With conservatism dominant in every branch of government, it is clear that liberals are an opposition party. We have to think, act, and strategize like an opposition party. That means ﬁguring out ways to articulate what we stand for while not alienating those who may disagree with us but can be persuaded to see things our way. That's a difﬁcult balancing act. Of course, the postwar left has been in opposition before, and that's a historical fact that can be turned to advantage -- there's a track record to examine and think through, and a set of political styles and strategies for change to reﬂect upon. Examining this history can mean recycling good ideas and tactics. But what if it means recycling bad ones?
No doubt, some progressives will be drawn to the protest movements of the 1960s to inspire opposition today. There are good reasons for this. The world that existed before the '60s is one that no one wants to go back to. The decade witnessed enormous victories for African Americans, women, and the poor. The civil-rights movement -- with its pioneering use of nonviolent and grass-roots “direct action” -- prompted these advances. It also gave birth to a new form of politics that championed the energy of ordinary citizens and that carried on within the peace movement's struggle against the Vietnam War. College students, through the teach-in movement, learned how to connect their learning to political engagement. The decade seemed a golden age of political idealism.
Remembering the '60s as a time of heroic activism -- when ordinary citizens changed the terms of politics -- suggests we might be able to recycle those protest styles today. Younger activists are doing that as they march on Washington, against the Iraq War or in favor of abortion rights. The left is often identiﬁed, in the press and in popular imagination, as a series of marches. Protest has become an easy way to express dissent. It's often highly visible and focused in terms of time and resources. When people mass in the streets -- as they were known to during the 1960s -- it appears something is wrong in the country that demands attention. And because protest activists are the most vocal element of the left, they attract the energy of young idealists yearning for a way to express their political disaffection. Take it from someone who's marched a lot in his life: There's an emotional appeal to massing with others you share solidarity with.
But there's also a limit to protest. With its emphasis on criticizing rather than building, it nurtures a narrow conception of opposition. Of course we need to criticize, especially with this administration in power. But for the long term, it's far more important at this historical moment that we build. The left needs to think about long-term and broader ideas of change. Protest doesn't help here; it's too ﬂeeting and spasmodic.
To romanticize protest and the decade of the 1960s cuts us off from rethinking -- with a cold, analytical eye -- the decade's lessons. The spirit of the '60s has something to teach us, for sure, but it's a mixed message, one that lives on in the activist wing of today's left in troubling ways. We need to search out styles, dispositions, and ideas that can inform our present sense of being an opposition party -- and we need to widen what we choose from. We also need to recognize how the past's inﬂuence precludes more productive strategies for the present, how what might have worked in a previous context no longer works today. To get a sense of this, we need to travel back to 1968, to a time when the decade's meaning crystallized, a time that seems far gone at ﬁrst but whose images and memories live on in disturbing ways today. Remembering the past critically allows us to be a more effective opposition in the present.
Protest and Confrontation as Politics
Both internationally and in the United States, 1968 remains one of the most evocative years in the history of the left. The spirit lives through images of protesters massing in the streets and Molotov cocktails zinging through the air. Protest and anger aren't the only tendencies from the time, but they are certainly the most evocative. Mark Kurlansky, in his book 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, explains the allure: “People under twenty-ﬁve do not have much inﬂuence in the world. But it is amazing what they can do if they are ready to march.” Breaking from the limitations of the sidewalk into the streets now conjures a feeling of exhilaration and radical accomplishment.
No occasion in American history symbolizes this more than Chicago's Democratic convention during the summer of 1968. Memories of Chicago come easy due to its highly charged political theater. Abbie Hoffman's organization, the Youth International Party (Yippies), planned to protest the Democratic convention with a “Festival of Life” that would nominate a pig picked up from a local farm for president. Protesters were refused permits but insisted on marching, while Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, did all he could to spark a ﬁght. Chicago became a pressure cooker, a leading Yippie calling it “a revolutionary wet dream come true.” When the riots occurred and the police clubs started swinging, protesters chanted, infamously, “The whole world is watching.” Unfortunately for the protesters, America watched, all right -- and cheered for the working-class cops of Chicago, for the “man” sticking it to the longhairs in the streets. Protest, confrontation, and outrage didn't elicit the intended sympathetic response. Anger killed strategy.
