In an interview with the Comics Journal in 1988, Jules Feiffer, the political satirist, said:
“I’ve always seen liberals as people who’ve taken radical ideas, whether from socialists or communists, finding ways of redefining them, relabeling them, reforming them, compromising them, and then improving the society with them. And the liberal’s job generally has been to process and homogenize the more radical notions out there for some time and make them acceptable to the mass society. And to that extent, liberals have played an important part. That liberals innovate anything is questionable. But that they innovate anything worth innovating is doubtful. The innovation comes from more radical sources generally.”
This is something that I’ve been coming across a lot lately in books and documentaries about progressives history: the interdependence between the radical and more moderate wings of a progressive movement. In the women’s suffragist movement, for instance, Elizabeth Cady Stanton provided many of the arguments and radical ideas on women’s equality that society later adopted, but Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone did the dirty work of building coalitions of more moderate and conservative people for the immediate goal of getting women the right to vote. In the book “Izzy: A Biography of I.F. Stone“, author Robert C. Cottrell wrote of the New Deal:
“There was a sense of excitement in the air as the New Dealers devised one program after another that at least harked back to the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century and at times beyond that to the Populist and Socialist platforms as well. Long-standing calls by American reformers and radicals for greater government control over business operations, for support of labor unionization, for social welfare measures, for public works projects, for planning, and for a discarding of laissaz-faire approaches appeared to be heeded to some degree or another by the roosevelt Brain Trusters. While it was clear, after a brief spell, that the New Deal was not ushering in a hoped-for revolution of the left or a feared one spearheaded by the right, it was also evident that the influence of progressive intellectuals and activists on government policy was greater than ever.”
I think this dialogue between the moderates and radicals is important. It seems to me that an important sign health of this dialogue is how responsive Democratic politicians are to the grassroots.
In the documentary on Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man, the DVD has a great special features that has a talk on what is wrong with the Democratic Party. One of the people commented that during the 1980s, Democrats were worried because the Republicans seemed to have an advantage in elections because of their ability to raise money. So Democrats started competing with Republicans for corporate money and Nader and many activist feel that this led to corporations having too much influence within the Democratic Party and that the party has strayed from its earlier egalitarian values.
It seems like Progressives are trying to reassert their voice with in the Democratic Party. In the year 2000, Doris Hadock, a 90 year old activist, walked across America to fight for campaign finance reform, and she ran for the Senate in the year 2004 to fight corporate interests. In the House, Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee have formed a group of congressmen whose goal is to push the Democrats towards being more Progressive. The anti-war movement had a profound influence on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean. Nader stated that one of his goals in his Presidential runs of 2000 and 2004 was to influence the Democratic Party the way Norman Thomas influenced the New Deal in the 1930s.
In these upcoming Democratic primaries, I think it’s good that we have all these voices competing to be heard. We have to be sure our candidates forcefully and articulately argue progressive views, and we should really test the 3 frontrunners. Election years are times when politicians listen to the grassroots to get their votes, and this is when we can press them on issues of war and peace, on curbing the bad side of globalization, on issues of poverty.