Michael Kazin, author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.” has an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times, “Whatever Happened to the American Left?,” which includes insightful observations on how progressives might become more assertive in the Democratic Party. Kazin notes the long evolution of progressive activism into a potent force:
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.”
Looking towards the future, Kazin says the left “will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility.” He envisions a strong role for social activism that doesn’t depend on politicians:
… 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.
As Kazin concludes: “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.”