It may be easy to overstate the resonance of such tactics today, but a romanticism about them does exist among those who still believe in street protests. When Rick Perlstein interviewed organizers of the 2004 protests at the Republican convention, he found them championing direct action and confrontation as a tactic. Check out the A31 (August 31) Action Coalition, an organization based in Brooklyn that was angry at New York City's permitting system that conﬁned protesters to certain areas. A31's leaders hoped to “transform the streets of NYC into stages of resistance ... .” They called for people to “sit down and refuse to move,” and to ignore the limitations of “protest pens” set up by police. To make the connection to 1968 crystal clear, they posted a recent op-ed by Tom Hayden on their Web site -- no surprise, as Hayden had argued in 1968 that Chicago symbolized a move toward “direct action and organization outside the parliamentary process,” language remarkably similar to that used by A31.
This was not the only organization that recycled protest styles of 1968. There was Dontjustvote.com and the old peace movement organization, The War Resisters' League (WRL), both celebrating action in the streets, no matter the consequence. A leader of the WRL told Perlstein, “We need to do what we think is right to do, and not so much worry about, ah, ‘Well, what if this? What if that?' I think we need to do what our conscience tells us is important to do … .” When Perlstein asked if this might alienate the wrong people, the organizers shrugged. These activists seemed in the clutches of 1968, transported back to Chicago and prepared for the worst. Fortunately, this time, the “whole world” wasn't watching.
It's remarkable how much these protesters live in another era. Over and over, they use Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to justify their actions. They especially like the following quote (seen on numerous Web sites) from “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” (1963): “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create … a crisis and establish such creative tension so that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Plucked out of context, the quote suggests thoughtful political strategy. After all, these activists are appropriating America's best political thinker on nonviolence and democratic change.
But in plucking the quote, these activists ignore its context. Go to the rest of the document and you ﬁnd much more. King was explaining how a minority, African Americans, could struggle to make a moral appeal to a majority. He believed black Americans had to highlight “the best in the American dream” in order to be heard. And civil-rights protesters had to rule out other options before embracing the challenging ethic of nonviolent direct action. You had to have moral merit on your side -- what Reinhold Niebuhr called a “spiritual discipline against resentment” -- before rushing into the streets.
Today's protesters ignore King's reﬂections on his own historical context. Consider that John F. Kennedy was president when King wrote his letter, and that King was one of Kennedy's most astute critics. King believed in 1960 that candidate Kennedy “had the intelligence and the skill and the moral fervor to give the leadership” the civil-rights movement had “been waiting for.” Soon, though, King realized Kennedy had “the political skill” but not “the moral passion.” Nonviolent direct action, with its intention of creating conﬂict to expose tension, was precisely the tool to jump-start that moral passion. King saw an opening that the movement could prod, and this got him the legislation he desired: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The year 1963 was its own time, distinct from 1968 and certainly 2004. George W. Bush is no John F. Kennedy, and today's Republican leadership in Congress is a far cry from the Congress of 1963–64. The chance that Bush and congressional Republicans would be prodded into some kind of action by such protests is zero (unless, indeed, protest moves them to act more forcefully in the other direction). The protesters at the Republican convention of 2004 might have imagined themselves as working in the tradition of King. But the context had shifted so drastically that their actions fell on -- quite literally -- deaf ears. It wasn't even clear what they hoped to accomplish. And when the goals aren't clear, protest means little more than expressing rage. That's why it often takes the form of political theater, which too often encapsulates those who make it in their own hermetic world; it replaces explanation of political ideas and policies with in-jokes and references that conﬁrm pre-existing opinions. If you know a pig stands for a white guy with power, you get it; if not, you don't.
There's a recent, evocative documentary, The Yes Men, that focuses on two activists inspired by the French Situationists (intellectual forerunners to 1968 France) and the Diggers (politically minded hippies before Hoffman). They pose as representatives of the World Trade Organization and attend business gatherings exhibiting a television monitor that polices workers and pops up like a phallus in a blow-up suit. They get applause in rooms of 30 people, although it's not clear why. The movie winds up showing these “activists” as all-knowing lefties snickering at their opposition. The climactic scene involves their presentation to a college classroom, where students protest their idea of turning human feces into McDonald's hamburgers sold to citizens of the Third World.
