Michael Kazin’s bracing intervention asks us to consider why, despite circumstances of rising inequality and ample sources of discontent, it is the Right, not the Left, that has more effectively mobilized populist instincts and possibilities.
His thoughtful historical answer is marked by an internal tension. Kazin ends by calling on the Left to “stop mourning” and “start organizing,” but as his analytical history portrays a Left without adequate assets, one must wonder whether his call to arms is a form of wishful thinking. From where might the Left’s initiatives come after a lost half-century? Persuasive answers to this pressing question will not be found, I believe, unless some features that he does not discuss are given more prominence.
The largest tier of Kazin’s argument concerns time. Movements rally best when they draw on languages, conventions, experiences, and organizations that offer “years of preparation.” The successful New Deal benefited from “decades of eloquent oratory and patient organizing” by late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century populists and progressives who crusaded against the privileges of wealth and capitalist monopolies. Today, he argues, it is the populist Right that most benefits from comparable bequests. That movement has patiently been built over the course of a half-century. The Left, he writes, has not kept up.
Kazin’s history of positive movement-building on the left before the New Deal proceeds without noting how seventeen states at the heart of the Democratic Party coalition practiced mandatory racial segregation. Despite episodic populist biracialism, the larger story not only in the South, but across the nation, was the way blacks were shunted to the side of progressive life and institutions. The “broader progressive coalition” of the early twentieth century accommodated to and advanced the era’s pervasive racism; it was led by figures, including William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, who articulated the values of white supremacy.
The story of New Deal achievements—well worth celebrating as an answer to the taunts by the era’s dictatorships that democracies could not solve big problems—is in part the story of this legacy. With the congressional Democratic Party dominated by Southern leaders, committee chairs, and pivotal numbers in the House and Senate, non-Southern reformers pushed progressive legislation with Southern partners and left Jim Crow alone. Southern influence thus both rescued and deformed American democracy. But other parts of the New Deal story, including the creation and growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the rise of vigorous challenges to black exclusion, rejected limited democracy and opened space for profound changes to citizenship and public policy that culminated in the 1960s.
At its most potent, this new progressive alliance combined social and economic mandates for greater equality. It was less a climax of pre-New Deal populist impulses than a fresh constellation of social forces and political strategies that advanced the civil rights revolution and produced a dramatic expansion in national state responsibilities. The period of the Great Society witnessed Medicare and Medicaid, a host of programs to ameliorate widespread poverty, and the black rights revolution that, in turn, helped spur a women’s movement and opened the way to rebellion against the repression of homosexuality.
THESE MATTERS of membership and meaning constitute remarkable instances of progressive success during the past half-century. With the demolition of the legal separation of the races, an end to the whites-only franchise, the creation of a much wider door for legal immigration, dramatic changes to the lives of women and conditions of gender, and the development of gay rights in matters both intimate and military, a social, cultural, and political Left has triumphed in ways that hardly could have been projected when John Kennedy assumed the presidency. Who then imagined that a black president would integrate the military across lines of sexual preference and appoint pro-choice women, respectively Puerto Rican and Jewish, to the Supreme Court?
From this perspective, we possess legacies that are more auspicious than Kazin’s history portrays, yet also more difficult. More auspicious because American citizenship has been made radically more democratic; the spectrum of actual and potential support for progressive initiatives has grown. But more difficult because powerful countercurrents of resistance to democratic cultural and economic change, developed over decades, now have a tight grip on key media and backward-looking movements in American life.
The vigor of right-wing populism is not simply the product of better organization or policies promoted by dedicated think tanks funded by reactionary interests or even the smart use of the Internet and social media. The tax revolt, the assault on entitlements, the exaggerated focus on the debt, the trickle-down economics, and the tolerance for vast inequalities—each a characteristic of the political economy of modern conservatism—have been propelled by the cultural counterrevolution with which these views have been fused. Passions have been mobilized to resist affirmative action, guard the borders, roll back legal abortion, combat gay marriage, even contain voting rights. Exploiting such issues, the organized right wing has achieved an electoral realignment in the South while shifting much white working-class support away from the Democratic Party. Underneath it all lie coded messages about race.
Calls to “start organizing” are more likely to succeed if this double-edged history is recognized. Right-wing populism will win unless it can be confronted by a competing rhetoric joined to concrete policies, an approach that proudly connects fairness achieved in civic life to the goal of economic fairness. Although unions have weakened, they are in direct touch with millions of Americans. Any meaningful strategy will have to bind organized labor with the plethora of institutions outside the workplace, including the women’s groups and alternative press named by Kazin, as well as immigrant centers that cross the divide separating work from home. The Left also needs a strategy to win back adherents in the South who have been influenced by demagogic portrayals of the cultural revolution; not by yielding past gains, but by showing how a comprehensive program for fairness under conditions of fast-moving domestic and global change offers better possibilities than right-wing populism.
Ira Katznelson is Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University. His Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time will be published by W.W. Norton Co. in spring 2013.