Americans were already primed to believe the government couldn't do anything right because it hasn't been doing anything right for years.
On well! That was then, and this is now. Now that the liberal world has awakened, what should liberals and lefties do to start building a better future? As he continues, Kazin mentions two impulses which might tend to hold our side back. In this exchange, he cites an obvious instinctive failing—the silly instinct, widely found on the left, to ridicule religion:
Historically, a lot of leftist activism has been based in religion, but these days, few people would make that connection. Why does that get lost in the retelling?Commenters quibbled with Kazin’s construction. But please! We liberals love to mock religion, thereby putting ourselves at odds with a large majority of the American public.
The wide political divide we have now between people who go to church regularly and people who don't tends to break down along liberal and conservative lines. As a result, we tend to forget that evangelical Protestants in the 19th and 20th centuries were attracted to a social gospel that taught them to be their brother's keeper and that Christ called on them to change the world. That belief system was true for the abolitionists, the Populists, the labor movement, for many early socialists, and for black radicals like Frederick Douglass and David Walker. We've lost that history since the 1950s or so because this growing division frames the understanding of religious politics for a lot of people. I think it's a real shame that we allow the arguments about whether there is a God or not to obscure the potential consequences of what people do with their beliefs.
Of course, we liberals are very good at explaining this obvious instinct away. When Steve Benen does his weekly report, “This Week in God,” he isn’t mocking religion itself, we will say. He’s just mocking “The God Machine” (as he calls it). This is convincing to us liberals, if to no one else. But then we see a post like this, in which a deeper animus becomes so clear that even we might have a hard time explaining it away. Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have religious or cosmological ways—but we seem to recall that Dr. King did, and that Al Gore has always tied his interest in climate change to the precepts of his own “faith tradition.” (And that Bob Dylan did three religious albums!) Whatever one thinks of his constructions, we think Kazin makes a good point in that Q-and-A.
Kazin makes another point that is worth considering. “The people who organized the labor movement in the 1930s were often skilled workers,” he says in response to one question, “but there were also professionals like lawyers and journalists.” Then, he cites “the problem” which has emerged:
KAZIN: The problem, of course, is when the movement is perceived as a movement of the better-educated, wealthy, privileged elite who are simply self-interested. That image is a problem the left, including liberals, continues to have because it has been cut off from a lot of ordinary working people.Say what? The left “has been cut off from a lot of ordinary working people?” Professor Kazin refuses to stop making these delusional claims—delusional claims in which he suggests there are shortcomings with the way we on the left conduct business. In the following Q-and-A, he continues this obvious nonsense:
What lessons do you think contemporary leftists should learn from their own history?We liberals can’t “only talk to each other?” Could that mean that we will have to talk to “Those People” too?
In order for the left to be successful, it needs to build institutions that involve people who are not intellectuals and professionals, and ones that aren't full of people who only talk to each other. The left should welcome debate because it is healthiest when it argues with itself as well as with other Americans who think differently. When people on the left talk, they have to figure out ways of connecting their ideas to American ideals. Liberty and equality for all are wonderful and utopian standards that most Americans identify with, and this is a good thing for the left because it's what we have been fighting for all along.
We liberals have emerged from the woods after decades of healing slumber. In many cases, we have emerged with the same elitist ideas which undermined the new left in the 1960s. For our money, Rachel Maddow’s “Week of Dick Jokes” in April 2009 provided the all-time example of this repellent, self-defeating instinct. But let’s just say it: This is never going to change. We liberals love to look down on the rubes—on the people whose minds we must change if we hope to build a real movement.
As Professor Gage closed her review, she seemed to despair about the future. What could liberals dream about now? She couldn’t seem to imagine:
GAGE (9/16/11): This is a hopeful message. All the same, one can't help wondering if it is truly possible at this late date to recapture the utopian visions of radicals past. The left has lost its fire not simply because “nothing so big or important” as slavery or Vietnam has come along to stoke the embers. The left is in crisis because its animating vision—of a world transformed through socialism—has all but collapsed. Kazin is right to note that not all leftists identified as Socialists or Communists, and not all have considered economics the central site of contest. But socialism was always the big idea that explained how issues like racial inequality, gender oppression and factory wages all fit together.What can the left dream big about now? For ourselves, we would offer this answer:
What will replace it—if it does, in fact, need replacing? Kazin isn't sure. But he argues that nobody will answer that question effectively until leftists dream big once again.
The left can dream of a world where the left doesn’t sneer at everyone else. Where the left tries to focus on shared attitudes rather than on differences. Where the left is willing to admit that the values of regular people aren’t always noxious and deserve a respectful hearing, even if we disagree with those values and views.
Where the left helps people imagine a world in which “we don’t have a singte person to waste.” A world in which we talk about "we." Where we honor and try to help those who “work hard and play by the rules”—even if they disagree with us about various issues.
Can you imagine a world where elites don't look down on everyone else? In our view, you have to "dream big" to picture that world. Up in New Haven, Professor Gage can’t seem to imagine such a big dream, in which liberal elites construct a world where even the rubes get respect.