Why won't America embrace the left?

In two centuries, the movement's history in America is plagued by failure. An expert explains why

By Mandy Van Deven

Published August 26, 2011 9:01PM (EDT)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Moore and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Moore and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

What has the left really accomplished over the past two centuries? FDR's New Deal remains one of the great American success stories. In the '60s, leftist politics created a massive countercultural movement -- and sexual and feminist revolutions. The civil rights movement transformed both American society and the American soul. But, if you compare the accomplishments of the American left to those of other parts of the world, like Western Europe, its record is remarkably dismal, with a surprising lack of real political and social impact.

At least, that's the main takeaway from "American Dreamers," a new book by Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, which covers nearly 200 years of struggle for civil rights, sexual equality and radical rebellion. His book explores the way the national conversation has been changed by union organizers, gay rights activists and feminists. He also writes about how their techniques have now been adopted by the Tea Party movement. From Michael Moore to "Wall-E," he argues that, although the left has been successful at transforming American culture, when it comes to practical change, it's been woefully unsuccessful.

Salon spoke to Kazin over the phone about the difference between Europe and America, the rise of the professional left -- and why the Lorax is a progressive icon.

In the book, you argue that the left has been very successful at changing American culture -- but not at making real economic or political change. Why?

It's easier to get people to think about things differently than it is to construct institutions that alter the basic building blocks of society. When leftists talk about having a vision of how things might be different, they attract an audience and create a new way of perceiving things. It's a different issue altogether to go up against entrenched structures of wealth and political power. There are few obstacles to talking differently, singing different kinds of songs, or making a different kind of art, but it takes a sustained movement of millions of people to really change the structures, and that is much harder to organize. Also, most Americans accept the basic ground rules of capitalist society. The ideas are that if you work hard you can get ahead and that it's better to be self-employed than employed by the people. They believe that the basics of a capitalist society are just or can be made just with small alterations. Americans want capitalism to work well for everybody, which is somewhat of a contradiction in terms since capitalism is about people competing with each other to get ahead, and everyone's not going to be able to do well at the same time. That's simply not possible.

Why has the left in Europe been so much more successful at making real change?

The left in Europe arises out of a more traditional class structure, and the left parties there were formed on the basis on those class divisions. Most European countries had feudal societies before they transformed into nation-states. When those societies became capitalist, they retained many of the old divisions both in terms of people's consciousness and in terms of the new social structure. Peasants and lords became workers and employers. So, the parties there tended to fall along class lines much more than in the United States, and people growing up on either side of the class boundary fueled the movements on the left. Even though the differences between the labor or socialist parties and the centrist or right-wing parties have diminished over time, the vision of a socialist society is still alive in many European countries. In America, however, socialism and communism were never more than marginal beliefs.

You would think that the left would become more popular during a bad economy, but that doesn't seem to be happening right now. Why?

That idea is based more on what happened in the Great Depression era than anything that has happened since. The left's success in the 1930s was based on a lot of preparation that went back to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era when corporations were seen as malefactors of great wealth. When the Great Depression hit there was immediate support for ideas that people on the left had been talking about, like that corporations are selfish and exploit their workers or that the wealth should be more evenly spread out. For the past 35 years, conservative notions about Big Government rather than liberal ones about Big Business have been dominant. When the economic crisis hit in the 2008, Americans were already primed to believe the government couldn't do anything right because it hasn't been doing anything right for years. Ironically, the conservatives were proved right when the stimulus didn't do what the Obama administration hoped it would do, and clearly the Tea Party has been able to grow on that policy mistake. The reaction depends on what people think when an economic crisis hits, not what people say to make their case after it has happened.

So what arguments does the left make well?

The ones regarding equality and rights. That's clear when you look at how popular support is for gay marriage now, but Keynesian economics is not so popular. It'd be nice if they were both popular, but to make political change, you need sustained mobilization of social forces in your favor. You need to make good arguments and also put pressure on people in power. For all kinds of reasons, it's been more difficult to do that. The support Americans have for what could be called "moral capitalism" goes very deep. The myth of the self-made man that emerged in the 19th century wasn't entirely a myth. There were people who came to America and did very well for themselves. They had to do things like kill Native Americans and destroy the land in the process, but they made better lives for their families.

Historically, a lot of leftist activism has been based in religion, but these days, few people would make that connection. Why does that get lost in the retelling?

The wide political divide we have now between people who go to church regularly and people who don't tends to break down along liberal and conservative lines. As a result, we tend to forget that evangelical Protestants in the 19th and 20th centuries were attracted to a social gospel that taught them to be their brother's keeper and that Christ called on them to change the world. That belief system was true for the abolitionists, the Populists, the labor movement, for many early socialists, and for black radicals like Frederick Douglass and David Walker. We've lost that history since the 1950s or so because this growing division frames the understanding of religious politics for a lot of people. I think it's a real shame that we allow the arguments about whether there is a God or not to obscure the potential consequences of what people do with their beliefs.