Unlike political humor that entertains, political theater has a pretense of changing public life. The Yes Men think of themselves as activists, but the tendency to laugh at their opposition rather than engage it betrays their project's limitation. Asked about the “mind-set of the corporate man” who might resist their jokes, these activists call them “ready to goosestep.” Generally, people are “easy prey for the ideas of the corporate decision-makers.” The Yes Men characterize their opposition as “dumb asses” who wouldn't “listen anyhow.” “Criticizing those in power with a smile and a middle ﬁnger” is what they intend. Expression trumps strategy.
Indeed, guerilla theater and protest as outrage suggest another legacy of 1968: expressive anti-politics. This element of political style draws from pop existentialism and participatory democracy. Once again, it crystallized in Chicago, and speciﬁcally in Tom Hayden. By 1968, Hayden was disenchanted with electoral politics and supported urban riots and Third World guerilla ﬁghters. Chicago ratiﬁed his break from electoral politics, especially when Eugene McCarthy's supporters spilled out of the convention and into the streets. The left had literally split -- those inside the hotel symbolizing electoral politics (the fogies), and those outside practicing direct democracy in the streets (the youth). Here can be found the essence of expressive anti-politics and its long legacy of liberal powerlessness.
The impulsive nature of direct action -- its immediacy -- is precisely its major appeal for today's activist left. L.A. Kauffman, an organizer involved with United for Peace and Justice (a leading anti-war organization that formed in the last few years), explains, “Direct actionists devote little if any energy to lobbying or passing legislation; if they interact with the government, it's almost always by raising a ruckus.” Here's a curious embrace of protest over power -- the bizarre idea that a presence in the streets can substitute for a presence in the halls of government, or that reacting to government action is morally superior to initiating it. The sentiment is echoed in the ideas of Dontjustvote.com, an organization that was created for protests at the Republican convention of 2004 and a clear inheritor of the spirit of '68. As its Web site explains, the organization embraces “the power of direct action” and “direct democracy as a viable alternative to representation.” This is the political theory of street action or, put more positively, “participatory democracy.”
The idea's salience arises from its respectable lineage in American political thought, which stretches back to Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey. Dewey believed democracy required a home in the local neighborhood where discussion and association took place. When members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gathered in Michigan in 1962 to write the famous “Port Huron Statement,” they outlined the demands of participatory democracy and invoked Dewey's ideals. But they also invoked a jargon of authenticity taken from existentialist philosophy. While embracing “a democracy of individual participation,” they hoped to ﬁnd “a meaning in life that is personally authentic.”
But there's a problem with proclaiming both of those as goals: Authenticity of the self and actually living in a democratic community with other citizens who hold varying opinions are two very different -- if not, in fact, irreconcilable -- demands. In Chicago, the two ideals clashed, and authenticity won out. Protesters pitted themselves against the inauthentic masses -- the police, those who believed in the Vietnam War, the “pigs.” When this occurred, participatory democracy no longer supplemented representative democracy but replaced it; authenticity displaced the challenge of deliberating with other citizens who might disagree. To be authentic meant to give direct expression to desire rather than to work through a longer process of changing representative institutions. It focused on what George Cotkin, the historian of American existentialism, called “catharsis.”
Critics noticed the dangers at the time. As Christopher Lasch wrote soon after the Chicago convention, “The search for personal integrity could lead only to a politics in which ‘authenticity' was equated with the degree of one's alienation, the degree of one's willingness to undertake existential acts of deﬁance.” Bayard Rustin agreed, arguing that the participatory ethic of protest threatened the importance of doing actual politics, which required coalition-building and compromise, and wound up pitting leftists against liberals in a dangerous internecine warfare and mutual alienation. But clear as this might have been to some back then, the idea's appeal lives on in the activist left's disposition to political action combined with a lack of realism -- a disposition apparent today when expression trumps effectiveness. Go back and read the statements of Naderites in 2000, or the shriller ones from 2004. You can hear moral fervor trumping political responsibility -- the idea that voting is about expressing conscience rather than inﬂuencing policy. When The Progressive interviewed the few remaining Naderites working in the swing state of Wisconsin in 2004, the publication confronted purist sentiment. Supporters explained that they were “principled” while those supporting the Democrats were “muted.” One went so far as to say, “It's not important who's sitting in the White House, it's who's sitting in.”
