The Fall and Rise of the U.S. Populist Left

The Fall and Rise of the U.S. Populist Left

Until the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, a disturbing absence marked American political life. The nation’s economic miseries continued, with unemployment high and home sales stagnant or dropping. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and their fellow citizens yawned wider than at any time since the 1920s. Yet, except for the big demonstrations and energetic recall campaigns that roiled Wisconsin, critics of big business, big finance, and government cutbacks had failed to organize a serious protest movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession in the first place. What happened to the anti-corporate Left?

During their surge to prominence last fall, the Occupiers seemed to render that question moot. They set up camp in scores of cities and thrust the problem of economic inequality onto front pages, home pages, and into the center of political debate. It was as if, in a startling rewrite of Beckett’s great play, Vladimir and Estragon had not been waiting in vain: Godot decided to show up after all. Alas, by late winter (as I write) few of the occupations still exist, the non-left media have mostly lost interest, and activists appear divided and dispirited about what should come next.

And we still have to account for the long silence of the activist Left on the intersecting issues of corporate power and stagnant working and living standards.

Perhaps the preparation is all. During the 1930s, the growth of unions and the popularity of demands to share the wealth and establish “industrial democracy” were not simply responses to the economic debacle. In fact, unions bloomed only in the middle of the decade, when a modest recovery was underway. The liberal triumph was rooted in decades of eloquent oratory and patient organizing by a variety of reformers and radicals against the evils of “monopoly” and “big money.”

Similarly, the populist Right, now centered in the Tea Party, originated among articulate spokespeople and well-funded institutions that emerged long before the current crisis began. The pro-labor Left and free-market Right would have disagreed about nearly everything, but each had aggressive proponents who, backed up by powerful social forces, established their views as the conventional wisdom of an era.

The seeds of the 1930s Left were planted in the Gilded Age by figures such as Henry George. In 1886, the veteran journalist and author of a best-selling book that condemned land speculation ran for mayor of New York City as the nominee of the new Union Labor Party. George attracted a huge following with speeches that indicted the officeholders of the Tammany Hall machine for engorging themselves on bribes and special privileges while “we have hordes of citizens living in want and in vice born of want, existing under conditions that would appall a heathen.”

George also brought his audiences a message of hope: “We are building a movement for the abolition of industrial slavery, and what we do on this side of the water will send its impulse across the land and over the sea, and give courage to all men to think and act.” Running against candidates from both major parties and the opposition of nearly every local employer and church, George would probably have been elected, if twenty-eight-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican who finished third, had not split the anti-Tammany vote.

Despite George’s defeat, the pro-labor and anti-corporate movement that coalesced around him and others kept growing. As the turn of the century neared, wage earners mounted huge strikes for union recognition on the nation’s railroads and inside its coal mines and textile mills. In the 1890s, a mostly rural insurgency spawned the People’s Party, which quickly won control of several states and elected twenty-two congressmen. The party soon expired, but not before the Democrats, under William Jennings Bryan, had adopted important parts of its platform—the progressive income tax, a flexible currency, and support for labor organizing.

DURING THE early twentieth century, a broader progressive coalition, including immigrant workers, middle-class urban reformers, muckraking journalists, and Social Gospelers, established a new common sense about the need for a government that would rein in corporate power and establish a limited welfare state. The unbridled free market and the ethic of individualism, they claimed, had left too many Americans at the mercy of what Theodore Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth.” As Jane Addams put it, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, if floating in mid-air, unless it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Amid the boom years of the 1920s, conservatives rebutted this wisdom and won control of the federal government. “The business of America is business,” intoned President Calvin Coolidge. But their triumph was brief, both ideologically and electorally. When Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into the White House in 1932, most Americans were already primed to accept the economic and moral argument progressives had been making since the heyday of Henry George.

Will Rogers, the popular humorist and a loyal Democrat, put it in comfortably agrarian terms: “All the feed is going into one manger and the stock on the other side of the stall ain’t getting a thing.…We got it, but we don’t know how to split it up.” The new unionists of the Congress of Industrial Organizations echoed his argument, as did soak-the-rich demagogues such as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. The architects of Social Security, the minimum wage, and other landmark New Deal policies did so as well.

After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith. In 1939, John L. Lewis, the pugnacious labor leader, declared, “The millions of organized workers banded together in the C.I.O. are the main driving force of the progressive movement of workers, farmers, and professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community.” With such forces on his side, the politically adept FDR became a great president.

But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter-century of growth and low unemployment that followed the Second World War understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on gaining rights for minority groups and women more than on addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own mass movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of the white middle class.

In the late 1970s, the grassroots Right was personified by Howard Jarvis—a feisty, cigar-chomping businessman-activist (and a Mormon). Having toiled for conservative causes since Herbert Hoover’s campaign in 1932, Jarvis had run for office on several occasions. Like Henry George, he had never been elected. Stymied at the ballot box, he became an anti-tax organizer, working on the belief that the best way to fight big government was “not to give them the money in the first place.” During the 1970s he spearheaded the Proposition 13 campaign in California to roll back property taxes and make it exceedingly difficult to raise them again. In 1978, Proposition 13 gained almost two-thirds of the vote, and conservatives have been vigorously echoing Jarvis’s anti-tax argument since then.

