Why the left’s despair over Barack Obama has deep historical roots.
The New Deal was a headier time for the left. Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism from the capitalists, which meant that radicals didn’t wield much practical political influence, but they did, Kazin writes, help alter America’s perception of itself. Artists belonging to the Popular Front, a coalition of leftists and centrists, “took up subjects and themes that went beyond the limits of New Deal politics” by reinterpreting the American past as a struggle between plutocrats and working people of all races and campaigned against segregation laws. Pictures, cartoons, and films were all part of their assault against what they saw as American backwardness. Kazin reminds us that the sentimental populist film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (heralded, incidentally, by Sarah Palin as the kind of movie that liberal weenies don’t get) was written by none other than Sidney Buchman, a member of the American Communist Party. It’s important to note, however, that Kazin has no illusions about the mendacious character of the American Communist Party, which he notes always fought for civil rights and intellectual freedom “with one eye fixed steadily on the needs of the USSR.” “Glued” might be an even more apposite term.
It’s the 1960s that marked the true heyday of the left as a political and cultural force. Kazin reports that the professor and philosopher Marshall Berman, then a radical student, asked the literary critic Lionel Trilling what he thought of the Students for a Democratic Society-led strike taking place at Columbia in 1968—the rock music, erotic energy, chanting, and so on. Trilling was unfazed. “It’s modernism in the streets,” he replied. Perhaps it was. The New Left, as has been often noted, helped make significant strides that we now take for granted: the availability of birth control; feminism; civil rights. Kazin neatly links the 1960s left with what he sees as its progenitor during the abolitionist years. The insistence on uniting personal behavior with political aspirations marked both movements: “Both took delight in smashing taboos about interracial sex, about the proper roles of men and women, and about dress and diet. Both experimented with styles of communal living they believed would allow individuals to realize their ‘true’ nature and to find happiness doing so.” The impulses may have been similar, but it seems only appropriate to stipulate that William Lloyd Garrison or John Brown would have been bug-eyed at what was taking place at Woodstock or in Berkeley communes, though perhaps Brown could be seen as a distant intellectual ancestor of the Black Panthers. Violence, as Kazin notes, was “part of the utopian tradition.”
The left sputtered out as a political force in the 1970s—the end of the Vietnam War probably did more than anything to enervate it. Once the war ended, the left began to focus its efforts more intently on the environment, another cause that has gone mainstream, even if America’s actual efforts to improve it have been fitful and halting. For conservatives and neoconservatives, however, the 1960s served, and continue to serve, as a useful way to stir up middle-class anxieties about returning to an era of depravity and debauchery, a time when neither the kids nor the grown-ups were all right—a moment wittily captured in the 1968 movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! In it, Peter Sellers, who plays a successful, nerdy Jewish lawyer, abandons his suit and tie to join the psychedelic counterculture with his blond hippie girlfriend, who bakes hash brownies and gets his square parents laughing hysterically. All of this issued in a conservative backlash led by then California Governor Ronald Reagan, who attacked the counterculture with metronomic regularity. “A hippie,” he liked to say, “is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”
The result has been to emasculate mainstream liberalism. Even the very word has become taboo, as liberals try to rebrand themselves as progressives. Is this true progress? Kazin is dubious. He believes that it requires more than modest, practical policy prescriptions to create change. “Without powerful left movements,” writes Kazin, “neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama could become the transformative figure each aspired to be, and liberalism retained the baleful image it acquired in the 1970s: as an ideology out of touch with the interests and beliefs of ordinary Americans.”
The problem, of course, is that Kazin cannot specify what a return to socialist ideals would actually entail. And it is as much the strength of the right as the fractured nature of what the Obama White House has itself derided as the “professional left” that has prompted Obama to search for an elusive middle ground. That Obama’s moves, including bailing out big industry, have triggered a frenzied rush to tar him as a socialist dictator, out to expropriate the means of production, provides a telling index of the opposition that he faces. Instead of accusing Obama of slackening in his efforts to effect change, maybe the moment has arrived to cut him some slack.
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