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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Talkin ‘Bout My Generation

by Scott Winship
(Comments on Matt Stoller’s essay on the New Left and the netroots, cross-posted at http://www.tpmcafe.com/blog/swinship/2007/jan/17/talkin_bout_my_generation)
I have a somewhat different take on what to make of the “new movement” centered on the netroots than the older—sorry, wiser—discussants that have responded to Matt thus far. As someone who at age 34 could be part of this movement demographically but doesn’t feel altogether comfortable in it, my take also differs from his. I am on the record elsewhere as believing that the netroots is ideological and ideologically liberal. Like Ed, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Matt agrees with me, given the resistance I’ve received to this argument. So let me instead focus on the questions of where the current movement comes from and where it is going.
First, I agree with Matt that the movement has grown out of the frustrations and anger of those on the left, though I think Matt only gets at part of the explanation. He is right to note that the events dating from the Clinton impeachment – including the perceived theft of the 2000 election, the perceived timidity of the Democratic Congress in 2002, and the outrages of the Bush Administration – are largely behind the rise of the netroots. But there is something else too, something that is implicit (if not explicit) in huge swaths of the Compiled Works of the Liberal Blogosphere.
That “something” – alluded to in Matt’s reference to “Democratic complacency in the Iraq debate in 2002” – is frustration with the incrementalism of the Bill Clinton years and the Clintonite wing of the Party in general. I know that Matt has recently read Todd Gitlin's magnificent The Sixties as part of his research on the New Left, and I am currently working my way through it as well. Early on, in explaining why the children of the Fifties were “lost” to their complacent liberal parents (liberal in the “Cold War liberal consensus” sense) and embraced the confrontational New Left movement of the Sixties, Todd eloquently makes an observation with much relevance for understanding today’s netroots:

In politics, nothing is so unsettling as half a success. After a catastrophe, the next generation rebuilds from scratch. After a heroic victory, they inherit the triumph. But half a success tantalizes and confuses; it dangles before the eyes a glaring discrepancy between promise and performance.

It may be true that the netroots are an older group than is often recognized – my own inclination is to be skeptical until some good data is available, and no, there is no good data yet available – but in reading the most popular writers of the “activist” blogosphere, one is struck by how often they acknowledge that their political experience goes only as far back as the Clinton impeachment. Many of the most prominent netroots activists demonstrate little appreciation for how electorally awful the years between 1966 and 1992 were for Democrats. Consider this the flip-side of Max’s complaint of ahistoricity.
From Lyndon Johnson’s blow-out victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 through 1965, my boss Stan Greenberg notes in his Two Americas, Johnson was supported by clear majorities of the electorate. But that changed in 1966, as urban rioting and Vietnam took its toll on his agenda:

The Republicans picked up 8 governorships, including Ronald Reagan’s victory in California; doubled their number of state legislators in the South; gained a net of 47 seats in the House; and picked three new senators in the South.

