Where is the Left's Vision and Strategy?
April 18, 2005
Reading yet another piece (this one by Jeffrey Rosen in the New York Times Sunday magazine) about the rise of the ideological right, I am once again wondering: What is the leftwing equivalent of this phenomenon?
We are all getting awfully familiar with the thumbnail history of the right's great comeback: Goldwater Republicans wandered in the wilderness for 30 years, slowly working toward their promised land. Now they've crossed over to two terms of the most radical rightwing President in modern history.
Rosen writes about libertarian legal thinkers--a handful of influential law school professors and members of big-business-funded "public interest groups" who set out to counter the New Deal, the Great Society, the Clean Air Act, and every other form of government interference in individual and corporate "economic rights." All regulation is their enemy--since they see it as a form of theft for the government to impose taxes and rules that might have the effect of decreasing someone's wealth.
These radical thinkers have had a profound influence on conservative judges, including Clarence Thomas and a few of George W. Bush's judicial nominees--even potential Supreme Court justices.
Despite boilerplate conservative complaints about "judicial activism" (i.e., the Warren Court and lower court enforcement of civil rights, consumer protection, and other liberal policies), there is a growing movement for rightwing judicial activism aimed at tearing down the whole crumbling edifice of liberal reform--particularly environmental laws and the welfare state.
Meanwhile, as we know, progressives are in a defensive position, constantly trying to preserve the gains of the past--Title IX, affirmative action, Social Security, etc., etc.
What is the long-term, forward-looking, progressive thinking that could be seen as parallel to the post-Goldwater reshuffling on the right?
Clearly, there is a lot going on--MoveOn, Howard Dean's group, leftwing think-tank projects like Joel Rogers's. But wouldn't it be nice to have a sense of some coordinated campaign that was truly leading somewhere? There have been so many doomed third party efforts, so many minor progressive primary challenges. What is the big picture strategy that could lead to a turnaround in American politics like the one we've just lived through from the right?
I don't mean to belittle the substantial progressive victories of the past.
The anti-regulation lawyers Rosen writes about modeled themselves on Ralph Nader's public interest groups of the 1970s. They had their own organizations with "public interest" sounding names, only funded by the likes of Exxon and Coors.
Much of the language and strategy of the right--including the anti-abortion movement--is lifted directly from the civil rights era.
This is part of the story of the triumph of the religious right, carefully dissected by Thomas Frank in his great book, "What's the Matter with Kansas."
And, obviously, political organizing doesn't happen overnight. Working together, the various rightwing groups put together their winning coalition over many years.
Reading about them now--how they maintained their vision of a conservative America throughout the liberal 1960s and '70s--actually makes me slightly hopeful.
It stands to reason that progressives could be putting together some sort of similar long-term strategy right now.
The story sounds simpler in retrospect. Christians, social conservatives, libertarians, and big business have formed a powerful coalition in the Bush Administration. But in the wake of Goldwater's defeat, these groups looked as divided and fractious as the Democrats and the left appear today.
Among other things, the rise of the right shows that bold, radical thinkers can drive mainstream policy reform.
It's not enough to long for the Clinton era or take shots at the President. We need to be nurturing a progressive vision and a strategy, or strategies, to take back the country. We need to dare to imagine the world we want to live in, and put aside cynicism and fear.