PART 1—KAZIN’S QUESTION: Michael Kazin is a professor at Georgetown—but today, we won’t hold that against him. In Sunday’s New York Times, Kazin wrote an essay which asked a very good question:
“Whatever Happened to the American Left?”
This, the headline on Kazin’s piece, represents the basic question he posed all through his piece. For the record, his question is a bit of a lover’s question. Kazin defines himself as a man of the left.
Kazin has just published “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation,” a history of the American left. But as he started Sunday’s essay, he wondered about “the relative silence” of the left today. At the end of this, his opening passage, the professor asked his basic question in a second way:
KAZIN (9/25/11): Sometimes, attention should be paid to the absence of news. America's economic miseries continue, with unemployment still high and home sales stagnant or dropping. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and their fellow citizens is wider than it has been since the 1920s.According to Kazin, the left has “failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.” How do we explain that relative silence, he asked.
And yet, except for the demonstrations and energetic recall campaigns that roiled Wisconsin this year, unionists and other stern critics of corporate power and government cutbacks have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.
Instead, the Tea Party rebellion—led by veteran conservative activists and bankrolled by billionaires—has compelled politicians from both parties to slash federal spending and defeat proposals to tax the rich and hold financiers accountable for their misdeeds. Partly as a consequence, Barack Obama's tenure is starting to look less like the second coming of F.D.R. and more like a re-run of Jimmy Carter—although last week the president did sound a bit Rooseveltian when he proposed that millionaires should ''pay their fair share in taxes, or we're going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare.''
How do we account for the relative silence of the left?
Has the left really been silent—even relatively silent—about the nation’s ongoing economic miseries? Some folk may reject this basic claim as a scurrilous slander. For ourselves, we think Kazin is asking an important question—a question liberals and progressives should be asking themselves much more often, in a much more disciplined way. Beyond that, we think he paints an accurate picture of the modern political discourse—a discourse in which most of the energy, and most of the skillful messaging, can be found on the right.
In truth, Kazin can be a bit annoying when he describes this sad state of affairs. Have the forces of the right taken control of the discourse? We would say that this claim is accurate. But here’s the way Kazin describes their efforts over the past thirty-plus years, a period in which the right has taken the energy away from the left:
KAZIN: In the late 1970s, the grass-roots right was personified by a feisty, cigar-chomping businessman-activist named Howard Jarvis. Having toiled for conservative causes since Herbert Hoover's campaign in 1932, Jarvis had run for office on several occasions in the past, but, like Henry George, he had never been elected. Blocked at the ballot box, he became an anti-tax organizer, working on the belief that the best way to fight big government was ''not to give them the money in the first place.''Our questions: Is Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio program really part of “an impressive set of institutions?” Has Limbaugh’s talk radio program mainly served to “disseminate ideas?” How about the conservative think tanks which have churned endless sets of talking-points designed to disinform the voters? One example out of millions: When these think-tanks convinced the public that the Social Security trust find was just “an accounting fiction,” were they really constructing “arguments” and “ideas”—a “straightforward critique?” Or would it be more accurate to say that they were engaged in disinformation?
In 1978 he spearheaded the Proposition 13 campaign in California to roll back property taxes and make it exceedingly hard to raise them again. That fall, Proposition 13 won almost two-thirds of the vote, and conservatives have been vigorously echoing its anti-tax argument ever since. Just as the left was once able to pin the nation's troubles on heartless big businessmen, the right honed a straightforward critique of a big government that took Americans' money and gave them little or nothing useful in return.
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.
The Tea Party is thus just the latest version of a movement that has been evolving for over half a century, longer than any comparable effort on the liberal or radical left. Conservatives have rarely celebrated a landslide win on the scale of Proposition 13, but their argument about the evils of big government has, by and large, carried the day.
Kazin is quite polite in his description of this conservative world—the conservative world which has emerged since the days of Howard Jarvis. He doesn’t mention the mountains of garbage which have emerged from those “think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos”—mountains of garbage which have often disinformed the public. On the other hand, not everything from the right has been garbage during this period—and we think Kazin’s basic picture is basically accurate. Starting at some point in the 1960s or 1970s, the conservative world began to build a very successful message machine which has in fact largely “carried the day.” These institutions have been “impressive” in their raw political power. And in the face of this message machine, the left has been rather inept.
Whatever happened to the left? In the fact of this “impressive” onslaught, the left has largely failed.
This basic portrait isn’t new, but progressives need to discuss it more often. Whatever happened to the left? Why has the left been so inept in the political wars of the past forty years? Why does so much of the energy and messaging success lie with the heirs to Howard Jarvis?
What accounts for our relative silence?
In his essay and in this recent interview, we think Kazin is asking good questions. Sadly, major figures of the left are constantly giving us partial answers. Just this week, some of Kazin’s fellow professors are giving us our latest look at some of the ways the left keeps failing. Alas! There is rarely a dearth of damn-fool conduct emerging from folk who represent the left in the eyes of the larger world. The modern left loves to fail, in the dumbest ways possible.
Why has the left been so inept? We think that’s a very good question. Sadly, there are many good answers. We’ll be frisking Kazin’s question in this series all week.
Tomorrow: History takes a long time