To belabor the point, 1966 precedes the rise of the conservative think tanks and foundations in the early 1970s. It is only two years after Goldwater’s trouncing (so much for those “years in the wilderness” suffered by the right). The political history of the next quarter-century is clear enough: Richard Nixon wins as George Wallace peels off the Democratic South, Nixon successfully woos the Wallace voters in ’72 and destroys the last Democratic nominee to openly run as a liberal, a moderate southern Democrat squeaks out a win over a Republican incumbent who had been successively an unelected vice president and unelected president (and who represented the party of Watergate), the dark years of Reagan, the victory of George H. W. Bush on the strength of Lee Atwater’s culture-war strategy, and finally – finally – a clear Democratic win by a moderate southern governor from Arkansas. All the while, ideology and party grew increasingly aligned, swelling the Republican ranks and reaching an apogee in the 1994 election, when the GOP captured both chambers of Congress.
Clinton, of course, went on to drive liberal activists mad by failing to pass universal health care, favoring trade agreements, signing the welfare reform bill, and declaring the end of the era of big government. Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 was pushed to the left by Bill Bradley’s initially strong primary challenge, and his famously populist acceptance speech made many liberals swoon like Tipper after “The Kiss”. But when he lost – and despite the atrocious U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the various recount scenarios would have yielded different results – much of the left at least took solace in the fact that Clintonism was apparently behind them.
But Clintonism as a term for political timidity came to be blamed for Democrats’ allowing the Bush tax cuts to pass, despite the fact that electoral realities put strong pressure on Democratic senators from red states to vote for the bill. With little credibility on national security after 30 years marked by the public relations genius of the McGovernik left (the forerunners of the Kucinich-worshipping Department of Peacers of 2004) as well as the Third-World romanticism of 1970s liberals (the forerunners of the U.N.-elevating left of ’04), Carter’s weakness around the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis, and the death of Soviet Communism under Reagan/Bush, Democrats in Congress were vulnerable to claims by Bush II that they were insufficiently strong on national security, and they buckled to his will. When Republicans re-took the Senate in 2002, “Clintonism” was a convenient scapegoat.
It is this lack of historical appreciation – this lack of understanding of political imperatives – and its attendant lack of patience that unites the New Left of the 1960s with the netroots today. It is the promise and peril of political naïveté—the admirable impulse that led me as a 22-year-old college senior in 1995 to hunger strike for 5 days for what I thought to be an important cause, an impulse the potential destructiveness of which is laid bare in the disclosure that the cause was establishing an Asian-American Studies program immediately rather than waiting for the university bureaucracy to vote on it.
While the New Left eventually over-reached, it did so after achieving extraordinarily important progress in civil rights and civil liberties, and it eventually brought about the end of a war that proved hopelessly unwinnable. Those victories might not have been possible with an “appropriate” historical appreciation. Can the netroots and its fellow-travelers have a similarly positive impact? The answer will depend on whether they are able to read the public mood correctly, whether they correctly judge how—and how quickly—the public can be brought along, and whether their causes are as compelling as the defeat of Jim Crow.
New Democrats—young and old—fear that the New New Left—young and old—will miscalculate in addressing each question, or worse, will not even acknowledge these are legitimate and crucial questions. (How does Matt know, for instance, that the “new movement” is a majority, non-silent or otherwise?) Like other committed Democrats, we hope for their success and will work and fight alongside them on many endeavors, but we will also point out that whatever ’60s activism achieved, it also handed the country to the Republicans for more than a generation. The netroots better be prepared to tell us what we’ll get in return this time around to justify such a result.

8 comments on “Talkin ‘Bout My Generation

  1. Njorl on

    ‘While the New Left eventually over-reached, it did so after achieving extraordinarily important progress in civil rights and civil liberties, and it eventually brought about the end of a war that proved hopelessly unwinnable. Those victories might not have been possible with an “appropriate” historical appreciation. Can the netroots and its fellow-travelers have a similarly positive impact? ‘
    I think you destroyed your own argument with this passage. The civil rights movement alone was enough to cause the backlash we saw, and the civil rights movement alone was worth the price we have paid. It was completely unachievable via normal political means. The rest was all gravy.
    Today, consider the issue of universal health care. I think anyone who thinks we will achieve this through the normal, quiet political process is the one who is naive. The health care industry is 1/6th of GDP and growing. That money will be brought to bear against every politician that threatens it in ways subtle and crass. There will be industry lobbyists attaching amendments to every health care bill in congress. There is no economic interest to compete with the industry for political attention. Without activism, there is no hope on this issue.
    Global warming is similar. There is no economic constituency in favor of preventing global warming to make donations to politicians who agree with them. There are just a lot of people who don’t want it to happen. Without activism, no politician’s political life is dependent on his stand on global warming, and interested parties can control debate so that a politician never needs to do anything about it.
    Activism is essential to arrive at good policy on issues where the popular interest is not reflected by a cohesive economic interest.