This is the ugly legacy of 1968: the authenticity of conscience pitted against the requirements of a pluralistic and conﬂicted society, the ethic of expression winning out against all other aims, including practicality. “Direct nonviolent action” no longer means what King believed it meant; it now means remaining pure by turning “Your Back on Bush,” as recent protesters did at the inauguration, even if the result wasn't anything more than making them feel better. Expressive anti-politics is the last refuge of the powerless. Impulsive, it bursts like a ﬂame and then burns out, to be felt only in the heart of the participant while the ruling class, unperturbed, goes on its merry way.
The Right('s) Lessons from the '60s
Burnout is a constant theme of 1968. We've heard the refrain about “tired radicals,” and the one about Yippies turning into yuppies. Even while appreciating the social movements from this time, Paul Berman (who was a part of it all) admits, “The uprisings proved amazingly unproductive in regard to conventional political or economic change.” The historian Alan Brinkley comments, “The new radicals” of 1968 “never developed the organizational or institutional skills necessary for building an enduring movement.”
Meanwhile, of course, an enduring movement was being built during the '60s -- but it was on the right. Historians of the decade used to focus on left-wing organizations, writing books about sds, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, typically culminating in the tumult of 1968 and thus telling a story of factionalism and decline. Today, however, historians are growing more interested in documenting the right and telling a tale not of decline but of ascendance. James Miller, who wrote a marvelous book about sds, explained to the magazine Lingua Franca a few years back that “in terms of the political history of this country, the New Left just isn't an important story.” Focusing on the left, he explained with a certain irony about his own historical work, evades “the extraordinary success of the forces that ﬁrst supported [Barry] Goldwater, then [Ronald] Reagan as governor of California, and then [George] Wallace. I can't help but see that absence in the historiography as integral to the mythologization of the Sixties.” Miller echoes the argument of M. Stanton Evans, a leading conservative intellectual and popular writer, who wrote, “Historians may well record the decade of the 1960s as the era in which conservatism, as a viable political force, ﬁnally came into its own.”
When Evans wrote that line he was discussing an organization that still grabs the attention of young historians today: Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). YAF's membership was always more stable and often larger than SDS's, but more importantly, the group created a longer-lasting infrastructure. It engaged young people philosophically, through a ringing endorsement of liberty and individualism; but it also engaged them with well-organized chapters on campuses that cultivated long-lasting skills for activists (Richard Viguerie, for instance, pioneered his direct-mail tactics through YAF). YAF worked with the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists to coordinate lectures of right-wing thinkers and circulate conservative books to students. It linked up with Goldwater and Reagan, supplying an army of young volunteers for their campaigns. Did it engage in protest? Certainly not. During its “heyday in the early '60s,” Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin point out, YAF members went to “the lectern and the party caucus more than into the streets.”
The networks of YAF were replicated for adults in places like Orange County, California. Here, there were chapters of the John Birch Society that supported local school-board candidates and institutions like the Orange County School of Anti-Communism, where conservatives could fraternize, learn about boycotts of corporations selling products to communist countries, and hear Reagan speak before he even considered a run for governor. There were also barbecues, coffee klatches, and discussion groups that congealed a conservative animosity toward the federal government and liberalism. Churches and right-wing bookstores helped provide “movement centers,” and the infrastructure was especially impressive considering the decentralized, suburban setting.
These networks explain the passion and long-lasting inﬂuence behind Goldwater's run for the presidency in 1964. Traditionally, the campaign was seen as a right-wing disaster. Goldwater's convention speech in favor of “extremism” still sounds scary. But now, more remarkable is the infrastructure that stood behind Goldwater. A strong network of activists worked hard to push the Republican Party toward the right, away from centrists like Nelson Rockefeller. It wasn't enough to win the presidency in 1964, but that same infrastructure -- YAF, John Birch Society chapters, and general right-wing networks -- helped Reagan become governor of California in 1966. As Isserman and Kazin explain, conservatives “sustained morale and kept expanding their numbers for years after the young radicals had splintered in various directions.”
