The Political Atmosphere

Irving Howe asks the question, “a new political atmosphere in America?” in the Winter 1959 DISSENT.

The responses of the other editors (save perhaps Plastrik) are not encouraging. Mailer didn’t vote, Rosenberg “could care less but with some difficulty.” Most of the comments are surprisingly “antipolitical.”

In 1940 I was touring Norman Thomas thru Iowa. Following a broadcast over a local station the sympathetic manager told us he had voted for Thomas three times —in 1928, 1932, and in 1936 when he didn’t vote. At that time a “plague on both your houses” attitude didn’t seem anti-political per se since there seemed to be a third one; but it has little relevance in this decade. Political activity means a lot more than voting, but among other things it does mean party organization, campaigns and candidates, programs and platforms, elections and voting. Howe’s suggestion that the Democratic party sometimes offers a sort of meaningful arena is encountered by Mailer’s apocalyptic vision of a movement “which may be in its origins hostile to politics itself,” and Rosenberg’s observation that “American politics has become the art of the impossible.”

I am alarmed by Mailer’s apparent hope that a non- or anti-political deus ex machina is the only way of rescuing the radical from his isolation. This indicates a view of life as a race between worldwide garrison states headed for atomic destruction and the lumpen-proletariat mob headed for god knows what. This may yet prove to be an accurate appraisal of the 20th Century, God knows) But to counter Howe’s suggestion that perhaps a potentially creative direction might ex. ist with the notion that the destructive anti-political mob is our last best hope, is scarcely “rethinking the radical position.”

Rosenberg’s impossibilism is just that— the 1959 version of the tired radical’s “dialectical” justification for his own isolation from the arena where people live and where, as Howe suggests, some viable decisions might have a chance of being made, or at least of being decently considered and fought about.

Coser repeats some of the cliches of DISSENT of five years ago: the mass-manipulating boogie men have got us. But inadvertently he does recognize Howe’s main point. Coser informs us there were a few genuine liberals prepared to run in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts … and that Jim Burns, a liberal, did run . . . getting walloped. Now it’s discouraging to lose, certainly. But the significant point escapes Coser. There were by his own admission some people struggling within the Democratic ranks whom he feels were pretty tolerable folk. Even in his select sample of 3 states—all within the shadow of the Empire State Building, as...