Thursday, May 03, 2007

The New Left in the kitchen, with the candlestick

Jon Chait’s insightful but often infuriating article in TNR on the subject of Netroots has lead to a lot of great discussion on the blogs but one thing that struck me was the difference between how Chait sees Netroots and how Netroots see themselves. Both understand Netroots as a popular movement. But Chait – representing the TNR, DLC, Mickey Kaus wing of liberalism – sees popular movements in general in a very skeptical light. I think this is because for those liberals, the only popular movements they have ever known are the right-wing machine – not famous for its ability to reason logically – and the New Left – which featured the wafting scent of patchouli and ineffectual protest march thuggery.

Most bloggers don’t think of the New Left much, but to me, the New Left was a response to the failures of the old New Deal coalition and the paradigms that went with it. Where the New Deal coalition depended on passively accepting racism, the New Left sought equality for all oppressed people (not just blacks, but women, Native Americans and more). Where the New Deal paradigm viewed all foreign policy issues as Communists vs. Capitalists the New Left recognized the neglected values of democracy and self-determination. Where the New Deal descended into political corruption and backroom deals the New Left saw sought change by confronting the system from the outside.

Now, as a project aimed at fixing the shortcomings of the New Deal the New Left had it’s hits and misses. Its crowning achievement was the civil rights movement and helping to end the Vietnam war, but outside those victories the movement was pretty ineffectual and – like most movements whose paradigms no longer apply – its legacy was handed over to those too ideological and too closed-minded to think their way out of it. That’s the same process we’re seeing now in the right – where everyday intelligent conservative thinkers are cashing in their chips and leaving conservative thought to the Rush Limbaugh’s and Ann Coulter’s of the world.

So, having seen two popular movements sink into buffoonery before their eyes, you can forgive people like Chait for being cautious about accepting Netroots. However, I think another belief of theirs further heighten this caution: Chait, like many Neolibs, think the New Left killed liberalism. I’ve written too much already but let me just state that I think liberalisms fall in the 70’s and 80’s was the result of the old paradigms of the New Deal becoming irrelevant or unsustainable. The New Left didn’t kill the New Deal. The New Deal died of natural causes.

The danger of being skeptical of popular movements is that it will cripple our ability to motivate voters and defend our values. The New Deal lead to tax-and-spend excesses but it also passed Social Security and Medicare. The New Left lead to marijuana infused love-ins and Che posters but it also realized the dream of African American suffrage. What will Netroots give us before it decent into blogofascism is complete?

1 comment:

Matt said...

Very insightful post. The neo-conservatives always saw the failure of "The Great Society" (which really was a continuation of the New Deal and the "old left") as the failure of the Left's underlying ideology. As Irving Kristol put it they are "liberals mugged by reaity. But Kristol was a very old species to say the least, a Trotskyite. The New Left has little to do with the quasi-Marxist Utopian dreams of yesterday. For better or for worse the New Left is as reactionary to the old left as Neo-Conservatism is. What the "New Left" really stands for though, in principle, is harder to elucidate.

-Matt Sigl