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.