Crack-up by mattsteinglass
March 6, 2009, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

I keep hearing this comparison between the Right now and the Left in the 70s and 80s. Obviously I wasn’t around. For those lefties who were, and have some age and (more importantly) some wisdom on me, I ask, was it really this bad? Were we really this close to neanderthalism and mob rule? Were we really this fraking stupid? 

I was politically conscious for the ’80s, anyway, though I wouldn’t claim to have any wisdom, but I think what I would say is: in some ways, but not really. You wouldn’t want to draw the parallel too closely. The first important thing to remember is that the Democrats remained the majority party all through the 1970s and into the ’80s. There was a faction of the left which went off the deep end at various points in that period — hell, there’s an element of the left that’s off the deep end right now — but they never even constituted a majority of the party, let alone dominated its agenda in the way that hard-line conservatives dominate the Republican one. The collapse of the conservative GOP over the past 3 years or so seems more closely to parallel what happened to the Democrats in the late ’60s, when Vietnam cracked the party open and sent the left spinning off into paroxysms of hard-line nuttiness. The viciousness, despair, and frank desire for America’s defeat we saw at CPAC looks much more like an SDS meeting in the late ’60s or early ’70s than it does like anything I saw in the ’80s.

What happened to the Democratic Party in the years of its decline during the late ’70s and ’80s wasn’t that it became dominated by a ranting, out-of-touch ideological minority. Rather, it became an untenable and too-broad coalition of small interest groups whose common agenda came to feel vague, sluggish and mushy-headed. (Remember “More mush from the wimp”?) The one area of the ’80s Left that felt similar to the ideological rejectionism of contemporary conservatism was perhaps the farther reaches of the linguistically obsessed politically correct zone. I remember otherwise intelligent friends, driven to distraction by Bush’s win in 1988, gravitating towards Leonora Fulani’s crazy party in 1989 or so. And when George Packer describes the atmosphere at Democratic Socialists’ meetings of the period I take his word for it. But it’s crucial to remember that while the Democratic Socialists were wrapping themselves up in pointless ideological disputes and making themselves irrelevant, Tip O’Neill was succeeded by Jim Wright as the Speaker of the House. There was still a mainstream Democratic Party with party ID as high or higher than the GOP had, even if people were increasingly leery of calling themselves “liberals”. (Which was ironic, because it wasn’t the liberals who had torn the party apart in the ’60s and ’70s; it was the radical Left’s attacks on liberals.)

In some ways the GOP has undergone something similar to what the Democrats underwent: the Republican coalition has been rendered untenable by an unpopular and losing war. But what’s happened to the GOP has been stunning in its speed. In part that’s because whereas the unpopular Vietnam War was launched by Democratic centrists, and radical opposition to the war spun out to their left, the unpopular Iraq War was launched by Republican radicals, and opposition to the war pushed centrists into the arms of the Democrats. But in part it’s because conservatives simply have a more authoritarian temperament, and have enforced a right-wing unanimity on the GOP which is driving it further and further into the garbage hole now that its positions are unpopular. If the American left had been Stalinist, and had captured the Democratic party apparatus such that it could force politicians to toe its line even as their electoral fortunes cratered, then the ’70s and ’80s might have looked that way. And perhaps that vision of an authoritarian minority Left does in fact come closer to describing what happened to Britain’s Labor Party. But it’s not really the way things worked for the American Left.


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