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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

‘Liberals Have No One To Blame But Themselves’

In a fascinating article of the same title in The New Republic (10.22.12), Michael Kazin has said that liberals have overestimated the value of the presidency in social change; and have ignored the grassroots organizing and mass movements which have shaped the ‘progressive’ movement.

Liberals have an obsession with the presidency. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt strode across the political arena like a colossus (albeit a colossus in a wheelchair), liberals have tended to equate success with electing one of their own to the White House. The New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society—these are fondly remembered as the glorious, if brief, eras of liberal political history, times when the country seemed to leap forward to a better place, before conservative Republicans found ways to jerk it back again.

Yet it was not so much the investment and commitment of these presidents that were the engines of social progress, it was the self-organized movements of disaffected, angry, and very motivated Americans.

The Social Security Act culminated over two decades of planning by such brilliant advocates as Louis Brandeis and Frances Perkins—and pressure from a movement of angry old people led by a charismatic physician named Francis Townsend. Only after years of violent mass strikes, including general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934, did Congress pass the National Labor Relations Act.

The process of change which resulted in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s began during World War II when JFK was fighting in the Pacific, and LBJ was still a lowly congressman from Texas. The threat of a march on Washington forced FDR to open up good jobs in war plants to black workers. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma was widely applauded for its definitive attack on official and cultural racism, and the NAACP increased its membership by a thousand percent.

Now, says Kazin, the oomph has gone out of liberalism not so much because it has lost passionate leaders (which it has), but because the country itself has run out of ‘progressive’ enthusiasm. 

Many observers in addition to Kazin have noted that the country is no longer a place of collective action, causes, and dramatic confrontations.  If there is one real ‘progressive’ movement, it is Environmentalism, but it is far too fragmented to have the same kind of impact as the Equal Rights and Anti-War movements of the Sixties or the Labor movement of the 30s and 40s.  Environmentalism today is made up of those passionate about clean air, clean water, nuclear energy, oil pipelines, coal, the snail darter, oysters in the Chesapeake, and indoor air pollution.  The movement has never been able to coalesce a critical mass of Americans and to energize them to action, largely because of this political diversity.

Perhaps as important, few people want to risk jail time or broken heads for a cause that involves individual and social welfare far more indirectly than any of times past.  The reformers of the early Twentieth Century saw barbaric conditions in many industries, most notably meatpacking thanks to the muckraking novel of Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.  The labor movement sprang out of the laissez-faire capitalism of the Twenties and the Depression where workers had been exploited and used by unregulated and uncontrolled corporation.  Heads were indeed bloodied in the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, but the red-stained bandages where banners of honor.  These recent civil struggles were possible because of the immediacy of the cause, and perhaps most importantly the demographic bulge in the late Sixties when there were more Twenty-Somethings than at any other time in history.

Other issues have their passionate supporters – the One Percent phenomenon had initial success in galvanizing young and idealistic supporters, but it lacked legs, and now, scarcely a year after its emergence, has virtually disappeared.  Movements today more often than not are for something rather than against something.  The pink breast cancer movement has been wildly successful, disproportionate to the actual risk and consequences of the disease; and advocates have pushed long, hard, and successfully for screening, early detection, and caring treatment.  AIDS activists have done the same and are responsible for the increased attention to the disease which was once ghettoized and ignored.

So liberals have a tough time today finding those progressive causes which resonate on the American street.  Too many people have their pension funds and IRAs invested on Wall Street.  Rapacious insurance companies unmerciful in their sleight-of-hand tricks to deny care; but over 80 percent of us rely on them to cover us in case of illness.  Big Oil makes stupendous profits, but we drive and fuel their profits with SUVs and other gas-guzzlers and refusal to support public transportation.  Big Pharma also reaps in great profits, but who can argue that American drugs keep us alive longer than ever before?

So Obama, unlike past ‘progressive’ presidents, does not have the people with him:

But, unlike in the 1930s and 1960s, this progressive president could not rely on surging liberal movements to help him advance his key legislative goals and to counter the powerful, and predictable, opposition of conservatives.

Conservatives, however, have never lacked for street support.  Their fiery messages about creeping socialism, the erosion of family values, the loss of individual freedoms,  the waning influence of God in public life, and the pernicious movement to deny Biblical injunctions, have been taken up by the same type of passionate groups as those liberal ones of times past.  The difference is that somehow the Right has coalesced into a movement despite its diversity.

In the 15 years after Barry Goldwater suffered one of the worst electoral drubbings in American history, right-wing activists methodically captured control of state parties outside the Northeast, launched new think-tanks, feisty publications, talk-shows, and direct mail firms, and forged an alliance between anti-union businesses, anti-tax crusaders, and anti-abortion churches.

The conclusions to be drawn is that America has become far more conservative than ever before; that Liberals have not been able to coalesce their various issues into a movement as Conservatives have; and that the juggernaut of the Right is here to stay – whether or not Obama wins re-election.

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