Guest Blogger

I love teaching the 1960's

Filed By Guest Blogger | December 22, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: 1960s, Democrats, left, LGBT history, liberals, politics, radicals, Republicans, right

Editors' note: John D'Emilio teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A pioneer in the field of gay and lesbian history and author or editor of half a dozen books, he was also the founding director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

john-demilio.jpgI love teaching the 1960s. Two dozen years since I first offered a history course on that tumultuous era, it still excites me. Students self-select into the class so that a large proportion of them are there because, like the people they'll be learning about, they care passionately about social and economic justice. They get excited by the movements of the sixties - the black freedom struggle, the antiwar movement, feminism, gay liberation, and others - and try to figure out what lessons to extract for today.

Perhaps because of the midterm election campaigns and the prospect of big Republican gains, I was more attuned this semester to the actions of conservatives in the 1960s. Historians are paying more attention now to the right-wing aspects of the era since, after all, this decade long associated with mass movements from the left actually led, in the longer run, to a conservative ascendancy. In fact, the class was reading about conservatives in the two weeks before the election.

Suddenly, I had one of those insights that make studying history worth the time and effort. The radicals in the 1960s, those who today might call themselves "progressives," built movements as their primary strategy for making change. "Power to the people" was one of the big slogans of those times, and that power would come by organizing demonstrations, planning direct action campaigns, and marching in the streets. Somehow the power of numbers, of a community mobilized for protest, would lead to a Promised Land of racial and gender justice and of economic democracy.

Conservatives chose a different strategy. In 1964, after the humiliating defeat of Barry Goldwater, the most prominent conservative of the time, the right wing didn't slink away and lick its wounds. Instead, conservative activists aggressively adopted as a strategy the capture of a political party. Step-by-step they worked the grassroots until they had the power to select not only a winning presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, but also conservative candidates for the House, the Senate, and state offices across the country.

I've been a "movement" person my whole adult life. I care more deeply about progressive movements for social and economic justice than about anything else. But, this fall, I found myself thinking "the Right had a better, smarter strategy than the Left."

The conservative strategy pointed them toward control of the government, of the institutions that make the laws and set the rules we have to live by. The strategy of the left, though it achieved a lot, kept us on the outside protesting. We felt our power in the streets (some of those big demonstrations, then and in the decades since, were unforgettably inspiring). Sometimes we even rallied behind an individual progressive candidate. But those who make the laws and set the policies could mostly ignore us because they knew we were far removed from the precinct-by-precinct, district-by-district, state-by-state political organizing that leads to control of government.

I don't exactly know where to go with this insight. Since so many progressive movements since the 1960s have been identity-based movements, it's been hard to imagine a strategy to capture electoral power beyond backing particular candidates - a queer candidate, a black candidate, a Chicano candidate. For progressive identity-based movements to enter electoral politics feels like descending into the corrupt urban political machines from way back in the day. Yet, as Republicans get ready to reclaim their House majority, I find myself wondering how the movements that I've loved and participated in can do more than be a mass of people shouting at those in power.

I've never participated in electoral politics other than to vote. It seems foreign and, frankly, not as exciting as planning a "zap" of the oppressor, or organizing a conference where we all talk to each other. But why can't we progressives on the Left do the nitty-gritty work that the Right did and have a major political party that's our own?


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One thing the right does better than the left is: They seem to be better at strategically spending huge amounts of cash.

The right invested heavily in what they view as the future of America. Pouring money into PAC's, candidates, media outlets, etc...

We need to start thinking big and long term if we want to beat these guys. We're already 30 years behind.

john demilio | December 24, 2010 8:02 AM

yes, a 30-year plan sounds like a great idea.

Ed in Knoxville | December 22, 2010 10:20 PM

One of the things the right has done for decades, on the other hand, which the idealistic left "rightly" has less appetite for, is compromising on honesty and integrity. Stealth campaigning and a willingness to collaborate with more radical elements, flirting with their more rabid racist/homophobic fringe, even militia-types, etc. Turning a blind eye to abuses they can benefit from when not employing them institutionally. Their strategies have been extremely undemocratic, promoting divisiveness, exclusion and oligarchy.

And I believe these moral compromises on the right have been instrumental in pushing them over the top, often with only the thinnest margin required, incrementally but with a magnified effect after all these decades. They're not even true conservatives anymore in any classical sense; they've taken over not only a party, but the conservative brand.

Don't give them too much credit, or at least, don't admire them overmuch for their end accomplishments, and certainly don't aspire to emulate them too closely.

