Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University, a co-editor of Dissent Magazine, and, no doubt, fancies himself a great champion of The People. In Sunday’s NYT Review section, he spends nearly a full page stroking his chin and asking the question, “Whatever Happened to the American Left?” Here’s how he frames the question:

America’s economic miseries continue, with unemployment still high and home sales stagnant or dropping. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and their fellow citizens is wider than it has been since the 1920s.

And yet, except for the demonstrations and energetic recall campaigns that roiled Wisconsin this year, unionists and other stern critics of corporate power and government cutbacks have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.

Instead, the Tea Party rebellion — led by veteran conservative activists and bankrolled by billionaires — has compelled politicians from both parties to slash federal spending and defeat proposals to tax the rich and hold financiers accountable for their misdeeds.

Kazin, as a historian, recalls the left-populist response to the Great Depression (particularly union organizing) in the ’30s, and poses the question: why, in the face of economic distress, is the most influential grass roots populism today coming from the right and not the left?

It’s a useful question to ask, particularly in the pages of a corporate outlet like the Times which is disinclined to pay much attention to left organizing, and whose readers may have occasionally noted its absence. But Kazin’s essay has two rather glaring problems: first, he seems to assume that because it is not influencing public policy, there isn’t any meaningful activism on the left these days. Secondly, even within that flawed premise, he never bothers to answer his own question.

According to Kazin, the roots of today’s left ennui lie in post-war prosperity, and identity politics:

The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth.

Let’s set aside Kazin’s rather insulting assumption that there was (and is) no economic component to the struggle for equal rights for women and non-whites. He pivots into tracing the rise of the right instead, and describes it like this:

One reason for the growth of the right was that most of those in charge of the government from the mid-1960s through the 2000s — whether Democrats or Republicans — failed to carry out their biggest promises. Lyndon Johnson failed to defeat the Viet Cong or abolish poverty; Jimmy Carter was unable to tame inflation or free the hostages in Iran; George W. Bush neither accomplished his mission in Iraq nor controlled the deficit.

…Conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like Fox News and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to their cause.

The Tea Party is thus just the latest version of a movement that has been evolving for over half a century…[The] argument about the evils of big government has, by and large, carried the day.

I’ll pass on the temptation to nitpick here (since when is a worldview predicated on denying objective reality “more coherent”?), because there are some really serious omissions from this retelling of history. They’re the same omissions Kazin leaves out when he gets to his inevitable advice for reviving the left:

When progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions — unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press — in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.

Today, such institutions are either absent or reeling. With unions embattled and on the decline, working people of all races lack a sturdy vehicle to articulate and fight for the vision of a more egalitarian society. Liberal universities, Web sites and non-governmental organizations cater mostly to a professional middle class and are more skillful at promoting social causes like legalizing same-sex marriage and protecting the environment than demanding millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.

A reconnection with ordinary Americans is vital not just to defeating conservatives in 2012 and in elections to come. Without it, the left will remain unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.

That’s it. That’s the wisdom Kazin takes nearly a full page to disseminate: don’t trust politicians. (Isn’t that what the right says, too?) Create your own institutions. Connect with “ordinary Americans” (which apparently don’t include either the professional middle class or people who, in the age of climate change, care about the environment). Start organizing!

Hey, what a great idea! Organizing!!! Why didn’t we think of that! No wonder conservative ideology has such a stranglehold on the country – those crafty buggers organized! I guess while activists are camping out on Wall Street and planning a mass encampment next month in Washington, while thousands of people have gotten arrested protesting the tar sands pipeline (with solidarity actions around the world), while progressives were donating and organizing in record numbers to get Barack Obama elected in 2008, or when literally millions of people mobilized to stop the invasion of Iraq and up to hundreds of thousands at a time showed up for numerous subsequent demonstrations, and millions more agitated for immigration reform, it’s never even occurred to any of us that we should be organizing instead!

Jesus H. Christ.

Even within Kazin’s specific focus on economic issues, his analysis is facile beyond belief. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people in this country who devote the bulk of their time to trying to create a more economically fair country and world. There are thousands of groups – church groups, labor groups, cultural groups, educational groups, political groups – trying to do what Kazin thinks would be a really swell idea. It would have been quite helpful for Kazin’s audience, which may only be vaguely aware of how much grass roots activity really is out there, in every community in this country, if he had at least acknowledged that an awful lot of people are already trying their very best to do exactly what he recommends.

The real question isn’t why the “American left” doesn’t exist; it’s why it has so little traction or influence. “What happened to the American left?” is a question that can’t be answered without enumerating some of the many factors that have suppressed its popularity and efficacy. And on this, Kazin is painfully silent. Let’s count some of the ways: 1) A complete disconnect, on numerous issues (including almost all economic ones), between what polls say the American people support and what lawmakers of either party are willing to champion as public policy; 2) The widespread belief, as a result, that public officials don’t listen to ordinary people, and so many people think their efforts would be a waste of time; 3) Corporate media that ignores any public organizing on a policy preference that isn’t championed by one of the major parties, and that in particular ignores left organizing as “not news”; 4) Six decades and counting of laws that make it more difficult for unions to organize than in any other industrialized country in the world; 5) The painful lack of money available to support independent media, liberal think tanks, mainline (as opposed to evangelical) church groups, the people needed to staff them all, and all the other alternative institutions Kazin would like to see created (while the right invests heavily in such things); 6) The longer hours and higher stress of the job(s) the average person has to work, leaving less time and energy for volunteer work…

I can keep going. But you get the idea.

Kazin could have written a very useful essay examining the disconnect between American popular opinion and public policy; or looking at the factors which limit the growth and influence of left institutions; or even promoting the success stories, of organizations and campaigns that have worked. (There are entire publications dedicated to publicizing what works.)

Instead, Kazin used rare space in one of the most widely read newspapers in the country to reinforce readers’ perceptions that the American left, in effect, doesn’t exist, and that there’s nobody to blame but the left itself. For somebody who claims to want to see progressives have more influence in our country, he does a fine job of reinforcing the corporate media narrative that progressives are irrelevant.

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