Fifty Years After Greensboro, Whatever Happened to the American Left?
Fifty years ago this month, history took a great leap forward. On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students from Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Woolworths department store in Greensboro, N.C. The chairs were for whites. Blacks had to stand and eat. A day later, the four young black men returned, with 25 more students. On Feb. 4, four white women joined them from a local college. By Feb. 7, there were 54 sit-ins throughout the South in 15 cities in nine states. By July 25, the store, part of a huge national chain and plagued by $200,000 in lost business, threw in the towel and officially desegregated the lunch counter.
Three months later, the city of Raleigh, N.C., 80 miles east of Greensboro, saw the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), seeking to widen the lunch-counter demonstrations into a broad, militant movement. SNCC's first field director was Bob Moses, who said that he was drawn by the "sullen, angry and determined look" of the protesters, qualitatively different from the "defensive, cringing" expression common to most photos of protesters in the South.
That same spring of 1960 saw the founding conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Ann Arbor, Mich., the organization that later played a leading role in organizing the college-based component of the antiwar movement. In May, the House Un-American Activities Committee was scheduled to hold red-baiting hearings in San Francisco. Students from the University of California at Berkeley crossed the bay to jeer the hearings. They got blasted off the steps of City Hall by cops with power hoses, but the ridicule helped demolish the decade-long power of HUAC.
Within four short years, the Civil Rights Movement pushed Lyndon Johnson into signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 1965, the first big demonstrations against the war were rolling into Washington. By the decade's end, there had been a convulsion in American life: a new reading of America's past, an unsparing scrutiny of the ideology of "national security" and of Empire. The secret, shameful histories of the FBI and CIA were dragged into the light of day; the role of the universities in servicing imperial wars exposed; mutinies of soldiers in Vietnam a daily occurrence; consumer capitalism under daily duress from critics like Ralph Nader. By 1975, the gay and women's movements were powerful social forces; President Nixon had been forced to resign. The left seemed poised for an assertive role in American politics for the next quarter century.
In terms of organized politics, the explosion of radical energy in the 1960s culminated in the peace candidacy of George McGovern, nominated by the Democrats in Miami in 1972. The response of the labor unions financing the party, and of the party bosses, was simply to abandon McGovern and ensure the victory of Nixon. Since that day, the party has remained immune to radical challenge. Jimmy Carter, the southern Democrat installed in the White House in 1977, embraced neoliberalism, and easily beat off a challenge by the left's supposed champion, the late Ted Kennedy. The antiwar movement, which cheered America's defeat in Vietnam, mostly sat on its hands as Carter and his National Security aide, Zbigniew Brzezinski, ramped up military spending and led America into "the new Cold War," fought in Afghanistan and Central America.
Demure under the Democrat Carter, the left did organize substantial resistance to Reagan's wars in Central America in the 1980s. It also rallied to the radical candidacy of Jesse Jackson, the first serious challenge of a black man for the presidency, a Baptist minister and political organizer who had been in Memphis with Martin Luther King when the latter was assassinated in 1968. With his Rainbow Coalition, Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and in 1988, with a platform that represented an anthology of progressive ideas from the 1960s. He attracted a large number of supporters, many of them from the white working class. Each time, the Democratic Party shrugged him aside and elected feeble white liberals—Mondale and Dukakis—who plummeted to defeat by Reagan and George Bush Sr.
The left's rout was consummated in the '90s by Bill Clinton, who managed to retain fairly solid left support during his two terms, despite signing two trade treaties devastating to labor, in the form of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the WTO agreements; despite the lethal embargo against Iraq and NATO's war on Yugoslavia; despite successful onslaughts on welfare programs for the poor and on constitutional freedoms.
The Bush years saw near extinction of the left's capacity for realistic political analysis. Hysteria about the consummate evil of Bush and Cheney led to a vehement insistence that any Democrat would be qualitatively better, whether it be Hillary Clinton, carrying all the neoliberal baggage of the '90s, or Barack Obama, whose prime money source was Wall Street. Of course, black America—historically the most radical of all the Democratic Party's constituencies—was almost unanimously behind Obama and will remain loyal to the end. Having easily beguiled the left in the important primary campaigns of 2008, essentially by dint of skin tone and uplift, Obama stepped into the Oval Office confident that the left would present no danger as he methodically pursues roughly the same agenda as Bush, catering to the requirements of the banks, the arms companies and the national security establishment in Washington, most notably the Israel lobby.
As Obama ramps up troop presence in Afghanistan, there is still no anti-war movement, such as there was in 2002-4 during Bush's attack on Iraq. The labor unions have been shrinking relentlessly in numbers and clout. Labor's last major victory was the UPS strike in 1997. Its foot soldiers and its money are still vital for Democratic candidates—but corporate America holds the decisive purse strings, from which a U.S. Supreme Court decision Jan. 21 has now removed almost all restraints. Labor has seen its most cherished goal in recent years vanish down the plug. This was Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) amendment to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that would help boost organizing and bargaining in the private sector. This last week, labor's hopes that they would get their champion, Craig Becker, onto the National Labor Relations Board were dashed. Becker was denied confirmation by a hostile Congress.
It would be wrong to say that the left has no heft at all today in American politics. Hillary Clinton's presidential bid crashed and burned because, in the crucial primaries in 2008, the left never forgave her for her Senate vote in support of Bush's attack on Iraq in 2003. In the midterm elections this coming fall, the Democrats could well lose both houses if the left simply says at home—the same way it did in 1994, disgusted with Clinton's first two years. But will Obama throw the left a sop, beyond a couple of populist gibes against the banks? There's scant sign of it.
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