Whatever Happened to the American Left? By Michael Kazin

New York TImes, September 24, 2011
 

SOMETIMES, attention should be paid to the absence of news.America’s economic miseries continue, with unemployment still high and home sales stagnant or dropping. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and their fellow citizens is wider than it has been since the 1920s. 

And yet, except for the demonstrations and energetic recall campaigns that roiledWisconsinthis year, unionists and other stern critics of corporate power and government cutbacks have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled theUnited Statesinto recession. 

Instead, the Tea Party rebellion — led by veteran conservative activists and bankrolled by billionaires — has compelled politicians from both parties to slash federal spending and defeat proposals to tax the rich and hold financiers accountable for their misdeeds. Partly as a consequence, Barack Obama’s tenure is starting to look less like the second coming of F.D.R. and more like a re-run of Jimmy Carter — although last week the president did sound a bit Rooseveltian when he proposed that millionaires should “pay their fair share in taxes, or we’re going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare.” 

How do we account for the relative silence of the left? Perhaps what really matters about a movement’s strength is the years of building that came before it. In 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 under way. The liberal triumph of the 1930s was in fact 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 current populist right originated among the articulate spokespeople and well-funded institutions that emerged in the 1970s, long before the current crisis began. The two movements 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 back in the Gilded Age by figures like the journalist Henry George. In 1886, George, the author of a best-selling book that condemned land speculation, ran for mayor ofNew York Cityas the nominee of the new Union Labor Party. He attracted a huge following with speeches indicting 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 the 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican who finished third, had not split the anti-Tammany vote.

 

Despite George’s defeat, the pro-labor, 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, also known as the Populists, which quickly won control of several states and elected 22 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 20th 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 argued, 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, is floating in mid-air, until 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 chief business of the American people 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 unionists of the Congress of Industrial Organizations echoed his argument, as did soak-the-rich demagogues like 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, professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community.” With such forces on his side, the politically adept F.D.R. became a great president.

 

But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own 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 middle-class whites.

 

IN the late 1970s, the grass-roots right was personified by a feisty, cigar-chomping businessman-activist named Howard Jarvis. Having toiled for conservative causes since Herbert Hoover’s campaign in 1932, Jarvis had run for office on several occasions in the past, but, like Henry George, he had never been elected. Blocked 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.”

 

In 1978 he spearheaded the Proposition 13 campaign in California to roll back property taxes and make it exceedingly hard to raise them again. That fall, Proposition 13 won almost two-thirds of the vote, and conservatives have been vigorously echoing its anti-tax argument ever since. Just as the left was once able to pin the nation’s troubles on heartless big businessmen, the right honed a straightforward critique of a big government that took Americans’ money and gave them little or nothing useful in return.

 

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 Viet Cong or abolish poverty; Jimmy Carter was unable to tame inflation or free the hostages inIran; George W. Bush neither accomplished his mission inIraqnor controlled the deficit.

 

Like the left in the early 20th century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like 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 over 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 Obama’s inability to solve the nation’s economic woes has only reinforced the right’s ideological advantage.

 

If activists on the left want to alter this reality, they will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility. During the last election, many hoped that the organizing around Barack Obama’s presidential campaign would do just that. Yet, since taking office, Mr. Obama has only rarely made an effort to move the public conversation in that direction.

 

Instead, the left must realize that when progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions — unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press — in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.

 

Today, such institutions are either absent or reeling. With unions embattled and on the decline, working people of all races lack a sturdy vehicle to articulate and fight for the vision of a more egalitarian society. Liberal universities, Web sites and non-governmental organizations cater mostly to a professional middle class and are more skillful at promoting social causes like legalizing same-sex marriage and protecting the environment than demanding millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.

 

A reconnection with ordinary Americans is vital not just to defeating conservatives in 2012 and in elections to come. Without it, the left will remain unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.

 

Michael Kazin is a professor of history atGeorgetown, a co-editor of Dissent and the author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.”

