Authors: Kurt Andersen
If I’d been one of those unionized craft workers who were abandoned by my unionized journalist colleagues forty-five years ago, I think that during these last fifteen years, watching journalists get washed away and drowned by the latest wave of technology-induced change, I’d have felt some schadenfreude.
It’s a close-to-home example of that spiral of mistrust and resentment that wasn’t only cultural, hard hats versus hippies, but about earning a living, the changing political economy. And what happened at newspapers (and magazines) back then also had disproportionate impact on this whole history because once journalists were actively ambivalent about organized labor, that disenchantment spread more contagiously than if it had just been random young professionals disrespecting and bad-mouthing unions. News stories about labor now tended to be framed
way rather than
way or were not covered at all. Thus, like Democratic politicians in Washington at the same time, media people became enablers of the national change in perspective from left to right concerning economics.
I’m not claiming that labor unions are always virtuous or aren’t frequently annoying. Parochial, shortsighted, and other kinds of misguided, with a rich history of racism, sexism, and corruption—construct your own critique. I heard every criticism growing up as the opposite of a red-diaper baby; my father was a lawyer whose practice was negotiating with unions on behalf of employers.
But they or equivalent vehicles must exist and have serious power. It’s a question of achieving a decent balance, a dynamic tension and equilibrium among the various players in the political economy—workers and employers and citizens. The balance this country managed from the 1930s through the 1970s worked and seemed fair. Then over the last few decades, as unions and belief in the premise of organized labor weakened, big business and the wealthy took predatory advantage, and the system became highly unbalanced. It’s important to look hard at how liberals were variously complacent and complicit as that unbalancing happened.
During the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s, the right had derided liberal writers and editors as Communists’ “useful idiots,” doing soft propaganda work for the extreme left; it looks in retrospect as if starting in the 1970s, a lot of them—of us—became capitalists’ useful idiots. Indeed, that’s how the former socialist Kristol foresaw the huge new cohort of college-educated liberal professionals being co-opted into the system. “A good part of this process of assimilation,” he advised conservatives and capitalists in the 1970s, “will be the education of this ‘new class’ in the actualities of business and economics—
their conversion to ‘free enterprise’—so that they can exercise power responsibly. It will be an immense educational task, in which the business community can certainly play an important role.”
During the 1960s, the decade of maximum new here in our land of the new, the New Deal had started to seem old, one more thing over thirty not to trust. The institutionalized political left that had grown out of that era was renamed the Old Left, because the younger generation—in some cases more radical, in all cases groovier—was called the New Left. As I’ve said, at the moment the revolution failed and voters rejected McGovernite ultra-liberalism, Americans of every caste were giving themselves over to romanticizing the past in pop culture and high art. The smart sets were reviving and recycling old forms and styles, not just returning decoration to architecture but melody to classical music and human figures to fine art—all of which felt charmingly old but also unfamiliar, fresh, excitingly…new
In politics and public policy too, the past was being selectively rediscovered. Fancy-college-educated liberals, who like artists and cultural gatekeepers still defined themselves by their openness to the new and challenging, chose not to return to the tired FDR liberalism of the older generations with whom they’d been fighting an internecine war for a decade. Rather, the unfamiliar things they dusted off were pieces of the old conservative critique of New Deal liberalism—which was a bit transgressive, therefore cool. They became the New Democrats, as opposed to the old New Deal Democrats, the
new versus the old new.
Fred Dutton was a prominent professional Democrat who’d worked in the Kennedy White House, then for Vice President Humphrey, then for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. In the summer of 1971, this middle-aged Establishment liberal published a very ahead-of-the-curve book called
Changing Sources of Power
that predicted and advocated for a new species of liberalism geared toward white-collar workers and especially youth. He praised the baby boomers for providing “a severe psychic jolt for traditional liberals, who long ago came to believe that they had an almost exclusive stewardship over the American conscience.” In the 1970s, he said, “the greatest shift is the current tipping of the balance of political power from the economic to the psychological, from the stomach and pocketbook to the psyche.” In other words, more or less: forget political economics, forget the blue-collar guys, forget unions, it’s all about the college kids, we’re entering the Me Decade.
