Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Left vs. the Liberals

From Sean Wilentz, at the New York Review:
Michael Kazin’s new book about American leftists and their impact on the nation over the last two centuries presupposes, as its subtitle suggests, that this impact has been enormous. But Kazin is a judicious scholar without bluster, a professor of history at Georgetown, and coeditor of Dissent, and his assessments are carefully measured. Kazin concedes that radical leftists have often been out of touch with prevailing values, including those of the people they wish to liberate. He concludes that American radicals have done more to change what he calls the nation’s “moral culture” than to change its politics.

And yet, even as Kazin tries to avoid romanticizing the left, his book leaves unchallenged some conventional leftist conceptions about American politics and how change happens. These conventions begin with a presumption about who controls American political life, what C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” an interlocking directorate of wealth and bureaucracy at the top. Kazin refers to this directorate interchangeably as the “establishment” or the “governing elite.” Unless challenged by radicals, this elite, in his view, is slow to right social wrongs; but without the support of the elite’s more enlightened elements, the radicals remain in the political wilderness.

Occasionally—as with the abolition of slavery, the rise of the New Deal, and the victories of the civil rights movement—momentous changes supported by radicals have indeed come to pass. Yet Kazin argues that the liberal components of the governing elite have supported major reforms strictly in order to advance purposes of their own. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, he writes, embraced emancipation only halfway through the Civil War, when it became clear that doing so “could speed victory for the North” and save the Union, their true goal. Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed labor’s rights only when he needed to court labor’s votes.

Even when they are successful, Kazin writes, the radicals—“decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers”—end up shoved aside as the liberals enact their more limited programs and take all of the credit. Prophets without honor, the leftists return to the margins where they and later radicals dream new and bigger dreams until another social movement jars the establishment.

Some radical historians—most famously the late Howard Zinn—have described this pattern as a chronicle of thoroughgoing oppression. In their view, the reforms initiated by radicals have practically always turned into swindles, orchestrated by clever rulers to preserve and even reinforce their power. Kazin, who also despairs about the current state of the left, has a more positive view of liberal reformers and their reforms: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act, he insists, were important political advances and not establishment ruses. But a basic pattern still holds for Kazin as it does for Zinn: radicals challenge the privileged; liberals co-opt them, claiming the glory. In effect liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change.

Most of American Dreamers consists of crisp and useful summaries of nearly four decades’ worth of historical research about American radicals and radical movements, including Kazin’s own work on the amorphous populist strain in American politics. For Kazin, the left consists of anyone who has sought to achieve, in his words, “a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” The definition embraces an enormous array of spokesmen and causes, and Kazin’s account runs from the abolitionists and workingmen radicals of the Jacksonian era through a succession of socialists, women’s suffragists, Greenwich Village bohemians, and civil rights protesters, down to today’s left-wing professoriat.
There's a lot more at the link.

If the left consists of folks looking for "a radical egalitarian transformation of society," one might think Barack Obama would fit the bill. But as the essay points out, Kazin treats Obama as a mainstream centrist Democrat.

That will be an interesting question in the years and decades ahead, the degree of Obama's left-wing radicalism. But read the whole thing. According to Wilentz's thesis, traditional anti-Communist social democrats have contributed much more toward that radical transformation that Kazin hopes to achieve than he's able to recognize. And for historians the key will be to sort out exactly what kind of Democrat this president is. He's not a neo-liberal in the Bill Clinton mold, and indeed, in ideological pedigree Obama's way more radical than President Lyndon Johnson ever was, even if he fails in achieving as lasting change as the great Texas Democrat did. But we could have four more years of this president, and as a lame duck he could tear off the mask and govern from the full-throated ideological radicalism that his upbringing and pedigree indicate. He promised a radical transformation, and he's off to a damn good start, to the detriment of liberty and traditional decency of the American political system.