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The American Left is a Historical Success Story

Our fascination with the recent history of the right comes at a cost: too little attention to the left’s successes over the past 20 years.

By Mark Schmitt

Tagged conservatismDemocratsideasLeftleftistsliberalspoliticsprogressivismRepublicans

The rise and sustained power of the right has been the primary theme of American political history since the late 1970s. From Ronald Reagan’s election and transformative first year in the White House, through the Trump era, and even during periods of mostly cautious, defensive Democratic presidents, it was the institutions, thinkers, and politicians of the right that set the terms of debate.

In an influential 1994 article, the historian Alan Brinkley called the history of conservatism an “orphan” in his field, and he admonished his colleagues to take the story of the right more seriously. The quarter-century since has seen an overcorrection. Among historians, journalists, political scientists, and particularly among progressive activists, the story of the rise of the right has now been told and retold many times over, with each new book, documentary, or podcast revealing new layers and formerly obscure protagonists.

Rick Perlstein published four vast volumes tracing the arc from the landslide presidential loss of Barry Goldwater in 1964 through the ascent of Reagan 16 years later. My own shelves hold dozens of other academic and popular books that have chronicled the emergence of conservative economic and legal ideas, the influence of conservative magazines, think tanks, and media, and the structures of money and organized power at the state level. The podcast “Know Your Enemy” delves into arcane corners of conservative movement history with more sympathy than the title implies.

This fascination with the recent history of the right comes at a cost: There’s been comparatively too little attention to the recent history of the left and center-left. With passage of the American Rescue Plan and President Biden’s ambitious proposals for infrastructure, voting rights, and other public priorities, we’ve arrived at a moment that may turn out to be as transformative in its way as that first year of Reagan was. Even though the Biden agenda appears stalled at the moment, journalists and progressives can’t deny the audacity and ambition of the agenda, and wonder whether they misjudged Biden, whose political education was rooted in the Reagan years and earlier.

But this moment has a history, too. It’s only partly about the President’s character and convictions. And it’s only partly about the urgency of the pandemic, economic and racial equity, climate, and reversing Trump’s malevolence. Much as Reagan’s successful first year was the culmination of decades of rebuilding and rethinking, these remarkable last few months are also the result of decades spent questioning assumptions and building a new foundation of institutions and ideas—a history that goes back at least to 2000, and is as rich and complex as that of the right since Goldwater.

While Brinkley’s admonition was addressed to academic historians, many of those who took up the study of conservative history did so for more pragmatic reasons: While conservatives wrote to celebrate their successes (even as they still presented themselves as victims), to progressives, the history of the right might hold a secret formula for ideological success. Conservatives had built think tanks at the scale of the Heritage Foundation, so progressives embarked on a think-tank building boom in the 2000s, anchored by the Center for American Progress. Those newer organizations have provided capable staff to all corners of the Biden Administration.

The right had a well-funded presence at the state level; progressives tried to match it in efforts that seem to finally be coming together, with electoral as well as policy victories across many states, such as Medicaid expansion most recently in Missouri and Oklahoma, minimum wage increases, and boosts to early childhood funding. The right had magazines, journals, talk radio, and a cable network; progressives tried to match each of those, with mixed results, such as Air America, which failed as a business but developed new stars including Rachel Maddow.

But progressives looking for the magic formula often made one big error in studying the history of the right: They took it to be better organized and more tightly coordinated than it was. Many historical accounts hinge on the “Powell Memo,” a note that future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote in 1971 to a neighbor who worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urging business to get more involved in ideological fights. The memo has been described as a battle plan and Powell a “commanding general” in the war of ideas. But only a few movement conservatives read it at the time and almost none of its specific suggestions were implemented. Other accounts treat the Koch Brothers as the central strategists or elevate more obscure figures or organizations to the role of movement mastermind.

