I DON’T THINK the left is vanishing, and neither do most of the people with whom I talk and work. So I puzzled over the theme of this panel.
My guess is that what is meant is not really “the left” in all of its variegated, diffuse, and often vigorous manifestations, but rather a particular constellation of the left—the organizations, ideas, and policy prescriptions that emerged in the United States during the New Deal years and lasted until the late 1960s. Very important to that left were the unions and a Democratic Party that had been enlarged during the 1930s so that it included not only big-city fiefdoms and the white one-party South but also broad support from urban and working-class voters in the North.
I’ll call that development the New Deal Left, and it had many accomplishments to its credit. It succeeded in making unions a legitimate partner in industrial relations, so that organized workers made large gains in wages, their jobs became more secure, and, as their standard of living rose, they also gained respect and standing in the larger culture. The New Deal Left could also take partial credit for the development of the American welfare state, beginning with the Social Security Act of 1935 and extending through the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1966.
Just as important, that left, and the public policies it supported, changed American political culture. Where the issues and allegiances that dominated American electoral campaigns had once been mainly about the tribal appeals of race, ethnicity, religion, and section, now political analysts thought that American electoral outcomes were determined by something they called “pocketbook politics.” This meant that elections were determined by whether the economic circumstances of the voters had improved under the incumbent, or whether they could be expected to improve more under the challenger. Pocketbook politics may not sound like an Enlightenment ideal, but it was a vast and democratic improvement over campaigns dominated by patronage and tribal politics.
Of course, the New Deal Left was also deeply flawed. It was flawed in principle by a tacit assumption that white men were the main subjects of democratic politics, with the consequence that the aspirations of women, blacks, and other minorities tended to be slighted or ignored. And it was deeply flawed in practice by the fact that the Democratic Party coalition that emerged in the 1930s, although it had come to include much of the work...
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