Whatever else the American Democratic Party may be, it is unlike British Labour, the French Socialists, the German Social Democrats. It does not descend from a tradition of espousing large-scale social transformation, and so has no revolutionary heritage to repudiate; it wishes to be thought of as custodian of the rights of ordinary people and insists on its own ordinariness. It speaks in words of few syllables, disturbs no one with large visions, promises the most obviously necessary of repairs in our own neighborhoods. The cookout and not the long march is its preferred venture outdoors.
Survey data show that majorities favor existing programs like Medicare and Social Security, approve of regulation of the economy, think government has a responsibility for ensuring equality of access to education and healthcare, and support state intervention to preserve the environment. Quite profound changes in social attitudes in matters of gender and race have resulted, equally, in acceptance of governmental action to achieve equality. State and local campaigns for higher minimum wages draw on the same convictions of fairness. Despite these beliefs, and measures like the Earned Income Tax Credit (introduced under Gerald Ford), it is impossible to depict the U.S. as if it were a western European nation or Canada. Nixon was the last New Dealer: subsequent Republican presidents and politicians have employed his techniques of divisiveness, of opportunism so incessant that it became principle itself, to block the reformist majority. They win by not losing, by allowing the inertial forces of market and society to render the reforms that might win majorities very difficult, if not impossible to achieve.
It is very unlikely that the mobilization that produced Obama’s victories will mark the elections of this year, and 2016 remains quite open. Polling data are not records of political action. Much of the nation keeps its distance from politics. Obama and the Clintons differ very little. There is no Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party since the groups and voices thought of as the left of the party are exceedingly well integrated into it. In the mirrored carnival funhouse that houses our ritualized political debate, they constantly scan their own images. Every day, familiar liberal groups, causes, candidates flood my e-mail inbox with pleas for money, invariably accompanied by warnings of the most dire consequences for the very continuance of our republic should I fail to respond. I have often asked myself if anyone is actually out there in the country doing the neighbor-to-neighbor work of political persuasion that once made ideas and arguments important. At the end of May, I had an answer.
In the late 1960s I was one of the academics who founded the Socialist Scholars Conference. We met annually in New York, seeking to overcome the narrowness and rigidity of the academic disciplines—which often disciplined nothing so much as the historical imagination and moral sense. I recollect a number of writers joining us, including Norman Mailer. It is true that a good deal of our discussion on the crisis of Western society reminded one of Dwight Macdonald’s remark about the contributors to the first anthology produced by Dissent. There was no revolution to be made in the nation, he observed, so they had become professors of revolution. The excitements of the ’60s gave way to what we mistakenly thought was the tedium of the ’70s. In colleges and universities, however, intellectual and political conflict over new views of society was intense—and often educative, if in the very long run.
The national meetings stopped for a while. They were revived in the 1980s and gradually enlarged to include those working in unions and on a spectrum of causes. In Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama reports that while a student at Columbia he went to these events. What he does not report is whether he found anything interesting—but he is generally parsimonious about his response to ideas, in and out of school. The Socialist Scholars Conference was finally replaced by the Left Forum, which combined political ecumenicism with a very broad hospitality to social activists of many kinds. The panels and speakers were self-selected. This year some 5,000 participants—including about 1,000 speakers at hundreds of panels—crowded into the Manhattan campus of the John Jay College of the City University of New York.
The announced theme was hardly modest. “Reform and/or Revolution—Why Revolution Now? Imagining A World With Transformative Justice.” The speakers at the plenary sessions drew upon the familiar repertory of American radicalism, ending where they began, with the wisdom and wrath of a people awakened. Edmund Wilson once wrote about a Seder on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at which the prophet Elijah actually joined the astonished participants. Most of the Left Forum’s prophets were quite familiar to all but the very youngest of their auditors: Cornel West, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, the prolific professors Stanley Aronowitz and David Harvey. They have assiduously marched with the Zeitgeist for decades, have never stopped criticizing it—and have not yet begun to limp.
There were newer voices, or new to me, including Marina Sitrin, an Argentinian activist and writer whose emphatically delivered message was, “You Do Not Represent Us.” She called for a movement locally organized and autonomous of what she described as the remote and ultimately repressive institutions of even nominally democratic states. The extraordinarily varied histories of modern popular movements, however, all end, whether in accommodation or confrontation, with the necessity to deal with larger concentrations of power. The conference site itself was on 59th Street on the West Side of Manhattan, where old small neighborhoods are being extirpated by large new buildings.
The dialogues at the Forum were most intense, and rewarding, at the panels—where, generally, two or three speakers and 20 or 30 participants addressed their chosen problem. (Video was much used.) The economy, education, environment, family, health, immigration, incarceration, foreign policy and the use of military force, politics and social movements in the near and far abroad, youth and age, and women, had plenty of attention. The presenters came with their own agendas but were quite prepared to be challenged and often were. For many themes, that of the globalized economy for instance, there were several very different perspectives available. There was much heard from our Caribbean and Latin American neighbors, three generations of African-Americans spoke in different voices, and there was direct testimony of homelessness and poverty, our judicial system and imprisonment. European speakers included a German parliamentarian from the Left Party—8 percent of the vote—and an Italian trade unionist.
I noted a large presence of senior citizens, perhaps fewer student participants than in my own earlier years, and a great many women. There were quite a few children audible and visible. My favorite was a six-year-old who had just been told by her mother that they were returning to their hotel for a “nice nap.” “Why? I am having a good time here.” The atmosphere was open, and it was easy to approach others and to persuade them to talk about the paths, long and short, that had brought them to the Forum. I did have the advantage of having written on Forum themes for some 60 years and occasionally encountered an actual reader. A considerable number of participants had come from out of town.
I most enjoyed talking with persons I had not previously met. One was a retired railwayman from Troy, New York—once a major rail junction. He was working with local groups on the decline of employment and urban decay. Another was a retired trade-union lawyer, who was devoting himself to politics and local economic debate in central Virginia. Since I vacation on the Cape, I was delighted to meet a younger member of a family from Chatham, Massachusetts, that owned a boat and was struggling against the industrial fishing companies who were threatening their livelihood. He told me that at the Forum he had made contact with a group of farmers defending themselves against agribusiness. I was most surprised to meet a younger African-American from Mobile, Alabama, who had organized a local group openly avowing its socialist convictions. We talked of Mobile’s singular past: its former shipyards were unionized and there were local memories of a different sort of southern consciousness.
At the final plenary, the public was fascinated by Kshama Sawant, who recently won a seat on the Seattle city council as a candidate of a group terming itself Socialist Alternative. The council has just passed a law setting the minimum wage in the city at $15 an hour. We usually associate Seattle with Boeing and Microsoft. There are, however, older strata of life in the city. It was long a center of unionism, not least of the dockworkers. Sen. Henry Jackson is now remembered as an adamant Cold Warrior. He began his political career, however, as a Democrat allied to the city’s union movement and never renounced that connection. Councilwoman Sawant said she had won by hard unrelenting work, one voter at a time.
The Forum provided space for well over a hundred local groups to tell their stories. Like the one in Seattle, a good many of them seem to have drawn on traditions of self-help passed on in churches, families, neighborhoods—often ignored by routinized journalists and politicians. It is possible that something is stirring in society that does not conform to the usual ways we think of politics, that energizes citizens hitherto resigned to being unheard—and which reaches back to aspects of our national experience we thought consigned forever to the history books. If so, the next decade may surprise us.
Norman Birnbaum is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center. His most recent book is After Progress: West European Socialism and American Social Reform in the Twentieth Century.