I don't really know the answers, except an idealistic one: speak truth to power. The trouble with many progressives nowadays, I think, is that they start from the skewed frames the right has been creating, but they have lost their own roots and meaning. Answering the right simply takes their bait. We need to change the conversations, even our own.

I think there has been movement for... what passes for a left nowadays to organize itself in the last ten years, and it climaxed with the election of Obama who effectively coopted that movement structure. The problem, to me, isn't that the left has no appetite for formal structure, it's that they don't have the means in this day and age to do it what with how marginalized they've become.

Chris Hedges has a new book out on this that I'm trying to get my hands on. He was on Democracy Now the other day talking about how the formal structures of the left have collapsed on themselves or become corrupt, but something tells me it's not just the doing of the people within those structures. I'm reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine right now and she goes through a lot of this in the realm of academic and policy-oriented economists and how even liberals can't get a hearing anymore.

But speaking of the rightwing movements of the 60's, I'm wondering if you've read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which is about this topic. I don't know how ready I am to take on another large book, but if you'd recommend it....

Read Chris Hedges' new book "The Death of the Liberal Class" in conjunction with Kim Phillips-Fein's beautifully researched "Invisible Hands".
The former is a jeremiad against the fecklessness of the left as its institutions of social change were betrayed and destroyed; the latter is a meticulous study of precisely what you're talking about -- the way the plutocrats plotted and achieved their return to power after FDR.

Alex is correct here -- the right is unashamed to traffic in outright lies (death panels), racist innuendo (the Jesse Helms pink-slip ad, Willie Horton), and rabble rousing (last summer's town halls, the Tea Party in general). But at last month's Kessler Lecture at CLAGS, Urvashi Vaid made an excellent point: how about queers organize around a local electoral candidate or two who's antihomophobic and a person of colour. How about we use the realpolitik the right wing is so fond of to advance progressive issues and forge real coalitions beyond identity politics. DADT was overturned in large part because of outspoken activism and exposing misinformation, but also because it was clear that the culture had changed due to that activism. While I'm at the very least ambivalent about the cause (the military? that's our big issue?), it proves that we can actually win when we're focused, fearless, direct, and confrontational.

David Comfort | December 23, 2010 11:12 AM

Interesting insight. There is one big caveat. The Right was able to organize within the Republican party framework so effectively because they had a lot of financial backing from wealthy donors and corporations. The Left would not be able to do so, given the shrinking union movement and middle class.

Given that electoral politics is driven by money, it is hard to see how the Left could be nearly as effective. But given how the Left's principles are more in line with the interests of the working class and middle class , maybe it would equal out.

I think a Tea Party on the Left could potentially be effective, operating outside of the confines of the Democratic party. It could run candidates on the Democratic ticket, but also have direct action campaigns and more social movement tactics.

Alex, I believe Chris Hedges is really referring to the "Liberal" structures, not the Left structures. Big difference. He might characterize liberals as essentially elites who have attempted to make accommodations to the Right while using progressive rhetoric. It was Clinton after all who signed into law DADT and NAFTA.

Given how the middle class is collapsing in the US, the growth of permanently unemployed class, and how the social safety is likely to shredded in the coming years, the Left had better start getting organized before there is widespread social chaos and social unrest.

john demilio | December 24, 2010 8:05 AM

i agree, ed. don't want to emulate the right - their lack of integrity, the irrationality, the appeals to fear, etc. but, it's hard to imagine a significant shift toward social and economic justice without electoral strategies and the organization and the longterm commitments that requires.

john demilio | December 24, 2010 8:09 AM

thanks for reminding me about the Hedges book. And, i still haven't read Perlstein on Nixon - next time around with the 60s.

The money is a distinct advantage of the right, but look at the money Obama generated by appealing to the good angles in us all. The pitch and the person makes a big difference. I think one of the things the right does that is so smart is that they rarely speak about what they really want. They mask it. That's why the middle class continually votes against its own interests. The right doesn't say, blatantly, we want to dismantle government and take from you all the good things government gives you. Instead, they say government is becoming a "nanny state," "government wants to get between you and your doctor," "government is the problem." Why aren't we talking about the enormous good we all experience because of government? Why aren't we saying, a government is the basis of a strong society; societies with weak government are poor and chaotic, or despotic; societies with undeveloped governments scorn their people and degrade their culture? Why are we not defending government? Because WE don't like it either. That's why we don't have candidates running. I think the right actually stole the left's anger with government and turned it on us. Sometimes when I am listening to the Tea Party people speaking, I think I am listening to the 60s leftist railing against the corrupt government! So when John D'Emilio writes "I never participated in electoral politics except to vote...", you see the problem.