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.
I 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?