We can link this scholarship about conservative grass-roots activism to something already well-known: that throughout the 1960s, the right was developing ideas that would come to fruition much later. Leading this initiative was the well-known (now at least) American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Though founded in 1943, it changed form during the 1960s. Its leader, William Baroody, believed it should not just reﬂect the right's primary “special interest” -- corporations -- but develop bigger ideas. Baroody “understood,” as Sidney Blumenthal explained in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, “that without conservative theory there could be no conservative movement.” Baroody forged alliances with the Goldwater campaign quietly, behind the scenes. He focused on long-term goals so that, when the excesses of the '60s erupted, there was a place neoconservative intellectuals could go to develop their ideas during the '70s. The AEI articulated both particular public policies and a broader philosophy of the free market -- something that undergirds conservative political action today. And, of course, it provided a model for other conservative think tanks during the '70s.
The power of YAF, grass-roots networks, and think tanks like the AEI show that the right focused its energy on infrastructure and ideas during a time when the left focused on protest. The right's tactics weren't loud or theatrical. Its activists operated under the radar to lay the groundwork. They worked almost entirely within the system, changing the Republican Party from moderate to conservative precinct by precinct. And their story challenges the left-wing narrative of idealism during the decade. That's precisely why it should inform the way liberals think about the future. To win real power, liberals need to think about infrastructure, institutions, and ideas. And they're not going to get these if they look to the late '60s for inspiration.
The Spirit of 1948: New Ideas in the Old
This is especially true for ideas. Who now reads left-wing books from 1968? Just try Hoffman's Revolution for the Hell of It or Woodstock Nation. Or try Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture, a puff piece about the “non-intellective” exploration of “visionary splendor” and “human communion.” Or read the prognostication of “revolution” of “consciousness” in Charles Reich's The Greening of America. Read even the otherwise smart Susan Sontag, who praises the worst elements of Third World revolutions in Styles of Radical Will (she later stood down from many of those positions). All of these books reﬂect a utopian hallucination not dissimilar from the style of protests on the streets of Chicago in 1968.
Younger thinkers today are going further back than the '60s to rediscover good ideas. It's been the Cold War liberalism of the '40s and '50s that has garnered the most interest. Books like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Vital Center or Niebuhr's The Irony of American History or John Kenneth Galbraith's American Capitalism seem much more interesting than The Making of a Counter Culture. There's good reason for this, because though we might feel closer to the '60s chronologically, our own age is much more parallel to the '40s. Then, as now, liberals faced an international enemy -- Niebuhr's “children of darkness” -- willing to murder for salvation. Then, as now, liberals confronted conservatives who entertained dangerous ideas of launching preemptive wars abroad while slashing social programs at home. And, if we take the '48ers up to 1952 and the election of JFK in 1960, then, as now, liberals were often an opposition party.
The '48ers knew they had to articulate a public philosophy, the way conservatives would later. They sketched out broad principles that transcended liberal interest groups. Those principles grew out of their faith in the American nation as a community of citizens sharing mutual obligations to one another -- the sort that they saw during World War II and that they hoped could live on afterward. The ideas of national greatness and patriotism grounded their political thought. They upheld a public purpose that highlighted the weaknesses of the libertarian right and led them to criticize the “social imbalance” of a society enamored of consumerism and markets, and not America's civic fabric. Politically, they supported the idea of a “pluralist” government with many voices participating, not just those of business and privilege. They wanted inﬂuence on the inside, not protest from the outside. In The Vital Center, Schlesinger wrote, “Our democratic tradition has been at its best an activist tradition. It has found its fulﬁllment, not in complaint or in escapism, but in responsibility and decision.”
