Whatever Happened to the American Left?
Posted in Home on November 25, 2020
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.
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? Perhaps what really matters about a movement’s strength is the years of building that came before it. In the 1930s, the growth of unions and the popularity of demands to share the wealth and establish “industrial democracy” were not simply responses to the economic debacle. In fact, unions bloomed only in the middle of the decade, when a modest recovery was under way. The liberal triumph of the 1930s was in fact rooted in decades of eloquent oratory and patient organizing by a variety of reformers and radicals against the evils of “monopoly” and “big money.”
Similarly, the current populist right originated among the articulate spokespeople and well-funded institutions that emerged in the 1970s, long before the current crisis began. The two movements would have disagreed about nearly everything, but each had aggressive proponents who, backed up by powerful social forces, established their views as the conventional wisdom of an era.
THE seeds of the 1930s left were planted back in the Gilded Age by figures like the journalist Henry George. In 1886, George, the author of a best-selling book that condemned land speculation, ran for mayor of New York City as the nominee of the new Union Labor Party. He attracted a huge following with speeches indicting the officeholders of the Tammany Hall machine for engorging themselves on bribes and special privileges while “we have hordes of citizens living in want and in vice born of want, existing under conditions that would appall a heathen.”
George also brought his audiences a message of hope: “We are building a movement for the abolition of industrial slavery, and what we do on this side of the water will send its impulse across the land and over the sea, and give courage to all men to think and act.” Running against candidates from both major parties and the opposition of nearly every local employer and church, George would probably have been elected, if the 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican who finished third, had not split the anti-Tammany vote.
Despite George’s defeat, the pro-labor, anti-corporate movement that coalesced around him and others kept growing. As the turn of the century neared, wage earners mounted huge strikes for union recognition on the nation’s railroads and inside its coal mines and textile mills. In the 1890s, a mostly rural insurgency spawned the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, which quickly won control of several states and elected 22 congressmen. The party soon expired, but not before the Democrats, under William Jennings Bryan, had adopted important parts of its platform — the progressive income tax, a flexible currency and support for labor organizing.
During the early 20th century, a broader progressive coalition, including immigrant workers, middle-class urban reformers, muckraking journalists and Social Gospelers established a new common sense about the need for a government that would rein in corporate power and establish a limited welfare state. The unbridled free market and the ethic of individualism, they argued, had left too many Americans at the mercy of what Theodore Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth.” As Jane Addams put it, “the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
Amid the boom years of the 1920s, conservatives rebutted this wisdom and won control of the federal government. “The chief business of the American people is business,” intoned President Calvin Coolidge. But their triumph was brief, both ideologically and electorally. When Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into the White House in 1932, most Americans were already primed to accept the economic and moral argument progressives had been making since the heyday of Henry George.
Will Rogers, the popular humorist and a loyal Democrat, put it in comfortably agrarian terms, “All the feed is going into one manger and the stock on the other side of the stall ain’t getting a thing. We got it, but we don’t know how to split it up.” The unionists of the Congress of Industrial Organizations echoed his argument, as did soak-the-rich demagogues like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. The architects of Social Security, the minimum wage and other landmark New Deal policies did so as well.
After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith. In 1939, John L. Lewis, the pugnacious labor leader, declared, “The millions of organized workers banded together in the C.I.O. are the main driving force of the progressive movement of workers, farmers, professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community.” With such forces on his side, the politically adept F.D.R. became a great president.
But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of middle-class whites.
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.”
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.
One reason for the growth of the right was that most of those in charge of the government from the mid-1960s through the 2000s — whether Democrats or Republicans — failed to carry out their biggest promises. Lyndon Johnson failed to defeat the Viet Cong or abolish poverty; Jimmy Carter was unable to tame inflation or free the hostages in Iran; George W. Bush neither accomplished his mission in Iraq nor controlled the deficit.
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. President Obama’s inability to solve the nation’s economic woes has only reinforced the right’s ideological advantage.
If activists on the left want to alter this reality, they will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility. During the last election, many hoped that the organizing around Barack Obama’s presidential campaign would do just that. Yet, since taking office, Mr. Obama has only rarely made an effort to move the public conversation in that direction.
Instead, the left must realize that when progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions — unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press — in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.
Today, such institutions are either absent or reeling. With unions embattled and on the decline, working people of all races lack a sturdy vehicle to articulate and fight for the vision of a more egalitarian society. Liberal universities, Web sites and non-governmental organizations cater mostly to a professional middle class and are more skillful at promoting social causes like legalizing same-sex marriage and protecting the environment than demanding millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.
A reconnection with ordinary Americans is vital not just to defeating conservatives in 2012 and in elections to come. Without it, the left will remain unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.