Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Accurate History and the Rising Right

This article is about a liberal feminist organization primarily concerned with getting pro-choice, Democratic women elected in the United States. Both the article and the organization it profiles -- EMILY's List -- are typical of AlterNet, in that they are very much centred in the liberal tradition, but they are generally positive (if not particualrly radical) and have interesting attributes that folks across the left and liberal spectrum can learn from.

However, I don't raise it because of a desire to comment on the main focus of the article. Rather, I got to thinking because of a single sentence that was putting the aspirations of many present-day U.S. liberals into some kind of historical context by comparing them to the rise of the right in that country: "After Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964, the hard right began a long march to power, taking over local school boards and Republican Party machinery, grooming candidates for higher office, building networks, coordinating strategy."

Barry Goldwater was a very conservative Republican candidate for president running in a time when the version of liberalism that came to power under Franklin Roosevelt was running high. He got creamed. The ideological ancestors of the current nutjobs in Washington started acting local and thinking global. I forget the details, but I remember that at some point, while in Los Angeles, I heard a show on KPFK which outlined the actual historical continuity through the right-wing movements from that point to the present. In other words, it is not just a symbolic relationship: mailing lists of supporters from the Goldwater campaign built the organizations that built the organizations that built the movements that run the country today (or something like that).

Now, I'm pretty sure that once or twice on this blog I have used a similar reference point to ground some more general statements about the rise of the right-wing political and social movements in the United States. But it occurs to me that using this as a beginning point leaves out some pretty important information for anyone wishing to create progressive social change in the United States. In particular, I think, it is liberals who need to pay attention.

My thinking is this: In the 1930s, whatever Franklin Roosevelt was able to accomplish in the way of progressive reforms was only because of the rising power of the labour movement (primarily in the form of industrial unions, rather than the older craft unions) and the political left (at that time dominated by the Communist Party U.S.A.). The first victory of the right in their rise to power was not electing proto-fascist Joe Schmoe to the Poughkipsie school board the month after Goldwater crashed and burned (or whatever); it was using the post-World War II anti-Communist hysteria, in conjunction with mistakes made by the CPUSA during the war, to destroy both the party and any unafiliated progressives that they could smear with the same charges. The anti-left witch-hunts in the '50s split the liberal-left united front that had swung to power in the '30s and created a situation in which the elite liberals turned on their former allies with vicious abandon. Their first victory, in other words, was to destroy the organized left. There are ways that this success by Joseph McCarthy (and his allies in both right-wing and liberal circles) still reverberates today.

I would argue, therefore, that anyone looking to draw lessons from the rise of the right in the U.S. that might be translated into defeating them in the future needs not only to pay attention to their long-term vision, their bottom-up approach, and their at times aggressive and critical relationship to the Republican Party. You also need to look a bit farther back and see that liberal progress will not happen without a vibrant and independent left -- and I mean the term "left" in the way the rest of the world uses it, not as a synonym for "liberal" the way it is often used in the United States. Of course today that doesn't mean the CPUSA or some direct successor; rather, it means militant and effective social movements that are independent of and significantly to the left of the Democratic Party. Liberals need to get over the lingering cold war fears (not to mention their own privilege) and, with no strings attached, put nontrivial resources at the disposal of activists who experience various oppressions and have a radical analysis and years of experience. You may not know any, but I absolutely guarantee you they are out there, slogging away in struggles that usually get ignored. Without them calling some shots, you are going to continue to get beaten up by the neocons no matter how funny Al Franken and Jon Stewart might be.


buckets said...

Would not the 'lesson' also be that the counter-attack against the Republicans should be one to split their base?

If so, might I suggest that the fault line to be exploited is betweeen theocon and ecocon?

Scott said...

Fair enough...that's a good lesson too...and the fault between traditional conservative and ex-Trotskyist neocons could also be exploited. But I think that lesson is a bit more obvious; it is the lesson that liberals need the left in order to get anywhere substantial that is more likely to be overlooked, and in more need of being hammered home, in my humble opinion.