In the current issue of The New York Review of Boooks, Sean Wilentz reviews Michael Kazin’s book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.
According to Wilentz,
For Kazin, the left consists of anyone who has sought to achieve, in his words, “a radically egalitarian transformation of society.”
I don’t think there is much left of that kind of left. In one arena, LGBT rights, there is a strong call for a radical egalitarian transformation, and it’s having an impact. On women’s rights there are steady efforts to seek at least egalitarian transformation. There isn’t much good happening, though, and feminists are on the defensive on every front.
As Gaius Publius has been discussing at Americablog, we face environmentat catastrophe. Any realistic solution will require radical social transformation, but nothing good is happening there; we can’t even make a dent in the drive to drive.
Again according to Wilentz:
Kazin concedes that radical leftists have often been out of touch with prevailing values, including those of the people they wish to liberate.
Indeed, whatever’s left of the left does seem to be out of touch with the values of most Americans on environmental issues. No one wants to make any change to their lives to save the polar bears or even to save the atmosphere so our children can breathe the air without evolving new lungs and blood cells.
On economic issues, there is even less support for radical egalitarian change. No one in the power elite is even slightly perturbed about the repulsive allocation of income between capital and labor. Employees at almost all levels of business are being squeezed to increase profits at highly profitable businesses like Caterpillar. So what? We don’t hear calls for any kind of social change in the immoral and unjustifiable beatings for workers. We don’t even see any significant resistance among the workers themselves.
Wilentz describes Kazin’s view of politics and change as the conventional view of leftists:
These conventions begin with a presumption about who controls American political life, what C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” an interlocking directorate of wealth and bureaucracy at the top. … Unless challenged by radicals, this elite, in his view, is slow to right social wrongs; but without the support of the elite’s more enlightened elements, the radicals remain in the political wilderness.
… Kazin argues that the liberal components of the governing elite have supported major reforms strictly in order to advance purposes of their own.
Wilentz disagrees. He thinks that liberal members of the elite have their own reform programs that are more in touch with the values of those they would liberate, and limits his praise to the artists, film-makers, poets, musicians and writers of the left who create a different kind of social climate, one more agreeable to change.
I don’t see it that way. Liberals among the elites were common at one time, whether from a sense of noblesse oblige, or from personal conviction, or from fear of the socialists or communists or other radicals. Where are they today? Where are the powerful liberals who support any radical change to the crumbling environment? Where are the rich liberals who are working to change the disgusting mal-distribution of wealth and income?
The plain fact is that if there are liberals in the power elite, they have their own agenda, just as Wilentz says. They want to keep their money and their power. It’s relatively easy for liberal power elites to support women’s rights or LGBT rights. After all some of them are women or gay or know someone who is. It’s hard to change the distribution of the rewards of society in ways that will impact you personally.
It goes even farther. These liberals are willing to sell out the law to protect their money. A case in point: President Obama’s Department of Justice to prosecute, or even to investigate, the criminals on Wall Street, the liars who sold fraudulent RMBSs, the slime who enabled drug dealers and terrorists to evade sanctions on movement of their money, the thieves who used LIBOR to steal from millions of us, and all the rest of that sleazy crowd. The best explanation of this, well supported by academic studies, is that if there are any liberals among the elite, they are indifferent to those crimes. If that weren’t the case, and if there were such liberals, we’d see indictments. But investigating might hurt the feelings of future employers. Prosecuting them might mean a loss of future income.
So, Professor Wilentz: where are these liberals in the power elite? Where are their liberal proposals for change we can live with short of radical transformation?