What Happened To The Political Left?

Guests

Michael Kazin, co-editor, Dissent Magazine
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher, The Nation

As unemployment and economic malaise persist, many Americans say they're frustrated with Congress and the president. On the right, the Tea Party and other groups give voice to that frustration, but that level of national mobilization is all but unseen on the left.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The economy stinks. Unemployment hovers above nine percent, banks foreclose on more and more houses, the income gap continues to widen as the rich get richer, and too many in the middle class slip down the economic ladder.

People are frustrated and angry, and nearly all the political energy comes from the right. The other side mounted protests in Wisconsin earlier this year, civil disobedience at the White House over the XL Pipeline, and rallies continue on Wall Street, but there's a difference between protests and a movement.

Conservatives have shifted the middle, and they dominate the dialogue. What happened to the left? If your views shifted, what changed for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman on the famine and fighting in Somalia. But first, what happened to the American left? History professor Michael Kazin tackled that question in a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

MICHAEL KAZIN: Thank you, Neal, good to be here.

CONAN: And your argument is that the conservatives' current position did not arise suddenly, it's the result of 30 or 40 years of developing ideas and institutions.

KAZIN: Yes, in many ways, I think at least since the 1970s, since the famous tax revolt in California that resulted in Proposition 13 out there, conservatives have really dominated discussion about the economy, about what government should do and shouldn't do, about taxes.

And so this is the run-up to the Great Recession, I think, that when the banks began to fail, when auto companies looked like they were going out of business, a lot of people were ready to believe conservative analysis of what was going on, that big government was the problem, or at least big government coddling corporations, perhaps, was the problem.

And so liberals, radicals were not really ready with an alternative analysis that was very convincing.

CONAN: And the same thing, the same decades of preparation, went - started back after the Civil War and led to, eventually, the New Deal.

KAZIN: Yes, very much. In many ways, you know, there was what I call the anti-monopoly coalition, which really began after the Civil War, involved labor unions, involved small farmers, involved a lot of settlement house workers like Jane Addams, people we now think of as great progressives of the turn of the 20th century.

And they really made an argument that big business was too big, that it needed to be more socially responsible, that it was exploiting workers and small business people, and that argument helped to fuel the New Deal of the 1930s. So preparation really matters when it comes to social movements.

CONAN: And indeed you argue that after the Second World War, the left was, to some degree, a victim of its own success.

KAZIN: Yes, I mean, the New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal, a certain degree Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, were successful in producing a limited welfare state and making labor unions more powerful than they'd ever been before in American society, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, various environmental laws.

In many ways, the great American middle class was built with the help of these originally sort of left-wing social programs and economic programs. And that began - America's economic health began to wane in the 1970s, as we know, but the left didn't really adjust to that fact.

CONAN: And you describe it going on to other fights, in fact, not centering on the economy but fights over minority rights, gay rights, the environment, things like that.

KAZIN: And those are very important fights, and they resulted in tremendous victories: civil rights laws, laws about women's rights, sexual harassment laws, the increasing popularity of gay marriage, for example. But at the same time, the left got identified with those issues more than it did with economic equity.

CONAN: We want some callers in on the conversation. If your views shifted, what changed for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Tom's on the line from Circleville in Ohio.

TOM (Caller): Hi, thanks for having - I listen all the time. I think you have a great program.

CONAN: Thank you.

TOM: My confidence has really been shaken in the American political process, that one group of people can take control of the whole process and bring it to a stop because the other group tries to compromise with them, and the other group says either my way or the highway.

And I also believe that our government has now been bought and paid for by the major corporations, and we are no longer the United States of America, we are the Corporate States of America.

CONAN: And I hear your views. What shifted for you? How did you change?

TOM: How did I change? Just look around you. I have been working since I've been 11 years old with a paper route. Then I went into the military, got training, came out of the military in the worst possible time, that was 1979. Everybody couldn't get a job. I walked into a business, asked for the manager, and I said I want a job. I'll wash windows, I'll sweep floors, I'll do anything to get a job. He hired me.

All right, every time training has come up, I've taken training. But my pay since the beginning of the '80s has steadily declined because they say there is no business, and it seems like the people that have the power have the money, and they're not letting go of it.

CONAN: All right, well...

TOM: Also, the only reason that I have the insurance that I have - and I'm non-union - but our company is half-union, but the only reason I have the pension coming, and the insurance that I have and job security that I have now, is because of the union.

