The United States today is engaged in a great debate not simply over the role of government, but over the country?s identity. The Right insists that the America is essentially a conservative country, which the Tea Party is bringing back to its true self. Its opponents, exemplified by President Obama, hold that America is a centrist country that typically avoids extremism of both Left and Right.
Both of these views are misleading. The truth is that the United States has always relied on a powerful, independent, radical Left, not so much for its everyday politics but during its times of crisis. By crisis I do not mean simply economic depression or war, but rather turning points when the country?s identity is in question and it needs to decide on a new direction. There have been three such crises in American history: the slavery crisis, the crisis over industrialization (the Great Depression), and the crisis of ?affluence? that opened up in the 1960s. Each crisis generated a Left?first the abolitionists, then the socialists, and finally the New Left?which together constitute an indispensable American tradition.
The abiding contribution of the American Left has been its passionate commitment to equality. Each of the three Lefts challenged the liberal interpretation of that ideal?the formal equality of citizens before the law?and in its place installed a more searching examination of the bases and meanings of equality, and of the obstacles to realizing it. America has needed this deeper conception to resolve ambiguities in its great reforms. Would such epochal changes as the abolition of slavery, the creation of the welfare state, or the democratization of civil society buttress power differentials or redress them? Each Left sought to resolve the ambiguity in the direction of deepening equality.
The abolitionists were the first American Left. Born with the two-party system, they innovated such tactics as ongoing systematic agitation, demonstrations, leafleting, and nonviolent direct action, and helped bring women and blacks into public life. In the early nineteenth century many Americans wanted to end slavery, but most were content to return slaves to Africa, or to limit the area in which slavery could be practiced to encourage its long-term decline. By contrast, the ?immediatist? or Garrisonian abolitionists?many of who were Free Negroes?linked the end of slavery to integrating schools and churches and accepting interracial marriages. In doing so they confronted those who sought the end of slavery with a further demand: to make racial equality the core meaning of abolition and, by extension, of American republicanism.
Beginning with the nineteenth-century labor movement, the Populists, and at least some wings of Progressivism, and culminating in the New Deal, an increasing number of Americans saw the need for powerful government intervention in order to secure economic recovery. But the second American Left, which reached its high point during the Great Depression of the 1930s, saw something more. At that time socialists and Popular Frontists argued that the New Deal should also provide a permanent counterbalance to the inequality that unregulated capitalism necessarily fosters. For the second American Left, basic necessities such as jobs, health care, education, and old-age insurance were rights, not charity or proffers that could be handed out and then withdrawn. Just as the abolitionists put racial equality at the center of our history, so the Popular Front leftists put social equality there.
The third American Left emerged during the shift from an industrial economy to a high-tech, service economy, and the corresponding change in America?s global role. During the 1960s, most Americans supported the country?s ongoing democratization, and most opposed the Vietnam War. However, only the New Left?the radical wings of the student, civil rights, anti-war, and women?s movements?insisted on equal participation at every level of society: in factories, offices, and boardrooms; in families and personal relations; and within protest movements themselves. The New Left thereby added participatory democracy to racial equality and social equality in the ongoing project that the philosopher Richard Rorty called ?achieving our country.?
Beginning in the 1970s the Left began to lose its central place in American politics. The reasons for this, including globalization, the decline of industry, and the new priority given to ideas of identity, are complex, but the loss did not occur overnight. The country hovered between left and right for most of the 1970s and, contrary to appearances, never decisively shifted to the right. There was never what political scientists call a ?critical election? establishing a mandate for Reagan or Bush comparable to the election of Lincoln in 1860 or Roosevelt in 1932. The reason the Right is unable to establish a coherent majority is that it is a reaction, a corrective, to the great epochs of reform; it is not a progressive force. After the 1970s, the Right adopted a leftist vernacular of protest, discontent, anti-elitism, and exclusion, mimicking but not assuming the Left?s historic role. What the country needs now, however, is not a movement that protests in reaction, but a revitalized, independent Left?the only force that can advance the core, egalitarian project of the nation.
What drives American history forward, then, are not horse-swaps, ?grand bargains,? and ?pragmatic? compromises between centrist liberals and centrist rightists but rather a struggle between the Center and the Left over the meaning of equality. The implications for understanding America today are clear. Obama?s first term disappointed not only because his pursuit of a center-right dialogue was still-born and vacuous, but also because it wound up empowering the Right. The immediate and welcoming response to Occupy Wall Street demonstrated how much Americans have missed the presence of a leftist voice; it was as if we had been waiting for someone to raise the question of equality again. We need the spirit of Occupy Wall Street to speak not only to our moment of national crisis but also to inspire a permanent radical presence in American life, one that builds on the egalitarian tradition at the core of our identity. Only a genuinely independent, radical Left can revitalize centrist politics and relegate the extreme Right to the marginal place it has historically occupied.