In his 2012 contribution to my shelf of books about the right, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, political scientist Steven Teles called this misperception “the myth of diabolical competence.” Imagining the right to be operating from some kind of secret master plan, one that deployed resources  strategically and efficiently, progressives sought a comparable plan of our own. But instead of a coordinated effort, it’s always felt like a series of stumbles and false starts, organizations that failed, and deep conflicts such as Bernie v. Hillary. Activism that emerged far outside the established Democratic Party, such as the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 2000, with their profound critiques of the economic and political assumptions of the 1990s, seemed hard to reconcile with the incremental liberalism that marked even the left wing of the party. Spontaneous organizing, especially at the beginning of the Trump era, often jumped ahead of meticulously planned, foundation-funded efforts.

But the rise of the right was messy and uncoordinated, too. No one wrote a grand strategy—or, many people wrote different ones. There were three false starts over five years before what became the Heritage Foundation emerged from the rubble in 1973. There was money wasted, factional conflicts, and ideas—such as privatization of Social Security in 2005—that fell flat. At the other end of their journey, there was Donald Trump, who kicked away the flimsy ideological foundations of the modern right, including traditional business support for immigration and deficit reduction, replacing them with a personalized party in which his would-be heirs are measured entirely by their fealty to one man rather than a set of ideas.

It’s the history of the recent left that’s now neglected. Biden’s recommitment to an active federal role in economic security might not take lasting hold in the way that Reagan’s agenda did, but it has been a comparable achievement. So is relative unity among all Democratic factions in both the House and Senate. State-level victories on everything from tax surcharges for the wealthy to paid leave to criminal justice reform and cannabis legalization speak to the recent success of state-level policy organizations on the left and center-left.

The scope of this new progressive story is roughly the last 20 years, from the Bush-Gore election and recount—and, yes, the Seattle protests and their later echo in the Occupy movement as well. As on the right, it began with building institutions and organizations, some at the D.C. elite level, but more essential are state and local organizations that both mobilize voters and work on policy. But beyond institutions, it’s also a story of putting new ideas and issues on the agenda: the rethinking of old assumptions about economic policy, whether on antitrust enforcement, federal deficits, inequality or child care is as consequential as the Reagan-era embrace of supply-side economics, and has the additional advantage of being right. (See this excellent survey by J.W. Mason, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, itself a hub of the new economic thinking.) There’s also been deliberate, thoughtful work on language and narrative, such as the “Race-Class Narrative” developed at the think tank Demos, to bridge the idea that racial equity and economic fairness are in conflict.

A key aspect of this history is the development of a whole new generation of talent, notably the young economists staffing Biden’s National Economic Council, or leaders of progressive state coalitions and budget policy groups, all of them free of the narrow assumptions and caution of the Clinton and Obama eras—some by virtue of youth, others because they lived through those eras and understood why we fell short. With some distance, it looks a lot like the arc of the right from the 1960s into the Reagan era.

One way to see the eight Obama years, then, is as a transitional phase in this two-decade history. The foundation of institutions and ideas wasn’t in place yet, or was unready for the magnitude of the Great Recession. There’d been a wave of organizing, but it was still too personalized around Obama himself, rather than any agenda. That Biden is less charismatic than Obama, that we expected a little less of him, is in turn a great strength, because it allows the full progressive movement a chance to spread its wings and test ideas.

Some of this story may be too recent or incomplete to study now, and it could all be a historic blip if Biden proves unable to pass any more big bills and Trumpist Republicans reclaim power in 2022 or 2024. But the American Rescue Plan alone is remarkable shift in the role of government, with provisions that will unfold over several years, Biden’s other proposals are extremely popular even if bogged down in Senate nonsense, and blue states and cities are continuing to move forward. The assumptions and possibilities have changed. The story of the consolidation and rebuilding of the left side of American politics, within as well as outside of the Democratic Party, may well turn out to be the essential historical success of our time.

Read more about conservatismDemocratsideasLeftleftistsliberalspoliticsprogressivismRepublicans

Mark Schmitt is the director of the political reform program at New America.

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