 

Idealism, Conscience And The Spiritual Left by William Horden

Huffington Post, March 1, 2010

 Excerpt

…Spiritual Left did not, of course, originate with the 60s….it dates back at least to 1838, when Emerson and other Transcendentalists began their quest for a path “away from the old ‘religions of authority’ into a new ‘religion of the spirit.’”…sought a first-hand experience of the divine grounded in nature and community rather than institutionalized dogma. Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spirtual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation, championing as it did from its very beginning unpopular causes like abolition and women’s rights…
While many in the Spiritual Left are politically active, many others eschew direct participation in the Political Left because it remains locked in a destructive cycle of conflict with the Political Right…
Amorphous and anti-authoritarian, the Spiritual Left is perhaps best defined as a borderless association of leaders. Free thinkers and independent seekers of spirituality beyond dogma, its members engage in–and disengage from–political activism as a matter of personal conviction, not ordained groupthink…The Political Left will need to return to the moral high ground of progressive American thought and give voice to the American conscience of compassion if it is to recapture the imagination and heart of its spiritual counterpart. It has to want to change the world for the better, not just get elected… 

Full Text

 

I stroll back to 1973 occasionally and loiter in the rain-soaked parking lot to play out that conversation with the professor again. But things have changed. He quit drinking. I quit smoking. The pub is now a sushi bar. The war on terror gnaws at our freedom.
The moon, though, still glimmers in a puddle as it always has, reflecting the timeless ideals of people of every culture seeking the way of an enlightened government.

 

“Read not the Times, read the Eternities.” Henry David Thoreau

“Damn it, you had them,” the professor slurred drunkenly, grabbing my shirt sleeve to steady himself. “You had them on the ropes and you let them go,” he accused, his voice dripping bitter betrayal.
I met his gaze like a receptive student. It was hardly my first inebriated prof, after all.
“Damn you,” he muttered with finality, pushing me away and turning back toward the pub, shaking his head resignedly.
It was 1973 and I knew what he meant. Whatever the 60s were, they were over. And whatever promise they may have held for deep and lasting political change had evaporated like a forgotten dream.
I knew what he meant but he had mistaken me for someone else. I was the right age and looked the part, I suppose. But his stereotype of a generation was distorted by a glaring blind spot: many of us had already exchanged the social activism of the Political Left for the inner activism of the Spiritual Left.
The asphalt smelled of rain. The moon glimmered in a puddle. I lingered there in the parking lot a few minutes more, shrugged, flicked my cigarette into the moon, and strolled off toward 2010.
If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker–Albert Einstein, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima
The Spiritual Left did not, of course, originate with the 60s. According to Dr. Leigh Schmidt, it dates back at least to 1838, when Emerson and other Transcendentalists began their quest for a path “away from the old ‘religions of authority’ into a new ‘religion of the spirit.’”
From Transcendentalism through Reform Jew and Progressive Quakers, New Thought leaders, and proponents of Eastern philosophies, people like Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William James, and Sarah Farmer sought a first-hand experience of the divine grounded in nature and community rather than institutionalized dogma.
Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spirtual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation, championing as it did from its very beginning unpopular causes like abolition and women’s rights.
The rise of the fundamentalist Religious Right in recent decades, and its support of the Political Right, argues Rabbi Michael Lerner, has created a right-wing mind-set that worships its own power, ignoring the groans of the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised, conducting business as usual as if no one were hurting and there were no groans. The Political Left, too, earns Lerner’s criticism for its lack of moral courage and political savvy to stand by its ideals and resist a culture of authoritarianism in both church and state.
Because it lacks dogma and an authoritarian structure, the values–and even the membership–of the Spiritual Left is more difficult to chart than those of the Religious Right. With apologies ahead of time for excluding anyone, I will add here to those mentioned elsewhere: liberal Christian denominations not adhering to fundamentalism, such as Quakers, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalists; liberal practitioners among Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious communities; traditional Eastern philosophies such as Taoism; metaphysical and New Age schools of thought; and, indigenous spiritualities based on the sacredness of nature, such as those found among native peoples in the Americas.
Among the values that these diverse traditions appear to agree on, we can probably safely name these: progressive social change; egalitarian social justice; manifest tolerance of differences between individuals and cultures; an end to poverty, hunger, and violence; and, preventing further degradation of the environment and further loss of plant and animal habitat.

What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?–Joseph Campbell

While many in the Spiritual Left are politically active, many others eschew direct participation in the Political Left because it remains locked in a destructive cycle of conflict with the Political Right. Destructive in the sense that conflict has become institutionalized in a way that seems complicit in the greater divide-and-conquer culture war tearing the nation apart. But not just destructive–unproductive, too, in the sense that real-world problems and solutions are no longer identified and addressed. Combatants in this conflict have come to react to one another instead of the common dilemmas we face together.
One of the perennial truths, common to many ancient wisdom traditions, held as axiomatic by the Spiritual Left from its inception is the interdependent unity of nature, humanity and spirit. For this reason, feelings and actions that contribute to division and fail to alleviate suffering are considered not just detrimental to others but to one’s own inner being, as well.