    Reply
  2. Q on

    This seems like a recapitulation of known material. Does anyone truly dispute this reading of electoral history?
    One other thing — Gore won a majority of the popular vote, and Kerry, a DISMAL candidate, came pretty damn close. Does that mean that our presidential chances aren’t as dim as they look?

    Reply
  3. Morris Sheppard on

    Scott, having about 30 years more age and experience, I might tend to bristle at being called “naive” by a young and green whippersnapper like you. Also I was actually there, and participating, at some of the events that you reference. I remember the civil rights movement and Vietnam, and not as an historical reference but as a real events that affected me, my family and many of my friends. I have no lack of historical appreciation – or lack of understanding of political imperatives, either, thank you very much.
    No one will posit that the 60’s and 70’s left made no mistakes, least of all me who thought much of the subsequent leftist strategy was misguided, but that does not excuse either the imperial tone, much out of place, or the misguided efforts in your own essay. It is correct to say that the netroots effort grew from, in part, frustration, but it is people like those you represent with whom we were frustrated. We saw the failure of “third way” politics, we saw the failure of “triangulation”, we saw the failure of “compromise” we saw the failure of not speaking out strongly and clearly for our beliefs, we saw the failure of attempting to accommodate ourselves to attract some mythical “middle” rather than proudly explaining why our liberal views and policies were better and bringing that middle to us.
    The New left, as you call it, of the 60’s did not degenerate into political correctness and special interest groups constantly whining about the things they demanded, it was hijacked by them. If you want to understand how, just look at NARAL’s endorsement of the execrable Joe LIeberman in the CT Senate race. So much for the “New Left.”
    By the way, what was “perceived” about the theft of the election in 2000, or the timidity of the Democrats, urged on, I might add, by the fainthearted DLC in 2002? That was not just perception, it was real. There is a saying the “faint heart ne’er won fair maid.” Well, faint heart, or being afraid that you will be called some name by the opposition never won a political fight, either.
    Your naivity at 22 was because you were historically ignorant and did not understand the activism of the 60’s, its causes and its methods. Hence you thought it approprate to go on a hunger strike for a university program. Don’t blame us for your silliness, please, and don’t use your silliness as cudgel against legitimate activism.
    As to what the netroots, may get you in return for your gracious cooperation, how about the most stunning electoral victory in a decade and a half? How about Jim Webb, Jon Testor, John McNierny, John Hall and a dozen others? And what have the establishment Dems, the DLC, the “centrists,” the Clintons and the Schumers gotten us? Joe Lieberman. Oh, I forgot Tammy Duckworth, but then again, she didn’t win.
    I rest my case.

    Reply
  4. Doctor Biobrain on

    Sorry, but I think this hardly covers the issue. What of Congress? Is the fact that Democrats controlled Congress for almost three whole decades after 1966 not count for anything? Or that, even then, the GOP could only win it with smoke, mirrors, and outright lies? Let’s not pretend as if we were shut-out this whole time.
    And why not focus on presidential personalities and campaigning? Nixon ran a great campaign and greatly abused his powers to keep his Democratic opponents down. And Reagan was a HUGELY strong personality, which helped make-up for his many other flaws. Carter and Mondale clearly paled in comparison. Bush Sr., on the other hand, had a fairly sucky personality that was better than Dukakis’, but not nearly as strong as Clinton’s. Would you really claim that Dukakis would have won the rematch? And Gore was roundly pounded by the chattering pundit classes; as was Kerry. And everyone knows how great Bush would have been to have a beer with.
    Does this count for nothing? Are we really to imagine that the American people are voting for an ideology, rather than a man? It’s unfortunate that they do this, as the man isn’t nearly as important as the movement they stand for; but it’s a fact. So why ignore this? Sure, it’s possible that the hippies screwed things up for generations; but it’s more possible that people were just voting for the men they liked better and Republicans were just better at getting the likeable guys on the top ticket. Personality over politics.
    And let’s not forget the pundit’s role in all this, or are we to believe they were as fair to Clinton as they were to Reagan and Bush Jr. And if I rememeber right, they hated Bush Sr., and he was a one-termer. Again, there’s a lot more to this than ideology and hippy-hatred.
    BTW, why in god’s name are you acting like you’re part of the establishment talking to unlearned masses? You’re two years younger than me, and I’m a CPA with my own bookkeeping firm. What a crock.