CONAN: All right, Tom, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

TOM: You're welcome.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Katrina vanden Heuvel joins us from our bureau in New York. She's editor and publisher of The Nation. Her book "The Change I Believe In" comes out next month, and nice to have you with us today.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And in a recent piece in The Nation, you concluded that the right does - you obviously disagree with them on a lot of what they argue, but that they have marshaled their arguments incredibly well.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, let me just say I edit a magazine which was founded by the abolitionists, a group Michael Kazin writes so beautifully about in his book, committed to a moral vision of this country's politics and who fought so hard to end slavery.

I believe, like Michael I believe does, that large, sustained, independent movements in organizing are what bring about fundamental change in our country, and it is the case that despite continued mass unemployment, the economic pain in this country, the right has dominated the debate about so many issues and what kind of economy is going to emerge out of the ditch.

But there are progressives, left thinkers, activists, working in this country not only to reset the economic narrative but also are out there organizing, demonstrating for jobs, for a different kind of country. And part of what is going on, it seems to me, from my stance, is that these efforts have received shamefully little media attention.

And it seems to me that if people don't know, they don't care, and if they don't care, they won't act. And what is so important is a journalism that takes activists and activism and ideas seriously and not only covers people in power and pretends the difference between Republicans and Democrats constitute the entirety of the debate but understands that there are people in motion.

People in Wisconsin, for example, who were fighting to defend their rights, short-term defeat, but that is part of what the left's history is about. So I think as people - you know, people are gathering October 3 for this movement I write about in The Nation, beginning to emerge as a movement, it's a collective of labor movements, progressive organizations called The American Dream Movement.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about your point about - conservatives often complained about shamefully poor coverage in the mainstream media, as well. And one of the interesting points that Michael Kazin made in his article in the New York Times is that in fact they developed their own media access and resources to rally their cause, including talk radio and magazines of various types and television channels. Is the left doing the same thing? Obviously The Nation is one magazine, too.

VANDEN HEUVEL: The Nation is one magazine. Dissent is another. Yes, I mean, Michael alluded to the right-wing infrastructure that has been built up over these last 40 years, and there is a progressive left infrastructure, and within that, there is media. But it is not at the scale, it is not at the strength of the right wing for a variety of reasons.

But the other factor I might - you know, we saw a CNN-Tea Party debate just a week or two ago. Would you ever see the CNN-nurses' union debate or the CNN-teachers' union debate? Or think about 1,000 people - as you talked about, Neal, at the top of the show - arrested in front of the White House a couple weeks ago on the tar sands environmental issue, hardly any coverage of this.

So I do think, as I came back to, if people are going to take the leap and remember that working together, what used to be called collective action, solidarity, can make a change in their lives, their real lives, if they don't see that, they're not going to make that leap. That's why to me Wisconsin was so important.

And when teachers, students, firefighters join union members for days on days, went to their square, as Egyptians went to Tahrir Square, there was coverage but not enough. So I think we do need to create our own institutions. They are under fire because, as Michael I think mentioned, the right has been intent on destroying the very foundations of progressive left political activism as they work to repeal the New Deal, the Great Society, I would argue even going back now to pre-Civil War, to the Enlightenment and to reason and science.

CONAN: Michael Kazin, I want to bring you back in. There are some who would argue that some of the institutions of the left, the infrastructure that Katrina vanden Heuvel was just talking about, including labor unions, including some of those institutions, have run out of gas a little bit.

KAZIN: Well, obviously it's no news that labor unions have been in decline for some time now. And even the, I think...

CONAN: And they're not coming back.

KAZIN: Well, I'm not sure about that. There are still 15 million people in labor unions, and actually, a lot of young activists, as Katrina knows, including people who have been my students at Georgetown University, when they think about what they want to do after college, they go and work for labor unions.

But obviously labor unions fighting on the defensive, unlike the 1930s, when the labor unions were fighting on the offensive and were growing, is a very different kind of thing.

But I think one of the things I stress in - both in my book "American Dreamers" and also in the article in the Times last Sunday, is the kind of institutions that people on the left need to build are institutions which really get out to what we call ordinary Americans, average Americans.

You know, I'm struck whenever I go to Iowa, Nebraska, that you turn on AM radio or even most FM radio, and you hear mostly evangelical stations, country stations and religious stations. I love country music, but, you know, you don't hear a left point of view there, and you don't have people who are, you know, left-wing activists who for the most part are really active in those areas.

CONAN: Air America was not a great success.

KAZIN: Nope.

CONAN: We're talking about what happened to the American left. If your views shifted, what changed for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. There's no question many Americans are frustrated at the economy, at Congress, at the president. The frustration fuels national political movements on the right. We're talking today about what happened to the political left. It's a question addressed in the cover story in the September edition of The Nation.

