A short note before launching into the full post. Thank you for all the great comments on part one of looking at radicalism in the current campaign. The joke about Libertarians being Republicans who have sex and do drugs made me snort coffee out my nose - good one. Please remember that the last post and the current one are coming from a political theory perspective and do not address most of the concerns raised in the comments, at least not directly. I will have things to say about those topics another day.
Why am I so concerned about the way "radical" and "far left liberal" are being used in the blogs? First, I'm kind of pedantic when it comes to political definitions. These things mean something to me in a way they might not to ordinary readers. They have histories, they refer to specific modes of thought and action, and they are intended to have analytic power. More importantly, as I ended the last post, these labels have been used maliciously against Democrats by the Right in an attempt to distract voters from the core policies and actions of the party, measures that are far more harmful to Republican power than some upper-class idiot with too much time on his hands pretending he's a "revolutionary" and killing people. It matters that we use language correctly and understand the various radical modes of action on the Left so that we can be effective radicals ourselves. In the current political environment, to promote humane, egalitarian and moderate policies is to be radical.
I'm going to return to some of the themes I have written about in past posts. The 2008 campaign has illuminated the class divisions within the Democratic Party in a way we haven't seen since the early part of the 20th century. Part of that is because the class divisions have been obscured by events - the Great Depression which threatened all but the very upper class, WWII which unified the nation against real threats, the Cold War with its incredible rise in standard of living, the Civil Rights movement which made the party take on race, Vietnam with its focus on the war, and then the Reagan/Bush I years of jingoism, ending the Cold War and agitation over the "culture wars". I think we can also argue, along the lines of Mark Schmitt, that the Democratic Party has been undergoing an almost century long redefinition of itself away from its Southern roots and into something antithetical to where it began. In the doing, the Democrats have ended up with two major modes of political action and identity, distinct from what the party was before the New Deal realignment, strands I have identified as Truman strand and the Stevenson strand, named after their post-New Deal exemplars. The organization of the party is far more complicated than this, I readily admit, but my goal is to provide ways of thinking about the party and American liberalism that break away from the demonization of the Right. Refinement of the categories will be needed.
The Truman strand is the inheritor of the old Jacksonian tradition in the party, for good and ill. The Stevenson strand is of more recent vintage, owing its origin to the progressives of the early century. The majority of the liberal bloggers (note, not everyone who claims to be liberal is) fall firmly within the Stevensonian strand, myself included. Most of the current party leadership and the "respectable" punditocracy also can be placed there. Whatever fantasies of radicalism the Blogger Boyz may ascribe to themselves, the Stevensonians are technocrats, not radicals. The technocratic mode is the antithesis of radicalism, having its roots in the battle against machine politics and introduction of "clean government" based on abstract and rational principles of governance. Progressivism in its original form was the tool of society matrons and the growing professional middle class to do a variety of social work - enforce laws, make public figures accountable, assimilate the waves of immigrants from Europe, establish sanitary conditions in urban areas, establish social justice and generally protect their position in the socio-economic order. It came out of utilitarianism in great part and embraced a shitload of crackpot "science" along the way.
In California, where it was very effective, it lives on to this day in the fact that many California cities have "non-partisan" governments, which simply means you can't figure out who the Republicans are, as they are all in stealth mode. Progressivism has been instrumental in preserving Republican power in the Golden state. But I digress...
The progressives were transformed into Stevensonians through the New Deal, when FDR melded the emerging social science academics with a professional bureaucratic cadre to run the new bureaus and departments, and to invent new things for the government to do and for the Democratic Party to run. This is what I mean by institutionalization. This mode of liberal politics has become the most effective developing a rational welfare state because its natural environment (if you will) is modern bureaucracy. We're talking wonkitude of major proportions. A weakness of this mode, however, which I have also blogged about before, is the aversion to blunt political contestation, resulting in a willingness to relinquish popular politics and electoral battlegrounds in favor of dominating the crafting of policy and legislation and of appeal to the courts. It is a retreat into formal expert knowledge as the proper arbiter of political affairs.
At its best, this mode of politics provides a determined support for rule of law, supports social equality and justice regardless of particularity, and defends against corrupt consolidation of power. At its worst, it devolves into class elitism, condemnation of particularity, and rejection of the equality of the mass of citizens. "Why do we even try to help these people? They don't know what's good for them!
The Truman strand is more varied than the Stevenson strand for the simple reason that there are fewer barriers to entry. You do not need to be an intellectual. You don’t need the equivalent of a college education, believe in the scientific method or rationality, or aspire to a white collar professional lifestyle. You can be Rocky. Until Bill Clinton and the final exit of the Dixiecrats, this strand lived in tension between the new “Best and Brightest” faction which rapidly gained dominance in the party, and the old line, revanchist Dixiecrats. Those two factions warred for the support and votes of the Truman strand. While the Dixiecrats were rejected, the current campaign to me indicates that the Stevensonians do not have a lock on this group, either. (Note - I realize I’m drawing a bright line between factions that is more like a shifting tidal line.)
