Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz Reply

Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz Reply

Let us take Ellen Willis’s argument at its strongest points—something she does not do with ours. The core of her response is that supporting “a nationally visible challenge” to the corporate consensus helps “movement-building,” which in turn promotes “dealing with our social problems.” But honesty compels her to acknowledge weak links with “may” and “possible,” as in, the bored and alienated “may be open to a left critique . . . . may start listening . . .it’s possible to move people.”

Where is the evidence for this wishful thinking? In a recent Dissent article (“Fool’s Gold of the Left,” Summer 2000), Ruy Teixeira argued persuasively against the fantasy that nonvoters think differently from voters. Willis evades the problem. She does not address Teixeira’s arguments, or anyone else’s. Instead, she professes faith, nothing more, in a repetition of radical and utopian ideas. We are skeptical about faith-based politics of all stripes.

The largely successful women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s—which benefited from twelve years of Democratic presidencies—is greatly outnumbered by many fervent reform efforts that have failed, especially when Democrats are out of power in Washington.

Willis is dead right that the Democrats have been supine in the first months after the election. We share her outrage. (But perhaps she is not really outraged, because what more could be expected of what she calls a corrupt “center-right” party?) While the Republicans stopped at nothing to slip their stumbling pretender into the White House, the Democratic leadership quivered. They would quiver less if the left mobilized voters, demonstrating political muscle in the Congress—which can be done if we work in the Democratic Party, but simply cannot be done outside it.

Tens of millions of Democrats may stand to Gore’s left, but disproportionately they live in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and a few other states, where they also elect senators and representatives. The others live in the rest of the country. Ergo, to win nationally, the Democrats must be a coalition party. In the 172 years since modern American parties have fought out elections, the Democrats have been able to win two consecutive terms only four times—Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. (If we also claim the Republican Abraham Lincoln as a progressive president—and we do—look what happened to him!) This speaks to the weakness of the center-left historically, an unhappy fact that cannot be wiped aside by invoking the great and glorious 1960s. If the Greens were ever a party that could command more than 2 1/2 percent of the vote, they would have to be a coalition party, too.

In the meantime, the practical, material consequences of the Bush election are dreadful for actual people. We itemized some differences. (Willis may think we are banging on an open door ...


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