October 14, 2007, New York Times, The Bulldozer And The Big Tent, by Michael Crowley.
Book Review: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals, By Todd Gitlin, 327 pp. John Wiley & Sons. $25.95.
Liberal activists, Todd Gitlin writes, would often rather be right than be president.
The man knows whereof he speaks. As president of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, Gitlin himself was once among the most famous Vietnam-era activists. Today he is watching as an equivalent movement, propelled by blogs and the Iraq war, tries to crash the gates of Washington politics. And he does so nervously. Gitlin, now a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia, regards the 60s New Left movement as a disappointment. Rather than transforming politics, he says in The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, his compatriots marginalized themselves. Disdaining the compromises of raw power, they retreated to niche causes and obsessed over identity politics. They never worked strategically to enhance the Democrats ability to win and hold power. They decided to be right. Gitlin wants a Democratic president.
What turned this from a disappointment into a crisis was the way Republicans absorbed their own ideological movement the Goldwater conservatives and incorporated it into their national political machine. This became the ruthlessly efficient bulldozer that, in Gitlins view, has plowed America into the gutter. Through most of the 70s, 80s and 90s, he writes, the enfeebled Democratic Party and the sectoral liberal movements encountered each other if at all with acrid suspicion. ... One short answer to the question of what happened to American politics after the 60s is that the right harnessed its movement to its party while the left did not do the equivalent.
Now, with liberalism resurgent, Gitlin asks his fellow liberals not to blow it again. But while his history offers a cautionary tale, the way forward is not as clear.
First, the history: Dating from the rise of Barry Goldwater, Gitlin argues, Republicans built an exceedingly simple political coalition. It joined Christian conservatives with a business-friendly, antitax and antigovernment cohort. This alliance was empowered by a well-financed conservative machine of think tanks, media outlets and voter databases that liberals never adequately matched. Throw in a willingness, in Gitlins view, to stoop to any political attack, as well as a complicit mainstream press, and you have the conditions that allowed the Bush-DeLay machine to slash taxes, gut regulations and initiate a war of choice. (Gitlins taste for grandiloquence sometimes leads to cartoonish overstatement, as when he says that the movie of the Republicans collective biopic should come with a soundtrack of gangsta rap.)
Democrats, by contrast, evolved over the 70s and 80s into a fractious big tent coalition composed of at least eight main constituencies, including labor, blacks, environmentalists and feminists. As Democrats strained to hold together those quarreling elements which sometimes acted more concerned with their narrow interests than with the overall success of the party they steadily ceded ground to the monomaniacal G.O.P. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, though he temporarily brought disparate factions together by the sheer magic of his persona, allowed the core Democratic infrastructure to wither. After he left office, Gitlin writes, the national party was a ghost.
Though Democrats retook Congress in 2006 and seem poised to win the presidency next year, Gitlin concedes they are enjoying a near-optimal political climate. But it cant last forever. The issue for Democrats is how they become a party that does more than creep into office at emergency moments. Gitlin points out that Democrats must remember the imperative of maintaining a big tent. Questioning the notion that America is inherently conservative, he argues that the Democratic Party can and must broaden its reach beyond current urban and coastal enclaves particularly among the white working class, but also among what he hazily calls thoughtful conservatives, independents and self-proclaimed moderates.
At the same time, Gitlin says, Democrats need to become more united around the goal of holding power. Yet expansion and unity generally dont come together, and he is vague about how to pull off this trick especially once the simple and energizing memory of President Bushs debacles has
faded. He reaffirms the importance of defending Social Security and Medicare (although Democrats have done that for years), calls for universal health care (which is already a given in the party), and offers an ambitious plan for massive investment toward the intertwined goals of energy conservation, environmental sustainability and manufacturing jobs. But this hugely complex idea merits only a few paragraphs, which wont be terribly useful to the young activists Gitlin aims to instruct.
He seems less interested in the details, however, than in preventing a repeat of the New Lefts fizzle. He pleads with the Democrats angry and inspired new foot soldiers the bloggers, the MoveOn members to understand that they cant have a big tent and a party that answers their every edict. They must, Gitlin says, face the inescapable truth that the realization of their hopes depends on politicians who are sometimes defiantly not idealists.
Yet this concept isnt foreign to todays young progressives. Many of them explicitly disdain ideological purity when it interferes with ousting despised Republican officeholders. (Liberal bloggers blasted environmental and abortion rights groups that endorsed moderate Republicans in 2006, for instance.) So the real problem facing Democrats may not be that their new activist cadre will grow disillusioned with the system and disperse, as did Gitlins contemporaries. Rather, it is whether their party can develop a galvanizing vision once it doesnt have Bush to kick around anymore. That remains an open question and in many ways it is the thornier one. If Democrats want to build a bigger tent, its true that the partys activists and pragmatists will have to find a way to coexist. But that tent will also need some great carnival barkers.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company