One afternoon that same summer, 1971, at age sixteen, I was among 100 or 150 people in Omaha’s big central park watching Senator George McGovern deliver a speech. He was the most liberal, most antiwar candidate for the Democratic nomination. I remember nothing of what he said, because I was furtively inching toward and trying to overhear the two men standing near me: thirty-four-year-old Warren Beatty and McGovern’s thirty-four-year-old campaign director, Gary Hart, who I also recognized because I was a politics geek and a McGovern volunteer.
McGovern had led the Democratic Party commission that had just democratized the process of nominating presidential candidates, making it a matter of winning citizens’ votes in primaries and public caucuses rather than delegates’ votes at closed party conventions. Which meant that from then on it was much harder for labor unions to influence the Democrats’ choice of nominee—which in turn enabled Hart to help win the 1972 nomination for the hippie-loving antiwar women’s lib acid amnesty abortion candidate whom the blue-collar union members tended to despise.
Immediately after the 1972 wipeout, Hart launched his own first political candidacy, for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado. The Vietnam War and its cultural waves had made leaders and members of unions dislike McGovern, but as a child of the Depression and former history professor, he had totally been on their side concerning the whole point of unions—maximizing worker power versus corporate power in the economy. Hart, on the other hand, was at odds with the working class on both counts, a cool young Yalie who barely pretended to be their economic ally.
“We are not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” he said during his 1974 Senate campaign, referring to his party’s 1968 presidential candidate, whom McGovern had beaten for the nomination in 1972. Vice President Humphrey had epitomized the compromised passé liberalism hated by the New Left for supporting the Vietnam War, so Hart was playing to that accumulated ill will. But in fact, ideologically, he had jumped overnight from the left of Humphrey and company to their right.
Hart’s 1974 Senate campaign stump speech was actually called “The End of the New Deal.” He disparaged liberals who thought that “if there is a problem, [you] create an agency and throw money at the problem,” who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it ceased to relate to reality”—and to that he added some sexist shade, calling them “the Eleanor Roosevelt wing” of the party. “The ballyhooed War on Poverty” of the 1960s, the Democratic programs that included Medicaid and food stamps, “succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor,” he said inaccurately. “This nation desperately needs a new breed of thinkers and doers who will question old premises and disregard old alliances.” In that first post-Watergate election, Hart beat the Republican incumbent by a landslide and became the very model of a modern major Democrat.
I felt an affinity for this new, youthy, college-educated political wing—as I felt at the time for postmodern architecture and New Wave music. I was in my twenties, so partly it was the sheer hubris of the young, rejecting the older generation because it was old. Hart’s Senate campaign slogan was “They had their turn. Now it’s our turn.”
But more than that, I actually, earnestly considered myself a new breed of thinker questioning old premises and disregarding old alliances. I wanted to be counterintuitive, contrarian, evidence-based, ready to look at everything afresh. Like so many in my generation, I learned from the war in Vietnam and the war on drugs to mistrust the government, so maybe in other ways it had gotten bloated and inefficient, maybe nitpicky regulations were making it too hard to do business, maybe the antitrust approach invented in my great-grandparents’ day was outmoded. And weren’t labor unions retrograde and lumbering in lots of ways? Why, for instance, couldn’t we imagine
forms of worker solidarity and security? In the late 1970s, when the government was about to bail out Chrysler and a freshman Democratic senator, Paul Tsongas, proposed guaranteeing the workers $1.1 billion in the form of Chrysler stock rather than wage increases, why didn’t that make sense?
And thus a new buzzword that spread like mad during the 1970s and ’80s through art and culture,
acquired a younger sibling in American politics—
. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, at least in the United States, neoliberalism wasn’t yet what it is in the twenty-first century, leftists’ all-encompassing derogatory term for anything to the right of nationalized-industry socialism.