This group is the result of the influx of ethnic urban working class and poor into the party, with Al Smith, a man without even a high school education, their first urban presidential candidate. It is important to note that Smith was an early voice in the Democratic Party decrying Southern racism. The Truman wing relied on the foundation of political machines, from Huey Long to Tammany Hall. It was the bailiwick of machine politicians and union bosses, but has increasingly lost an independent leadership cadre as the leadership assimilates into the Stevensonian group. Nancy Pelosi is an example of this. She comes from one of the most well known urban political machine families of the 20th century, the D’Alesandros of Baltimore, and is now completely within the inside the beltway DC elite. I don’t offer this as a criticism of Pelosi, but as an example of the transformation of the party leadership itself to be able to maintain the New Deal form of government. Since Al Smith, there have been three Truman strand presidents: Truman, LBJ and Bill Clinton. (In answer to an earlier comment question, I honestly don’t know how to classify Jimmy Carter. A lack in the modeling, obviously.) With Bill Clinton the argument can be made that he belongs equally to both strands, however much the Stevensonians reject him as one of them.
The old party machines were porous. They needed numbers to provide votes to maintain power. They needed the younger newcomers to fill posts and heel the wards to keep the votes coming, and that’s how new people entered the system. Harry Truman was a product of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, Missouri, for example. To maintain power, you couldn’t be too picky about whose votes you collected. They were usually incredibly corrupt and, ironically enough, were usually the target of progressive ire. And then FDR welded them at the hip to the inheritors of the progressives.
So, there is an older tradition in the party, one that had already been significantly modified by amalgamating Appalachian Jacksonians with the ethnic urban machines, rejecting tidewater Southern influence (Note – Much of my categorization of Anglo populations comes from Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer) which almost immediately is thrust into tension with the newly minted intelligentsia of the New Deal. The Stevensonians present the old progressive argument – our way is better because it is rational, smarter, experimental, efficient, uplifting, rules-based - and add to it the cry of the credentialed - we run it better because of our expertise. Think of someone in the 1990s who knows a business inside and out, who comes into the office one day to find a computer on his desk and a geek standing by to teach him how to use it.
Thanks for the history lesson, but where in all of this is radicalism? For the most part, outside of the party proper, though different expressions of radicalism are associated with the two major strands within the party. With the Stevensonian base, there is the home of intellectual radicalism. This is what the Right wants everyone to think of as paradigmatic of the Left, even as it has never been particularly effective. It tends to be limited to think tanks, graduate seminars and bloviating bloggers (Me! Me!), but it is also where you find reprobates like William Ayers, who tried to justify his terrorism and murders with intellectual clap-trap. Outraging bourgeois sensibilities for fun and profit, and never mind the bodies we leave behind. I would dump losers like Ward Churchill into this bucket as well, who imagine that crude anti-Americanism and ham fisted “analysis” of imperialism justifies praising the butchery of thousands in the World Trade Center. These are people external to the political system for the most part, who are able to attain standing in certain enclaves where other Left intellectuals romanticize what they hear and imagine themselves to be cool radical outlaws because of the putrid company they keep. These moral midgets provide the Right with a very effective club to use against the Left.
There is a different kind of radicalism that tends to find greater expression within the Truman strand, but which, because it shares the porous quality of that mode of political participation, is fully open to all parts of the Left. This radicalism comes primarily out of labor unions and civil rights, though it also finds a home in peace and environmental activism, and it is performed by people from every part of the Left. This radicalism is not conducted within the heads of people who are already quite comfortably situated in society, but is done on the street to transform the institutional structure of the polity itself. This radicalism is what actually terrifies the Right and is the kind that can result in a fundamental modification to the society as such. It does not happen very often and its goals are usually both modest and profound. To be paid what you are worth. To be judged by the content of your character. To have the same civil protections that a white/male/straight/rich person enjoys. To have food, shelter and care commensurate with leading a dignified life. This radicalism is a challenge to entrenched privilege and will result in a reallocation of power and social goods.
The success or failure of Democratic radicalism depends critically upon the efforts of the Truman strand of the party. The genteel reformists have no skin in the game, so to speak, and can take or leave these fundamental claims for a later time. I don’t think it is a mistake that it was Truman and LBJ who forced the country to move decisively towards ending segregation. I do not think the participation in and tolerance of misogyny from the “educated class” this electoral round is a mistake either, noticeable among women of that class as much as among the men. I may be disgusted but I am not surprised by the willingness of the “progressive” blogosphere to push things as fundamental as universal health insurance and Social Security off to the side in favor of gushing over cool ironic detachment and the ability to make sly cultural references.
It’s easy to denounce the entire corrupt US government, or to declare you are not a part of the great unwashed, but belong to an archipelago. It does not require courage. One needs nothing but an ego, a distorted view of your own self-importance, and an internet connection for that form of radicalism. It is not very radical, nor does it really make you part of Left politics.
True radicalism is the courage to say “No, I’m sitting here,” on a bus ride, not knowing if this might mean your death. And that courage is the heart and soul of Left politics.
Equality has always been the most radical thought in politics.