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Joan of Arc v. Ted Kennedy: Activism and Heroism on the American Left Pt. 2 of 4 – Green Dragon
Jul 132012

Yesterday, I wrote about the American left’s long sojourn in the wilderness, ignored and reviled in national politics since McGovern’s walloping in 1972.

Before I go into that, can I top you off? That stein is looking unhappily air-filled.

So…as I was saying…

As the country veered rightward and the Democratic Party flailed about trying to decide what to be in the context of the take-no-prisoners conservative onslaught, an entire generation of the American left–one of the largest such generations in history–has been left in the political weeds from college to collecting Social Security. Its values have been derided as hippie lunacy—”hippie” having become a comedic insult—its opinions have gone unsolicited, and its votes have been taken for granted as a small but reliable (and therefore uncourted) slice of the larger Democratic pie.

As many of its members have grown financially comfortable, this generation has founded and become the funding base for a constellation of well-intentioned advocacy organizations, foundations, the Democratic Party, and alternative efforts such as the Green Party. But for all the noble missions they help to promote, none of the big things they really cared about–nothing they believed in, back in the day–has come about at the national scale. Prior to 2009, the last major progressive achievements had occurred in the early 1970s. American society in its economic policies, its social policies, and its foreign policy has moved steadily away from the peaceful, kind and egalitarian world that was the vision of Sixties youth. With the exception of issues where the federal government has not been the primary driver–such as the evolving values of the culture itself on issues like gay rights and racial and women’s equality–none of the changes they hoped for has come to pass. Quite the contrary: instead, it’s been the Hyde Amendment and the war on Affirmative Action and the ongoing siege against EPA and the Endangered Species Act, the demolition of federal housing and safety net programs, and the wholesale shift of federal priorities to the interests of the very rich.

After years of the ugly parade of Nixon and Kent State, assassinations and Watergate and Reagan, the Bushes, Cheney, Gingrich, DeLay, Falwell, Robertson, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld–of helplessly watching the conservative movement rule nearly unchecked, senseless wars,  climbing poverty, shocking Supreme Court rulings, shriveling civil liberties, the incursion of religious fanaticism into schools, terrible regress on racial and gender equality–the leftist children of the Sixties inevitably became accustomed to feeling powerless.

For the once-counterculture, activist Baby Boomers, the political history of the past four decades must be simply heartbreaking. Many of them poured years into Sisyphean efforts to end militarism and achieve full nuclear disarmament. They saw conscripted friends killed or scarred forever, or were drafted themselves; their comrades were shot by government troops at Kent State and beaten in places like Chicago and Watts…and what they ended up with was still Nixon, still more years of war. And then Reagan. And so on.

In their youthful idealism and the lingering can-do optimism of their Baby Boom upbringing, they had expected to reach the end of the American movie, where Good triumphs after struggle. But the world is colder and less certain than that.

So…what is the impact of this? What happens when those who were idealistic activists in their youth spend their entire adulthood watching national politics move farther and farther away from the policies they support?

Well, for one thing, those who don’t have much political success don’t gain experience in what leads to political success. Policy advocacy is a skills-based discipline like any other: you get better by learning what works. If the climate is such that nothing works, you don’t have an opportunity to learn. You don’t learn the nuances of how things work. You do not have an opportunity to learn the strategic, incremental and often inevitably compromising nature of policy making in a democracy, because you’re not in the room when it happens.

Secondly, if your team has been largely shut out of policy deliberations on your issues, you do get a lot of experience with banging on the door and shouting to be heard. That’s what the kids of the 1960s counterculture were doing, by and large. Tellingly, this dynamic mimics a child-to-parent power relationship, and it’s easy for those whose first experiences in politics occur in reaction to their parents’ generation to fall into an understanding of political activism in those terms. The Sixties generation’s reflexive attraction to marches and public protests is an example of one manifestation of this effect: largely ineffective as a tactic now, street protest feels right to people who feel powerless and ignored, but righteous in their cause.

Unsurprisingly, as people will, they have found a way to take what cold comfort they can from the times they live in: they have come to experience their powerlessness and defeat itself as a badge of heroic honor and sacrifice. As martyrdom.

 [NEXT: Obama’s Generation]

At publication, the Dragon was AFFABLE

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