Rather, it was a term proudly self-applied by a certain kind of wonk. Their wellspring was an intensely reportorial little magazine called
The Washington Monthly
founded in 1969 and run by a cofounder of the Peace Corps, Charlie Peters. It had a circulation of less than 40,000 in the 1970s and early ’80s when I subscribed, but during that pivotal political period, it had an outsize influence in reshaping center-left thought and policy.
All enlightened, open-minded people should “distrust
automatic responses, liberal or conservative,” Peters said—and who could disagree?—so “the liberal movement has to change and reject the liberal clichés and automatic responses of the past,” such as “their old habits of automatically favoring unions and opposing business.” There was too much loyalty to the ideological home team, which followed the rules of “Don’t say anything bad about the good guys” because “any criticism is only likely to strengthen the hand of their enemies,” and “Don’t say anything good about the bad guys.” Peters’s new tendency consisted of “liberals who decided to retain their old goals while abandoning the prejudices that they realized were blinding them to the real nature of many of the nation’s problems” that had begun “to cripple the nation”—such as declining productivity and “decaying plants and infrastructure” and “inefficient and unaccountable public agencies.” The notion, certainly among many writers and thinkers if not necessarily the politicians, wasn’t to pursue centrism or moderation for their own sakes, or cynical political triangulation between left and right, but intellectual rigor and honesty.
The new approach propagated rapidly. The young
writer-editor Michael Kinsley took over the main weekly magazine of Washington liberalism,
The New Republic,
and the young
writer-editor Jim Fallows became one of President Carter’s speechwriters. “There is a legitimate modesty now about intervening in the economy,” said the young head of antitrust enforcement in the Carter Justice Department. “The hard-bitten D.A. approach isn’t very useful and the people in Justice recognize that.”
Soon almost every up-and-coming national Democratic politician was a New Democrat: Hart, Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, Bill Clinton—all first elected senator or governor between 1974 and 1984 when they were in their thirties, all about to become serious presidential candidates.
For two generations, liberals had been in control of the government
the news media
the culture, so it seemed as if that hegemony afforded them the luxury of true liberalism—admitting mistakes, cutting some slack for the other side, trying new approaches. For forty-four of the previous forty-eight years Democrats had controlled both houses of Congress, and they had also held the presidency for most of that half-century. The Harvard professor Daniel Moynihan, for instance, served in four straight administrations, two Democratic and two Republican, before becoming an unpredictable Democratic senator from New York in 1977. All through the 1970s, when the GOP had only about a third of Senate seats, a third of those Republicans were bona fide liberals.
good-faith compromise and consensus between left and right were possible.
At the end of the 1970s, liberal PBS commissioned a ten-episode Friday-night series starring Milton Friedman called
Free to Choose
. Its funders included General Motors, General Mills, and PepsiCo. The executive producer said the show,
airing on the Public Broadcasting Service,
would explain to viewers like you “how we’ve become puppets of big government.” On the show, Friedman explained why federal taxes, the Food and Drug Administration, public schools, and labor unions, among other bêtes noires, were bad for America. “The economic controls that have proliferated in the United States in recent decades,” his accompanying bestselling book asserted, “have also affected our freedom of speech, of press, and of religion.” Conveniently for the right, the series premiered in early January 1980, just before the first primary elections in which Reagan was one of many major Republican candidates.
But despite the liberal Establishment’s openness and the right’s new think tanks and foundations and zillionaire donors, it seemed in the 1970s that the antigovernment diehards and libertarian freaks, the Milton Friedmanites and Ayn Randians and
Wall Street Journal
ideologues, would never
be allowed to run the show. The American ideological center of gravity was plainly undergoing a rightward shift, but wouldn’t the 1980s just turn out to be some kind of modest course correction, like what happened in the late 1940s and ’50s, part of the normal endless back-and-forth pendulum swing from center-left to center-right?