The right has spent decades training the members of its choir, it begins. They know the gospel. They can sing the words to the songs. Progressives have done less well, particularly on core economic issues. No movement can grow unless citizens are convinced there's a better way.

The piece was co-written by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. She is with us today. Her forthcoming book is called "The Change I Believe In: Fighting For Progress in the Age of Obama." Also with us, Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown and co-author - co-editor of Dissent magazine. He also wrote the book "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation."

If your views shifted, what changed for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. David's(ph) on the line, David calling from Hot Springs in Arkansas.

DAVID (Caller): Good afternoon, everyone. I would like to say that, you know, my views shifted when I approached a mayor of a small town recently with a plan of action, a solution that I believe would affect the nation and how business is done. And this gentleman wanted to know who I was, the good old boys' network I was connected in, because I'd moved from out of state.

Okay, and I've been working on some stuff in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and now in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for about five years, okay, in economic development. And I've recently just pretty much given up, okay, because I hear the right, the left.

Well, to me, there's the right, the left, the forward, the behind, the above and the below.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVID: Okay, they want to politicize economics, and that - you know, I don't agree with that. Economics, we're in class warfare throughout the world.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, but economics has been political since the word was invented.

DAVID: Well, we need to look at the word. That's what I'm saying. Look at the words we use. Okay, when I used to sell advertising, I would hear from an executive, I can't. You know, whether you can, you say you can or you can't, either way, you're right. It's all about linguistics and how we define our reality. And the reality is, the - you know, things won't shift until the upper class are disturbed, their investments are failing.

We're seeing that occur on Wall Street, and why? Well, we can bring it back to the transcendental - the greed, you know, the envy, the jealousy, the keeping up with the Joneses, and everything is spinning its wheels for what, to buy and consume more.

You know, with society and with technology advancing, our communities are going to be becoming smaller and smaller. We read about that many years ago when nanotechnology came out on the scene and trying to incorporate new technology. The military has a lot of these...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VANDEN HEUVEL: (Unintelligible) caller...

CONAN: David, thanks very much, appreciate it. It's interesting, Arkansas used to be a solidly Democratic state. It is now a solidly Republican state. It's almost inconceivable that a Democrat, a left, could carry Arkansas.

KAZIN: I think that's true. I think the legislature is still Democratic, but that's one of the few sort of legislatures that...

CONAN: Statewide level, yeah.

KAZIN: It's also a bastion of populism and, to a degree, actually the Socialist Party, believe it or not, 100 years ago.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And so were parts of - when you look at North Dakota, which is the only state I believe that has a state bank in this country, and which, for that reason, escaped some of the great disaster of this financial crisis, there are - there's a populist tradition. I hesitate to say that with the great Professor Kazin on the horn here, but - he knows more about it.

But I was listening to your caller, and what interested me, Neal, is that, you know, there is a sense that it's not left-right, but it's top down, and you will be surprised to hear this, but Sarah Palin's speech of a few weeks ago was very interesting to me about corporate cronyism and the sort of elite establishment that seems to have rigged the system against ordinary people in this country.

The problem is, her ideas as to what to do about it in my mind just compound and strengthen that elite and that establishment. But I think there is a coalition to be built among people who have called in on your program today who feel terribly frustrated, who feel that they want to give up on our politics as they see it, that Washington is rigged against them, dominated by insiders, corporate money, when in fact it would be a grave mistake to give up on government. It's time to clean it up and rebuild a fair economy, but that needs to be driven out there by a movement with, as Michael said, a connection to the real-life experiences of people in this country.

KAZIN: I think both callers today in different ways voice a real frustration and, you know, a sense that things aren't working right, that people at the top have too much power, but it's not quite clear what can be done about that. And that gives the left, which I think that term makes some sense, a real opportunity.

And this is not just happening in this country. This is happening in Europe as well, and Japan as well, some other parts of the world. So, you know, this is an economic crisis that's worldwide, but it's also kind of a crisis of confidence in the political insiders in the world, and that means that there's opportunity and danger at the same time.

CONAN: I was interested in your piece, Michael Kazin, when you wrote that the more conservative colleges are presenting a more coherent narrative to their students.

KAZIN: Yeah, I'm not sure it's the job of universities or colleges to present a narrative to their students. You know, I teach at a fairly liberal Catholic college, Georgetown, and I don't feel like I want to organize my students to believe one certain thing or another, but it's clear that conservative Christian colleges especially believe in a certain point of view about the Bible, about morality generally, and also about politics.

