Since the manufactured rise of the Tea Party, there has been much discussion of the growing civil war within the Republican Party. The aftermath of the George W. Bush administration within the GOP is pretty fascinating. Less discussed, however, is a deep split on the left which has been in place for decades and now, with a genuinely progressive President in place for the first time since 1968, has come into stark contrast.
Here at the Green Dragon, we ponder these things while polishing the glasses, so let me draw another tankard for you and bend your ear a bit about a little story I call “Joan of Arc v. Ted Kennedy—This Time, It’s Personal”. It’s a longun, chillun, so I’ll roll it out in pieces over the next few days.
It all starts with history.
America’s political left is still largely rooted in the Boomer generation and the counterculture of the 1960s. This is not only because liberals of this generation comprise a huge segment of the donors and activists supporting Democratic causes, but because that was the last time there was broad perception that the left had momentum and influence. Although unsuccessful in many of its political goals, the college-centered counterculture of the Sixties still set much of the tone of today’s liberal and progressive left.
But it had serious problems which undermined its effectiveness, largely related to the youth and naiveté of most of its participants. The counterculture of the 1960s was a college kids’ (and college-aged kids’) movement, by and large, and because of that, it carried both bright shiny idealism, and lack of grounding in experience.
Young people tend to be romantics, thinking of their political efforts in terms of a heroic tale of struggle against long odds leading eventually—and inevitably—to transformational victory. That’s the movie Americans grow up with: challenge, heroic struggle, win. Improvement over a period of years or decades through an ongoing series of incremental steps is not what drives the youth activist; it’s fair to say that the young tend to want all of what they want, right now. That’s okay—they’re young. I was like that when I was 20, too.
Since McGovern’s thrashing in 1972, the left has been far out in the weeds in terms of national politics. Until 2008, only political flukes delivered the White House to Democrats (Watergate and its fallout gave Carter a single term; Perot’s vote-splitting gave Clinton two of them), and even during these periods, the Democratic party as a whole moved steadily to the right in order to keep up with what was perceived as a broad rightward shift in the electorate.
Accordingly, real Democratic achievements on the national scale have been minimal for decades. Until Barack Obama, no politically competitive national figure had articulated an unabashedly liberal philosophy of government’s role in society since McGovern. All the major Democratic candidates instead walked a mealy-mouthed line of what they described as “moderate sensibility”, but too often boiled down to Republican Lite. Meanwhile, the Republicans went off a right-wing cliff, maintaining a contrast with Democrats although the entire Overton Window had been yanked sharply rightward. Clinton’s signature achievements, for example, were mostly of Republican agenda items: tax cuts, free trade agreements, financial deregulation, welfare “reform” which threw millions of the nation’s most vulnerable under the bus.
[NEXT: How has this affected the politics of the American left?]
At publication, the Dragon was AFFABLE