Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Death of the American Left?

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.--Upton Sinclair
Growing up in a family of workers and union people, my parents made sure that I learned about the first wildcat strikes and the Homestead massacre. My father so hated Ronald Reagan, especially after he fired the PATCO workers, he always referred to him as (since the Gipper was an ex-union chief) "the traitor." Being raised with these values, I assumed everyone thought this way, and that the reason the 1980s happened was because most people were asleep or too busy watching Miami Vice (or living the lifestyle the show glamorized). It took me into the 1990s to realize just how dead the left was in the US. It was not just the end of the Cold War--regardless of what many liberals say about the Soviet Union, in spite of its many weaknesses it at least served as a beacon of hope for some Third World nations attempting to throw off the yoke of colonialism (like Nicaragua, Vietnam, and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa). The real engine of our ruin was the dissipation of post-WWII progressivism. How we descended to this point is instructive for future generations on how not to organize a movement.

Actually, one could argue the left in America was always a minority movement or set of movements. Probably the only time in American history the left had something resembling the majority of Americans on our side was during the Great Depression, and even then it was primarily focused on the reaction to the market failures that helped create the conditions for 25% unemployment rate. We might not have realized it then, but the 1960s was the height (with the Civil Rights movement) and beginning of the fall (after 1968) of progressivism.

Firstly, the left split into numerous subgroups and intra-movements. We went from primarily concerning ourselves with being compensated for our work to women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, etc., etc. These movements were always there (just look at the abolitionist and suffrage movements in the 19th century), but by the post-Civil War Progressive Era they were subordinated to the class struggle (which Communism de-legitimized following the start of the Cold War). By the '60s, those movements and peoples they represented refused to continue taking a backseat to hard hats. While understandable and laudable, even necessary, such dispersions did have consequences. It split them into multiple quasi movements and made the left appear like a conglomeration of disconnected groups (groups that the dominant cultural narrative still looked down upon). There have been attempts to bring them back together, but the fact some second and third wave feminists are still debating issues like pornography illustrates that it is a long ways off.

The second cause of the left’s decline in the US is that by the '70s there was a full scale backlash against the ‘60s--a combination of the growing conservatism of white ethnic voters (the backbone of the New Deal coalition) and the realignment of white southern Democrats into the Republican Party. This was not entirely ideological, though. Much of it was racism, since the white flight from American cities began in earnest in the 1950s and reignited in the '60s and '70s (and continues to this day, even from the suburbs into more remote areas). It was also a backlash against the perceived unpatriotic attitudes of the left, particularly the New Left, and the perennial intolerance for all of those splintered groups (blacks, feminists, gays, etc.). All of this was simultaneously taking place during the rebirth of religion in politics following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which culminated with the rise of the Religious Right (the right's spiritual answer to the romanticism of the beatniks).

More remarkably, around this time (the late '70s) conservatives finally discovered the language of mass politics. Granted, those masses were mostly white suburbanites and ex-Democratic white Southerners, but it beat the elitist rhetoric of Republicans past, who always seemed to retain a more establishment aura about them (one could hardly imagine Calvin Coolidge or Robert A. Taft riding a horse and having a beer). The elections of Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan to the Presidency united white voters into a majority bloc that has held for three decades. Say what will about these people, but they succeeded in destroying the last remnants of the New Deal coalition and the New Left (which never retained anything close to an electoral bloc outside of Vermont).

The left’s answer during this time was to basically quit, hide and, for those who still remained, further split from reality into greater realms of division and political nihilism. Many of them went into academia (a group I have discovered during my time in the institution over the years). The majority, however, particularly the more militant members of the New Left, surrendered to the rat race and reoriented their efforts towards obtaining disposable income. This disloyalty to their beliefs and ideas was the greatest tragedy of the ‘60s. They never commanded a majority of the population to begin with, but they at least at one time believed in something. It was painstakingly obvious by the 1980s that this was no longer the case.

In contemporary times, the left has been consigned mostly to college campuses (it is no coincidence that the right wants to turn our campuses into state-sponsored snitch centers to exclude anyone who they disagree with). There is nothing wrong with campus activism, per se. Colleges, dating back to the Middle Ages, have always been dens of radicalism. The anti-clerical, reformist, liberal, and even Marxist movements started in the halls of academe. Ideally, those halls can even be useful sometimes to reach young adults with your ideas, or at least present them with a different way of looking at the world. Still, the vast majority of people in our society and the world do not attend college. Back when the left was principally a street movement, organizers like Mother Jones went to union halls and peoples’ homes to disseminate her views.

When was the last time some of my ‘60 colleagues in the ivory tower been inside of an off-campus bar and had a beer with a laid off steel worker? Recall the exuberant responses to Barbara Ehrenreich for writing a book about the miserable life of Wal-Mart employees and maids. I do not mean to sound overly critical, as I liked Ehrenreich’s book, but how pathetic do we have to be to depend on an author to tell us the conditions of a wage slave? That might seem harsh, but consider that no one ever had to ask that question to Eugene Debs. To put it more succinctly, the further away any movement strays from the everyday struggles and life of the majority of a population, the lesser the chances we are ever going to appeal to them politically. This is why when we conceded that majority to the right after 1960s, there were movements to fill that vacuum for non-millionaires, especially the Religious Right and those Wal-Mart Republicans (working people who reside in a cultural narrative where worrying about a couple of lesbians getting married is more important than having healthcare). That is probably the greatest or worst consequence of the left’s fade.

The other political impact of the left’s decline is how thoroughly disjointed and self-defeating we have become. How disjointed and self-defeating are we? Just read some of the defenses of Ron Paul by progressives sometime and you will get the picture. According to Jeffrey Taylor (leftist author and fellow political scientist), Ron Paul (the same man who thinks civil rights laws discriminate against racists and that the Civil War could have been prevented had abolitionists bought all the slaves) is a new political savior teeming with wide support from the African American community. We have become so utterly deluded that we think right-wing Republicans are really just like us, because a couple of them emanated in the direction of a prisoner or opposed a war in their lifetime.

Of course, if Barack Obama threatens Pakistan, he is the greatest imperialist since Rudyard Kipling. If Dennis Kucinich talks about UFOs, we should desert him for "progressive alternatives" like, I kid you not, Mike Huckabee (the fellow who wants to intern AIDS patients, equates abortion with murder, and thinks the world is 6,000 years old). I dare say, if Hillary Clinton ran for President as a Republican, these sycophants would forget her views on Iraq in 2002, and claim her to be a hero because of her "evolving" opposition to the war. Apparently, the new progressivism is in being a conservative Republican who does not entirely like George Bush. You can still hate abortion, gays, unions, and Abraham Lincoln, though. If anything, such views show your dedication to “pluralism.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is the truest sign that you are dead--when you cannot even understand or comprehend what constitutes your ethos. How can we expect anyone to pay attention to us when we are too dumb to even understand who we are? Could you envision the day when the folks at Focus on the Family will be endorsing Jesse Jackson because he is a reverend and once opposed abortion? If and when that day ever comes, you will know they are not only weak but just as convoluted as we have allowed ourselves to become.

We are not dead, to be sure. We are still here and we occasionally need to be reminded that our movements succeed from time to time. It could be the failures of the New Left simply overwhelm the nomenclature in what people think of the Left, we are all painted with those defeats even today. But we are not the success we could have been, either.

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