What’s Left

A Robust, Confident Movement

What happened to the movement that integrated America, stopped the costly war in Vietnam and opened workplace doors for women? Several commentators offer opinions on where the left went wrong and where it should go.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at MIT and author of the upcoming Powers and Prospects.

American society is now remarkably atomized. Political organizations have collapsed. In fact, it seems like even bowling leagues are collapsing. The left has a lot to answer for here. There’s been a drift toward very fragmenting tendencies among left groups, toward this sort of identity politics.

People here should do what they did in the Haitian slums, where it was possible to construct grassroots organizations that enabled the democratic system to function. They forged a very lively and vibrant civil society. To talk about our bringing democracy to Haiti is a joke. We should look there and find out how it worked. It works when people get organized and are willing to work together and have a sense of solidarity and are willing to put aside their own immediate personal issues for a broader concern.

Pete Hamill is author of the forthcoming book, Piecework.

[A lot of what’s wrong with politics] started with Vietnam. The government got arrogant and lost its authority by waging a stupid war that they wouldn’t even declare. That started to unravel our sense of civility around political discourse. The left began to demonize its opponents, like LBJ, which the right has now really picked up on.

A lot of good things happened in the ’60s. But the left wore itself out by the time of Watergate. People were just tired of all the confrontationalism and overblown rhetoric, which just played into the hands of the right. The left became a compendium of grievances instead of a great, robust, healthy, confident movement to change the world.

Todd Gitlin is a sociologist and author of The Twilight of Common Dreams.

John Mitchell was right when he said, “This country is going to move so far to the right you aren’t going to recognize it.” The right took seriously the project of coming to power. Meanwhile, the left was tangled in knots. How did we lose? The main project of the left was perfecting differences. America is a bigger place than the Bay Area or lower Manhattan, and you can’t do serious politics by opening up divisions of race, gender, and sexuality.

Unless the setting is conducive to overall equality, the right can accentuate the zero-sum game where the proverbial white guys don’t see anything in it for them–and there are too many of them. What do people have in common? If it’s just about fighting for scraps at the bottom of the table then we all lose.

Robert Scheer is a columnist and a Los Angeles Times contributing editor.

We leaned too hard on the center. Going back to the ’60s and ’70s, we, on the left, felt mainstream liberals–Rockefeller and Eisenhower by today’s standards–were centrist. We thought domestically that we’d up the ante. These leaders collapsed. The Republican moderates collapsed too. Who’d have thought we’d have to fight about teaching Darwin? It’s rearguard and dispiriting…but we’ll win.


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