TheGreat Wayis not difficult for those who have no preferences–Third Zen Patriarch

Although it is expressed in various ways, another principle informing many spiritual traditions is the axiom that we cannot proceed through the changing circumstances of life by holding to precedents and preconceptions–rather, we must respond to circumstances as we would administer medicine to a specific individual’s illness. We would not, for instance, prescribe the same remedy or dose for an 80-year old and an eight-month old, even if they had the same illness. We cannot, in other words, rely on pat formulas for curing our ailments–we must start over each moment, willing to think in completely new ways and try completely new solutions. This model of enlightened response to circumstances, based on treating the present without being unduly influenced by past experience, requires that we both practice forgiveness for the wrongs done to us even as we seek to right the wrongs we have done to others. Such a practice of clearing our hearts of anger, resentment, and revenge even as we clear our conscience of guilt, shame, and remorse allows us to honor the past by fulfilling the dream of our ancestors that we live in a world of uninterrupted peace and prospering.
This ancient metaphor of administering medicine to the illness carries with it the admonition to act proactively to prevent illness in the first place and ensure the uninterrupted well-being of the community at large. It’s not enough to govern by crisis management–we have to see problems coming and head them off to the benefit of all.

God has no religion–Mahatma Gandhi

One last example of the mind-set of the Spiritual Left: We are a world of nearly seven billion peers. None is intrinsically more deserving than another. Profound harm and resentment is born from the disrespect and dishonor heaped upon the weak and poor by the strong and rich.
Those who are more fortunate and do not share with those less fortunate cannot imagine the two-fold suffering to which they contribute, for not only do the less fortunate first suffer from their circumstances but they subsequently suffer from the sense that they are unworthy of aid from the more fortunate.
Idealistic as it may sound, to those in the Spiritual Left there is no longer any excuse for perpetuating a way of life that ignores the suffering of our peers worldwide. Not profit nor stockholders’ interests nor national security nor democratization nor global competition nor outsourcing nor manifest destiny nor history.

If God lived on earth, people would break out all his windows–Hasidic Saying

Amorphous and anti-authoritarian, the Spiritual Left is perhaps best defined as a borderless association of leaders. Free thinkers and independent seekers of spirituality beyond dogma, its members engage in–and disengage from–political activism as a matter of personal conviction, not ordained groupthink. What this means to the Political Left is that it cannot take for granted the Spiritual Left’s whole-hearted support of its candidates and policies. And it especially means that the Political Left cannot hope to tap the vast potential of the Spiritual Left unless it embraces ideals and values beyond power-sharing with the Political Right.
The meaning of life is not politics. The Political Left will need to return to the moral high ground of progressive American thought and give voice to the American conscience of compassion if it is to recapture the imagination and heart of its spiritual counterpart. It has to want to change the world for the better, not just get elected.
Which of course means that it may be inevitable that the Spiritual Left goes its own way as it long has. So long as the political right and left remain embroiled in the politics of mutually assured destruction, it may well be impossible for people of good conscience to commit their energies and resources to an ever-escalating culture war of polarization. Looking back over the course of civilization, there are many instances of Taoist and Zen sages, for example, who refused participation in political affairs. The Buddha, too, set the example by abandoning the privileges of the palace to become a wandering monk.
In this light, it is worth considering that the Spiritual Left is not solely an American phenomenon. It is much more an international worldview than is the fundamentalist Christian Religious Right. Idealism has become the new pragmatism: Only unreflective ideologues believe things can go on the way they are–practical people worldwide know that we must solve the problems related to health, hunger, potable water, and the environment if we are ever to fulfill our potential. So, it may be that the Spiritual Left is part of a global movement transcending borders and politics, a groundswell of nearly seven billion peers whose inner divinity illuminates a path carrying us all into the Golden Age of Humanity.

A nation never fails but by suicide–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stroll back to 1973 occasionally and loiter in the rain-soaked parking lot to play out that conversation with the professor again. But things have changed. He quit drinking. I quit smoking. The pub is now a sushi bar. The war on terror gnaws at our freedom.
The moon, though, still glimmers in a puddle as it always has, reflecting the timeless ideals of people of every culture seeking the way of an enlightened government.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-horden/idealism-conscience-and-t_b_473783.html

 

William Douglas Horden has researched spiritual traditions of East and West, North and South, for the past 40 years. He has traveled extensively and lived in various shamanic communities, steeping himself in the timeless world view of the ancient cultures.

Websites:
The Toltec I Ching
13th Sky Fine Art Photography
The Inner Compass radio show
Larson Publications

Along with his collaborator, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza, he is the author of “The Toltec I Ching: 64 Keys To Inspired Action In The New World,” which recasts the ancient Oracle of China in the symbology of the Native Americans of Mesoamerica.