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  5. liberalrob on

    What will you get to justify taking the risk of handing the country back to the Republicans? Frankly, that’s an absurd question. Do you need to “get” anything? How about an agenda that puts people above commerce, that insists on open government to the extent practicable, that demands the government follow the rule of law and is a good actor on the world stage, and sets a course towards the United States being once again recognized as the moral leader of the “free world” instead of the biggest bully with the biggest stick? Is all that (and more) not worth the risk? If not, just what in the world do you think is worth fighting for?

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  6. Ed H. on

    I think your opinion that,
    “whatever ’60s activism achieved, it also handed the country to the Republicans for more than a generation” is patently silly. This implies that, somehow, the behavior of those who sought economic betterment for the poor and underprivileged as well as social justice on a variety of fronts somehow helped give birth to the conservative ascendancy that has blighted this country for nearly 30 years.
    Actually, as I consider that thought a bit more, I must admit that I am insulted to the point of being repulsed. Do you realize that this parrots similar garbage written by Peter Beinart recently that was refuted expertly by Greg Anrig at The Century Foundation (alleging some imaginary linkage between the neocons and those who protested at a time that was similar to now in more ways than we realize)?
    Go to MyDD.com and read the response by Chris Bowers. You may actually learn something (I tried assiduously not to use bad words, by the way – and one more thing, I am in my late forties…you may want to know that for demographic purposes).

    Reply
  7. Kevin on

    Revolution vs. Evolution. Revolutionaries will never hold themselves accountable to Counter-Revolutionary consequences. There have been precious few Revolutions (only one really, the American Revolution, and why is an interesting story) that did not end up propelling an equally robust counter-revolution.
    There is no sense in asking 60s revolutionaries to take responsibility for the next 30 years of American Politics, those who aren’t blaming Incrementalism for Republican gains, are consulting with Ameriprise.
    The Netroots considers itself a revolutionary force. That is how it relates to the 60s activists.
    And my guess is there are still some Danton’s left to be beheaded. There always is.
    This may be another historical perspective unwelcome and thus lacking in the current movement.

    Reply
  8. keith johnson on

    Hi Scott:
    I am a 48 year old big fan of the progressive netroots and I have a number of disagreements with your take on them (your complaints seem to me to be more applicable to the Green Party progressives than to loyal Dems like Matt Stoller). But I have to take particular issue with one point you made.
    You wrote: “But when he [Gore] lost – and despite the atrocious U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the various recount scenarios would have yielded different results – much of the left at least took solace in the fact that Clintonism was apparently behind them”
    But Gore didn’t lose. The There were recount scenarios where Gore would have won–perhaps not the recount he requested but a more thorough recount–and if Florida’s vote had actually reflected the wishes of the voters who wanted to vote, Gore would have clearly won the electoral vote, and he was able to persuade a majority of American voters that he should be President even though the media kept peddling the completely fake “Gore is a pathological liar” meme during the entire campaign. Gore’s left leaning Convention Speech, the one that made “many liberals swoon like Tipper after ‘The Kiss'”, gave Gore a huge bump in the polls a bump that didn’t fall until the anti-Gore, Love Story, Love Canal, Union Label fakery took hold. Gore’s populism was hugely popular because people saw it as authentic. That’s the same authenticity the netroots is demanding from the Dems.
    your friend
    Keith

    Reply

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