On Political Books

July/August 2011 From William Lloyd Garrison to Barry Commoner

Why the left’s despair over Barack Obama has deep historical roots.

By Jacob Heilbrunn

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.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.


  • jlt on July 11, 2011 10:50 AM:

    I supported and voted for President Obama...He was certainly not a progressive . You can go back to his speeches! He is in the 'damned if you do and damned if you do not' position because many heard what they wanted to hear..not what he said!

    Ot has not helped that repubs seem to be incapable of doing anything---if it might help him ---including the debt ceiling debacle...that they were for BIG Change Until he was.

    Look at the World markets--they are reacting to the debt ceiling BLACKMAIL BY REPUBS...falling over night!

  • HMDK on July 11, 2011 11:43 AM:

    Hmm... Yes.
    On the one hand this supposed, mystical beast called the american "left", may have too high standards.
    On the other, the democrats of today are the republicans of twenty years ago, and the reublicans of today are loons and birchers. When, exactly, DO those americans not to the right of malicious insanity get to be taken seriously?
    It's a common saying that america is a "center-right" nation, yet it doesn't really compute when compared to accurate polls, by which I mean a lot of people hold very progressive views on some things that the republicans would consider anathema. It's all a matter of, on one end, PR, and on the other, of actually matching up to it, or at the very least give it your all. Problem is, you've got a 2 party system with one party always ready do cut a deal and another party always demanding more. A rightward slide is, therefore, the only result possible. To change that, either the republicans must start to regain a semblance of sanity, which they won't, because why should they? They're getting what they want. Or the democrats have to act harder, something they have no stomach for.
    So it all just points to more ignorance and pain.

  • walt on July 11, 2011 12:52 PM:

    The problem with the left is that it decoupled from the working class during Vietnam and its aftermath. What replaced the working class were boutique lifestyle interest groups (think gays, feminists, greens, PETA, etc). Into this breach, the right provided a narrative that suggested a Return to Mayberry was feasible to the culturally alienated workers. Vote for us and we'll ban abortion, make the welfare queens pick cotton, and electrocute anyone who burns a flag.

    Absent a compelling narrative and bottom-up movement, there can be no organized and effective left in America. This is the problem that Clinton and Obama, both lifestyle liberals, encountered. And it's a deeper problem for the country that assumes the arguments of concentrated wealth must be valid since they're the only arguments entertained. It's not going to be us, the Volvo-driving, latte-sipping, bicoastal elites resurrecting the left. It's got to come from the people of Walmart and McDonald's. I won't hold my breath waiting for this to happen.

  • HMDK on July 12, 2011 2:19 AM:

    Walt has got a point.
    Well, HALF a point, because it seems like he has bought into the very idiotic right-wing narratives he's warning about. He seems to assume that no one who is gay, feminist or even gives a damn might also be, ya know, WORKING CLASS.
    Which is monstrously ignorant. Plus, he sees being homosexual as a "lifestyle". Yeah, walt, and when did YOU make some kind of official choice to be attracted to girls? That ain't how it works.

    Now, with that out of the way, here's where walt is right, very right: The democrats have, indeed, abandoned the working class. Well, they haven't, but they've made damn sure to do as little as possible for them for a long time. Basically, the dems have opposite problem of the republicans right now. The republicans are pretty much ruled by their base, while the democrats won't go anywhere near theirs.
    The rebulicans should listen a hell of a lot less, the democrats should listen at least appreciably more.