Michael Lind has an absolutely fascinating analysis of U.S. politics leading up to OWS, and while I’m not sure about some of his closing conclusions, his explanation of how we got to where we are is something OWSers would do well to read and understand. These are, as they say, “true facts”:
Today’s Right began as a backlash to the much-romanticized and emulated 1960s-era New Left and counterculture. As Lind says,
Will the worldwide â€œoccupyâ€ demonstrations make 2011 the new 1968?
The liberal left must hope not. The global wave of left-wing radicalism that peaked in 1968 was followed by a generation of right-wing reaction in the United States and Europe. The rise of counterculture frightened the â€œsilent majorityâ€ in the U.S. and Europe into supporting politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who, running campaigns based largely on patriotism and traditional values and â€œlaw and order,â€ used their power to undermine the labor market regulations and social insurance programs that had protected the socially conservative working classes who voted for them.
In the U.S., I would say it was a combination of white racist reaction to the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, combined with revulsion of the counterculture and the Vietnam era antiwar movement, that made Reaganism possible. Those movements, in some cases unintentionally, destroyed what was left of the New Deal coalition — including undermining the labor unions, which to New Lefties were just another part of the oppressive establishment — and the extremist Right was able to move back into positions of power.
The mighty right-wing media-think tank infrastructure that dominates and manipulates public opinion in the U.S. today also began as a backlash to the counterculture. Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife began the Heritage Foundation in 1973 largely to undermine liberalism, for example.
And by 1980, all working-class white Americans wanted to know about was how fast Reagan was going to kick all the bums off welfare.
On top of this, after Vietnam and Watergate, and after the activist Left had largely kicked all the props out from under the Democratic party, the Left failed to build another base to take the place of the New Deal coalition. Instead, they largely abandoned party politics and splintered into single-issue, identity politics. This caused the Dems to turn to corporations and other moneyed interests for funds; as someone once said, they’d line up for the second-biggest checks. And as the World Communist Threat receded and finally collapsed, the established single-issue cause groups were co-opted by the establishment. Lind writes,
What remained on the radical left, after the collapse of Marxism and other, more utopian versions of socialism, were identity politics and Malthusian gloom-and-doom environmentalism. Both of these were easily co-opted by the economically conservative neoliberals who took over former progressive parties in the Atlantic world like Americaâ€™s Democrats and Britainâ€™s Labour Party. It costs corporations and governments nothing to â€œcelebrate diversity.â€ And financiers in Wall Street and the City of London figured out ways they could reap windfall profits from Green measures like cap-and-trade on greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy mandates imposed on utility companies, and government subsidies to renewable energy start-ups.
Because there was no longer any significant economic radicalism after the Cold War, old-fashioned economic progressivism â€” the living wage, universal social insurance, equality of educational opportunity â€” became defined as â€œthe radical leftâ€ in the 1990s and 2000s. Meanwhile, Reagan-Thatcher conservatism, which had been the right-most right during the 1970s and 1980s, was out-flanked by an even more extreme free market fundamentalism, symbolized by the Tea Party â€” a further right.
The appearance of the further right, and the disappearance of the far left, shifted the entire spectrum to the right for the last two decades. New Deal-style progressivism, once the center between Marxism and conservatism, became the left. Reagan-Thatcher conservatism, having been the right, became the new center; and a new, radical economic libertarian right, far more extreme than Reaganism and Thatcherism, became the new right.
Lyndon Johnson was the last genuinely progressive Democrat to sit in White House, and the left turned on him — understandably — because of Vietnam. Neither Carter nor Clinton pushed the nation’s politics leftward while they were in office; rather, they functioned, more or less, by accommodating the Right. Clinton did manage to get tax increases — which is not necessarily “liberal” — but for the most part Clinton’s policies were way to the Right of FDR and LBJ.
And now President Obama is trying to function in the same niche occupied by Carter and Clinton, and the Left is skewering him for it, for betraying Democratic principles, somehow overlooking the records of Carter and Clinton. This tells me there’s a very different Left today than there was 20 years ago. That’s a good thing, but not if the Left is unwilling to own up to the mistakes of the past.
Here’s where Lind and I differ: Lind is arguing that the emergence of a genuinely radical Left makes it possible for genuine liberalism to re-emerge as well.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to help the center-left, even if some of its activists despise the center-left the way that the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s dismissed progressive-liberals like the Kennedys and Johnson as sinister â€œcorporate liberalsâ€ promoting the â€œwarfare-welfare state.â€ The reemergence of a radical economic left can create a fourth point on the political spectrum, changing the relative position of all other points. The Tea Party right, now the mainstream right, would become the far right. Todayâ€™s center, shared by Clinton and Obama with Reagan and the Bushes, would become the new center-right. And the new center-left would be something like New Deal liberalism â€” to the left of Clinton and Obama, but to the right of an anti-capitalist left.
I’m not so sure that’s what would actually happen. I’d rather see OWS turn into the spearhead of a broad progressive populist movement, although it’s a long way from being that now. Lind says,
It is all too easy to write a script for a post-Reaganite, neo-Nixonian conservatism that emphasizes law and order. If protesters in Wall Street and other downtowns go from waving placards to smashing windows, it would be easy for the right to win over the suburban majority by accusing the center-left of coddling law-breaking downtown protesters as well as law-breaking illegal immigrants. At the moment much of the public is favorably disposed toward the occupation protests, but attitudes may change if countercultural shantytowns grow up in urban parks and confrontations with police and local governments become common.
That could happen. But it’s also the case that the late 1960s would prove to be the time of peak affluence of working people, who were making good wages and believed the economic good times would roll on forever. Now it’s different. It should be a lot easier now for a smart economic populist movement to gain the sympathy of the working class than it was 45 years ago. If OWS doesn’t screw it up by being too unfocused and undisciplined….
BTW, Nate Silver estimates that last weekend’s “occupy” protests probably drew about 70,000 participants in the U.S., more than half in Pacific coastal states. Frankly, this is not an impressive number. These are not numbers that will make the powers that be quake in their boots. OWS needs to understand it’s got to get a lot bigger, and a lot broader, before it has any genuine influence on anything. I’m not sure a lot of the people who are all in for OWS understand that.