Just as the Left had once been able to pin the nation’s troubles on heartless big businessmen who exploited workers and consumers, the Right honed a straightforward critique of a big government that took Americans’ money and gave them little or nothing useful in return. Indeed, one reason for the growth of the Right was that most of those in charge of the government from the mid-1960s through the 2000s—whether Democrats or Republicans—failed to carry out their biggest promises. Lyndon Johnson failed to defeat the Vietcong or abolish poverty; Jimmy Carter was unable to tame inflation or free the hostages in Iran; George W. Bush neither accomplished his mission in Iraq nor controlled the deficit.

Like the Left in the early twentieth century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbying firms, talk-radio programs, and popular periodicals have trained and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, provide their students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. Conservatives have marshaled such media outlets as Fox News and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to their cause.

The Tea Party is thus just the latest version of a movement that has been evolving for more than half a century, longer than any comparable effort on the liberal or radical Left. Conservatives have rarely celebrated a landslide win on the scale of Proposition 13, but their argument about the evils of big government has, by and large, carried the day. President Barack Obama’s inability to solve the nation’s economic woes has only reinforced the Right’s ideological advantage.

The signal achievement of the Occupy movement, at least so far, is to challenge the conservative reasoning and the narrative that accompanies it. “We are the 99%” conveys a deeply moral, democratic message that represents a leap beyond what most left activists have been saying since the 1960s. Gender equality, multiculturalism, opposition to military intervention, and global warming are all worthy causes. So was the sometimes disjointed attack on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that briefly shut down Seattle in 1999. But each represented the passions of discrete groups whose opponents were able to belittle them as “special interests.” For all their virtues, each cause was either absorbed into the political culture (feminism) or (as with environmentalism and the movement against the invasion of Iraq) confronted powerful enemies able to wage a grossly unequal fight.

But the Occupiers made the brilliant decision to appeal to anyone with a grievance of any kind against the visible corporate hands who helped bring us low and have suffered little or not at all for their actions. One result of this inclusiveness was a flood of new activists, some of whom had no experience with the organized Left. In Las Vegas, one of the Occupiers I spoke with on a National Public Radio talk show in October was a small businesswoman who usually votes Republican but became incensed when no bank would give her a loan and no insurance company would provide affordable care to her employees.

BUT THE very breadth and openness of this proudly leaderless uprising make it difficult to sustain. Even if it endures, such an insurgency is unlikely to grow into a movement that can bend politics in its direction. Forty years ago, the feminist activist Jo Freeman presciently warned of the severe limits that “structurelessness” imposes on an anti-authoritarian movement:

The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages….Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions, the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about. Insofar as they can be applied individually they may be acted on; insofar as they require coordinated political power to be implemented, they will not be.

Without a structure, it is almost impossible to come up with a strategy for the movement, and tactical decisions can easily go awry. Take the “General Strike” called by Occupy Oakland last November. On the one hand, this event showed the daring and creativity of a movement aware of the history of economic protest. In the mid-1930s, general strikes played a critical role in persuading Congress to enact the National Labor Relations Act and helped galvanize the surge in union organizing that followed. This time, although only a few thousand workers walked off their jobs, many businesses did close for the day, and the idea of a mass strike evoked the days when workers were the spearhead of a large and powerful Left. The local labor council and several unions were happy to endorse the protest, and some of their members came to serve barbeque and join the throng that, at one point, approached ten thousand.

Yet “strike” organizers never made clear why closing the Port of Oakland was the central aim of the day. And it led to several angry standoffs between protestors and union truckers who wanted to go home for the night and then make it back to work the next morning. Only the intervention of officials from the ILWU, the longshore union that has been a bastion of the Left since its creation by veterans of the real general strike that took place in San Francisco in 1934, may have prevented a fracas similar to the “Hard Hat Riot” in lower Manhattan during the Vietnam War, in which dozens were injured. In Oakland, later at night, a small group of protesters broke into a downtown building, set a fire in a trashcan, and scrawled graffiti before the cops arrested them. Inevitably, the media coverage focused on acts by a violent few who seemed to think that running amok would advance their cause.

So the Occupy movement gave American leftists a chance to appeal to millions of their fellow citizens who care about the same crisis they do and were willing to listen to egalitarian solutions. But the open-ended nature of the movement and, to paraphrase Marx, the incubus of failed ideas and strategies on the left still weighs heavily on its fortunes.

What will the Occupiers do now that the media frenzy has passed? Whether they will be remembered as the beginning of a newer, more inclusive Left or a spirited remnant of an older, now unpopular one depends on their answer. Their protests have revived a conviction that such bygone activists as Henry George took for granted: without a strong connection to ordinary working Americans, the Left will be unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there.

Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent. His latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.