And Wal-Mart years ago began to help to fund chairs of free enterprise at some conservative colleges, and it's pretty clear what they meant by free enterprise. It wasn't let's have a dialogue about socialism and capitalism.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I mean, Michael's book in many ways touches on this larger point about the need for an animating vision, and in some ways the politics of the left is about shifting, and in this case reshifting the nation's moral compass and once again expanding its sense of political possibilities, unshackling the imagination.

It is very tough to do in a time like this, but it's also very possible because of the crisis we face, as Michael said, not just here but around the world, where there's a sense of the failure and the illegitimacy of governments.

I was struck by a Rasmussen poll of just a few weeks ago where the view of the legitimacy of the government is at its lowest point I think in decades...

CONAN: Well, Michael Kazin, in your piece you said that may be due to the fact that politicians made promises and not delivered.

KAZIN: Yeah, and that's part of - unfortunately, that's also helped the rise of the Tea Party, because the Tea Party is reacting against both conservative administration of George W. Bush and what they see as the liberal administration of Barack Obama both failing to solve the nation's problems.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I mean, the one thing, Michael, in your piece, I was struck, is you do make the right point, that progressives achieved success in the past - whether organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. What would our moment have been like in these last two years if President Obama had not been in the White House? Because I think when you have a Democratic president in the White House, so often, particularly in those first months, so many on the left progressive community are unwilling to challenge and to move as they need to. As we know from our history, change comes from that sustained movement from below, allied with an enlightened president, not just a president alone.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jonathan(ph), Jonathan with us from Amherst in Massachusetts.

JONATHAN (Caller): Yeah, I'm right here. I would say the Wisconsin thing revived my sense about the labor movement, which is what I've been most interested in. And I picked up a book that had come out 20 years ago and reread it, and it was the same, we're in the same exact thing. It's a book called "Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be For Labor When It's Flat On Its Back."

And it came out - I read it originally in the early '90s, and it was incredible how it was still the same thing, that, you know, labor had gotten really screwed a long time ago, and basically I still believe that the way to get past the fragmentation and the hard-line qualities that the left often create is through a revived labor movement.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Amen. That author is - wrote our lead cover story this week, "All We Are Saying is Give Keynes a Chance."

KAZIN: Tom Geoghegan, his name is, yeah.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Tom Geoghegan, forgive me.

KAZIN: He's a very good labor lawyer in Chicago, yeah.

CONAN: I just wanted to read an email with an opposite point of view, this from Sean(ph) in Corvallis, Oregon: My simple point of view, having once been a member of a national labor union, is that unions are failing because they've priced themselves out of the market. The simple fact is that ordinary people and small business cannot afford to hire union labor, and small business is the backbone of the economy.

If the left wants to create a revival, it must return to its basic message of fairness and equity and compassion and reason, and it must leave the unions behind. My construction union in Hawaii was well-known to be run by organized crime. This is not proper company for the left to be keeping.

KAZIN: Unions clearly are not pure, virtuous institutions all the time, or even perhaps ever. But unfortunately or fortunately, there's still no institution which can help workers to get some sort of say on the job, some sort of democratic decision-making process set up, and also can, if they're successful, provide a kind of economic insurance policy for them.

So, you know, around the world we have successful economies, very successful economies - in Scandinavia, for example, where there's much stronger unions, much stronger union density, percentage of workers in unions, than there are in this country.

And so if you look at it internationally, usually the problem with an economy is not the unions. It's usually the kind of development, the kind of industries you have. Of course there's always a Jimmy Hoffa and little Jimmy Hoffas in the world. But that's not the real story of unions, pro or con.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And when you have an economy that's really, you know, broken for all but the wealthy, really working best for the wealthy, it's just countervailing power. It's what built this country post-World War II with all the flaws. But it had a sense of, you know, you had government. You had business. You had labor. You had civil society in a sense. And that's important for the balance of this country, whether you're left or right. And that has been shattered.

CONAN: Let's go next to Michelle(ph). Michelle with us from Oklahoma City.

MICHELLE (Caller): Yes. Thank you for having my call. I think part of the problem with our movement with just being a Democrat and being on the left is that it is so closely associated with moral issues. And across the nation, we all have different religious and different belief systems. And because we're so associated with being certain moral issues, I think it's hard for more conservative religious individuals to support all of the many ideas what are within our own party. It's difficult to support everything wholeheartedly and be engaged and be excited about those things that are associated with moral issues...

CONAN: And you're talking...

MICHELLE: ...as a...

CONAN: Are you talking about gay marriage and abortion, primarily?

