It’s not that consistent progressives haven’t had recent success influencing policy. They (we) have. Rather, it’s that the traditional radical left — socialist labor organizers, hippies and Occupiers — haven’t been able to rally their troops. The loss of these folks, the real analogue to the Tea Party, has deprived the broader left of a historically useful tool for fighting the sort of extremism on display on Capitol Hill.
This might seem obvious, even banal. Everyone knows that there’s no left equivalent to the Tea Party. But what’s obvious isn’t necessarily normal, even though we often equate the two. And this state of affairs, a weak left and a hyper-aggressive right, isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a historical aberration — one that makes it much, much harder to overcome short-term crises like the shutdown, to say nothing of sane policy-making on actual pressing concerns like climate change or global poverty.
Two recent articles about the shutdown fight should make the broad point clear. First, National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher dove into the influence of former Senator and Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint on the shutdown fight. Demint is perhaps the most authentically radical conservative in American politics and, as Goldmacher lays plain, his very deliberate strategy of seeding Washington with like-minded candidates has played a fairly significant role in bringing on the shutdown fight:
“There’s no question in my mind that I have more influence now on public policy than I did as an individual senator,” DeMint told NPR last week.
In large part, that’s a testament to the wide network of likeminded aides and lawmakers he’s placed in positions of power across Washington. “DeMint has left a legacy on the Hill that is full of ripple effects – and they’re good ones,” said Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, which has spent millions in GOP primaries to elect unbending conservatives. “He broke the mold and showed what could happen and he inspired others to follow.”
That includes Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said this spring, “I would not be in the United States Senate were it not for Senator Jim DeMint.”…Cruz’s chief Senate ally in the defunding fight has been Republican Mike Lee of Utah, another DeMint protégé.
DeMint used traditional Washington tools — his Senate seat, a well-funded PAC, and an influential think tank — to parlay the Tea Party groundswell into real power for true believers. It’s the same cookbook that the original generation of Reagan-Goldwater-Buckley conservatives used to take over the Republican Party. Ironically, it’s now being used by the more radical Tea Party to eat the Reagan revolution’s literal children, the current GOP establishment.
Radical leftists have never had this kind of success infiltrating the American governance. FDR, who self-consciously worked to save capitalism during the depression, is likely the furthest left president (economically speaking) we’ve ever had. Leftists have pursued alternative means of influencing the political system — labor organizing, mass rallies, boycott campaigns, local elections, and quixotic national runs aimed at shifting the national conversation leftwards.
This tack has worked better than you might expect. I’ve written about historian Michael Kazin’s work on the American left before; he’s marshaled some fairly persuasive, if overstated, evidence that the radical tradition has left a positive mark on American history. For instance, the Populist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century pushed major party representatives into accepting and ultimately enacting some of their goals, like an eight hour work week and an income tax. Kazin documents a consistent pattern of this kind of leftist activity all the way back to the pre-Civil War era.
Non-coincidentally, Kazin is furious about the left’s — particularly the young left’s — response to the shutdown:
Given their views, large numbers of Millennials should be protesting vigorously as the House GOP holds the state and the economy hostage to an agenda straight out of a Rush Limbaugh show. They should be surrounding the Capitol to defend Obamacare and blast the Republicans for denying food stamps to millions of poor people. They should be clogging the phone lines to Congress to announce a grand mobilization to overturn the GOP majority in 2014. It’s our government, they ought to declare. Boehner, Cantor, and their band of militants have no right to bankrupt or shut it down.
Alas, the only Americans who seem upset enough to organize, at least in large enough numbers for the media to notice, belong to the Tea Party—most of whose zealots are old enough to have voted for Ronald Reagan. Where’s that new left when we need it?
Anti-austerity protest movements opposing similar attacks on government services have swept Europe since the onset of the Great Recession. But, as Kazin notes, the leftist spirit in America that animated Occupy and the Vietnam War protests appears to be waning just as the influence of fringe conservatives is waxing.
It’s impossible to be sure whether or not a restive leftist movement would change the parameters of the short-term shutdown debate in the way that Kazin suggests it would. But his work provides strong evidence for the deeper idea that leftist movements affect the conditions of political possibility: broad-based political movements help define what sorts of political actions by the major parties are thinkable and which are out-of-bounds. The vibrant radical conservative movement made repeated government by crisis as a mechanism for challenging the American welfare state thinkable. A more robust leftist movement could have helped exert an equal and opposite gravitational pull.
This is unilateral disarmament. The weakness of the modern radical left to bring this kind of pressure on elected representatives makes it harder for the progressives who do hold public office to do their jobs.