So what influence has the left actually had on American ideals?

The left has promoted a lot of the important changes that have occurred in American society, especially in expanding the meaning of "individual freedoms" to include African-Americans, women and homosexuals. The United States says it is committed to individual freedoms, but in practice those freedoms have been either betrayed or not fully realized. The left in this country has always been the vanguard of calling for complete equal rights and social equality. A lot of the major movements for equal rights that we celebrate -- the black freedom movement, the women's movement, the gay liberation movement -- were all started by people who were considered to be radicals in their time. The memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is being unveiled this week in Washington, D.C., and most people don't realize how daring and dangerous it was for him to talk about civil rights and take part in that movement. The March on Washington was actually a protest for jobs and freedom that was heavily financed by and mobilized by the labor movement, even though people remember it as a march for African-Americans' civil rights.

Is that because we revise our own history once it's no longer fashionable to hold a particular point of view?

Once things are accepted, they become sanitized to a certain degree. Some parts of what it means to be radical get accepted and other parts get sheared off. Privately, King called himself a Democratic Socialist and wanted a much more profound redistribution of wealth. Politicians like Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader wouldn't dare advocate today for the things King was struggling to change in the 1960s. Most Americans know King as a charismatic leader who wanted the races to be nicer to each other and worked for African-Americans to have legal equality, but that was only part of it. He was after a much more radical dream. Of course, he wouldn't have a monument or a national holiday if he were perceived to be a radical, so there is good and bad in the revision. 

Well, if anything, the left knows how to capture the media's attention -- from burning bras in the 1968 Miss America protest to SlutWalks.

There are a lot of examples of leftists doing outlandish things that bring attention to the issues they support. Americans have been attracted to mass spectacles since the evangelical Great Awakening in the mid-18th century. We like yelling and protesting in colorful ways. The United Auto Workers was really established in the 1930s with the sit-down strikes in Flint, Mich., which is when the workers occupied the factories and kept the bosses out. It was a very imaginative event that was organized by members of the Communist Party. The workers weren't just staying inside the warm plants in the middle of the winter in Michigan. They were saying the plants were as much theirs as the employers because without the workers no cars would be made. So, they slept on the upholstery of the cars they'd made until the union was recognized.

These days, a surprising number of Americans actually make their living by working in leftist activism. When did being a leftist become a career?

The professionalization of the left was inevitable in some ways because the work of the 1960s was primarily anchored in colleges and college communities. It's not surprising that people like me became liberals instead of radicals after the revolution didn't happen. When we had to find a way to make a living, it made sense to become professionals. That is essentially what we were going to college to become, even though we took a detour for a while. To some degree, you need professionals to organize. The people who organized the labor movement in the 1930s were often skilled workers, but there were also professionals like lawyers and journalists. The problem, of course, is when the movement is perceived as a movement of the better-educated, wealthy, privileged elite who are simply self-interested. That image is a problem the left, including liberals, continues to have because it has been cut off from a lot of ordinary working people.

How has the Internet changed the left in America?

The Internet makes it easier to mobilize if you already have a group that's organizing around some issue. It's good for meet-ups more than movements. Even the word "movement" has gotten away from the idea of making change. Now it just means people are moving. As wonderful as the Internet is, it doesn't obviate the need for some of the old things that movements need to grow -- like face-to-face organizing. That builds up a sense of trust among people who work together. Some people tend to be wowed by a great new idea or video, as if that is going to be enough. The Internet can quickly educate people about issues, but it's not going to replace the need for a civil society.

What lessons do you think contemporary leftists should learn from their own history?

In order for the left to be successful, it needs to build institutions that involve people who are not intellectuals and professionals, and ones that aren't full of people who only talk to each other. The left should welcome debate because it is healthiest when it argues with itself as well as with other Americans who think differently. When people on the left talk, they have to figure out ways of connecting their ideas to American ideals. Liberty and equality for all are wonderful and utopian standards that most Americans identify with, and this is a good thing for the left because it's what we have been fighting for all along.

Looking back at the whole history of the left in the United States, who are your favorite American leftists?

I have been made fun of recently for saying this, but I think Dr. Seuss has been greatly overlooked as a leftist. He wasn't a propagandist, but many of his best-selling books -- like "Yertle the Turtle," "The Lorax" and "The Butter Battle Book" -- show that he had a leftist political message. Most successful political messages come from people who aren't very closely associated with a particular left-wing group. Also, although the Greenwich Village artists and writers of the early 20th century aren't exactly neglected, they are cast off as some sort of bohemian dilettantes. But Max Eastman, the editor of the magazine the Masses who later became a conservative, was a major voice of industrial labor unions, sexual liberation, birth control and modernism. In a lot of ways, whether they know it or not, the cultural left today has been inspired by the things the Masses was doing a hundred years ago.

Mandy Van Deven

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