The '48ers, so far as I know, never marched against American actions abroad. What they did do was construct a framework for a liberal foreign policy, a robust alternative to conservative emphasis on military action and “rolling back” the enemy. The idea of containment was not simply a doctrine of realism but a moral disposition toward the demands of national power. America certainly had a strong role to play abroad, the '48ers argued, but it had to do so with a sense of “humility.” So, for instance, Niebuhr, drawing upon Christian ethics (not yet the sole property of the right), argued against “preventive war.” Those who articulated such an idea “assume a prescience about the future which no man or nation possesses.” He went on to explain, “We would, I think, have a better chance of success in our struggle against a fanatical foe if we were less sure of our purity and virtue.” Learning this lesson required America to work with others to “reconstruct” poorer economies as much as engage with military power. This was to be a war of ideas as well as guns.
These thinkers didn't just think; they put ideas into action. They attended international conferences of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, where they argued that America stood for more than a prosperous consumer economy. (Richard Nixon had made this assertion to Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, displaying a gleaming American kitchen to the Soviet leader at an exhibition fair; Galbraith chided Nixon's equation of democracy with consumer triumph as a “simple-minded and mechanical view of man and his liberties.”) The '48ers also befriended politicians. Unlike our own age, when politicians hire overpaid consultants with few ideas, during the '50s, politicians turned to intellectuals. In 1953, Galbraith formed the Finletter Group, which collected papers on topics by scholars and writers, crafted speeches, and found ways to have ideas inform public debate. Most famously, Americans for Democratic Action became an organizational forum where intellectuals and politicians could formulate foreign and domestic policy together. In this and other ways, they found outlets for ideas that could become a source of opposition as well as inspiration.
These strengths shouldn't allow us to ignore their limitations. These thinkers took things for granted, including their privileged status as white, highly educated men. They sometimes had a hard time accepting the activism of the '60s, and they were slow to see how their own anti-communism, legitimate though it was, could descend ineluctably into the disaster of Vietnam. Their experience of the staid 1950s, when bureaucratic corporations accustomed themselves to the welfare state, made them take Keynesian policies for granted. In going back to these thinkers, we need not romanticize them. Indeed, one of their central weaknesses, taking the welfare state for granted, should inspire our thinking today.
The Past's Lessons for the Future
This quick tour through postwar history gets us closer to what it means to be an opposition party today. First, we need to question the legacy of protest politics and political theater, which makes activists feel good but alienates and confuses others. We need to build a grass-roots infrastructure, like that developed by the right. We should also start reconstructing liberalism by going deeper into the past, while recognizing the limits any set of ideas from the past naturally have. These are some good ﬁrst steps to take, but obviously they are just the beginning, and mostly about looking backward, not forward.
If we take these lessons seriously, our biggest challenge moving ahead is how to articulate our opposition to the right's well-developed agenda while simultaneously developing a public philosophy like that of the '48ers. The need for this became abundantly clear in the last presidential election. John Kerry lost because Americans didn't understand what he stood for. They understood him as an opposition candidate but not as someone who had “values” that could be articulated and explained. This wasn't just Kerry's problem; it is the problem of liberalism generally. The public perceives liberalism negatively, due to the long war the right waged against it from the 1960s onward. Unlike the '48ers, we cannot assume that our ideas resonate; we need to make them resonate.
To rearticulate liberal ideals while acting in opposition is not as hard as ﬁrst appears. Take Social Security. Clearly, Bush is surprised by the backlash against privatization, as he scrambles around the country garnering support. This appears a dream come true for progressives, but it's much more. It's a challenge to articulate not just opposition but a public philosophy that can explain what liberals stand for. We shouldn't defend a program inherited from the New Deal in a rearguard fashion but should reiterate the idea of a shared national purpose based on collective sacriﬁce.
Nor should we turn this into a demographic issue and bank on the elderly supporting Democrats; that's interest-group politics, not a long-range public philosophy. We need to explain what Social Security teaches the nation about deeper principles. Why do Americans react against the term “privatize”? Because there is still a sense of shared obligation to one another, and it's up to liberals to articulate that public philosophy while they oppose the president. We can show how the president's proposal reﬂects the “social imbalance” the '48ers perceived, the elevation of the self's interest above the common good. None of this requires protest. It requires public argument. The time for protest may come, but it will undoubtedly rely on a change of leadership ﬁrst and serious thinking about strategy later.