MICHELLE: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I'm wholeheartedly a Democrat. But when it comes to supporting candidates, unfortunately now, I can't just automatically vote Democrat. I have to look to see, OK, what are their actual true beliefs? Are they - and that is - I think that hurts our party that that moral compass actually comes into play. I think that's part of the lack of enthusiasm by some regions of the country.

CONAN: And that is part of the argument that conservatives have made considerable ground on, Michael Kazin, over the past several decades.

KAZIN: Yes. Yes. And, you know, I'm a strong believer in the importance of religion in American history and politics. And most Americans, whether they go to church or not, do derive a sense of their morality from religion, whether people who don't have much religion, like I, agree with that or not. And I think the caller is putting her finger on a very important element. We can disagree about a lot of issues, I think. And I'm very much pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. But I think to have a large coalition to solve economic problems in this country in a progressive direction, I think, we have to put those issues not behind us but at least agree to disagree.

Because otherwise, you're not going to put together the kind of broad coalition that Katrina is talking about. And in fact, you know, there have been times in American history, back in the 1890s, for example, the people's party, the Populists were mostly evangelical Protestants, but they were very much on the left.

CONAN: And, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the coalition that was elected that had those huge Democratic majorities in 2008, well, that included a lot of so-called Blue Dogs who a lot of people said weren't real Democrats.

VANDEN HEUVEL: It did. Though I think the defining factor for some of those Blue Dogs, I'm thinking like Heath Shuler, was a populist economic vision. And I come back to what Michael said about the importance of a broad coalition for economic fairness and justice in this country. I think the left over these last decades has too often been unwilling to work toward a larger goal while disagreeing on other issues, where the right has been more disciplined. And that I think has set back the left in its broader cause.

I might just add we haven't talked about the demographic shifts this country will be facing. I mean, and it has been - one could argue, and I think Pat Buchanan did at one point, that the left in some ways won the culture wars - we could disagree about that - but has lost on the broader trend of inequality in economic justice in this country. And that's the fight. But we see a more socially tolerant younger generation in many arenas - on gay rights, gay marriage. And where that heads will be very important for this country's future. And I think it's stoking anxiety among, for example, the Tea Party, where you look at their demographics: older, whiter.

CONAN: And we're talking with Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University. Whatever happened to the American left? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Tony(ph) in San Antonio. I regarded myself as mid-left and now to the right of center. Why? One, the population is aging, and as people age, they tend more to the right. And two, the science of global warming has moved me firmly to the right.

The quote, unquote science, as he puts it in his email. Despite the evidence for and against global warming, the planned disruption to the U.S. economy by the ultra-left nutcase lobby - he puts in quotations - is extreme. It seems like the left has moved further left to the ultra radical. The right has still some allowance for the people in the center, and the left doesn't.

And this gets back, Katrina vanden Heuvel, to the argument over the XL Pipeline. Some say there's an awful lot of oil there in nice politically safe Canada. Why aren't we shipping it to the refineries in Texas?

VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, but he begins his - your emailer, with the idea that the science isn't settled on climate change. And I think I come back to what we're witnessing in these last Republican debates is a rejection of science, and I would argue of reason. And I do think there is a legitimate debate about how we secure our energy future. But that in many ways has people on the conservative end understanding we need to be more secure by liberating ourselves from fossil fuels and other investments in green energy. So it's - to me, again, it's not so much right-left. I think there's been a lot of bunk about climate change, and the right has done a very good job in funding a lot of scientists and research to muddy what should be clear at this stage in our history.

KAZIN: I think it's also true that in economic hard times, environmentalism or conservation or - it's gone by different names - always has a difficult time. People are afraid that their jobs won't be there; they'll go away. The environmental movement really began in a major way--

CONAN: And those green jobs everybody talked about, they're not emerging.

KAZIN: Well, not emerging partly because you need government to help to jump-start them. And Republicans have not wanted to do that. But, you know, as you know, our, quote, "industrial competitors," especially China, are investing lots of money in green jobs.

CONAN: And in coal-burning power plants, too.

KAZIN: Yeah. Well, yeah, in everything, exactly. But, you know, the left, obviously, has to be associated with economic growth. As long as we have a growing population in the world, we're going to need more economic growth. And - but the kind of growth is what we should be arguing about, not for growth or for killing the economy. That's a false argument.

CONAN: Michael Kazin, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it. Interesting piece.

KAZIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown, co-editor of Dissent Magazine and author of the book "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." Katrina vanden Heuvel, thank you very much for coming in.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation, and her forthcoming book is called "The Change I Believe In: Fighting For Progress in the Age of Obama." Up next, the United Nations warns that without immediate help, three quarters of a million people could soon starve to death in Somalia. Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times asks will we stand by and watch? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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