Respond to this Article September 2004

The Left Learns from Goldwater

By Todd Gitlin

If George W. Bush wins a second term, it is likely that whatever factors will have moved swing voters into his column will also suffice to keep Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. Progressives, who had banded together with Democratic centrists in an unprecedented and deeply felt display of unity, will then be faced with a choice whose importance is hard to underestimate.

They can decide that candidate Kerry lost because he did not commit fully enough to liberal principles, and turn their backs on coalition-building. But this would be unwise. The crucial divide will be between those who understand it's the infrastructure, stupid, and those who don't.

Those in the Democratic camp and the rational liberal-left who believe in long-term institutional politics should conclude that they could not possibly have compensated for 30-plus years of right-wing base-building with one year's fever of anti-Bush resolve. They should, like the Republican Party after the Goldwater cataclysm of 1964, sigh, shudder, mourn--and organize. They'll pick themselves up and get back to work building their start-up think tanks and media and Internet networks, from the Center for American Progress through Air America Radio through MoveOn.org and various 527 soft money distributors, all of which, despite starting late, made up for a good deal of Democratic organizational weakness in 2004.

That is, if they're smart. The post-Goldwater Republicans were smart. Despite what looked like a calamity, they didn't bolt from the GOP. They didn't break off as a third party, though some of them dearly wanted to. Will the rebellious left discipline itself, cool its boiling blood, and decide that the pleasures of sectarianism are worth less than the steady resolve of infrastructural work?

The institution-builders in and around the Democratic Party will pull out all stops to urge the activists who mobilized against Bush to throw themselves back into action--continuing to mobilize against Bush's judicial nominations, which will remain blockable; into the congressional and senatorial races of 2006; into local and statewide party campaigns where political machines are built and alliances refined. I see no reason why the center and left of the Democrats should differ over the necessity of all these objectives.

Both wings will open their political eyes. A desolate January 2005 will be an occasion for generational succession. The post-Goldwater Republicans found their next hero in Goldwater's most eloquent backer, Ronald Reagan, with their moneymen building him up for a gubernatorial run in 1966. Perhaps the Democrats will find--may have already found--their Reagan in Barack Obama. If the DLC is smart, it will also look to a new generation of leaders--maybe Obama can be their man, too.

The mobilized base--from MoveOn.org and the Deaniacs on rightward--will probably split. There will, of course, be divisions on policy--Medicare, foreign policy, and so on. But more important will be the tension between those who believe in building infrastructure and those who think the party's malaise can be cured overnight by the right (i.e., left) man or woman on the right horse.

Many of the young go-for-broke voters, having failed to change the world in their first electoral outing, will be tempted to paint themselves into a gaudy Naderite corner. Nader himself will offend some of them away with some combination of gloating and what-me-responsible? shrugs--but not all. As after Humphrey's defeat of 1968, some of the far left will yield to fury, sullenness, and despair. The Greens will recruit.

Many Democrats who spent months reveling in desperate unity will crash. They will have clenched their teeth, made nice, and learned how to be center-left. Not only will they have simulated this at their convention in July, they will have become that precious thing, a party that is--as it must be--a coalition. And all for what? Another defeat.

George Bush will have stamped his foot, snapped out his talking points and barking phrases, and accomplished his mission on the basis of a record farther right than any in a generation. Realism will be dead in the Republican Party and they will have won in its absence. The Republicans' center of gravity will continue to rest on the double fantasy of supply-side economics (Dick Cheney: "Reagan showed that deficits don't matter") and war at will.

Lieberman centrists (of the DLC & Co.) and Kennedy liberals (of Americans Coming Together & Co.) will gnash their teeth, gnaw on each other, blame Kerry (for going too far left, for not going far enough left, for lacking luster, for misunderestimating Bush, you name it). Then, one morning, if they're smart, they'll all wake up and realize they've all missed a stupendous opportunity and they had better roll up their sleeves, consult their demographic oracles, and become institution-builders.

Make no mistake: None of this will be easy, and the forces for coalition will be tested. Most Democrats will likely be in a tizzy for a while after the reelection. But if they are smart enough, they will satisfy themselves initially with small, slow steps. Congressional Democrats of all ideological stripes will fight bill by bill, try to stop one judicial appointment at a time. They will not be so quick to sign a blank check for war with Iran or North Korea as they were in Iraq. And they will still lose many battles.

Many activists, novices and veterans, will despair, or wrestle with despair. They will entertain wild, secessionist fantasies, or claim they're on the verge of moving to old Europe. Morosely, they will remind themselves that Republicans have triumphed after the grandest Democratic-liberal mobilization in decades. They will lack a theory of history that injects them with confidence that, despite defeat, the wheel will eventually turn their way.

So, politics altogether will seem to be blocked. Dropouts will multiply. In this overheated atmosphere, I would not be surprised to see outbursts of political violence the likes of which we haven't seen since the Weather Underground of the 1970s. The commitment to marginality in much of the antiglobalization movement would take on a tang of negative logic. The master argument will sound like this: What else you got, you so-called practical types?

The practical types had better be practical.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is author of Letters to a Young Activist and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.


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