The same needs to be done on foreign policy. It's not good enough to protest the Iraq War. Occasionally, Kerry articulated an alternative, albeit muted, to Bush's foreign policy that embraced the '48er idea of national humility and a critique of hubris. Today, we need to articulate this liberal foreign policy more forcefully. Its central message should be that American responsibility abroad shouldn't rely on guns alone or a sense of superior moral virtue. Liberals should argue for nurturing civil society and democratic institutions throughout the world, envisioning an equivalent of the Marshall Plan for the Middle East and elsewhere. Liberals need to emphasize that the war against terrorism is a war of ideas as much as a war of military power and intelligence. Like the '48ers, liberal intellectuals should deﬁne America abroad as more than just its well-known Hollywood ﬁlms. We need not allow Bush to expropriate the rhetoric of democracy and freedom; we need to reshape these ideas in a more responsible and meaningful manner.
Liberals must also talk about shared sacriﬁce during wartime. This shouldn't be about getting the military vote, even if that wouldn't hurt. The tradition of national greatness expects shared sacriﬁce from all members of our society. As JFK quipped, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Only liberals will make it clear that the wealthiest elements of society should provide for the common good, so that we have enough to pay veterans' beneﬁts and provide other services. None of this will come from protest marches against the war, which to date have accomplished little more -- as unfair as this might seem -- than to permit the partisans of the right to raise questions about the left's patriotism.
The problem with what I outline here is the lack of places to build articulate ideas and have them inform the thinking of Democratic politicians. Now is certainly the time for progressives to invest in building an infrastructure -- the only alternative to spasmodic protests in the streets. The term “progressive infrastructure” seems to spark interest among some funders today, especially considering how the quickie infrastructure built in 2004 -- notably America Coming Together -- didn't quite do the trick. It's time for institutions that can approximate what Americans for Democratic Action did during the Cold War -- provide a space where thinkers and politicians meet -- and build local networks. Of course, this requires that Democratic politicians stop relying so heavily on overpaid consultants, and that wealthier progressives pony up money for institutions without immediate impact.
This leaves open the question of how to relate to the “actually existing” protest left today. The '48er spirit was recently invoked to call for a purge of the protest wing of the left today. Writing in The New Republic, Peter Beinart suggested that MoveOn should be pushed out of a more responsible left. While I think MoveOn deserves criticism for its paciﬁsm and teaming up with hard-left dinosaurs like ANSWER, it doesn't merit a purge (purge from what, exactly?). What MoveOn needs is an articulation of the principle of “responsibility” that Schlesinger set out against the spirit of alienated protest. There's reason for hope on this front. After all, Mother Jones described MoveOn's young leader, Eli Pariser, as a “scruffy indie-rock fan who not long ago was chanting anti-globalization slogans and confronting riot police at World Bank meetings.” At one anti–International Monetary Fund protest, though, he talked with police and, in his own words, “realized that the scripted confrontation of attacking and antagonizing them wasn't going to get us anywhere. It changed the way I was thinking, tactically.” This idea of laying groundwork for an infrastructure also came out in MoveOn's work during the last election; it didn't succeed, but with a little help from a stronger intellectual infrastructure in the future, it might.
My tempered hope about this comes from a sense of urgency about the Bush administration. Such a sense threatens to degenerate into protest theatrics and expressive anti-politics. Instead of embracing those styles from the past, liberals should take their lessons from the right during the 1960s. Liberals will never be as powerful as the right. That's not just because the right is richer but because the liberal faith is, by deﬁnition, weaker. Unlike evangelical Christianity, liberalism can never provide absolute zeal or commitment. We can draw some inspiration from the “ﬁghting faith” of the '48ers' liberalism, but we also face challenges that they never faced, especially the infrastructure the right has built over the last few decades. With this said, liberals don't need to be as weak as they are now. We need not recycle protest and alienation from the past. Liberals have been in the opposition before, and they've managed to win back political power. But it took care and precision and some serious thinking about strategy. That's our charge today.
Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University and is the author, most recently, of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism.
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