Saturday, April 02, 2005

Building a U.S. left

One of my pet projects is trying to figure out how the right got so powerful and how the left became so weak in American political life. I've written a little bit about what I think needs to happen to help build a progressive youth movement and gobble up any articles about how to strengthen the infastructure of the left. Reccently, I've been thinking about the 1960s. Too many people idealize this decade as the time that the left was strongest. While this may be partially true, it can't be ignored that this was also a time when conservatives built their own strength.

That's why this article by Kevin Mattson resonates so strongly with me.
Remembering the ’60s as a time of heroic activism -- when ordinary citizens changed the terms of politics -- suggests we might be able to recycle those protest styles today.
But there’s also a limit to protest. With its emphasis on criticizing rather than building, it nurtures a narrow conception of opposition. Of course we need to criticize, especially with this administration in power. But for the long term, it’s far more important at this historical moment that we build. The left needs to think about long-term and broader ideas of change. Protest doesn’t help here; it’s too fleeting and spasmodic.
Today’s protesters ignore King’s reflections on his own historical context. Consider that John F. Kennedy was president when King wrote his letter, and that King was one of Kennedy’s most astute critics. King believed in 1960 that candidate Kennedy “had the intelligence and the skill and the moral fervor to give the leadership” the civil-rights movement had “been waiting for.” Soon, though, King realized Kennedy had “the political skill” but not “the moral passion.” Nonviolent direct action, with its intention of creating conflict to expose tension, was precisely the tool to jump-start that moral passion. King saw an opening that the movement could prod, and this got him the legislation he desired: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The year 1963 was its own time, distinct from 1968 and certainly 2004. George W. Bush is no John F. Kennedy, and today’s Republican leadership in Congress is a far cry from the Congress of 1963–64. The chance that Bush and congressional Republicans would be prodded into some kind of action by such protests is zero (unless, indeed, protest moves them to act more forcefully in the other direction). The protesters at the Republican convention of 2004 might have imagined themselves as working in the tradition of King. But the context had shifted so drastically that their actions fell on -- quite literally -- deaf ears. It wasn’t even clear what they hoped to accomplish. And when the goals aren’t clear, protest means little more than expressing rage. That’s why it often takes the form of political theater, which too often encapsulates those who make it in their own hermetic world; it replaces explanation of political ideas and policies with in-jokes and references that confirm pre-existing opinions. If you know a pig stands for a white guy with power, you get it; if not, you don’t.
Meanwhile, of course, an enduring movement was being built during the ’60s -- but it was on the right. Historians of the decade used to focus on left-wing organizations, writing books about sds, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, typically culminating in the tumult of 1968 and thus telling a story of factionalism and decline. Today, however, historians are growing more interested in documenting the right and telling a tale not of decline but of ascendance. James Miller, who wrote a marvelous book about sds, explained to the magazine Lingua Franca a few years back that “in terms of the political history of this country, the New Left just isn’t an important story.” Focusing on the left, he explained with a certain irony about his own historical work, evades “the extraordinary success of the forces that first supported [Barry] Goldwater, then [Ronald] Reagan as governor of California, and then [George] Wallace. I can’t help but see that absence in the historiography as integral to the mythologization of the Sixties.” Miller echoes the argument of M. Stanton Evans, a leading conservative intellectual and popular writer, who wrote, “Historians may well record the decade of the 1960s as the era in which conservatism, as a viable political force, finally came into its own.”
There's a lot more and I suggest you go check it out.


At 6:48 PM, Blogger Charles said...

Cool post Ben. I am going to read the whole article in a bit. I don’t want to discount the 60’s as a period of movement. I mean my Mom was one of the first groups to go into the Peace Corps, and my Dad was at Woodstock. There was a lot done in this era, but I think that most people who were “involved in the movement” were just a long for the ride. This happens in all social movements. 10% of the people are real, and the rest are posers. I look at the Vietnam protests, and I think, hmm, the reason these guys are protesting the War and not fighting it is because they didn’t have to go. I mean, let’s face it, a lot of Hippies were upper middle class white people who were trying to stick it to Mommy and Daddy or were just out for some of that free love action. And hey, there isn’t anything wrong with that, but let’s just be honest about what’s going on.

I think that everyone that knows me knows that I am a liberal, but I just think that we as liberals often make the 60’s out to be more than what they actually were. And I think that some of us still know that there are some people who just haven’t gotten over the fact that the 60’s have ended.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger rox_publius said...

how the right got so powerful and how the left became so weak in American political life.

i think it's simpler than all this. quite simply there's a pendulum effect at work here. after several decades of extended "New Deal" folks were tired of expansive government and looking for a change. As the rightmost reader of this blog, i fear it's about to swing back - particularly in light of excesses like this little terri schaivo deal. over time, folks grow to see the faults of the folks in power and seek out change. it's a natural progression, and it's continual.


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