Michael Kazin has a piece in the New York Times describing the rise and fall of the “American Left”, as he calls it. It’s the old story: a rise in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tremendous success in the ’30s through the ’60s and a decline and shift to the right in the ’70s and ’80s which persists to this day. He concludes with the same concept Democrats have been working with for some time:
“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. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.”
Let’s call that piece “exhibit A”. “Exhibit B” is the following by the very conservative British blogger Peter Hitchens (Christopher’s lesser-known brother):
“[In 1948] Labour was still a working class British party, and had yet to be taken over by modish cultural revolutionaries… With facts such as these in mind (not to mention R.H.Tawney’s support for Grammar Schools, and the Christian self-discipline of so many Labour people when our country was going through very hard times) I feel that social conservatives should never entirely rule out the possibility that salvation may come from the left as well as the right.”
Exhibit A is about the American Left by an American Liberal. Exhibit B is about the British Left by a British Conservative. What have they got to do with each other? Well, here’s “what”, in my opinion.
To begin with, Hitchens pretty much says that he’s willing to be anti-laissez-faire for the needs of social conservatism. Hitchens appears willing to accept a thoroughly socialist government so long as that socialism does not promote the ideas of feminism, multiculturalism, atheism or any non-Christian religion. And it has to ban drugs and keep a watchful eye on alcohol.
In short, Hitchens has astutely noticed that free market, small-government ideas are not only unrelated to his “social conservatism”, but in some ways actively harmful to it.
What does this have to do with Kazin’s article? Well, as he states, once the Liberals in the U.S. had successfully implemented their economic program in the 1930s and ’40s, which consisted largely of remedying the great inequalities of wealth and aiding the poor workers, they began to turn their attention to the treatment of women, of blacks and other minority ethnic groups, and later to societal norms about culture and sexuality. And about the time they did this, they suffered a massive decrease in their popularity.
The big-money types, who had been subdued in the ’30s and ’40s, used the resentment of the Liberal social programs to take back power and undo the Liberal economic policy, as thoroughly documented by Thomas Frank in his wonderful book What’s The Matter With Kansas?
The Conservatives, in America at least, are people who want to drastically reduce the government’s power. But they key is that some of them want to do it because they can become fabulously rich that way, and others want to because they see the government as controlled by, as Hitchens would say, “modish cultural revolutionaries”.
So what? It’s all quite obvious, so far. And frankly, most political observers understand the situation. They just don’t know what to do about it. What I want to point out here, however, is only this: When Kazin says: “a reconnection with ordinary Americans”, I have this dreadful feeling what that would actually entail is the abandonment of the Liberal social agenda, in order to woo the American equivalents of Peter Hitchens.
I don’t mean that all “ordinary Americans”–a hideously condescending phrase, I think–are Nationalistic, zealously Christian, anti-Feminist, and all the rest that “social conservatism” stands for. But I mean, the ones who are not like that are already voting Democratic.
Well, maybe I’m wrong. I hope so. But the Liberals should think very carefully about the lengths they are prepared to go to gain back their New Deal-era success.